How to increase your faith in Jesus

John 1:9-41 (4th Sunday of Lent, Year A)

Christ Healing the Blind, El Greco, 1567
Is the event of Jesus healing the blind man in the gospel of today a miracle? Trick question! The story does tell about a miracle, but more importantly, the event is a sign. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ miracles are always called signs. Signs are gestures or actions that are meant to convey a deeper meaning. For example, a red light is a sign which tells us to stop. The miracle of Jesus healing the blind man is supposed to function in the same way. The actions and words of Jesus and the other characters are meant to convey deeper layers of meaning. Unfortunately, we often focus only on the story of the miracle and miss the deeper meaning it teaches us. These signs of Jesus are like a layered cake. Often we just pay attention to the icing and miss out on the rest of the good stuff in the cake. Today then, lets dig deep into this sign to better appreciate what it has to offer us.

The first layer of this sign reveals to us that Jesus is the light of the world. The image of light runs throughout this miracle. For example, it is very significant that Jesus healed the blind man on the Feast of the Tabernacles. Without getting into all the details of this feast, it is important to recognize that another name for it was the Festival of Lights. This feast celebrated the Exodus, when God saved His people, leading them by a pillar of light. Just as Jesus literally brought light to the blind man by curing him, Jesus is the light of the world in two ways.
  1. Guide: Just as the people of Israel were led to safety by a pillar of light, by His words and actions, Jesus is our guide leading us to our Heavenly Father. Through Jesus we come to know who God is and how we should live.
  2. Life: Light, for example the light of the sun, also gives life. Through Jesus, the light of the world, we come to share in the Divine life.
Jesus, by being both our guide and source of life, is the true light of the world.

The second layer of this sign is a commentary on Baptism. Catch that part? At first this meaning does not seem obvious but among early Christians this miracle was given a Baptismal interpretation. Skeptical? Consider this evidence:
  • Recall that light is a central theme of the sign. Early Christians described Baptism as fotismos, that is, the Sacrament of illumination.  In Baptism, Christ the light of the world forever is joined to us and over time our minds should become enlightened, being able to recognize good from bad, light and darkness.
  • Remember exactly how Jesus cured the blind man? First He made a paste and rubbed it on the man’s eyes. Some translations describe that Jesus anointed the man’s eyes. After this, the man washed in water. The man is anointed and washed in water. The same thing happens at Baptism.
  • It is significant that in the miracle Jesus gives sight to someone who was born blind. It is not a question of restoring something that was once there and became lost. In Baptism, much the same thing happens. At Baptism we are not given something that we once had, but are given the gift of Divine Life, something that we are born without and is not ours by any right.
  • Finally, notice that throughout the sign, the issue of sin is often discussed. Whose sin caused the blindness? Did Jesus sin by healing on the Sabbath? Do the Pharisees sin by rejecting Jesus? Being freed from sin is of course of central importance in Baptism.
All this evidence points to the fact that this sign of Jesus is a powerful commentary on Baptism.

On the third layer, this sign provokes us to consider how we respond to Jesus, the light of the world. In the miracle, there are three distinct responses to the person of Jesus: rejection, hesitancy, and faithful witness. Can you guess which characters fit into each category? Perhaps more importantly, which category do you fit into?
  1. Rejection. The Pharisees reject the person of Jesus. In fact, their opposition to Jesus grows throughout the story. In the beginning they seem to be divided as to what to think of Jesus. By the end they have condemned not only Jesus as a sinner, but also the man that Jesus has healed. Today there are still people who openly reject Jesus in this way and persecute His followers. When we look at the situation in places like Syria, Nigeria, we see that this is all too common.
  2. Hesitancy. The parent’s of the blind man are hesitant towards Jesus. Instead of taking a stand as to whether Jesus has worked this miracle, they pass the buck to their son. Perhaps they are afraid of what the Pharisees will think of them. Regardless, they lack courage in their convictions. This has always been a highly populated category. For example, many Catholics and Christians come to Church for cultural reasons. They are lukewarm and their faith makes no impact on how they live their life outside of their time in Church. Most people have no problem telling other that Jesus is a good man, or a prophet, but when pressed whether they believe that Jesus is truly their Savior, the Son of God, they are forever sitting on the fence.
  3. Faithful witness. The man who Jesus heals is an example of someone who witnesses to Jesus even in the face of persecution. He is always clear about what Jesus has done for him.
Rejection, hesitancy or faithful witness. Which category do you fall into? The gospel of today provokes us to ask ourselves this question.

The fourth layer of this sign reminds us that as Baptized Christians, we are called to emulate the faith journey of the man born blind. If you look closely at the story, you see something very significant. The man grows in His faith in Jesus over the course of the story. In the beginning, the blind man simply refers to Jesus as the man. Later on, he calls Jesus a prophet. Next he refers to Jesus as a man with power from God. Finally, at the end of the story he worships Jesus, an action that shows he thinks Jesus is God. What accounts for this dramatic change? Ultimately this transformation is a gift from God as it was Jesus who consistently reached out to this man and worked in His life. At the same time, the man responded to this grace. His story teaches us an important lesson:
The more we witness to Jesus by telling others the difference that He has made in our life, the more our faith in Jesus increases.
Each day we have opportunities to witness to Jesus both by our words and actions. For example, a simple question like, “what do you do on Sunday?” can be an opportunity to witness to Jesus. It is not easy to witness to Jesus to those around us, whether they be friends, coworkers or even family members. It can be embarrassing and there is always a fear that they will reject us. However, when we are able to explain to others why we are Catholic, why we believe in Jesus, why we take the time to pray, what difference Jesus has made in our life, we will find that our faith is strengthened. The important thing is to be authentic, if we have doubts we shouldn't be afraid to express it. The blind man was not always sure about Jesus’ identity, but he always had the courage to share with others who he thought Jesus was and what He had done in His life. As a result, his faith in Jesus grew. As Baptized Christians, we are called to emulate the faith journey of the man born blind.

This week let us challenge ourselves to witness to Jesus in some new way. Be creative in finding new ways to share with others what difference being a follower of Jesus makes in your life! Whether you witness to your family, friends or coworkers, and whether is is in a conversation or on social media, you will certainly find your own faith in Jesus strengthened. We will discover the truth that Bl. John Paul II loved to repeat: faith is strengthened when it is given to others.

God thirsts to be thirsted for

Jn 9:1-41, (3rd Sunday of Lent, Year A)
Christ And The Samaritan Woman, Via Latina Catacomb, Rome, 340 – 350
Have you ever been incredibly thirsty? Water is a basic necessity for human life. When in need of water we all feel thirst, which is one of the most intense and urgent sensations we can experience. In the gospel of today, which tells about the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman, water plays a central role. In His dialogue with the woman, Jesus uses the natural thirst for water to point out a deeper and more vital need of the heart that each of us has. When this need is unmet, we all experience a thirst that is more painful and critical than our bodily thirst for water.
Each of our hearts has a profound desire for love that is longing to be quenched. We all thirst for true, unconditional love that makes us feel accepted for who we are, without having to do anything to earn it. When we lack this in our life, our heart is always restless.  The Samaritan woman came to draw water.  For a moment, put yourself in the place of the Samaritan woman.  You have just left your house at noon, the hottest part of the day.  The sun is beating down overhead and the streets are dusty.  Why have you have gone to draw water at this most inconvenient time? Because you know that the well will be deserted.  You want to avoid people.  You are rejected and an outcast.  Everyone sees you as a sinner because you have been married five times.  Your heart is fragile, wounded and restless.  You have so many desires: for love, for compassion and for acceptance.  Though your body is in need of water, within your soul you experience a thirst that is even more urgent.  The heart of each one of us is not much different than that of the Samaritan woman because like her we thirst for unconditional love.

There are many ways that we try unsuccessfully to quench this burning desire for love.  We are like someone dying of thirst who, finding no water, will try in vain to satisfy their thirst with any liquid. We do this in many different ways. The Samaritan woman has had five husbands and is on to her sixth - she is looking for love in all the wrong places. What are the different ways that we try to fill our thirst for love and acceptance? We can find many example, some may seem extreme and others more ordinary, yet the unfulfilled desire that underlies them is the same. Deep down, why do you think that people get involved in gangs? Why do people become throw themselves into their work as though it were more important than their family? Why do others get caught up in a cycle of broken relationships and promiscuity? Why do we become so dependent on social media that we constantly need recognition in the form of “likes” and “favorites”? Are not these behaviors attempts to fill an inner void that leaves us unsettled, a thirst for love and acceptance that goes unsatisfied. Such remedies are at best temporary.  Jesus tells us, “whoever drinks this water will get thirsty again”.  All of us try in different ways to quench our thirsting souls without success.
Jesus alone can give us the unconditional love that our heart is yearning for. The Living Waters, for which we truly long, can only come from Him.  The Samaritan woman met Jesus at the well.  In the Bible, meetings at the well have deep significance: meetings at the well are meetings of love.  A bride was found for Isaac at the well.   Jacob and Moses both met their future spouses at a well.  On the natural level, marriage is one the fullest way that we can quench our thirsting soul.  But, even with the perfect spouse and kids, it would not be enough to quiet our restless heart.  Today, at the well, the Samaritan woman meets the true bridegroom of her soul.  By cultural standards, Jesus should not have been having this encounter with a woman, and a Samaritan at that. But Jesus wants to meet the Samaritan woman’s need for love. Jesus extends an offer to her, and to each one of us: let Me quench your thirsting soul!  Anyone who drinks the water that I will give will never be thirsty again.  Jesus offers us the Living Water.  Only Jesus, the bridegroom of our soul, can truly quench our thirst for true, unconditional love.
Once we have received the Living Water from Christ, we become a spring from which others can drink.  Just as we cannot give what we don’t have, we cannot give the true water to those who need it until we first have received it from Jesus.  After Jesus has encountered the Samaritan woman and has meet her need for love and acceptance, what does she do? She goes off to tell others about what Jesus has done for her. She has a natural desire to lead other people to come and find Jesus. This gospel reminds me of a particular image that Pope Francis has been using for the Church. He explained that the Church today often needs to operate like a field hospital. Such a hospital, which operates on a field of battle, concerns itself exclusively with trying to save people from life threatening wounds. For example, a field hospital will be more concerned with a gaping wound in a patient’s side, rather than the fact that they have high cholesterol. Though the cholesterol is a health risk, in comparison to the wound, it is nothing and can be dealt with later. In the gospel, Jesus takes this approach with the Samaritan woman. Jesus acknowledges that the woman has some problems in her life - her five marriages. Yet He does not dwell there. The issue of her marriages is the equivalent of cholesterol in comparison to the wound in the Samaritan’s woman’s heart caused by her need unconditional love that only Jesus can give. Jesus seeks to satisfy this need first. Each day, we meet many wounded people, those struggling in broken relationship, dealing with addictions and maybe deep into sinful behaviors. These difficulties are important, but are secondary to their greater need for Jesus. In order to bring wounded people the unconditional love of Jesus, we have to have received it first. If this has not happened, then we cannot function as good physicians in the field hospital. Once we have received the true love that only Jesus can give, then we can give it to others.

Blaise Pascal wrote that within every soul there is an empty space, a God-shaped vacuum.  Like any vacuum, the soul tries to draw into itself anything that is close by until the space is filled.  The human body has a need for water, there can be no substitute.  The human soul needs the unconditional love that Jesus alone can give.  Today, let us come before Jesus and acknowledge how we try to quench our thirst for love, compassion and acceptance in ways that do not satisfy, and repenting, let us ask Him to quench our thirst. During this Mass, in your heart make this prayer: Jesus I thirst for you. This is such a simple prayer and very dear to God’s heart. As St. Augustine wrote, God thirsts to be thirsted for.

Live well on the mountain (consolation) and in the valley (desolation)

Mt 17:1-9 (2nd Sunday of Lent, year A)

All advertising, whether it be on TV or the Internet, has one thing in common: it tries to portray its product in the best possible light. In our interactions with others, we usually try to advertise ourselves by making the best impression possible. Looking at the gospel of Jesus’ transfiguration, it seems that He does a pretty bad job in advertising Himself. Jesus has just appeared to some of His followers in all His glory and power. Just after His greatness and identity as the Son of God has been manifested so clearly, what does He tell His followers? Do not to tell anyone what you have seen. Jesus wants His power and divine identity to remain hidden. In fact, this is something that Jesus was doing during His entire life.

A central part of Christ’s mission was that He humbled and emptied Himself. He, though rich, became poor for our sake. Jesus was the Son of God, He could have appeared on earth however He wanted. He could have always appeared as He did on the mountain during His transfiguration: mighty, awe-inspiring and so obviously the Son of God. Looking at Jesus’ life, we must admit that there are few times when we see Him as He is on the mountain of His transfiguration. From His birth to His death, Jesus spent most of His time in the “valleys”. He was humble, poor, rejected and persecuted. He spent His time with social outcasts rather than the popular and powerful. In his lenten message for this year, Pope Francis explains that there is a very good reason for this: love.
Charity, love, is sharing with the one we love in all things. Love makes us similar, it creates equality, it breaks down walls and eliminates distances. God did this with us.
Because He loves us, Jesus wants to be close to us in our weakness and our poverty. For this reason, Jesus rarely appears in all His glory as He does on the mountain during His transfiguration. Rather, He is with us in the valleys of our daily struggles, woundedness and weariness. Jesus humbled Himself for our sake.

Similar to Jesus, we spend most of our lives in the valleys rather than on the mountaintop of the transfiguration. In other words, most of our daily experience is not marked by awe-inspiring glory but rather by a less exciting daily grind. In the TV show The Simpsons, there is a Christian character named Ned Flanders whose always appears happy. It seems like nothing ever will get him down. This is probably not a realistic depiction of a followers of Jesus. St. Ignatius of Loyola explains that during our life we spend our time in one of two states known as consolation and desolation.
  1. Consolation are those times when you are on the mountain of the transfiguration. These are times when you feel joy, fervour and a sense of clarity in your life. Praying and doing good works comes easily and feels good. Fighting temptation is easy.
  2. Desolation are those times when you are in the valley. At these times you can feel discouraged, anxious, restless and a certain heaviness of heart. Praying and doing good is a chore. Temptations feel very strong and hard to fight.
St. Ignatius explains that the times when we experience consolation are relatively fewer. When we follow Jesus, consolation and desolation are both important parts of our spiritual life. Neither is necessarily better than the other. They are not indications of our closeness to God, but rather of our felt experience at a given time. The important thing is that we learn the best way to act when in desolation and consolation so that we can best make use of these times to grow closer to Christ. As was the case for Christ, more often than not we live in the valleys rather than on the consoling mountaintop.

Like the transfiguration itself, times of consolation are given to us by God to strengthen us as we follow Jesus. Our life as Christians can be compared to a long journey on a bus. As anyone who has been on a long bus ride can attest, it is absolutely necessary to make stops along the way, not just to gas-up the car, but also to let the passengers have a break to stretch their legs, get food and drink and visit the washroom. Without these rest-stops, you wouldn’t be able to continue towards your destination. As followers of Jesus, we are on a journey to build up the kingdom of God and grow in unity with Him. Along this journey, times of consolation are like rest-stops. The transfiguration was such a time for the followers of Jesus. Immediately before and after the transfiguration, we find Jesus talking about the demands of discipleship and His own upcoming passion. They required a time of strengthening. Seeing Moses (the one who gave the law) and Elijah (the greatest prophet), in conversation with Jesus, they could better understand that Jesus was the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. The voice they heard from heaven convinced them that Jesus was indeed the Son of God and Messiah. The transfiguration strengthened and encouraged the followers of Christ. Times of consolation function the same way in our own life. St. Ignatius explains that during times of consolation we should do two things:
  1. Give thanks for this gift from God
  2. Take strength and courage for what lies ahead.
Times of consolation are like moments at an oasis in which we are refreshed during our journey to follow Jesus.

Times of desolation are moments for growth. Returning to our bus analogy, though it is nice to be at rest-stops, if we are always at one, we would never reach our destination. Likewise, times when we are not in consolation are moments to grow as a follower of Jesus.  The important thing is knowing how to live these challenging times well so that they can be times for growth and not moments which crush our spirit. In order to do this, St. Ignatius gives some guidance. I find it helpful to remember his advice for how to live well during times of spiritual desolation with the acronym ERGO, which in greek means work. This is a fitting acronym as living well during times of desolation does requires work!
Encourage: We need to encourage ourselves to be patient by remembering that this difficult time will pass. Recall times when you were in consolation before and recall that, just as there is a calm after a storm, consolation will return. 
Regularize: Do not change decisions taken in time of consolation. Remain firm in prayer and works of charity. 
Generosity: During times of desolation we will not want to pray and do good works. In order to face this challenge, St. Ignatius gives some counter-intuitive advice: go against what we are feeling (agir contra, in latin). Feeling tired and want to stop praying? Pray five minutes more. Frustrated with a particular individual? Go out of your way to be kind to them.  
Openness: It is very important during desolation to be open with a friend about what you are experiencing. Receiving encouragement can make all the difference.
If we follow these helpful tips, we can make sure that times of desolation become moments for growth.

When someone first explained to me the fact that as Christians we go through these cycles of consolation and desolation, I was very encouraged. Before, I felt guilty that I would even experience desolation. Now I see that it is a normal part of our Christian life. When we see Jesus’ transfiguration in the context of His entire life, we see that it is normal to spent more of our times in the valleys than on the mountaintop. The important thing is that we learn to live well during both these times. This is particularly true for the more difficult times of desolation. Try to remember the acronym ERGO: encourage, regularize, generosity, and openness. Never forget that all moments in our life - if we are in a valley or on the mountaintop - are opportunities to grow closer to Jesus.