Monday, March 27, 2017

Enlightened By Christ

Homily for the 4th Week of Lent - March 26, 2017

This is a baptism gospel.  Now, you might be thinking: “Fr. Najim, what do you mean?  This gospel has nothing to do with baptism. If anything, you might say this is a gospel about healing, but not baptism.”  But the healing of the blind man in this long narrative we just heard is an illustration of what happens at baptism and how we’re supposed to live as baptized Christians.

There’s a lot of symbolism in the baptism ritual.  After the pouring of the water, the actual baptism, a candle is lit and the priest or deacon says, “Receive the light of Christ.  Parents and godparents, this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly.  This child has been enlightened by Christ.  May this child keep the flame of faith alive in their hearts…”

In baptism, we are cleansed of Original Sin; faith, hope, and charity are infused into our souls; and we become children of God.  God makes his dwelling in us.  We are enlightened at baptism, we receive Christ’s light, and for the rest of our lives we are called to make Christ present in the world, to shine Christ’s light to others.  You see, baptism is not simply a moment in time; it is meant to be lived out. 

So how does this relate to the blind man?  The blind man is healed by Christ; and notice that Christ has him wash in water.  The people then inquire, “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?”  And the blind man answers them, “I am.”  Now, the now healed blind man’s answer might not seem extraordinary on the surface; however, when he answers “I am,” there is a profound theological point that St. John is trying to make.  Where else in Scripture do we hear the answer, “I am”? 

When God reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush, Moses asks God: “But if I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what do I tell them?” God replied to Moses: I am who I am… Tell them ‘I AM’ sent me to you.”

In chapter 8 of John’s gospel, the Pharisees are questioning Jesus about his identity.  Jesus says to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.”  In this way, Jesus identifies himself with the Father.  He reveals his oneness with the Father. 

And so when the blind man answers, “I am,” St. John is making it clear that this man was not simply healed by Christ, but in receiving healing from Christ, from being enlightened by Christ, he takes on the very resemblance of Christ.  Or, as I read somewhere, “The Light who is Christ produces a goodness in us by which we come to resemble Christ himself.”  The man healed of blindness is now called to become Christ to others, to be Christ’s light now that he has received light from Christ. 

St. Paul speaks to this in the reading we heard from Ephesians: “You were once in darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.  Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.” 

When we were baptized, we were enlightened by Christ.  Living our baptism, we are called to shine the light of Christ.  We are called to be so close to Jesus that we take on his resemblance, to live like him, to imitate him; so that when people are with us they feel close to him, that they get to know Jesus more because of us.

Are we doing that?  Are we shining Christ’s light?  During this Lent, are we allowing the Lord to cleanse and heal us of our darkness, of our blindness, so that we can become more and more like Jesus. 

Let’s make a commitment to live our baptism.  To live as children of God.  To live as children of light in a world so often shrouded in darkness.  Baptism was not just a moment in our lives; baptism was the beginning of our Christian life and we are meant to live our baptism every day.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Seek the Lord, Not Things from the Lord

(This homily was given on the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 24, 2016.  Because I just began this new blog, I will occasionally post homilies I've given in the past so as to add content to the blog)

Here’s a question: Do you see God in the same way that you see an ATM machine?  Strange question, I know; but it’s actually a good analogy for the way many people understand prayer, which is the focus of this weekend’s gospel.

Why do we go to an ATM machine?  Most of us go to the ATM primarily to get cash.  Yes, I know some people might use the ATM to get a balance inquiry.  But the bottom line is that we find the ATM useful for ourselves.  In a sense, we’re asking the ATM to give us what we need.  We wouldn’t say that we have a personal relationship with the ATM (that would be weird).  We don’t go to the ATM just to spend time with it (even weirder).  We go to the ATM to get something. 

Unfortunately, this is the way many of us see our relationship with God.  We see God as our ATM.  Our prayer consists of going to him to ask for things.  We pray because we think God can be useful to us, not to get to know him.  We see him as the dispenser of blessings and favors. True, asking things from the Lord is a good and important part of prayer, especially asking blessings for ourselves and loved ones; but it is not the essence of prayer.

In today’s gospel Jesus teaches us how to pray.  The disciples see Jesus praying and they ask him to teach them how to pray.  Why do they ask him that?  Because they see how absorbed he is in prayer.  They see that for him prayer is not about going through the motions, words, or formulas; they see that Jesus is consciously and experientially absorbed in a relationship.  He is aware of the Father’s presence and he radiates that presence.  He is aware that he is the beloved Son of the Father.  His disciples want that experience of prayer!  They want that consciousness that comes from prayer: consciousness of an intimate relationship with God, consciousness of being a beloved child of God. 

How does Jesus answer their question?  He doesn’t tell them that they should start by asking for things.  He says, when you pray, say “Father.”  In other words, he invites them into a relationship with his Father.  And by the way, the term he used would have sounded sacrilegious.  No one in his time called God their dad, their papa.  But that’s the term he uses: it’s the affectionate word that a child would have used for his/her father.  What Jesus is telling them is that prayer is first and foremost about this deep relationship with God; it’s not primarily about asking things. 

True, at the end of this gospel, he does invite them to ask, seek and knock, but only after he invites them into a personal relationship.  And what he tells them to ask for, primarily, is the Holy Spirit.  In other words, he tells them to ask for God himself, not things from God.

The lesson for us is clear: our prayer must be about seeking God, not primarily about seeking things from God.  Very often our prayer is simply about asking things from God, like we ask for money from an ATM.  But that is not the heart of prayer; the heart of prayer is seeking union with God, friendship with God.  As I said last week, prayer is about being silent, being aware of the loving presence of the Lord, allowing him to touch our hearts and lives with his presence. 

I’d like to give you another challenge this week.  Last week I invited you to spend 10-15 minutes a day in silent prayer.  Keep doing that; however, this week when you pray let your prayer be focused on seeking God, not things from God.  Don’t make your prayer primarily about asking things from the Lord for yourselves or others.  Let your prayer be this: Lord, grant me the grace to know your more intimately, to love you more deeply, and to serve you more fervently. 

How do we do this?  When you sit in quiet to pray, simply focus on Jesus.  See the loving face of Jesus.  Know that he is with you, inviting you into a deeper relationship with him.  And then just tell him that you want to know him more, that you want to love him more, that you want to serve him more.  Just focus on him and his love for you.  And just sit with him.  Just be present to him as he is always present to you. 

First, seek the Lord; do not first seek things from the Lord.  And as you seek the Lord, you will become more deeply aware that he is your loving Father and you are his beloved child.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Entering Into Prayer

Homily for the 2nd Week of Lent - March 12, 2017

If I were to ask you to define prayer, how would you define it?  Many people would answer that prayer is talking to God, plain and simple.  I think it’s safe to say that while many Christians say prayers, it’s also true that many Christians do not truly enter into prayer.  There’s a big difference between saying prayers and entering into prayer.  Saying prayers is good; entering into the experience of prayer is life-changing. 

In this extraordinary gospel we just heard, notice that Jesus takes Peter, James, and John away, up a high mountain to be with him.  He takes them away, out of the noisiness and distractions of their world.  And it is only when they are in a place set apart for this encounter that they experience his glory.  Jesus brings them to a place where they can enter into this experience, to be enveloped by it.  And no doubt, they are changed by this experience, as we hear in the exclamation of St. Peter, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”

We see in this gospel a paradigm of prayer.  First, Jesus takes the initiative (“Jesus took Peter, James, and John”).  Anytime we are moved to pray, it is always the Lord who prompts us.  It is always his grace acting in our hearts that draws us to pray.  Second, Jesus leads them up a high mountain.  If you’ve ever hiked, the greatest moment is when you reach the summit of the mountain to experience the beauty all around you.  That is what prayer is supposed to be: allowing God to take us more and more into his presence to experience his beauty and his love.  Third, they hear God speak (a voice came from the cloud).  Prayer is not simply about us talking to God; it’s about allowing ourselves to hear the voice of the Lord speak to us.  Fourth, Jesus touches them and tells them to rise.  When we enter into prayer, Jesus touches us and the experience of prayer is meant to bring about a resurrection in our lives, meaning that it is meant to lead us to live a new life. 

Notice, this paradigm of prayer has nothing to do with the apostles sitting down and simply talking to God or asking God for things.  In fact, this experience they have on the mountain is all about what happens to them.  Listen to what spiritual author Ruth Burrows writes, “Prayer has far more to do with what God wants to do in us than with our trying to ‘reach’ or ‘realize,’ still less ‘entertain,’ God in prayer…. What we think of as our search for God is, in reality, a response to the divine Lover drawing us to himself. There is never a moment when divine Love is not at work… This work is nothing other than a giving of the divine Self in love. The logical consequence for us must surely be that our part is to let ourselves be loved, let ourselves be given to, let ourselves be worked upon by this great God and made capable of total union with Him.”

You see, prayer is not primarily about talking to God; it is, rather, all about what God wants to do in us.  And what he wants to do in us is nothing less than transform our lives.  This is why we need to enter into the experience of prayer rather than just say prayers for, as Ruth Burrows says, prayer is about letting ourselves be loved, letting ourselves be worked upon by the Lord.  Peter, James, and John experience this transformation on the mountain.  You and I can experience this transformation if we enter into prayer.  Lent is the opportune time to go deeper in prayer. 

I want to encourage each of you, enter into prayer and let the Lord love you; let the Lord touch and transform your heart.  Don’t let your prayer simply be about words and speaking and trying to reach God; let your prayer be about Jesus enfolding you in his presence, bringing you into a deeper awareness of his infinite love for you.