Lord, Increase My Faith

"Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe" (John 4:48).

The royal official from Capernaum gains Jesus' ear as much as the blind man on the road or the lepers.  Desperation reduces us all the threshold of faith. A sick child moves the official to seek out a Galilean preacher already touched by suspicion and controversy, certainly for King Herod Antipas, who had beheaded John the Baptist.  So there was risk for the royal official when he consorted with Jesus, but he loved his son more than any risk to his career. 

Jesus, fresh from other miracles, including the changing of water into wine in nearby Cana, had a reputation for signs and wonders. He will demonstrate his power to heal from a distance, giving in to the man's plea and sending him home to discover that the fever broke at the very hour Jesus reassured him his som would live. 

Yet Jesus first says to the man and to everyone, "Your faith requires signs and wonders." It is hardly faith if it is unwilling to leap unless a bridge is there. The royal official is on his way toward faith, step by step, entrusting his hope in Jesus' word. All the way home he deepens his belief, and this becomes part of an even greater miracle. HIs child is alive, but his whole household professes faith in Jesus and will receive eternal life. 

Our Lenten journey is likewise a step by step prayer for faith. Lent uncovers our need for God, our hunger and thirst for holiness, and it exposes our weaknesses and lack of faith. So we must pray more, "Lord, increase my faith." By the time we reach Jerusalem and Holy Week, Jesus will disappear into the apparent tragedy of a brutal death, the failure of his movement, the scattering of his followers. Only if we have faith will we see the resurrection, find life in the midst of death, become the disciples who are charged to carry the story forward into a skeptical world. 

Now is the time to seek Jesus out and ask him for healing, sight, courage and, most of all, for more faith. 

Lord, I Want to See

“Not as people see does God see, because people see appearances but the Lord looks into the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).
 
Creation begins with God’s word, “Let there be light.” Light is what enables us to see, but only God can give deeper sight, beyond surface appearance.
 
In today's first reading, the Prophet Samuel passes by all of the impressive looking sons of Jesse to find David, the youngest son who is out watching the sheep. As soon as he is anointed, the Spirit “rushes” upon David.
 
Today’s gospel account of the healing of the man born blind reveals Jesus as “the light of the world.” This part of John’s Gospel is called the “Book of Signs” because as Jesus proceeds with his ministry, he declares that he is the divine I AM, the name God revealed to Moses from the burning bush. “I am the living water, I am the light, I am the bread of life, I am the resurrection and the life.
 
Each sign brings believers closer to the moment of glory on the cross, when faith enables them to see more than a crucified man, but to see the deeper meaning of the event as the Son of Man is lifted up and revealed to be God’s Holy One.
 
Lent is our journey deeper into the mystery of Jesus. Only faith can enable us to see the light. Without it, we remain blind even if we have human sight. The scribes and Pharisees question the blind man and mock his claims to have been healed by Jesus, because they remain blind to the reality before their very eyes. A man born blind now sees. The New Creation has begun in Jesus, the divine I AM, who is the Light of the World.
 
Perhaps the most basic prayer we can prayer is that of Bartimaeus, another blind man. When Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?" he immediately replied, “Lord I want to see!” 
 
If we can see, we will walk in the light, we will grasp the truth, we will distinguish between appearance and what is in the heart, we recognize the face of Jesus in the world, looking back at us with love. In his gaze, we are recreated and our true self -- the Christ in us -- is called forth.  This is the purpose of our life, to become fully the person God has called into existence, named and loved. This is who we are and will be in eternity, so now is the time to open our hearts and our eyes to the light of the world. 
 
 
Note: the image with today’s reflection is a sketch of the bust in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, thought to be from the first century.  I have just returned from 10 days in Rome and Assisi, eager to resume Pencil Preaching, hoping to bring fresh inspiration my experience of the cradle of Christendom, the eternal City, the home of St. Peter’s and Pope Francis. 
 

Dear Pencil Preaching readers

I posted a short reflection for Sunday, March 12, and at the end of that indicated that I would be traveling from March 13-23, and so would bot be able to post during that time.  The little graphic with this message will tell you where I will be. I have been doing a cartoon strip on Pope Francis for the past three and half years, published in the National Catholic Reporter and featured on their Website: ncronline.org under the "Francis Chronicles" header.  Watch online this week for a special podcast by NCR on the cartoon as part of a larger perspective on the pope as he completes four years.      

I hope to be back in Kansas City on March 23 and will resume Pencil Preaching for Sunday, March 26.  I expect to have some fresh perspectives after my first trip to the Eternal City.    Ciao.     Pat Marrin

The Road to Glory

“Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid” (Matt17:7).
 
The Transfiguration, described in all the gospels, was the linchpin revelation of who Jesus is and why his paradoxical death on the cross was his glory.
 
Matthew shares Mark’s theme of the “Messianic Secret,” the way the early church explained how Jesus, who was rejected and crucified, was in fact God’s message to the world that, despite sin and indifference, divine Mercy will redeem the universe, transform humanity and share its own inner life with us.
 
It is an astounding assertion, and the first preachers must have faced incredulity. How can a crucified Jew be said to have saved the world?
 
At his Transfiguration, Jesus is shown in glory and history is made transparent to what the Law and Prophets both knew, that it was God’s redemptive plan that the “Son of Man had to suffer in order to enter his glory” (cf Luke 24, the road to Emmaus).
 
If the world only saw a man hanging on a cross between two thieves against a darkened horizon of abject failure, the hidden reality was God’s beloved Son standing between Moses and Elijah in a bright cloud of glory.
 
Peter, James and John, representing the disciples and the early church, barely grasped the mystery of Jesus’ victory through defeat, but after the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday they would begin to understand what Jesus had told them at Caesarea Philippi.  They would proceed to Jerusalem to fulfill the vision they had just seen. 
 
We benefit from knowing what they would soon experience during that first Holy Week. But we are also like them, only human, slow to understand.  We would rather stay on the mountain, but after the vision fades, the cold wind rises again, and Jesus is nudging us to get up and finish the journey.  
 
“He touched them, saying, Rise up and do not be afraid.” His death on the cross is part of the “lifting up” that reveals God’s unconditional, undeserved love for sinners. Love is stronger than death. There is no greater love than this -- to lay down your life for another, a friend and even an enemy. Jesus’ love will be for all.  
 
We continue our journey to Jerusalem on this Second Sunday of Lent, now enlightened by the brilliant cloud of the Transfiguration.  There is more road ahead of us, so let us continue the journey with Jesus and with one another,  joyful in the realization that we are on the road to glory.

A note from the author: Pencil Preaching will not be posted from Monday, March 13 - 23. I will be on the road and unable to post, but the blog will resume with a reflection for Sunday, March 26.  Thanks to all of you who follow Pencil Preaching. Thanks for accommodating me as I travel.        Pat Marrin
 

Do It Now

"Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven" (Matt 5:20).
 
If our righteousness only keeps the letter of law -- neither more nor less -- we will miss the deep conversion of the heart that Jesus invites us to enter to know the Mercy of God
 
The scribes and Pharisees were perfect in the law, but only on the surface, keeping the rules and rituals that bolstered their reputations.  Real holiness delves into motives and desires, intentions and strategies that hide pride, envy, jealousy and resentment.
 
A man who hates his brother courts murder, and before he can take his gift to the altar he must reconcile with that brother.
 
Those who cannot let go of a grievance will be like two plaintiffs going to court. Settle early, because if you persist to the point of brooding, you will pass your judgment and lock yourself into the prison of your own pride. And then you will not get out until you have made peace to the smallest detail.
 
This is the pathology of unresolved conflicts. People go for years not speaking to one another, nursing a grievance until it defines their lives, creating a wound that never heals.  The longer they let it fester, the harder it is to heal, until it hardens the heart and limits our ability to love anyone with a heart free of hurt and suspicion.
 
If Lent could focus on resolving one longstanding conflict in our lives, perhaps with a parent, sibling or friend, what joy, freedom and peace of mind this might bring us.  A letter mailed, a phone call, a meeting over coffee, a hard conversation that revisits the past, asks for forgiveness, seeks a fresh start.
 
 Is this not the meaning of the words, “Repent and hear good news?” Isn’t this what Lent is for?
 

The Process is the Prize

“You built up strength within me” (Psalm 135:7).

Jesus teaches that prayer is not a quid pro quo moment in which we ask God for something, and God either gives it to us or not. No, prayer is a process that takes us deeper into our relationship with God.

When a person seeks, he or she begins a process of discerning what it is they are looking for. “What is it that I really want?” “Am I looking in the right places?” “Is there a deeper gift behind the surface thing I first thought would satisfy me?”  

The prayer actually begins when we begin to dialogue with God, who listens to us describe, then refine our search. God is like the friend who listens to us tell how difficult a problem is or how much we want something, then says, “I would be willing to work with you on this.”  Not, "Here’s your answer."

So God accompanies those who seek, works with those who keep knocking on doors until one opens, or explores a question someone is carrying until insights begin to appear, strategies that they can try. The process always involves the person who is praying. They often have the answer to their own prayer.  God enhances our dignity by showing us how we can solve our problems without instant help or miracles.

And, whatever the prayer, along the way, we get closer to God, trust God more, realize that the most important result of prayer is not stuff but God, the source of all blessings. We come to know face to face the One who knows us and loves us already and wants us to experience the power of the faith community around us, the many  needs and resources waiting to be shared, the joy and gratitude that comes from understanding that the way to heaven is heaven.

Repent and Hear Good News

“There is something greater than Jonah here” (Luke 11:32).
 
Just what is the sign of Jonah?  Because the imagery is so compelling in the story, we think of Jonah going down into the belly of the whale, which then becomes a sign of Jesus going down into death and then rising up again.
 
But it seems fairly obvious from the context of Jesus’ response to the crowds that the sign of Jonah was simply his preaching, at which the Ninevites suddenly and dramatically repented.
 
Jesus hears the people clamoring for some spectacular sign that will convince them to repent. They will receive no such sign, only his preaching that without repentance they were bringing down judgment on themselves. 
 
The contrast between Jonah and Jesus could not be greater.  Jonah was a reluctant prophet who first ran away from God and the mission to preach repentance in Nineveh, the capitol of Assyria, one of Israel’s most hated enemies. Jonah barely whispers his message in the marketplace, and the King of Assyria orders the whole nation to put on sackcloth and ashes.   It was an unlikely story, almost a joke, especially that such an arrogant, powerful kingdom would repent, but they did. Israel was expected to do as much, and far more because of God's many graces. 
 
In contrast, Jesus has preached his message, worked many signs and made the compelling case that repentance is the path to life. Still, the people will not hear the good news. There will be no other sign than this story of Jonah. If the call to life is not enough, what will some spectacular warning or celestial show accomplish?
 
On Ash Wednesday, we heard the simple message, “Repent and hear good news.”  This is the sign of Jonah. Do we see it, and will we act?
 

Teach Us to Pray

“This is how you are to pray” (Matt 6:9).
 
We cannot emphasize enough that when his disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he did not just give them a formula of words, he invited them to share his own relationship with his Abba.
 
They had seen him in prayer, knew that when he went apart, raised his face to the sky, held his arms up, he was experiencing an intimate encounter with God.
Jesus invites them to stand with him, lift up their minds, hearts, souls and bodies with the same intimate assurance that they were in the loving gaze of God.
 
When we pray with Jesus, our brother, we are exercising our essential dignity as children of God.  By our baptism we became dwelling places of the Trinity, called by the Creator into existence, named and loved eternally. We were incorporated into the risen body of Christ, becoming his presence in the world. We were flooded with light and wisdom by the Holy Spirit.  We are now the family of God, and when together we pray, God hears the voice of Jesus.
 
The petitions of the “Our Father” align us with God, enable us to grow in the nourishment of the Eucharist, our daily bread, give us the power to give and seek forgiveness in an ongoing act of redemption that reaches beyond us to everyone we touch.  We are encouraged not to be afraid, for God will always be with us, even in trial and temptation.
 
The prayer of Jesus is a continuous exchange between God and humanity, divine and human. To know it by heart and to say it often is to uncover the entire mystery of God and of ourselves as part of the Family of God.
 

Be Perfect

“The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul” (Ps 19).
 
It might have been enough for Jesus to get his disciples to keep the law. A world in which everyone observed the commandments would be just.
 
Today’s first reading from Leviticus 19 was probably well known to his followers. Moses’ teaching was called the “Code of Holiness,” and it was the goal of every Jew to fulfill it.
 
But Jesus wanted his disciples to grow beyond the law to the more challenging threshold of love, which requires more than obedience.  Every step across the line of legal perfection into the territory of mercy is true discipleship, and it often involves risk and uncertainty.
 
This was the point of Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). A lawyer asked Jesus to define the limits of legal perfection. Jesus drew him into a story that compelled him to leap into the unknown demands of showing compassion to whomever he encountered in need. There is no rule book for this kind of response.
 
Jesus summarizes his daring invitation to practice compassion in today’s Gospel from Matthew 25, the parable of the Last Judgment. This teaching, like the Beatitudes, illustrates the realm of compassion that awaits the lawyer outside the safe limits of legal purity.  And it calls all of us who want to be his disciples. What the Samaritan did spontaneously when he encountered the robbery victim lying naked and beaten on the road is what Jesus asks us to do in the Works of Mercy. 
 
“I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me to drink, naked and you covered me, sick and you cared for me.” What you do out of compassion, regardless of the law, risk of contamination, danger, the criticism of others, you do for me. This fulfills the whole law, to love your neighbor as you love yourself.
 
Lent is our journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. Today’s readings alert us to what might lie around the next bend. Pray to be ready?

Leading the Way

“Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (Matt 4:1).
 
If original sin turned the garden of paradise into a desert, it was appropriate that Jesus begin his ministry to redeem the world by confronting the devil in the desert. The Adversary who defeated Adam and Eve will be thwarted by the New Adam who reclaims Creation and humanity by overcoming death on the tree of life.
 
Pairing Genesis 2 with Matthew 4 allows us to see the drama that recapitulates so many biblical images in salvation history. Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert for 40 days, replaying Israel’s long sojourn under Moses, when temptations over bread, miracles and idolatry will seduce them into sin again.
 
Someone, representing all of us, had to get it right. Jesus, revealed as God’s true Servant, is obedient where Adam and Eve and their descendants were disobedient. The Serpent, cunning to the core, approaches Jesus not with raw enticement but with the scriptures: “If you are the Son of God,” make manna in the desert, let his angels protect you from harm, and, by the way, if you really plan to save the world, let me give it to you in all its splendor.
 
Jesus responds three times by also quoting scripture, denying Satan even the smallest acknowledgment. There is no real power except God. Everything else is illusion and blasphemy.
 
The primitive church preserved this story of how Jesus laid the foundations of the Kingdom of God by turning back the most basic denials of  divine sovereignty. We human beings cannot usurp the absolute role of the Creator. If we carry in our essential identities the image and likeness of God, it is because God intended to adopt us in Christ, not goad us to claim that we can be rival gods, little sovereigns free to create our own reality.
 
Lent is the time when we learn again to submit. The basic truth held by all the Peoples of the Book, the First Commandment of the Jews, the Submission of Islam and the Obedience of the Christ is the same.  The path to God is by the power of God, through God to God, all things in God. The lie of human pride and the folly of self-worship must end in surrender and service before we can begin our journey home to paradise.
 
We fast and pray and give ourselves away to recover our sight and sense of direction in the trackless waste sin has made of our world. Jesus, our brother, has gone before us and stirs our hearts to remember the garden we have been promised. Behold the tree of life ahead. It is the ladder to heaven, the burning bush, the pole in the desert displaying the seraphs, the staff of Moses, the sign of the Cross. See it, believe in it, embrace it, and it will guide you through death to eternal life.

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