4th Sunday of Lent (Laetare in the Time of Plague)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic, NOLA
Epidemics. Natural and man-made disasters. War. Political upheaval. These kinds of events turn our carefully crafted social order upside-down and challenge us to restore things to a comfortable normal. We deploy everything in our arsenal to make it all right again. And while we work to regain balance, we suffer. Sometimes just a little. Sometimes a lot more than we think we can bear. Here in New Orleans, we use Katrina as our standard for what counts as a Real Disaster. Thousands dead. Even more displaced. Millions in damaged property. Whole neighborhoods lost for good. Are we fully recovered 15yrs later? No. Not really. The walls of this church are still marked with the flood waters. And they should be. Because the people of this parish are marked as well. Like everyone else who lived through the hurricane surge, they are marked with the suffering of enduring a disaster. But these marks of suffering rest atop a deeper, more fundamental mark – the mark of Christ's light. Paul reminds us, b/c we need to remember, “You were once 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.” Before you suffer; long before you endure disaster, epidemic, or war, you are marked as a child of the light.
This is a Lent no one wanted or expected. We want Lent to be a time of fasting, a time away from the usual. And we expect Lent to be a season of surrender and of small miseries. But none of us wanted or expected this Lent to be long days and weeks of living and dying without the efficacious graces of the sacraments. None of us wanted or expected this Lent to be defined by lock-downs, social-distancing, and fears of infection. No one wants to be abandoned, and no one expects to be betrayed. But maybe we should've. Maybe we should've expected all of this. We are children of the light in Christ. Come Good Friday, if we follow him, there will be no surprises. There will be abandonment, betrayal, loneliness, and death. For him and for us. Our suffering will be heavier this year. More “real” than in the recent past. But so will the light we share with Christ. As our suffering increases, his light grows brighter. So we, as children of light, must produce every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth. That's our response, our supernatural instinct. Make no mistake: this is a time of testing, a trial. Panic, selfishness, hysteria, and fear-mongering are the tools of darkness. You have come into the light of Christ. Stay there. Come what may.
What has come is an epidemic. A pandemic. The latest in a long, storied line of diseases to infect the world. We are asking how, why, where, how many, who, and when. Like the disciples with the man born blind, we want to know the why's of this affliction. Science's answer is simple: viruses spread, infect, replicate, and kill. As Catholics, we accept and respect scientific knowledge as true. All truth is God's truth. We also know, as children of Christ's light, our response to this epidemic must go beyond – well beyond – what the world calls us to. Jesus answers the disciples, concerning the man born blind, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” When we shine the light of Christ on this viral epidemic, can we see how the works of God might be made visible? Jesus goes on to say, “We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work.” It is still day. And we have the work of the one who sent us to do. Our work is to produce goodness and righteousness and truth. Healing, light, and the mercy and love of Christ Jesus!
Of course. Of course! But what do we do? First, we listen to Paul again, “Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness.” Do not panic. Do not be selfish. Do not indulge in hysteria. And do create fear. Second, all truth is God's truth. We listen to our medical experts, and we “flatten the curve.” IOW, we slow the spread of the virus by observing social-distancing and good hygiene. Third, in prayer and fasting, we offer this epidemic to God in sacrifice. We make it holy and turn it at every opportunity into an epidemic of giving God greater glory. The light of Christ is shining on the Church. Our first priory is not “safety.” That's corporate PR double-speak. Our first priory as the Body of Christ – always and everywhere – is the teaching and preaching of the freely offered mercy of God to sinners. Freedom from sin. Freedom from death. Our goal is not to protect “healthy bodies” but to produce holy persons – holy bodies with holy souls. Fourth, as children of the Light in Christ, we are fundamentally a priestly people, mediating and interceding for the salvation of the world. Absolutely, we pray for an end to this pandemic. No question. But we also pray this pandemic will make visible the works of God among us. We, you and I, make these works visible.
This is Laetare Sunday. Every year, midway through our Lenten trek, we are given a chance to rejoice. And it may seem out of place to rejoice during a time of plague. But rejoicing is exactly what we need to be doing. If this epidemic is a test of our resolve to make the works of God visible to the world, then what else can we do but rejoice? With our eyes firmly fixed on our goal in heaven, and while we live in this world, the only sane response to suffering and death is rejoicing. We will suffer. And we will die. We can deny, demure, struggle, and complain. We can philosophize and theologize and try our best to wiggle a way out. But. But. There is no avoiding suffering and death. The choice is btw suffering and dying in the dark, and remaining in the darkness forever. Or suffering and dying in the light, and living forever in the light of Christ. So. Rejoice! You are children in the light. Go and make visible the works of God while the day is still with us!
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