Saturday, March 24, 2018

Taking a Step Back

Saturday in the 5th Week of Lent
(Aaron Lee’s Profession of First Vows in the Society of Jesus)

Picture: cc Frankie Roberto

My dear friends, do you know what it feels like to be so close to something that you can’t see it clearly? Have you ever felt like you needed to take a step back, in order to see a bigger picture? I recently felt this way while trying to watch a movie on a plane. The screen was fixed to the seat in front of me, and the person in that seat suddenly decided to recline it. Which brought the screen a few inches away from my face. Making it very difficult for me to enjoy the movie. I tried to recline my own seat, but it was stuck. So, after a few minutes, I gave up watching the movie, and picked up a book to read instead.

To be too close to something to see it clearly. I wonder if something like that is also what is happening in the gospel today. As you know, the passage comes immediately after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. But we’re told that despite seeing or hearing about this mighty work, some people still refuse to believe in Jesus. Why? It may be that they’re too close to what they are looking at. If not physically, then at least spiritually. What does this mean? How do we know? Notice the reactions of the chief priests and the Pharisees. Instead of being amazed, they actually become agitated and anxious. Here is this man working all these signs and what are we doing? If we let him go on in this way everybody will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy the Holy Place and our nation.’

A man has just been raised from the dead, but the chief priests and Pharisees see nothing more than danger and destruction, leading to death and despair. Why? Isn’t it because they allow their own ego, their own self-centred concerns, to obstruct their view? Their focus is only on themselves and what they need to do. In the words of the high priest, they do not seem to have grasped the situation at all. They are too close to see the bigger picture.

In contrast, the Mass readings invite us to take a step back, in order to see a bigger picture. To focus not so much on what actions we have to take, but rather to first consider what exactly God is and has been doing. The gospel reminds us that, in Christ, God was to gather together in unity the scattered children of God. In other words, in Christ, God was fulfilling the great promise that God makes to the people in the first reading. To gather the scattered. To bring home the lost. To rescue the unfaithful. To cleanse the sinful. The focus is first on God’s might works. How God guards us as a shepherd guards his flock. Turning mourning into joy. Giving gladness for grief. The readings paint a very different picture from the one that the scribes and Pharisees see. Not danger and destruction, death and despair. But return and restoration, rescue and reconciliation. Leading to gladness and rejoicing.

Taking a step back in order to see a bigger picture. This is also something that we need in order to better appreciate what our dear brother Aaron will soon be doing here at this Mass. For it is possible to approach his profession of vows in a  way that is similar to the Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus. To be too close to see clearly. To focus first on what he is doing. The sacrifice he is making. And when we do this, at least two reactions are possible. If we are non-believers, then poverty, chastity and obedience make no sense at all. Why would anyone in his right mind want to give up his right to have his own belongings. To marry a spouse and have children. To make up one's own mind about what one wishes to do. On the other hand, if we are believers, then we might see the vows as only a heroic sacrifice. Something to admire from afar. Or to try in vain to emulate.

But this is not quite the complete picture. For the vows that will soon be professed here today are not in the first place Aaron’s vows. Nor Jesuit vows. They are called, first and foremost, evangelical counsels. Evangelical. From the word that means good news. And the good news is not first of all about what Aaron or the rest of us are doing. The good news is first of all about what God has done and is doing in Christ. The merciful love and compassion of God in gathering the scattered, in bringing home the lost, in uniting the divided… A picture that brings us great gladness and joy, if only we have the eyes to see it. Motivating us to make a response of love for love. To bear witness to the good news with our lives.

And what is true of the evangelical counsels is true too of other vows that we Christians make. It’s true, for example, of marital vows. As those here who are married know better than I do, the focus in a Christian marriage is not so much on what the spouses have to do for each other. Important though this may be. The focus is instead first of all on the love of God that has brought them together, and in which they live their married life.

The same can be said about the vows that we are all now preparing ourselves to renew at Easter. Our baptismal vows. Do you reject Satan… and all his works… and all his empty promises… Again, at first glance, it may appear that baptismal vows have to do with what actions we need to take. But that’s not quite the complete picture. What they are really about is first of all what God has done and is doing. The good news of God’s merciful love shown to us in Christ Jesus. A powerful and moving image that we can only see clearly when we allow God to move our egos out of the way. Isn't this what Lent is for?

My dear friends, even as we rejoice with Aaron on his first vows, and even as we express heartfelt thanks to Aaron’s family for their generosity in letting him profess them, how might God be inviting each of us to take a step back, in order to see the mighty works of God unfolding in our own lives today?

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