Note: This is my prepared text for the homily I gave at the Vigil Mass for the Fourth Sunday of Lent. — SDG
This weekend is a double celebration. As the rose vestments attest, this is the Laetare Sunday Vigil, “laetare” meaning “Rejoice!” in Latin — the fourth Sunday of Lent, a marker that we’re more than halfway through our Lenten journey to the Easter Triduum, which the Catechism calls “the source of light” that “fills the whole liturgical year with its brilliance.” That light of the Easter Triduum shines especially brightly this weekend of Laetare Sunday, and we rejoice in anticipation of the great celebration of our Lord’s resurrection three weeks from now.
But today is also March 25, exactly nine months before Christmas, December 25, the great Solemnity of the Nativity of our Lord, the birth of Jesus. And of course nine months before Jesus was born, he was conceived in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary when she offered her “Yes” to God — her Fiat in Latin, “Let it be” (“I am the Lord’s handmaid; let it be done to me according to your word”) — when the archangel Gabriel appeared to her and announced to this young woman that she had been chosen and anointed by the Lord, like young David in our first reading. David was chosen to become Israel’s king; Mary to become the mother of the true Son of David, the Son of God — to become the mother of God.
So today is also the great Solemnity of the Annunciation, of that announcement of the angel to Mary. The Easter Triduum coming in three weeks, the joy of which we anticipate on this Laetare Sunday Vigil, is the source of light that fills the whole year with its brilliance. The light was first revealed at Christmas, but it came into the world at the Annunciation. Not the light of the archangel, the burning presence of the messenger from heaven, but the hidden light in Mary’s womb, the spark that first appeared when she said that “Yes,” that Fiat, “Let it be.”
The light, of course, is Jesus himself, who says in today’s Gospel, “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Today’s readings are full of references to light and darkness, vision and blindness. “We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day,” Jesus says. “Night is coming when no one can work.”
To the Ephesians in the second reading Saint Paul writes:
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…Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness…everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore, it says: Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.
“Even though I walk through the dark valley,” the Psalmist sings — “the valley of deep darkness” or even “the valley of the shadow of death” are other readings — “I fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Physical sight is one of God’s most precious natural gifts, but it only goes so far. “Do not judge from his appearance,” God says when Samuel first spots David’s big brother Eliab. “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.”
Sight only goes so far — but how limited we are without it, as the man born blind knew all too well. We all experience this limitation to some extent any time it’s too dark to see well, though of course that kind of darkness isn’t a regular part of our experience here in the Archdiocese of Newark, with all our street lights and lighted buildings and headlights flooding our world with so much artificial light that we call it light pollution. Right now there’s even something a little artificial about how much sunlight is coming in the windows at this Mass, because of Daylight Saving Time.
We experience so little real darkness that maybe it’s a little harder for us to appreciate the gift of light. Several years ago my family went to Virginia, to the Shenandoah Valley, which is a much less brightly lit spot than here. And while we were there we toured Skyline Caverns, which has some beautiful crystal formations, underground streams, waterfalls — all of which we appreciated, of course, by artificial lights running through the caverns.
But while we were down there in one of those chambers, our guide wanted to impress on us the natural state of the caverns without artificial light. So she told us she was going to turn off the lights in our chamber, plunging us into absolute darkness. So she turned off the lights — and in the darkness came twinkling rays from my son Nathan’s sneakers. Real darkness is a rarity in our world.
But darkness was all the man born blind had ever known. Because of that, he didn’t really know what darkness is. If you don’t know what light is, you don’t know what it means that you’re in darkness. In a less dramatic way, when I got my first pair of glasses as an adult, the optician did that thing they do where he told me to look into the distance and then popped the glasses on my head — and only then, when I saw the world come into sharp focus for the first time, I realized the blurriness that I had lived with all my life. I hadn’t known that there was anything wrong with my vision before because I’d never known anything else.
The man born blind knew that he was blind, but he didn’t really know what that meant. He only knew that other people had something that he didn’t. But there was something else he didn’t even know he was missing — a gift even greater than physical sight. This wasn’t just the day he saw the light of the sun for the first time: It was the day the light of the world, Jesus Christ, came into his life.
“One thing I do know,” he tells the Jewish authorities questioning him, “is that I was blind and now I see” — words that have become so familiar to so many through the hymn “Amazing Grace”: “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” Of course that refers not to physical sight, but to spiritual sight — both of which our Lord gave that day to the man born blind.
Today’s Gospel is the second of three readings from the Gospel of John that we’re hearing this Lent. Last week we heard the story of the Samaritan woman at the well; this week, the man born blind; and next week we’ll hear the raising of Lazarus.
To the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus gives living water so that she might never thirst again; to the man born blind, he gives both physical and spiritual sight; and Lazarus he raises from the dead. These are all, in one way or another, pictures of conversion or spiritual transformation.
For most of us, this process of conversion or transformation begins with our baptism. Baptism is the new birth in water and the Spirit that Jesus speaks of in John 3. In the waters of Baptism we receive the living water of the Holy Spirit, becoming in us a spring welling up to eternal life, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman last week.
And you might not know this, but as the Catechism tells us, another name for the Sacrament of Baptism (particularly in the Eastern Churches) is enlightenment, because in baptism we receive the Light of the world, Jesus Chris, “the true light that enlightens every man,” as John writes in his prologue. In baptism we become sons and daughters of light; we even become lights ourselves. “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world,” Jesus says today, but in the Sermon on the Mount he tells his followers, “You are the light of the world.” We have to become in the world what Jesus was when he was in the world, because it is in us that Jesus continues to be in the world and to do his work in the world.
Conversion, spiritual transformation, begins at baptism, but it doesn’t end there. The holy season of Lent is all about ongoing conversion, spiritual renewal, turning away from things of lesser importance and the things that distract us from the truly essential: God who is love; love of God and love of neighbor; seeking his kingdom and his righteousness in our lives and in our world; walking in the light and being the light of the world to others; saying “Yes” to God, Fiat, “Let it be done to me according to your word”; and welcoming Christ more and more into our lives.
Some of you may know that I wasn’t raised in the Catholic Church: I’m a convert from Protestantism. My father, who’s here today, was a Protestant pastor. He’s now Catholic too, as are my mother and my sister, God be praised. (God’s still working on my brother.)
But at the time I was coming into the Church I didn’t like to think of myself as a “converting” to Catholicism, because in my Protestant background “converting” meant becoming a believer, accepting Jesus into your heart as your Lord and Savior. And I already had faith. I was already baptized.
What I still had to learn was that conversion is not just one-and-done. Sometimes conversion is something dramatic: I was blind, but now I see. Sometimes it’s more subtle, like that moment when the optometrist dropped the glasses on my face, and I realized that I had been seeing dimly, and now (through a glass) I see clearly.
Maybe you’ve had experiences like that in your spiritual life: a moment of clarity where you realized that being Catholic, following Jesus, is something far greater — perhaps more demanding, perhaps more liberating, perhaps both — than you had realized before, and your life was never the same.
Maybe you haven’t. There are some people who come to Mass — God knows who they are; I don’t — who need to experience spiritually what Lazarus experienced physically: They need to be brought to life. These are the ones to whom Saint Paul says, quoting some early Christian hymn, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
Other people come to Mass and they try to be good people; they go to confession once in a while, and maybe some of them feel all right, the way I always felt my eyes were all right before that first pair of glasses. They’re good Catholics, to all appearances, the way Samuel judged David’s big brother Eliab. But God looks at the heart. He knows something’s missing.
Maybe some of them even know on some level, a little like the blind man, that there might be something missing in their lives, but maybe that’s just the way it is. Other people (they think) can have deep prayer lives and read the Bible and evangelize and be really involved at church and somehow really know Jesus as a friend, but it’s not for me. Never, ever think that!
The Lord wants to be your shepherd; to give you rest in green pastures and lead you by restful waters; to refresh you soul. He wants to guide you in right paths; to be at you side and give you strength. He wants your cup to overflow. He wants you to dwell in his Father’s house, on Earth for years to come and forever in Heaven.
And if you have had experiences of growth and transformation, don’t think there isn’t more for you. Look at the main figures in these three Gospels: the Samarian woman at the well; the man born blind; and Lazarus. The Samaritan woman, not being Jewish, didn’t really know God as he was known to the Jewish people. The man born blind was Jewish, but didn’t yet know and believe in Jesus. Lazarus already knew Jesus. He was already a disciple. Yet each of them had room in their lives for conversion, for transformation, for a new experience of God’s grace.
Let me tell you a secret homilists don’t often admit (you know, like those lists of the top things your doctor won’t tell you, or your car mechanic, or whatever): An honest homilist is usually preaching first of all to himself. I’m preaching to myself today. I know that I need ongoing conversion in my life. I know that God wants to do more in me than I’ve allowed him to do so far.
The words you’re hearing now I typed earlier this afternoon (literally on my knees, because I have a kneeler chair at my desk) knowing as the words appeared on the screen in front of me that every word I typed, every word you’re hearing right now, was God’s call and God’s invitation to me to deepen my own commitment to him, to spend the last three weeks of Lent turning away from the things of lesser importance and the things that distract me from him to know him and to be embraced by him in a fuller and more constant way.
Proclaiming these words to you right now is one step on that journey for me. And hearing them can be one step on that journey for you, wherever you are in your spiritual life. How do we do this? It begins, very simply, with saying “Yes” to God, Fiat, “I am the Lord’s handmaid or servant; let it be done to me according to your word,” in imitation of the Blessed Virgin and with the grace of the prayers that she offers in Heaven for each of us right now.
Wherever you are, Jesus waits to accompany us, you and me, on the next steps of our journey: to bring us — if we let him, if we say “Yes” — further and further from the darkness and into the light.
The next steps of that journey begin … now.