“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. 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 would seem that Christ’s words in the Gospel are being fulfilled. Amidst a global pandemic and a prohibition of any public gathering that precludes the possibility of the faithful’s participation in the Eucharist, we seem to be in a spiritual night when the work of the Church cannot be accomplished. In this grave and unprecedented situation in the life of the Church, it would be easy to start assigning blame. Some would blame the iniquities of the world, or even sin within the Church – God’s just punishment for a world, and maybe even a Church, gone astray. There is definitely some truth here. We are in need of a big “wake up call.” But this idea is also insufficient.
Our Lord tells the disciples today that the man’s blindness is not because of his sin or his parents’ sin, but “that the works of God might be made visible.” And this, my brothers and sisters, is the point of departure for our own reflection today. What are the works of God that He wants to make visible, here and now?
It is deeply ironic that the first Sunday on which we are not able physically to gather as the Body of Christ is Laetare Sunday, when the Church bids us rejoice in the midst of Lent. Rejoice? Rejoice? What do we have to rejoice about? Uncertainties loom, life is seriously disrupted, others fear for their very lives, and the greatest spiritual consolation is removed by the impossibility of receiving Christ our Hope in Holy Communion. And we are supposed to rejoice? Yes! We rejoice because God is still living and active in our midst if we have eyes to see Him and ears to hear Him, and because there is something very particular God wants to do here and now in the midst of this crisis.
There are two temptations that would lead us to miss out on the graces of this particular moment. The first would be simply to give up, to give up on our Lenten practices and disciples, and just say, “Well, it is all over now! COVID-19 has won, and we will just pick back up when this is all over.” This is a defeatist attitude unworthy of a follower of the One who told us, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
The second temptation we could face in this time of trial is different – it would be to over-digitze the life of faith. This temptation is subtler, more disguised. It says, “Now is the time for the Church to move into the modern world! We can find all of this amazing Catholic content online. If we just get the right resources into the hands of enough people, we can keep living our faith even though we are separated from the sacraments.”
Now, there is a lot of good here. Obviously, I’m delivering this sermon to you via a digital live stream on a social networking site, so the irony of my criticism is not lost on me. And there is a lot of great Catholic content available for you to continue living the Faith at home. We are even providing resource guides from our parish on how you can use some of that content to continue living our Catholic faith at home. And I certainly hope that you will take advantage of those opportunities to take ownership of your own life of faith and that of your families.
Within every good opportunity, though, is a temptation. If we focus too much on living our faith digitally, we are going to miss out on a great work of God that He wants to make visible here and now.
This is a time of yearning and longing for Jesus, an extended Good Friday and Holy Saturday – those days when Christ is in the tomb and Mass is likewise not celebrated. During this time when it is not possible for us to come to Holy Mass and receive the Eucharist, we are being invited into an interior monasticism of the heart. God is giving you the opportunity to focus on His presence within, on how He wants to reveal Himself as the One who is “closer to you than you are to yourself” (interior intimo meo – St. Augustine).
This Lent, the circumstances of our lives have introduced us to a new kind of fast, a fast that none of us ever would have chosen and likely will never choose again, but that nevertheless has deep roots in Christian tradition. I am speaking, of course, of our fast from the Eucharist.
Voluntarily fasting from the Eucharist can be seen in the life of the great St. Augustine, a bishop in Northern Africa around the year 400 A.D., during the time of the Vandal invasions. The end of his took place against the backdrop of impending doom as city after city fell to the invading hordes – a feeling many of us are probably experiencing as well as a silent and invisible enemy begins to make incursions in our midst. Amidst this time of Christ, as the saintly bishop lay dying, he made a surprising choice regarding how he would prepare himself to meet the Lord. “In his last days he manifested his solidarity with the public sinners who seek for pardon and grace through the renunciation of communion. He wanted to meet his Lord in the humility of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for him who is the Righteous and Merciful One” (Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One).
That the great St. Augustine would choose to do this is astounding for many reasons, most particularly because it is in the writings of St. Augustine that we find the first and most profound articulation of the fact that the Church’s very being is from the Eucharist. This truth of the intimate connection between the mystical Body of Christ, the Church, and the true body of Christ in the Eucharist is clear in the Gospel and the writings of St. Paul, but it was Augustine – the same Augustine who fasted from the Eucharist at the end of his life out of a desire to identify with sinners – who handed this Scriptural doctrine on in systematic form.
But Augustine was not alone in this practice. Benedict XVI comments, “The ancient Church had a highly expressive practice of this kind. Since apostolic times, no doubt, the fast from the Eucharist on Good Friday was a part of the Church’s spirituality of communion. [Though today Holy Communion is distributed to the faithful, for many centuries – going back even to apostolic times, Ratzinger asserts – this was not the case.] This renunciation of communion on one of the most sacred days of the Church’s year was a particularly profound way of sharing in the Lord’s Passion; it was the Bride’s mourning for the lost Bridegroom” (Ratzinger).
“The Bride’s mourning for the lost Bridegroom.” My brothers and sisters in Christ, if you feel a longing and yearning in your soul today because you cannot receive Christ in Holy Communion, this longing will not be without spiritual effect. We have not chosen this fast from the communal celebration and reception of the Eucharist. The grave circumstances of our present situation have forced it upon us. But in the midst of this spiritual suffering, in the midst of this extraordinary and unexpected spiritual fast, we should find all the grace possible.
During this time, we should, like Augustine, seek to understand more deeply and even live the experience of those who are deprived of the grace of the sacraments. Many people throughout the world only rarely are able to receive Holy Communion because Mass is only rarely celebrated in their isolated villages in the mountains or the jungle. Many people are deprived of the Eucharist by religious persecution. And others are deprived by the reality of sin. In all these cases, the grace of this moment is to enter into the depths of suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ who – in all likelihood – for a much greater period of time than ourselves will not be able to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. “Sometimes we need hunger, physical and spiritual hunger, if we are to come fresh to the Lord’s gifts and understand the suffering of our hungering brothers. Both spiritual and physical hunger can be a vehicle of love” (Ratzinger).
I mentioned earlier an interior monasticism of the heart that is another of this graces of this particular moment. Christ is calling you today to a deeper and more intimate relationship with Him through prayer. He is closer to you than you are to yourself. He desires to sustain you every day of your existence through this loving relationship in prayer. This is your opportunity to develop and deepen that life of prayer that Christ desires each one of us to have – a life of prayer that can sustain us amidst the greatest of difficulties.
In this regard, we heard strangely prophetic words in last Sunday’s Gospel: “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” The worship on this mountain of our parish church certainly continues every day as the priests of our parish continue offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to the eternal Father, and the faithful continue visiting the Blessed Sacrament here present. But this time is a reminder that this must not be the only place where we worship Christ. Our homes, workplaces, families, and schools must also become temples of divine worship, not just during COVID-19, but always.
I also mentioned earlier our brothers and sisters in Christ who are deprived of the Eucharist because of religious persecution. Such was the case for Christians in Japan following the brutal persecutions and expulsion of the missionaries in the mid-1600s. Following the horrific martyrdoms of European missionaries and Japanese converts and the withdrawal of the rest of the Church’s missionaries, Christianity was thought to be extinct in Japan for over 200 years. But then something very surprising happened. In 1873, the newly restored Japanese emperors began to allow religious freedom, and missionaries returned to Japan for the first time in over 200 years. To their amazement, they discovered that the sacrifices of the martyrs had not been in vain. Over 30,000 “secret Christians” emerged from the shadows to welcome the missionaries. For over 200 years they had been baptizing their children, passing on the faith, and longing for the day when Catholic priests would return to Japan to celebrate the Eucharist once again.
We will certainly not have to wait for 200 years before we are able to join together again for the celebration of the Eucharist, and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass continues to be offered even if we are not able to attend. But hopefully we can be inspired by these courageous people not to let our faith in Christ’s real presence and our need for Him – the longing and yearning of a heart that is starving for spiritual sustenance – fade in this strange times. Indeed, as St. Augustine himself experienced, our longing and yearning for Christ’s body and blood will make our next Communion all the more intense, and hopefully all the others afterwards as long as we shall live.
So, my brothers and sisters, rejoice! Rejoice that you have been found worthy to stand this trial. Rejoice that the Lord is still in your midst. Rejoice that He desires to come spiritually into your heart. Rejoice that you stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters throughout the world who for whatever reason also long for the day when they too shall be able to receive the Most Holy Eucharist again.
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, [Rejoice with Holy Mother Church] and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her; … As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:10,13).
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
IV Sunday of Lent, A.D. MMXX
Image: Mass in the ruins of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Nagasaki, Japan. 1949.
For the quotations from Joseph Ratzinger's Behold the Pierced One, please see: https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2020/03/19/joseph-ratzinger-on-fasting-from-the-eucharist/