Celebrating our Faith during COVID-19
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March 14, 2021
[St. Theresa Church, Kihei]
Are you born again? Are you saved? Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus? I am willing to bet that everyone here has been asked these questions by an evangelical friend. Perhaps they make us bristle a bit and may even make us a little defensive. We know we are faithful people and that we love the Lord, so why does someone have to ask us these kinds of questions?
Nicodemus was a good and holy man. He was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, a man who took his faith seriously, practiced it diligently, and studied it ardently. He was apparently fascinated with Jesus and knew he was a man of God because he could see the wondrous works Jesus performed. Yet it was not politically correct for him to be talking to Jesus, since his fellow Pharisees already were very put off with Jesus when he drove the money changers and sellers out of the Temple. So Nicodemus visits Jesus in the dead of night, so that his deed would not be known. And in his discussion with Jesus he learns something new, so radically new that it would take him about three years to be able to follow Jesus in the daylight by being so bold as to ask Pilate for Jesus’ crucified body. Nicodemus knew all the commandments, the rules, the regulations, the feast days, the customs and the traditions of the Jewish faith and observed them carefully. But on that night, Jesus would try to shed a new light on that faith. Jesus declared himself not just a prophet among the many that God had sent to the Jewish people over the centuries when he needed to call them back to himself, but Jesus identified himself as the Son of God who was sent into the world not to condemn it but so that all might have eternal life. The focus was radically shifted from principles, processes, and procedures, to a person, who claimed to be God himself. This was so radically new and shocking to Nicodemus that there was a long period of labor before he would be born again in Spirit and in truth.
Some time ago I received a letter from a woman who told me she had left the Catholic Church to go to an evangelical Church. She told me that I should tell all the priests and deacons that they should preach about having a personal relationship with Jesus, because she seldom heard them do so in the Catholic Church, while this was a clear message in many Protestant evangelical communities. She, of course, had a very good point. Sometimes we Catholics can be like Nicodemus and his colleagues. We have so many rituals, moral principles, Church structures and programs that we can easily forget that all of these very important things are meant to nurture within us a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. What this woman missed, however, was that in the Catholic Church we have the most amazing encounter with Jesus we can imagine. He makes himself physically present as he speaks his Word to us and gives us his Body and Blood so that he can unite intimately with us in a holy communion. It is in that holy communion that we are united together to become the Body of Christ, born again into this world of today, so that God’s love can still be made available to all.
If there is one point of conversion that we should try to accomplish during Lent, I would say it should be the call that every one of us has to be a witness to Jesus, to share the good news that he is not someone who lived long ago, far away, and once upon a time, but he is risen, alive and present with us today. If we are going to share such a message we first need to believe it, embrace it, and celebrate it, so that we can move it out from the secrecy of night to proclaim it in the light.
How many people have drifted away from the Catholic Church because all they experienced was rituals, rules and programs? How many more have never even considered becoming Catholics because no one has reached out to them with the concrete message that God so loves the world that he sent his only Son so that we may have eternal life? Very often I have heard people brainstorm about how to evangelize, to share the Good News, and they talk about telling people about the wonderful liturgies we have, our great hospitality, the programs we have to educate people in the faith, to feed the hungry, and to reach out to those in need. Seldom do I hear them say that we have the physical presence of the risen Lord Jesus in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist. All these other things are good, but their sole purpose is to glorify God. If we are to rebuild God’s Temple as the pagan Cyrus did, we must have the proper focus. We must recover our lost sabbaths when we have been so busy about the works of the Church that we forget that the Church is essentially the Body of the risen Christ. To do this is truly to be born again, to be completely renewed in our perspective and to shed the real Light into the darkness of the world.
At the same time, if we truly come to know Jesus and place our primary focus on him, we cannot forget his being lifted up on the cross. Just as Moses, at the direction of God, mounted a bronze serpent on a pole so that sinners who were bitten by the serpents might be healed by looking upon that antidote to evil, so Jesus was raised up on the cross. Yes, there is great joy in knowing Jesus, but he can also teach us how to suffer in hope and never to despair. By raising up the cross, we will be able to help our brothers and sisters who suffer to shed a different light upon it, so that they do not anesthetize themselves with drugs, alcohol, or other aimless addictions, but can accept the suffering as a stage that will lead to the fullness of life. Who can teach us this better than Jesus, who suffered such staggering injustice and pain, yet who rose above it all to conquer it with God’s unfailing light and life? And we are called to proclaim his tremendous love, not just in the night of our own comfortable circles, but in the light of a world that so much needs his healing love.