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Fourth Sunday of Lent 2020

St. Joseph's Basilica

22 March 2020

[1Samuel 16: 1b, 6-7, 10-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5: 8-14; John 9: 1-41]

Like just about everyone else in recent days, I have developed the habit of paying very close attention to the daily updates from the Chief Medical Officer or other healthcare experts. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted our world into a state of uncertainty and fragility, and so has placed us in need of trustworthy expertise and calm authority to guide and teach us. So, we hang on their every word and follow the direction they mark out for us.

This morning we gather via livestream to participate in this mass, moved by the need to hear and hang upon the Word that is supremely worthy of our trust. I speak, of course, of the Word of God, whose love for each one of us is beyond measure, and whose light provides sure direction to lead us not only through this present crisis but also through all the vagaries and uncertainties of our lives. That Word comes to us this morning by means of the passages from Sacred Scripture that we have just heard proclaimed.

The first Word that God gives us is one of assurance. There is no denying that we need that right now. We are seeing some dark and frightening things. There is the virus itself, first of all, serious and potentially lethal. Then, too, there is the family separation that it can cause, as people are not allowed into hospitals or nursing homes to spend time with their loved ones, or are stranded far away from home because of travel bans. Looming over all of us is the financial crisis precipitated by the virus, with many people now fearing for their livelihoods and wondering how they will put food on the table and pay the rent. There is, understandably, a lot of fear and anxiety. What does God say that can assure us in such a terrible situation?

Consider what we heard in the Gospel passage from St. John. It recounts the healing of a blind man by Jesus. The point for us is this: When Jesus restored to the blind man the ability to see, he made clear to the eyes of everyone that all situations of darkness must finally yield to the power of his love. That truth was later revealed definitively when Jesus himself entered the darkness of the Cross and rose again in the light of the Resurrection. Nothing is more powerful than the love of God. This is why the psalmist proclaimed from of old that, because God is always with us as a good and loving shepherd, even the darkest valley is no reason for fear. So, our assurance is grounded not in ourselves but in the steadfast love of God, who has our back, and who will always act to save us.

Yet this begs the question, doesn’t it. How is God acting right now? In faith, we know that he is, but can we see it? Can we point to it? Well, what God does for us often becomes clear only in hindsight. But there is something in the sacred texts of this mass that helps us to see right now a wondrous thing that God is doing. In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul says this: “Sleeper, awake!” These words do for our eyes what the mud and saliva did for those of the blind man. Jesus is using them to enable us to see the reality of his saving action right now, an action aimed at leading us not only through our present crisis but also far into the future. “Sleeper awake!”

What God is bringing about before our very eyes is a great awakening, an awakening within us to how humanity is meant to live. As we awaken to this truth, we are alerted also to how God’s action is lovingly taking us in hand and actually transforming this uncertain moment of present anxiety into the stable ground of future hope. Let me explain.

We are seeing right now a massive, global mobilization in favour of life. For the sole purpose of saving lives, cities and even countries are in total lockdown, borders are closing, and the world’s media is singularly focused upon providing up-to-date information. We are witnessing the extraordinary efforts of medical professionals, working to the point of burnout, to care for the sick, to test the symptomatic, to provide necessary medical guidelines, and to search for a vaccine and antidote to the virus. Individual citizens around the globe are adopting good hygiene, social distancing and, when appropriate, self-quarantine. In other words, we are seeing a collective recognition - one that is literally uniting all of humanity - that human life is supremely precious and that all other priorities are secondary to its protection.

Also clearly present to our sight is a growing communal movement in favour of solidarity with one another. In the midst of self-isolation, restrictions on movement, and prohibitions of assemblies, we are seeing emerge everywhere a strong desire to look out for and care for one another. For example, people are looking for creative ways to reach out to the homebound, many people in lockdown are singing with one another from balconies, and industries are re-tooling their manufacturing capacity to make sure we have a sufficient supply of masks and ventilators.

How is this an awakening? Listen again to the words spoken by God to Samuel. We heard them in the first reading. “The Lord does not see as the human sees; the human looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” In this moment of crisis, God is enabling us to see the human heart as He sees it. God is awakening us to the truth of ourselves and calling us to embrace it. Since God has given us life and created us for communion with Himself and others, our global choice for life and for solidarity is not a “new normal,” as we might call it, made in response to a crisis; it is a perennial normal, arising out of our human nature. It is how we should always be! God is awakening us to what it means to be human, a meaning to which our eyes have too long been closed by the slumber of individualism, self-absorption and other sins. God is calling us to wake up, to embrace this meaning and actualize it by the way we live, not just today but always. Because by our common surrender to God’s intention for human existence, God will work through us to fashion a future of communion, solidarity and hope, a future we can glimpse even now by the awakening to life and solidarity that is occurring in human hearts everywhere.

After Jesus anointed the eyes of the blind man with mud and saliva, the man went to the pool of Siloam. There he washed, and he could see. Now that Jesus has anointed our eyes with his sacred Word, we go to the altar. There we ask Jesus to wash us with the grace of the Eucharist, so that we can see the wondrous things God is doing for us, right now, and rejoice in His saving work.

Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
Archbishop of Edmonton
March 22, 2020