Orbiting Dicta

Fourth Sunday of Lent 2020: This Joyful Season

“Count it all joy…”

Years ago, when I was still a mere student in the Dominican order, my German teacher, a devout Lutheran widow and artist who had fled Germany with her family just as Hitler began his conquest of Europe, used this snippet from the Epistle of James to create a Lenten banner for our chapel. It is especially appropriate today, for this is traditionally called “Laetare Sunday,” from the first word of the entrance antiphon, “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her! Be joyful all who were in mourning…” [Isaiah 66:10-11].

We are halfway to Easter, now, and the violet hues of Lent are lightened in anticipation on this day to rose. Today’s alternate readings

1 Sam 16:1b,6-7,10-13a
Eph 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

are especially selected, to accord with the preparation of candidates for baptism, the “second scrutiny.” Easter celebrations will certainly be muted this year, if they are observed in public at all. But the message of these powerful readings is enduring and have been through centuries of struggle and disaster.

We are in the midst of such a testing, something novel and frightening for our generation. Oddly enough, epidemics and even pandemics are not entirely rare — they occur about every ten years.  Apparently, the 1957 Bird Flu was much deadlier. The Swine Flu was very bad.  And back in 1918, the whole world went into shock from the Spanish flu (which wasn’t Spanish but very deadly, accounting for at least 50 million deaths worldwide).  But the world has endured AIDS, SARS and MERS, Ebola, the Marburg virus, dengue, and Zika, not to mention cholera, typhoid fever, smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and polio — all the way back to the Black Death and the Yellow Plague. No one was ever adequately prepared for such calamities, if we perhaps have less excuse than previous generations, especially in regard to the next one. We had ample warning.

These readings are about vision – about seeing things in the light of faith. They should be read in their entirety – first, the splendid story of how the most unlikely of likely lads was anointed to become the leader of Israel, not because he was particularly virtuous (even before he became king, David was capable of some pretty devious dealings), but because he was chosen: God loved him, for reasons best known to God. As the prophet Samuel insisted, “Not as humans see does God see, because humans see the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart.”

The reading from the Letter to the Ephesians shifts the visual imagery to light and darkness, making the unseen seen, the hidden evident “Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, because everything that becomes visible is light.” And light, it has just been said, “produces every kind of goodness, justice, and truth.”

The wonderfully dramatic sequence from John’s gospel extends the visual image further, moving from the healing of the man born blind to his interrogation (and even that of his parents) by the authorities who were eager to discredit this act of compassion by Jesus. Fake news! And on the Sabbath!

The play on blindness and seeing moves far beyond a physical ailment and cure to the theme encountered in the words of Samuel to Jesse and his sons – it is an affair of the heart, the willingness to see, and the ability to open our eyes spiritually in order to do so. The refusal to see the truth is the worst form of blindness, far more injurious than physical blindness. It bespeaks a heart turning to stone. Ultimately, insight is a gift, freely offered but easy to overlook.  And joy? In the end, joy is not pleasure, entertainment, or fun, but love possessed.

“Count it all joy, brothers and sisters, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfast endurance.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” [James 1:2-4].

Rest in peace, Mrs. Leo.  Pray for us.