Reflection for the Fifth Sunday of Lent by Fr Phil Andrews.
It was the most subdued St Patrick’s day ever… at least that was my impression.
I’ll put my cards on the table straight away: I’m not Irish; to the best of my knowledge, I have no Irish ancestry, either. My only real claim to Irish heritage is having been born in Cheltenham, a Cotswold town, which for three days during the Gold Cup festival in March, becomes an honorary “tara” or “teamhair”— a gathering place for those bold sons and daughters ó Éirinn who enjoy a flutter on the “gee-gees”. Nevertheless, every 17th March, I feel something of a fraud, as I try to enter into the celebration of what is, for so many, one of the highlights of their year. But this year was different. The flat battery in my LED illuminated and spinning green bow tie was almost a portent of how the days ahead would unfold; for by this stage, we knew that dramatic changes were about to occur, both in our country and how we were to live, and also in how we were to celebrate our faith.
At the 7:30 Mass in the Lady Chapel, a small number of shamrock-festooned older Irish men and women arrived early in order to light candles at St Patrick’s altar; they bore beaming smiles and were thoroughly gregarious; nothing was going to prevent them from celebrating in the best way they could, by attending Holy Mass in honour of their Apostle. By the time of the 12:30 Mass at the high altar however, people looked more troubled, knowing that things were about to change dramatically.
The Gospel that day had been Luke 5:1-11 where the Lord Jesus calls upon those who would become his disciples to put out into deep water, something which St Patrick had done with great love and service — which is why all Irish celebrate his memory so fondly, I guess — but more importantly, this is something which the Church perennially asks of all her children by virtue of their Baptism, to live as missionary disciples in a hurting world. In that Gospel, Simon (or Peter, as he would later to be called), hears words that ring down to us through the centuries of time “Put out into deep water …”. At first, Simon protests, just as we might; but eventually, he complies and, a miraculously large catch of fish is the result of his fidelity. Simon hears the gentle call of the Word made flesh, and he responds.
It’s a fascinating story, because it evokes a sentiment in our own consciousness; we have all heard those words addressed to us, in our own lives and in our own circumstances, for they are our call to vocation from the Lord Jesus —“Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch”. They are a central message of the Gospel, for these words from the Lord say to us — have no fear of the deep water! Thus, the concept of putting out into deep water is a rich and powerful image for all who profess to be Christians.
But we like the shallows! They are safe and familiar. At first, Simon didn’t want to obey the Lord, probably out of fear and doubt, because deep water evokes in our imagination a place of uncertainty, of challenge, of risk: the unknown. But deep water also points to a tremendous opportunity: it is a place of redemption, a place where loss can be turned into gain. In the shallows we can rely on ourselves, but in deep water, we must call upon the Lord. Maybe this is why the Lord Jesus calls us, and indeed life sometimes forces us, to put out into deep water. We may ourselves be like Simon, living in fear; but we need to remember that the Lord is calling all of us to be Peter, so that like him we can say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the LIVING God!” (Matt. 16:16), and then, having beheld his true glory (Cf. Mk 9:2-9), we can prepare ourselves to accompany him up to Jerusalem, where he will offer himself on the Cross out of absolute love for us.
So, where is the deep water in our lives? The deep water is as unique as each of our lives, and this is what we call our vocation. It is often comfortable to consider our vocation whilst splashing about in the shallows, with an “I’ll answer your call to venture into the deep, Lord, but not just yet” mentality.1 But then life itself pushes us irrevocably into a different kind of deep water. At first, it might seem disconcerting and random, but by God’s grace, we too can apprehend it as part of God’s vocation for us, his call for us to be his faithful disciples: not to sleep, but to share in his agony in the garden; not to run, but to help shoulder the weight of his Cross on the way to Golgotha.
Seemingly, from out of nowhere, the outbreak of this Coronavirus has made us realise, quite suddenly, that we are in deep water! What happens when life pushes us into deep water? Naturally, there is fear. But there is also an opportunity to trust in the mercy of God manifested in the goodness of others. An opportunity to live our vocation as baptised Christians by looking out and caring for one another. In shallow water, we can rely on our own strength, but in deep water, we must come to trust and rely upon God, and upon each other. If we choose to use the supernatural virtue of faith, then in the deep water we will find Jesus. In past years, we have recalled the mysteries of Holy Week in our parish churches. This year, however, we be living them in a new and previously unimaginably raw way in our homes, on our streets, and in our hospitals.
And so, this Passiontide, we will put out into deep water because the Lord is there. He is there to rescue us — and (perhaps even more importantly) he is there to be rescued. Even when storms rock our boats, and we struggle to keep afloat, in our hearts we can be at peace. Jesus wants us to have confidence in him, to trust him no matter what, for after his defeat of death, he gave us his Holy Spirit. It is that same Spirit that dwells within the souls of the Baptised who love the Lord with all their “heart, and with all [their] soul, and with all [their] mind” (Matt. 22:37).
And so, we are an incarnate Church; we are guided by the Holy Spirit; and we believe that Christ is present in all people. He is present in the poor and the disadvantaged, the lonely, the imprisoned, the anxious, especially at this time those fearful of what this present epidemic might bring for them.
Despite the beguiling appearances of worldly wealth and success, which we’ve become accustomed to regard as the benchmark of lives well-lived in these past days; now we are seeing that these lives were actually lives lived in the shallows. We are now confronted with the deeps of a fallen world, a world in which suffering exists. As we experience that suffering, the Lord Jesus wants to remind us that our life on earth is not the end in and of itself, but a pilgrimage towards heaven — heaven is our home, and the story of Lazarus’ resurrection in today’s Gospel is a reminder of that. God’s providence is more powerful than any of life’s tragedies, because,
‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Rom. 8:35-39).
The outbreak of this Coronavirus has altered how we think, how we love, how we live, and so we need to allow the Holy Spirit to transform us profoundly, in our learning, in our loving, and in our living.
We need to learn again the “brotherhood of man”, and we have the saints to help us. In these times ahead, let us learn to be other-Christs when we see those in need. Let us learn from Mother Teresa who — whilst cradling a poor cripple rejected by the world in the excrement of Kolkata — saw rather an icon of Christ in her arms: for as the philosopher Jacques Maritain came to discover, the height of human knowing is not the idea; rather, it is the experience, the encounter — where one feels God.2 Knowledge and understanding of God is a perfecting gift of the Holy Spirit, and that same God is working in his vineyard, and invites us — you and me — to join him in that task. St Ignatius of Loyola reminds us that God’s awesome majesty is not there to make us dumbstruck, but rather to move us forward from awe into action, “moving together with God’s rich grace to edge [our] acre of God’s world a little closer to God’s own dream for it”. This is living the Eucharist, which is why we must unite ourselves every-more closely to the Mass which continues to be celebrated!
But knowledge is not divorced from love… TRUE love, that is, and not the nonsense which often proliferates on out TV screens. True love finds Christ everywhere, in every person. We’ve just celebrated the feast of the Annunciation, a true love story from two-thousand years ago in Nazareth, and yet the incarnation is in our midst now. When the Lord Jesus ascended to his Father after the Resurrection, the world did not lose him. He is present in the Eucharist, and he also present in our brothers and sisters, especially those most in need (and that may be us!). Our receiving him in the Eucharist, whether substantially or at this time, spiritually, enables us to serve him in others: to love as God loves.
And so, at all times, in and out of season (Cf. II Tim 4:2), we must live as children of the light (Cf. Eph. 4:17-5:20), we must be salt to the earth (Cf. Matt. 5:13). Our social distancing must not become for us a time of rupture translated into a vacant stare at others, but rather it must help us move beyond ourselves as individuals into communion, so that henceforth we shall look upon others with the loving gaze of God; we should seek to interact with one another — but in new and different ways; we should depend upon one another, recognising that we are truly brothers and sisters in Christ, and that “though many, [we] are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:5). This is what it means to live the Eucharist: Ite, Missa est is an invitation to bring Christ to the world, not to go back to life as normal (whatever that might ever have been).
As we set out into these deep waters of the coming days and weeks, those same waters which could make us feel totally vulnerable and alone, we may also feel lonely and vulnerable in not receiving Holy Communion; but let us remember the words of Pope St Paul VI, who wrote in his encyclical on the Eucharist, Mysterium Fidei, that “each and every Mass is not something private, even if a priest celebrates it privately; instead, it is an act of Christ and of the Church.” We are members of the Church which has Christ as its head (Cf. Col. 1:18). Out of love for us, Christ made himself totally vulnerable in the womb of Blessed Mary in Nazareth, in the crude manger of Bethlehem, on a Cross at Calvary, and still, in the most Holy Eucharist of his body, blood, soul, and divinity.
Christ has given us an example, and a commandment: “… love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Again, we put out into deep water because the Lord is there. He is there to rescue us — and he is there to be rescued. Christ has passed through the waters of life — and even the deep waters of death — transforming them for us. There is still uncertainty in deep water but it is experienced now in a new way, since Christ went there ahead of us.
As Sr Maureen O’Brian SND wrote so beautifully in her reflection on today’s Gospel (www.sndden.org/gospel-reflections/fifth-sunday-of-lent-4/) ‘I am fearful, anxious and angry. I find myself asking God over and over again, “Where are you in the face of so much pain and suffering.” More times than not, God asks me in return, “Where are you in the face of so much pain and suffering?”’.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” (Lk 4:18).
In the days to come, may we ponder deeply in our hearts the challenges presented by the deep waters of this pandemic, and how we might live our vocation as his disciples, to love more like Christ, and live more like Christ. In short, let us all unite ourselves with Christ, and one another, by way of our Spiritual Communion with God and in service to one another; in the full knowledge that everyone, whether they be our beloved families and friends, or strangers seemingly isolated in hospital beds, are never alone; for Christ is with us, and thus also in others we will likewise encounter Christ, because at this difficult time especially, “… each of us is truly called, together with Jesus, to be bread broken for the life of the world.” (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis).
Where is Christ in the face of so much pain and suffering?
Let the Holy Spirit make of us the new creation that we were always destined to be; may we acclaim Christ as the Lord and Son of the Living God … and then let us take a look in the mirror, … and in it, witness our own transfiguration in Christ; from there, let us make your way up to Jerusalem, loving and serving the Lord in all whom we meet on the way, knowing that the Lord will never desert us, for he will be with us always, even until the end of time itself (Cf. Matt. 28:20).
- Cf. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 8:7.17.
- Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (New York: Pantheon, 1953), 3.