March 4, 2018
The Third Sunday in Lent
(1 Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-25)
Today, we hear of Jesus’ chasing out the money changers vendors from the Temple. I want to twist this a little and place out reading as an inspiration for our inner temples. By encountering Christ, we too can chase out the troublesome areas out of ourselves and become more fully aware of Christ this Lent. I want to talk about five ways to encounter Christ. With hearts full of devotion, humility and love, these encounters, which are part of the teachings of the Church and supported by sacred Scripture, connect us logically as well as emotionally. As we continue our journey through Lent, sometimes it helps us to find new ways to encounter Christ during this time of preparation.
If you were brought up as an evangelical Christian you would constantly be made aware of the need to develop a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” I think being a Catholic we too can come to be aware of the true potential of such an idea. It may not be a common theme, but it certainly is subtly taught in ongoing ways.
In the evangelical world, the “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” sometimes seems as transient as a butterfly. It is difficult to catch and keep alive. Usually, the personal encounter with Christ is expected to begin when a person “got saved” or “accepted Jesus into his heart as his personal Lord and Savior.”
While such personal experiences are valuable, they can be difficult to pin down. This is because the personal experience encouraged by evangelicals is subjective and very often highly emotional. A typical way that an evangelical might “get saved” is to hear the Gospel preached at church or at a “revival” or at a “crusade.” Having heard the Gospel and felt the need to accept Christ, the person walks down the aisle and prays with another Christian — repenting of sins and praying to “accept Jesus Christ.” They are then considered saved and a Christian. For Catholics, it is a bit more intellectual, mystical and involved.
The problem is that many of these events are highly managed. The preachers have a formula for inducing feelings of guilt and shame. More psychological than intellectual. These feelings are often combined with warnings about hell and the promise of heaven. Before the preaching, there is emotional hymn singing that helps the person suspend doubts and get into a “group mentality.” If you think my sermons are long, the sermons of evangelicals tend to be very long and meant to be very persuasive, and they are followed with more music designed to tug at a person’s emotions. It is very likely, therefore, that emotionally vulnerable people will indeed feel sorry for their sins and go forward to tearfully accept Jesus.
They are told that they are now “saved,” bound for heaven, and nothing they can do could ever destroy the decision they have made. But, is this sufficient for them to enter eternal life when they die?
No doubt such decisions are helpful and are often a good first step toward a Christian commitment. I have known many people who point to such experiences as the true moment of their conversions to Christ. Therefore, I would not want to discount such religious experiences. They are very real and meaningful, and surely the Holy Spirit is present at such moments.
However, it is necessary to be honestly critical. The emotional conversion experience might be genuine, but, then again, it might simply be an artificially manufactured emotional moment induced by a well-meaning preacher in the lives of emotionally vulnerable listeners. It might be a genuine conversion experience, or it might be no more than a momentary emotional rush. Catholics who are not properly formed may also have a religious experience that is just as transient.
This is why the Catholic Church teaches that there are five objective means through which we can have an encounter with Christ.
Various catechisms teach in some fashion that Christ Jesus, who died and who was raised from the dead and who is at the right hand of God, is the one who intercedes for us and is present in many ways to His Church; in His word; in His Church’s prayer, “where two or three are gathered in my name”; in the poor, the sick and the imprisoned; in the person of the minister or priest; and in the Sacraments, of which He is the author, and in the sacrifice of the Mass. But, we believe that He is most especially present in the Holy Eucharist.
The Catholic encounter with Christ is, therefore, not a vague, personal, emotional experience. It is a concrete, real and objective experience. The experience is objective because it is rooted in the historical events of the Gospel and the sacred history of the Church and her Saints. It is an experience that can be guaranteed no matter what our emotions might tell us. Regardless of our emotional state before or after receiving the Blessed Eucharist, Christ is truly present in the Miracle of the changed host.
As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Therefore, we encounter Christ in the sacred Scriptures. Reading the Scripture lessons of the day before we go to Mass, studying the Bible and reading the Bible on our own will bring us face-to-face with Jesus. Before we read the lessons, we should ask the Holy Spirit to enable this encounter. Study what Lectio Divina means and develop a practice of this form Biblical reading and prayer.
We encounter Christ in the assembly of the faithful. “Where two or three are gathered,” Jesus says, “there I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). The Church is not only where we meet our Catholic friends and family. It is where we meet Christ the Lord.
The Church as the Body of Christ and the Body of Believers is a historical and current reality. It is not something we made up or something we wish existed. Whether we feel emotional about it or not, Christ is present there to meet us. The fact that the Church is often frail, wounded and flawed in her humanity is one of the marks of her authenticity. Someone once said, “If the Church was completely perfect all the time, wouldn’t you be suspicious that it was not real?” Not to mention, as I frequently say, if we were perfect, there would be no need for a church and on the opposing side, if the Church were perfect, none of us would be allowed in it because of our imperfection. Many who have stopped attending churches as a whole have forgotten this. We should not blame the church for an individual’s failings, because it is in the very church we criticize that Christ is truly present!
The third way we encounter Christ is in the person of the poor, the imprisoned, the sick and dying (Matthew 25). Whenever we are involved in working with the poor, visiting people in hospice care or in the hospital, or being involved in prison work and other charitable endeavors, we have a direct encounter with Christ. Saints like Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Vincent de Paul affirm these truths. When we work with the needy, we have a chance to see Jesus in them, and this encounter with Christ is real, powerful and concrete. St. Mother Teresa might ask, “Do you want to encounter Christ? Work with the poor.”
The fourth way we encounter Christ is in the person of the priest. This is not simply that we see Jesus when the priest is celebrating Mass. We also meet Christ in a profound way as we get to know and love our priests. Jesus is hidden there not only in their gifts of love, mercy and administration of the Sacraments. Jesus is also hidden there in their human frailties and weakness. If we have eyes to see, then we will love and treasure our priests, because even in their humanity they are revealing Jesus to us.
We become emotionally angry when our priests don’t quite live up to the standard or pedestal that some put them on. No priest is a perfect Christ, because they too, like you, are human and imperfect. They represent Christ; they are not Christ. Though the Holy Spirit does work through these individuals, they do make mistakes, they do sin and sometimes they commit grave crimes. Fortunately, those who commit grave crimes, however, are very few, but so many will lose their faith over that one priest or bishop that somehow failed them. Studies show that those priests amount to a single digit percentage of the whole, however. Those few have made it hard for the rest of us, just as bad politicians ruin it for those who truly serve their constituents. Priests need our prayers to be faithful and remain fast in their own struggles.
Finally, we encounter Christ in the Sacraments of the Church. The seven Sacraments are not mere religious rituals. They are the objective, physical and historical means through which Jesus comes to meet us. They are physical signs of invisible grace. No emotional tugs, merely actual physicality’s of Christ’s presence in His Church. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, and it is through these Sacramental signs that our covenant with Christ is solemnly sealed.
These five ways are real encounters with Christ, which do not depend on the fickleness of our emotions. Nevertheless, when we approach these five examples with hearts full of devotion, humility and love, these encounters will also be deeply emotional. As we read the Scriptures, pray with Christ’s Church, minister to those in need, learn to love our priests and treasure the Sacraments, with our hearts open to the mysteries of God’s love, we encounter in a real, powerful and personal way Jesus Christ the Lord.
So, even though we may not have revivals or crusades, we have physical reminders or spiritual powers that Christ bestowed on His Apostles that has been carried down through the ages and used to physically give grace without emotional feelings being induced. There is so much more than coming forward to be prayed over and waiting for the Holy Spirit to push you over. Here, we experience Christ ministering through His ministers in very real physical ways.
We do indeed have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but in different, subtle and physical ways through rituals long introduced by God Himself to the Israelites many millennia ago and handed down through the ages to now. God wanted us to worship Him in ritual and liturgy, made obvious by His command to the High Priest’s in ancient Judacia. Jesus respected and participated in these rituals that were handed down, and commanded the Apostles to do the same, and so here we are.
Being a Catholic is more than just a religion; we are encouraged to make it a way of life and in so doing, we have a personal relationship with Christ as well. It is more than Mass on Sundays. We should take use of the many mini rituals, prayers and practices that come to Catholics. Lectio Divina, the Rosary, the Way of the Cross, Novenas, daily structured prayer, little statues and icons in our homes, holy cards/prayer cards, and so much more than what other churches have or teach. When we do all this, we have a relationship with Christ; we have a way of life.
Let us pray.
That we may obey the Ten Commandments as God’s gift pointing us toward a life truly free and fulfilling. We pray to the Lord.
For an end to terrorism and religious persecution, and that God’s peace will reign through the world. We pray to the Lord.
That our political leaders will stop the constant disagreements and to start to truly work for the safety of the people. That these same politicians will not side with a particular industry simply because they supply various financial assistance and finally, once and for all, commit to legislation that will make it harder for weapons such as combat guns and accessories from being allowed into the hands of those who commit heinous crimes such as we have been seeing ever increasingly, especially this year. We pray to the Lord.
That those suffering from mental illness, anger misplacement, inappropriate social behavior or other causes that create an environment for violence, will seek and/or be taken to the help they need to better manage their emotions without resorting to violence and that they will be lifted up through the power of Christ. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to renew and deepen our efforts at genuine Lenten observance and deepen our desire for an encounter with Our Lord Christ. We pray to the Lord.
Most merciful Father, You have proved Your love for us through Christ who died for us. Let us always remain faithful to that love. Help us all to work together in love for our fellow human beings. Merciful God, You invite us to repentance so that we can find the happiness we are seeking. Help us to trust more deeply in the Good News of salvation so that we can turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. This Lent, as we pray more devoutly and listen to Your Word more attentively, may we encounter You in ways we have discerned today and thus may our hearts be transformed by the saving love of the Cross. We ask all these things, as we ask all things, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA