Now that we are well into Lent, I suspect that some of us are struggling with our efforts to spend extra (or at least more meaningful) time in prayer, penitence, and almsgiving. Our good intentions are being tried in the fire of everyday life, and therefore it is a challenge to do what we had hoped in order to immerse ourselves fully into the season. It might be helpful to be reminded that it is not about the quantity of what we do, but rather the quality. It is not about praying an extra 15 minutes, for example, so much as it is about truly opening up to God in our prayer with perhaps an honesty and vulnerability we might sometimes withhold. It is not the specific penitence we do that makes one act better than another, but rather it is about the love with which we do it. What is most important is that we do not let fear keep us from entering deeply into the prayer, and that we do not let fear keep us from opening ourselves to the other in doing works of mercy or almsgiving. Fear is in direct opposition to love because it is fear that prevents us from opening up to another and it is fear that keeps us from abandoning ourselves to love when we come face to face with Jesus. Yet Jesus desires to meet our gaze with His deepest, most tender love so that we might know in the depths of our being that nothing can separate us from Him or His love. Indeed Lent is not only about us seeking Jesus, but it is about Jesus seeking us.
Throughout Lent the Sunday gospels are about the kind of love which looks us in the eye and in a way much deeper than the spoken word, communicates just how loved we are. On the first Sunday we heard about Jesus facing temptation in the desert. (Mark 1:12-15) Though fully divine, Jesus was also fully human and thus was subjected to temptation. But when He emerged from the desert, having overcome the tempter, He immediately began to share the gospel message of love: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Repentance is not meant for hand-wringing or self-indictment, but rather it is to clear all that keeps us from Love and our response to Love, (living the life Jesus taught.) We repent because we want to allow grace to cleanse the grime of sin which has become as a barrier between ourselves and God. Therefore repentance is an act of love and of gratitude as we recognize our desire to use God’s gifts the way they were intended.
The gospel for the second Sunday in Lent is an account of the Transfiguration of Jesus. At first glance, it may seem a bit “un-Lenten” because it is about Jesus revealing His true identity to His three closest friends when we would expect something about repentance, works of mercy, or almsgiving. On the contrary, it is quite Lenten because in revealing Himself as the Son of God, Jesus is revealing that He is Love and that Love is transformative. As He transfigured Jesus looked upon those gathered with deep love: Moses and Elijah were His devoted servants, as were the three disciples He invited to witness this event. Peter, James, and John were so overcome with the love and joy (and shock) of the moment, that they fell to the ground in awe. They were in the presence of Father, Son, and Spirit, experiencing a glimpse of what we long for in Heaven: to see the face of God who is Love.
As mentioned, love is also transformative. At the Transfiguration Jesus was not the one who changed; rather He revealed what was already there, His divinity. That is because He is God, and God is immutable, (unchanging). It was Peter, James, and John who were changed. They were surrounded by the glory of God’s love which filled the place, and therefore they began to transform, even if they were confused as to how to understand what had happened. Jesus knew they were struggling with the experience, both from the perspective of what they had seen and with the effect it had upon them, but He knew that they would grow from the experience. Indeed, they were not the same on the way down the mountain as they had been on the way up. But the direct contact with the reality of God’s glorious love began a shift within the three men, such that when the time came, they were able to have more clarity and to let the power of it move them to greater love throughout their ministries.
When I was in Sydney, Australia recently I experienced something like the gaze I am describing. My husband and I were seeking a parish with a Saturday evening Mass, and using the internet, found that the closest church did not suit our plans. The next closest church had a 6 PM Mass which was what we had hoped for. But when I saw the name of the celebrant for that Mass, I was stunned because he is an old friend whom I had not seen in 34 years. He was the chaplain at the retreat house where I had lived as a novice in religious life, and our lives diverged after that particular year. Arriving at the church a bit early, we enjoyed a brief reunion, and since it was almost time for Mass we agreed to visit afterward. But the real gift of this seeming coincidence was yet to be experienced.* At Communion, as I approached him to receive the Eucharist, Fr. Michael’s face lit up with the completely joyful, loving gaze one gives a treasured friend. While holding the Host between us, our eyes met, and as he said, “The Body of Christ,” I saw in Michael’s face the love of Jesus accompanied by a deep sense of connection to Him. The experience moved me to joyous tears. Love transforms us: we are never the same after experiencing its power.
The gaze of love which originates in the heart of Jesus says, “You are my beloved.” It ‘speaks’ warmth, welcome, belonging, beauty, and total acceptance of who we are. The gaze of love does not require change for us to be loved, but it has the power to inspire in us the response of working to clean up everything that keeps us from His love, to make holy ground of that which is tarnished. It is not Jesus who requires the change, though He does desire for us what is best, and that of course, is to have nothing keep us apart. We are invited to welcome a conversion, a change of habits: it is the natural response of the heart to want to remove all that obscures Love’s gaze. In other words, love inspires us to become sanctified. It heals us and sets us free from the fear which holds us back from receiving it. Love calls us to be honest with ourselves and to seek healing; allowing the Lord to lead us to the place of our sinfulness and then to help us remove all that keeps us from Him. The process of our Lenten journey is to help us to say with the Psalmist, “Of you my heart has spoken: Seek His face. It is your face, O Lord that I seek.” (Psalm 27:8-9)
Perhaps we need to ask for the grace to see the loving gaze of Jesus so that we might be transformed during this Lenten journey. And perhaps we need to seek Him through action as well as in prayer. This can be done by learning to see Jesus in the face of the poor, the wounded, and the suffering as we give alms or do works of charity. It can be done by seeing His face in the one from whom we are estranged as we seek or grant forgiveness. We can see His gaze of love as we study Scripture, pray, and respond to the Word: we can see His gaze as we look deep within our own heart, knowing that He is present there. And we can see His loving gaze as we return to Him via the Sacrament of Reconciliation (and all of the sacraments.) The call during Lent is to have our eyes opened as we encounter Jesus, to leave fear behind, not worrying about whether we do all our promised sacrifices to the letter of the Law, but to focus on love, even if our efforts are a little ‘rough around the edges.’ We are called to let Jesus look into our eyes, heal what is broken, lift up what has been brought low, and help us to return to Him with our whole heart. Let us accept His loving gaze with humility and let us return Love’s gaze that we may give Jesus great joy.
May we open our hearts to Jesus as He looks upon us with merciful love! May we turn our eyes toward Jesus and meet His gaze! May we truly believe that we are His beloved, beautiful and lovely to behold! May we seek the transformation of conversion during this Lent, knowing that the changes in our heart transform us more fully into the person we were created to be! And may the loving gaze of Jesus move us to a response of love so that we will welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and work for peace and justice! Let us continue to meet within the Loving gaze of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* There are no coincidences. According to St. Paul, all things work to the good for the glory of God. (Paraphrase of Romans 8:28) That is, all things happen for a reason. I did not seek Fr. Michael. ‘The odds’ of running into him like that were incredibly slim. Therefore it was clear to me that it was God who arranged this amazing reunion. Why God did this I do not know, but as with the apostles at the Transfiguration, we are not always to understand, but to joyfully accept each gift, letting it transform our hearts. This reunion was a complete surprise; and one thing I have come to know about God is that He revels in surprising us.
Note: Next post March 12.
1. This icon is called Nuestro Salvador De Las Sandias, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. Although it is an icon intended for contemplating Easter as indicated by the stick which is budding, I chose to use it because Jesus has a look of deep love and compassion in His eyes as if to tell us not to fear anything. It also shows the new life which comes as a result of all we do during Lent, therefore it is appropriate for contemplation at this time, too. Should you be interested in a copy for purchase, you can find this icon at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/nuestro-salvador-de-las-sandias-012-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
2. I took this photo in the desert of Big Bend National Park in west Texas. It seemed to speak of the temptation of Jesus in the desert: the desert is not always a lifeless place, as seen here.
3. This painting is The Transfiguration, painted by Duccio Di Buoninsegna (1308-11). I especially liked the artist's usage of light by painting this on a gold background. It truly captures the glory of God and the luminous atmosphere of the event, as well as the shock of the observers. The colors of the clothing of Jesus symbolize His full divinity (blue) and full humanity (red), rather than getting caught up in the dazzling white description of some of the gospel accounts; therefore this painting is more iconic in style. It can be found at http://www.ducciodibuoninsegna.org/Transfiguration-1308-11.html.
4. This is a print of a famous painting called Chalice and Host Surrounded by Flowers by Jan Davidsz de Heem (1648). The print is in my dining room, and this is a photo of it. I chose to use it here mostly because of the story being told in the accompanying paragraph. If you look closely at the Host, in its center you can see a crucifix which is aglow. To see a close up click here: http://www.lessingimages.com/viewimage.asp?i=40030421+&cr=236&cl=1#
5. This is a photo I took of a stained glass window in St. Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, Australia. The figure is God the Father. I chose to use it here because it depicts God surrounded by the rainbow of colors, representative of the covenant. (See Genesis 9:1-17 in which God makes a covenant with Noah and says the sign of that covenant will be the rainbow.) The face of God has an expression of love, and His right hand is raised in blessing.
6. This painting is called Cagnes-sur-Mer by William H. Johnson (1928). I chose to use it here because I loved the curves which skew the perspective. Life is not perfect, nor are we; this painting spoke to me of our need for the grace to accept the reality that we are 'a work in progress.' This painting was posted on Facebook by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and so the following notes came from the Museum, beginning with a quote of the artist: “I am not afraid to exaggerate a contour, a form, or anything that gives me character & movement to the canvas.” — William H. Johnson, who captured this street view—on display in our American art galleries—while studying & working in France. Just before World War II, Johnson returned to the U.S. & focused his work on chronicling African American life & culture. Johnson was an African American artist. (1901-1970)
7. Finally, this is another icon written by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Our Lady of Grace Vladimir. I chose to use this here because I could not imagine an omission of the love shared between Jesus and His mother which is extended to us. In this icon Jesus gazes lovingly upon His mother and she in turn shares the gaze with us. She does not keep it for herself, but as always, directs everything from Him to us, and from us to Him. So beautiful! As above, you can find this icon for purchase in a variety of mediums at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/our-lady-of-grace-vladimir-002-william-hart-mcnichols.html. (Remember, I get nothing from my endorsement except the joy of sharing!)
Heart Speaks to Heart