3rd Sunday of Lent (A) – March 15, 2020
St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42
All people seem to talk about anymore is the coronavirus. There is a growing sense of fear and uncertainty. The calm, comfortable and predictable life that we are used to seems to have crumbled. We’ve stumbled upon a new world—a coronavirus world. But the truth? Nothing has changed. Yes, there is a new deadly disease. But nothing has changed. Fundamentally, nothing has changed. Personally, subjectively, we’ve been woken up to reality. We’ve been awoken from the illusion of reality we’ve been living, and realized what has truly been going on all along.
We like to pretend that we are safe, that we know everything, that surprise is eliminated. We like to think that we are the masters of our existence of our destinies. We like to pretend that we are not creatures, and that we are the ones that create the conditions for life.
But in the wake of all of this, we have been awoken to an important element of our human nature. Our powerlessness.
Nothing has changed. We’ve only realized what has been the case all along.
One of the comments we make is, “I wish this had never happened.” Or, “I wish things were back to normal.” That’s exactly what the Israelites say to Moses: “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?” (Ex 17:3). Moses has just taken the people out of Egypt, out of slavery, out of forced labor—and once the people get a little uncomfortable they say, “Just take us back! Slavery is better than this. At least when we were slaves we had water.” Think about that! The people were slaves…and they are begging to go back into slavery.
Why? Why would they want to go back? Because at least they were safe, they knew everything, they weren’t surprised. Even though they were slaves, they were comfortable. Even though they were slaves, they felt in control of their lives. But in the desert? Everything is unpredictable. They don’t even know if they will have water or food.
Think about it. What is everyone doing right now? Stockpiling on water and food and toilet paper. Everyone is living in fear. But what has changed? Fundamentally, nothing. But personally, we have realized that we are powerless, that we are not as in control as we thought we were. The house and the clothes and the food and the parties and the “freedom”—we have realized that we don’t control as much as we thought.
So why are we so afraid? Because we finally experience what has been the case all along. In the depth of our humanity, there is an essential powerlessness. We can control and fight and buy a lot. We can work very hard to make ourselves feel in control. But in the depth of each one of us, we are powerless. And when something like this happens, when we discover how powerless we truly are—we feel alone, isolated, abandoned. Just like the Israelites in Egypt, we start asking, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” (Ex 17:7) We think we’ve been abandoned. We want to run back to the comfort of our slavery, back to the comfort of being in control, of not needing God.
Sometimes I wonder if that’s what it is. We think that all of the things we have are a sign that God loves us, that God is taking care of us. We think that our comfortable life is what God wants for us. That our new cars and our parties—that’s what God wants for us. We cry out to Moses, “Why would you ever make us leave Egypt? This can’t be good for us, because life before this was so much easier and more comfortable.”
We are forced to admit what has always been true. I am not in complete control of my life. I pretend that I am. I pretend that I am not like an Israelite enslaved in Egypt. I pretend that the nice comfortable life I live is what God wants. But that’s not true. I am powerless, but I pretend that I am in control.
Pope Francis has this beautiful line in his recent Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. He says,
“To believe that we are good simply because ‘we feel good’ is a tremendous illusion. There are those who feel themselves capable of great love only because they have a great need for affection…. They remain caught up in their own needs and desires. In such cases, emotions distract from the highest values and conceal a self-centeredness.” (AL 145)
It is easy to think that everything is fine, we’re all good. Just because we feel good, because things in life are going alright, because we have a nice house and clothes and a new car and can have a quinceañera—this means that everything is good. But that is an illusion. Really, we just feel good because things are going our way.
Or, we think that we love others so much. We shower others with love and affection. We feel that we are a person of great love. But that is an illusion. Really, we are really only in need of affection from them.
We feel good, we think we are living a life of love—but really (as Pope Francis says) we are lying to ourselves. Really, we are just caught up in our own feelings and desires. We are so concerned about how we feel that we lose sight of what is most important. And what’s worse, we use all of this to conceal our own self-centeredness. It has really just been about us the whole time.
And we’re forced to admit: it’s not the coronavirus, it’s me. The real challenge, the real hardship is me. It’s always been me.
The coronavirus is going to cause a lot of suffering for a lot of people. People are going to die. We are probably going to know someone that gets it, we may even know someone who dies from it. But the coronavirus can also be an instrument, a sign that awakens us to reality.
That’s what the cross is. Again, we forget that the cross is a sign of brutal torture and death. The cross is a sign that “you lost.” The Romans brutally tortured you and killed you: you lost. But it is also a sign that, even though that is a position of complete powerlessness—that is also the sign of God’s power overcoming even death itself. The Eucharist is the cross. May we never again say, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?” But instead say, “Lord, you are truly the Savior of the world.”