The Sunday Project

This is not the Lent I planned for

Fourth Sunday of Lent |

By Jacqui Oesterblad
looking through glasses at a street
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First Reading
1 Samuel 16:1, 6-7, 10-13

The LORD said to Samuel, "How long will you grieve over Saul, seeing I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons." When they came, he looked on Eli'ab and thought, "Surely the LORD'S anointed is before him." But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, "The LORD has not chosen these." And Samuel said to Jesse, "Are all your sons here?" And he said, "There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep." And Samuel said to Jesse, "Send and fetch him; for we will not sit down till he comes here." And he sent, and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. And the LORD said, "Arise, anoint him; for this is he." Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up, and went to Ramah.

Second Reading
Ephesians 5:8-14

For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret; but when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it is said, "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light."

Gospel Reading
John 9:1-41

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." As he said this, he spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed the man's eyes with the clay, saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Silo'am" (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar, said, "Is not this the man who used to sit and beg?" Some said, "It is he"; others said, "No, but he is like him." He said, "I am the man." They said to him, "Then how were your eyes opened?" He answered, "The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and said to me, `Go to Silo'am and wash'; so I went and washed and received my sight." They said to him, "Where is he?" He said, "I do not know." They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes. The Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, "He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and I see." Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?" There was a division among them. So they again said to the blind man, "What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?" He said, "He is a prophet." The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight, and asked them, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?" His parents answered, "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age, he will speak for himself." His parents said this because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if any one should confess him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, "He is of age, ask him." So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, "Give God the praise; we know that this man is a sinner." He answered, "Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see." They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" He answered them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?" And they reviled him, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from." The man answered, "Why, this is a marvel! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." They answered him, "You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?" And they cast him out. Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, "Do you believe in the Son of man?" He answered, "And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?" Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you." He said, "Lord, I believe"; and he worshiped him. Jesus said, "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard this, and they said to him, "Are we also blind?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, `We see,' your guilt remains.

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I knew what my Lent was going to look like, and then COVID-19 happened.

In my newly abundant free time, I’ve been reading about Japan’s secret Christians in Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, and I’ve found myself wondering how long my own faith would last without sacraments.

It turns out, the answer is about 36 hours.

Of course, as LGBTQ Catholics, our access to the sacraments is always precarious and dependent on the whims of our local priest. But I have great ones. And this past year, as my wife and I left our jobs and moved across the country so that I could start law school, I found myself only surviving that confusing, lonely, and anxious process by leaning heavily on a regimented routine of daily Mass, community, and works of mercy. I knew I could find God in those places.

All those things are on hold for the time being. And in addition to fear, sadness, boredom, anger—I feel unmoored.

As do the Pharisees in today’s Gospel.

The Pharisees have practices and routines that help them stay rooted in God. God gifted their ancestors with covenantal ways of being that sustained them through slavery and displacement, famine and war and occupation. Those routines and practices were good and holy. And among those practices was the keeping of the Sabbath.

So we’ll have to pardon them for feeling a little unmoored by the violation.

The religious authorities knew what the Messiah would look like, and then Jesus happened. They knew a story about Creation ending in a day of rest, and then God showed up, in the flesh, to interrupt that rest, to form new clay from the earth of His hands and the saliva of His mouth, to create something new.

That’s not what they planned for.

This is not the Lent I planned for.

But saying, “I knew what my Lent was going to look like” is like saying “I know how God will move in my life.” And God is not something we can plan for.

If my God only shows up where I expect, and acts in ways I expect, that might be a sign that I’m not worshipping God but worshipping my own expectations.

Here’s some small comfort: The disciples have the same problem.

When they see a blind beggar, the disciples see a teaching moment. They ask Jesus a question about the sin that caused this blindness, with, I’m sure, the admirable intent of figuring out how to avoid such sin in their own lives. Of course his blindness says something about who this man is as a person and as a sinner, they think.

But they don’t get the lesson they expect. Instead, Jesus tells them, excluding this man says something about who we are as people and as sinners.

The whole community is caught off-guard by God in this moment. The authorities gather to debate whether Jesus is “from God” or a “sinful man”—weighing the clear holiness of this miracle against their loyalty to the Mosaic law and their position within the in-group of legal enforcers. They feel threatened, and they project that onto the former blind man. They question his identity, they accuse his family of lying, and then they bring him forward and demand that he accept their characterization of what has happened.

But the man can do nothing but keep repeating his own story: “One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.”

The authorities take that about as well as you would expect. “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” they ask, incredulous.

How often do we, as queer Catholics, have this same conversation? Where we tell our story, and it gets thrown back in our faces—because we can’t possibly have encountered God in that way, because that would have been against the rules?

How often are we, as queer Catholics, expelled from the synagogue and thrown out of the community for insisting on telling our stories honestly?

And yet—how often, as queer Catholics, have we discovered the truth in that simple line buried in the middle of this Gospel: “when Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him”?

God finds us. And He tells us that this whole process—of encounter and inquisition and exclusion and being found again—"is so that the works of God might be made visible” in it.

What does that really mean, though? After all, God is always working. God doesn’t need us to make God’s work visible. God doesn’t “cause” bad things to happen so that He can then fix them, nor did He “cause” the man to be blind so that he could be “healed”. It’s not even true that the problem in this story is the man’s blindness rather than the way that his community uses his blindness to exclude him from its economic and religious life.

No, I think the point here is about letting God shatter our expectations—and seeing what is made newly visible in that process. We can often more clearly see God’s work when it happens where we didn’t expect to find it. Our routines can sustain us, but they can also disguise things that only scandal, shock, and discomfort can wake us back up to.

Well, Lord, you got me. I am shocked to be giving up communion for Lent.

We’re a sacramental people for a reason. We believe in a God who is not only Love but Embodied Love, fully divine and fully human—who is broken bread, who is wine poured out for you and for many, who moved through the world washing feet and curing hemorrhages and anointing people’s eyes with clay.

But He can keep moving through the world even as I stay still.

I’m finding God this Lent in the sacraments of stillness, solitude, and silence. My Lenten practices this year are handwashing and homework, video chats and afternoon jogs. This is what it means right now to embody love for our neighbors and to have healing, if unexpected, encounters with the living God.

After all, if God’s work can be made visible in blindness, then maybe, by hobbling through this sacrament-free Lent, we can find our way to a more sacramental faith.