“I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.” Words from our 1st reading today from the 12th chapter of the book of Genesis – sisters and brothers, may the Lord give to you his peace and his joy.
The blessings referred to in these readings and upon which we meditate on this Sunday in Lent are all undeserved gifts from God. They were not earned. Abram was called out of his family of origin because God had a plan for him, not because Abram had done something to earn God’s favor. In the 2nd reading, Paul is very clear about the reason for our salvation: it was not because of any works of ours but because of the grace bestowed by God. Peter, James, and John did nothing to warrant the privilege of witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus. They did not even understand its significance, wanting to remain in its magnificence rather than return to the hardships of ministry. In each case, God is not only generous in bestowing particular blessings, but God seems always ready to lavish us with even more. What alone is required of us is openness to receive such blessings.
In our 1st reading, the blessings God promises to Abram indeed include what any nation would come to expect of its patron god. We like the fact that God is looking out for us. However, God makes another promise to Abraham, one that is unusual. God promises that Abraham and his descendants will be mediators of God’s blessing to others, that they will be a blessing to the other nations. In other words, we receive blessings from God only so that we may be a blessing to others in turn. I want to share with you some correspondence from a friend of mine who was feeling particularly grateful for the blessings he received. I got his permission to share this with you today. A few years ago, he wrote: “My inspiration truly comes from the generosity of others. I recognize that I have been immensely blessed – from the abundant support of my family to the selflessness of good friends, and not least of all the many gifts God has bestowed upon me. Countless examples exist of such generosity: a roof over my head, continual nourishment, concern for my welfare and upbringing, the language I speak, the clothes I had as a kid, a good education, assistance and caring presence from extended family members, affirmation of my talents, sharing wholesome experiences and opportunities, traveling, taking time to participate in leisurely activities, receiving presents… this brief summation of gifts is all unmerited, unearned, and is all given simply because they are lovers who love me. Half these things I didn’t even think to ask for. In many respects, it is easy for me to trust that all my needs will be provided for; indeed, what more could I ask for? Even as I count my blessings, it is then that more seem to come. While so many of these things were given to me, I consider none of these to be truly ‘mine’. There is a saying in our faith: “Love isn’t love until you give it away.” I have been blessed, and I am to bless in return. I too wish to give, not only of the possessions I have but of the talents and time that has been given to me because this is the model that I have been afforded: a life lived for others. And it is rewarding to do so, even in the smallest of gestures from taking the time to write cards of affirmation, to having a candy bowl in my room, to taking the bill for meals at restaurants, to be fully present to the world around me, to joyfully fulfilling my responsibilities, to my weekly community service downtown, even proofreading papers at 3:00am in the morning for a friend… Seeing life as a gift, I seek to be generous.” We also should reflect upon our blessings and seek out ways that we can mediators of God’s grace for others.
As we count our blessings, we shouldn’t be too quick to overlook our hardships either, as even hardships can be a blessing in disguise. There’s that saying: “Everything happens for a reason.” In our 2nd reading, Timothy found himself undergoing many difficulties while ministering to a persecuted and suffering Church. We know some share of that for ourselves. St. Paul asks Timothy to trust in God’s saving plan, which is specially made and personally tailored for all of us who are undergoing hardships. The gospel, the good news, is that God can bring about life and blessing even through these experiences. A few years ago, back in 2016, I participated in a program called FASPE – Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics. It was an amazing experience, in which I got to meet and interact with people from different faiths and professions from all over the world, and we tried to dialogue with each other about how to make ethical decisions as leaders in today’s world. We used the events of the Holocaust as a background to our study, and traveling to these places of hatred and death was simultaneously one of the hardest experiences I ever went through, and there are things about our human race that I cannot un-see. When I came home, Fr. Michael Monshau, a Dominican priest at the seminary, said to me, “I’m glad you experienced that suffering.” Most people would be taken aback by such a statement, but I knew exactly what he meant. It is a grace that is hard to explain. Yes, it was incredibly painful to go and stand in Auschwitz where millions of people were murdered and, though it is secondhand, I still feel the trauma of that experience today. But somehow in the midst of all that, I also encountered a God who stands in solidarity with all those who suffered and suffer still today by the very fact that he’s opened his own arms upon the cross. In the midst of moments like these, we come to realize the true salvation Christ brings, and how that gives shape to the holiness of life we are called to; in fact, it has inspired me to align myself with God’s plan and become the compassionate presence of God in the world. That intimate knowledge of God’s compassion and my participation there in the Paschal Mystery of Christ is something I would never trade away. We might not always understand it, but the truth is that there is nothing of our human experience that is outside of the grace of God (2x). Our readings reveal that there is a greater plan at work even amid our hardships. What a blessing that is! Paul’s advice to Timothy and to us is to trust in that saving plan of God. The blessings we receive always effect new beginnings in our lives. It can be seen in the promises made to Abram: he leaves the past behind and moves into a new future. It can be seen in the psalm response: the Lord delivers us from death and inspires us to look to the future. We see it in the reading from 2nd Timothy: through Christ Jesus we escape the fetters of death and are called to a new life of holiness. We see it in the Gospel: there is a glimpse into the future glory of Jesus, which through grace we will be able to share. Lent is a time of new beginnings that find their origin in the abundant blessings of God. As we take stock of our blessings, as we learn to trust in the saving plan of God amid our hardships, as we experience the graciousness of God in our lives, we are given the opportunity to stand on the threshold of something new ourselves. And that threshold of newness is this: we have been blessed, undeservedly so - so now we may stand in that grace given to us and become the blessing of God for others. That would be the true transformation, the true transfiguration celebrated in our Gospel today, if we would in turn become a blessing to others.