Fourth Sunday of Lent

Live as children of light. Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness.

In addition to being your spiritual father, many of you know that I am a big nerd. In case you didn’t know that, let me prove it to you by sharing a quote from the Lord of the Rings: “The knowledge which he obtained was…often of service to him; yet the vision of the great might of Mordor that was shown to him fed the despair of his heart until it overthrew his mind” (The Return of the King). Denethor was steward of the great city of Gondor. As steward, he ruled Gondor in the absence of the rightful king. As steward, he also possessed one of the Seven Seeing Stones. The Stone, like our modern televisions, extended his field of vision. It enabled him to see things that he couldn’t ordinarily see—things happening far away.  

And what Denethor saw was armies arriving, ships coming, the great might of Mordor amassing. Now, this knowledge was useful to him. After all, if you want to defend your city, it’s helpful to know the details of your enemy’s plans. But the knowledge which Denethor obtained from the Stone, because it was deceptive, led him to despair. Denethor looked into the Stone and saw a fleet of black ships coming. And that was true enough. But it was not the full story. For the black ships were not filled with his enemies, but his liberators, with the ones who would eventually rescue Gondor in its darkest hour. This deception led to despair, and despair to destruction. Denethor gave up hope, and many lives were lost, including his own, because of it.  

Friends, we have these same stones in our living rooms, they sit on our desks, and we carry them in our pockets. In an instant, with a click of a button, we can see things we couldn’t ordinarily see—things happening near and far, in distant countries and in our own communities. Now, the knowledge we obtain from these devices is often of service to us; yet the vision that they show can often feed the despair of our hearts until it overthrows our minds. Most of us are not literally blind. But that doesn’t guarantee that what we see is true. Because what we see is not always the full story. Sometimes it’s deceptive. The Devil can just as easily lead us into despair by leaving something out of a true story as by telling us a false story. The Devil, St. Paul says, often disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), pretending to show us the truth, but not all of it. 

Now Jesus cannot spit on the ground, make clay with His saliva, and smear it on our eyes, as He did for the blind man in our gospel. He wouldn’t be allowed to. It would be a gross violation of proper hygiene and social distancing. But during this present crisis, when we are bombarded with stories of death and destruction, we need to beg Jesus to heal our blindness. We need to beg Him to help us see aright—to help us see the fully story, not just the fragments we see on our TVs, computers, and phones. Because they are just that—fragments—not the full story. And these fragments, as true as they may be in themselves, may lead us to despair. They may lead us to see only purple and forget about pink; to see only Lent and forget about Easter; to see only the Cross and forget about the Resurrection. 

It’s truly remarkable how much darkness we let into our lives through our devices. Light is constantly streaming, pouring into our eyes from them. And yet so much of this light is really just darkness. And not helpful darkness—because of course we can’t remain ignorant of what’s going on—but fruitless darkness, darkness that only leads to discouragement and despair. Let’s take to heart St. Paul’s admonition in our second reading: “Brothers and sisters: You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth…Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness” (Eph. 5:8-11). We should take part, instead, in the fruitful works of the Holy Spirit. These works will not lead us to despair, but to “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). 

How do we do this? I was once told in seminary that we should be consuming as much ‘olds’ as news every day. C.S. Lewis recommended something similar: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between” (On the Reading of Old Books). I think this is extremely helpful advice for us in a time like this. How much time are we spending consuming news these days? We should be spending at least as much time consuming ‘olds’.  

The prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture is a good way to do this. Read the gospel of the day. Or pick one of the gospels and read it in its entirety. This is a powerful way of taking part in the fruitful works of the Holy Spirit. For the Bible is a work of the Holy Spirit (Catechism of the Catholic Church #105). And the Holy Spirit still hovers over its pages, even as the Spirit hovered over the waters at the dawn of creation (Genesis 1:2). And the same Word which at the dawn of creation said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), can bring light and warmth to our hearts.  

Instead of reading so much news, read some of the ‘olds’. For the news doesn’t have the full story to tell. The ‘olds’ has part of it—and in fact the greater part of it—to tell, for it has the story of salvation. Let’s return to this story and remember that Jesus is the light of the world (Jn. 9:5), that the light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness has not overcome it (Jn. 1:5).