Some years ago one of London’s newspapers, The Daily Telegraph, printed a classic letter that a mother had received from her 11-year-old son when he was on a class trip to Switzerland. The boy wrote, “Dear Mom, yesterday the instructor took eight of us to the slopes to teach us how to ski. I was not very good at it, so I broke a leg. Thank goodness it wasn’t one of mine! Love, Billy” (Seasonal Illustrations, Donald Deffner, p. 166). As you can imagine, the mother had only a limited awareness from the letter as to exactly what had happened on the ski slope; if she had been there herself, she would have had personal knowledge of the accident involving her son and one other skier—which might have been even more embarrassing or distressing for her.
Sometimes it’s easier to receive certain news in writing, since there’s an element of distance involved which allows us to sort out our feelings in private; personal encounters can be more direct and challenging. For example, it might be easier for each of us to receive a personal letter from Jesus, telling us of our faults and how He’d like to see us grow and improve during this season of Lent, than it would be to encounter Him face-to-face and have Him speak to us directly. Imagine that Jesus appeared here in church at the end of Mass, announced that He was going to meet with each of us privately, from oldest to youngest, and then walked into the sacristy to begin these interviews. When your name was called, would you be able to respond as Abraham did: “Ready”? (Homily Helps, March 3, 1985). We might be very nervous or afraid about such an encounter, but in fact, our meetings with Christ give us strength and guidance. We meet Jesus in many different ways, and these “interviews” help prepare us for the life to come.
The readings for the 2nd Sunday of Lent speak to us of different ways in which we can encounter the Lord. A first such way is through obedience, as illustrated by the story of Abraham (Gen 22:1-2, 9, 10-13, 15-18). God tested him by asking him to make the supreme sacrifice: giving up his beloved son Isaac. This request must surely have broken Abraham’s heart, but he would not disobey the Lord. God did not actually want Isaac to die, of course; rather, He desired Abraham to have the opportunity to show his devotion—and once he had done so, he was greatly blessed. We are called to obey Christ’s commandments; none of us would assert that it’s always easy to do so, but I think many of us would claim from our own experience that doing so has brought about unexpected blessings, and that when we follow God’s laws, things somehow work out for the best. This is closely related to a second way of encountering the Lord: through trust. St. Paul (Romans 8: 31-34) tells us that if God is for us, no one can be against us; the Lord’s plan will prevail. We don’t have to be afraid of God; instead, we can relate to Him as a loving Father Who sent His Son to die for us. Believing this makes it easier for us to approach God, to ask for His help in all the problems of daily life, and to recognize and appreciate His blessings in all of the good, simple, and wonderful moments of life. The more we trust God, the more we’ll become aware of and enjoy His blessings.
A third way of encountering the Lord is expressed very simply in the Gospel of Mark (9: 2-10); the apostles heard God the Father say, “This is My beloved Son. Listen to him.” When we listen to Jesus, we learn more not only about God, but also about ourselves; by reading the Gospels and growing more knowledgeable about our Catholic faith, we gain a deeper awareness of God’s plan for us and of our need to grow in grace. The apostles Peter, James, and John experienced this; their vision of Christ’s glorious transfiguration strengthened and prepared them for His coming passion and His future glory. In the same way, the more deeply we listen to Jesus’ teachings and take them to heart, the more we’re prepared for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead of us in life.
When and where do we encounter Jesus? This happens here at Mass in four different ways; the Lord is present in our gathered community, in the readings from the Bible, in the person of the priest, and in Holy Communion. We can encounter the Lord whenever we receive any of the sacraments, whenever we pray, whenever we do something in the Name of Jesus to help people in need, whenever we appreciate any or all of the Lord’s blessings, and whenever we encounter other people—for we’re all meant to be children of God. Mystical experiences and visions, such as the apostles had on Mt. Tabor, are nice, but they’re certainly not necessary; most of the time Jesus prefers to meet with us in the simple, good, and routine events of ordinary life. Lent is a perfect time for us to make a greater effort to be aware of His presence, to reflect on the simple blessings of each day, and to think about how we might respond more fully to His grace.
An ancient legend says that a traveler found himself stuck in some quicksand, and was unable to free himself. The Chinese wise man Confucius came by and saw the situation, but simply said, “It is evident that men should stay out of places like this.” Next, Buddha passed by, and remarked, “Let that man’s plight be a lesson to the rest of the world.” Then Mohammed came near, observed the traveler’s condition, and said to him, “Alas, it is the will of God.” Finally Jesus arrived, looked with love upon the man, and said to him, “Take My hand, and I will save you” (Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book, p. 54).
Jesus wants us not merely to know of Him or about Him, but to know Him personally, so that He might save us. Our encounters with the Lord are meant to prepare us for any future suffering we may experience in this life, and particularly for our future glory in Heaven. God calls us at this point in our lives, and especially in this holy season of Lent. Like Abraham, we must respond “Ready!”; like St. Paul, we must have trust and confidence in God; like the apostles, we must listen to Jesus.