The original purpose of Lent was the proximate preparation of the catechumens for Baptism on Saturday, at the Easter Vigil. A common name for Baptism was “illumination” or “enlightenment” because that sacrament undoes the damage of original sin by providing us with the corrective lenses to see more clearly, to see according to the mind and heart of God. Hence, many of the prayers and readings of the Sacred Liturgy would have us reflect on the very profound meaning of enlightenment.
Have you ever lost your sight – even temporarily? Have you ever been plunged into darkness unexpectedly? It is a frightening, fearsome thing. Darkness/light, night/day, and blindness/sight are themes frequently repeated by St. John in his Gospel because he wanted to teach some important truths about Jesus and the nature of Christianity through these familiar human experiences of reality.
In the third chapter of St. John’s Gospel, we are allowed to eavesdrop on the dialogue between Our Lord and Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee who – at the same time – is a disciple of Jesus, but approaching Him only under cover of darkness. Christ reminds Nicodemus that there is an intimate connection between walking in the darkness and doing evil deeds and between walking in the light and performing righteous deeds.
Six chapters later, the Evangelist has this theological lesson acted out or dramatized for us in the cure of the man born blind. There, we see a study in contrast presented for our consideration. We meet the man born blind, through no fault of his own; he is eager to see both spiritually and physically – he is open to the workings of God. Then we encounter the Pharisees, who have physical sight, but they have become spiritually blinded because they have lost all perspective; instead of rejoicing at the healing of the blind man, they react to the fact that Christ has healed him on the Sabbath. These men prove true the adage which says, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” What John has done, then, is to present us with examples of two types of people we always have with us: People who are willing to accept Jesus as the Light of the World, and people who are unwilling to do so.
Francois Poulenc’s opera Dialogues of the Carmelites lacks the excitement or lyricism of a Puccini opera, but it contains a powerful message. The action occurs during the French Revolution and zeroes in on one Carmelite convent, which becomes a symbol or microcosm for every other religious house at that time. That period was, ironically, termed “the Enlightenment,” which prided itself on replacing the God of Revelation with the god of unaided human reason – and thus, a kind of anti-Baptism.
It was, of course, characterized by an active hostility toward religion. As the plot unfolds, the revolutionary forces offer the Religious a choice: Give up your convents and habits, or give up your heads. Thousands of clergy and Religious were martyred – the first fruits of the so-called Enlightenment.
When man exceeds his bounds; when he is blind to his human limitations; when he tries to be like God; the enlightenment which follows is, in reality, darkness. The Enlightenment continues to have a pernicious influence on our culture, bringing in its wake every kind of disaster from abortion-on-demand to family breakdown, to sexual promiscuity, to materialism, to teenage suicide. Man has attempted to experience enlightenment without Christ, with the result that the darkness has never been deeper, the blindness has never been more devastating.
Returning to our opera, the guillotine hits each nun’s neck and the blindness of their persecutors in their hatred for Christ’s truth becomes eminently clear. Then true Enlightenment dawns on the crowds, who gradually stop their barbaric cheering and are forced to consider the witness of these rather unexceptional but holy women –bearers of light in one of history’s darkest hours. They succeeded in bringing people from blindness, to sight, to genuine insight.
An interesting historical note: So impressive were the courage and fidelity of those nuns and so negative the reaction of the people to their deaths that they were the last victims of a public execution for the remainder of the French Revolution. Like Jesus, their witness to truth and love brought peace and reconciliation.
As Christians, we claim to be the followers of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. St. Paul repeatedly admonished his people to walk honorably as in the daylight. But how do you know if you are doing so? Here’s a brief examination of conscience, which can serve as an acid test.
- When the media attack Christian values, what’s your reaction?
- When polls inform us that x percent of Catholics approve of practices contrary to the Faith, what’s your conclusion?
- When the Church, which offers the light of Christ to the world, challenges your own personal behavior with the unfailing standard of the Gospel, what is your response?
- When political messiahs present you with an attractive social or economic package but likewise peddle immorality, do you vote for God or Mammon?
- When the pseudo-intellectuals in our midst, who are blinded by their own enlightenment, serve up their pontifications, do you heed them?
- Have you been intimidated into silence in the face of the lunacy of the Woke crowd?
If you do not choose Christ and His Church, you are blinder than the Pharisees or the French anti-clericals ever were! Choosing the light means both thinking right thoughts and performing right actions.
As a Lenten Collect put it a few days ago: “Enlighten, O God of compassion, the hearts of your children, sanctified by penance, and in your kindness grant those you stir to a sense of devotion a gracious hearing when they cry out to you.”
Image: The Guillotine by Paul Delaroche, early-to-mid-19th century [private collection]. 1794: During the Reign of Terror, the sixteen Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne await their deaths, one by one.
You may also enjoy:
Pope Benedict XVI’s The Icon of Holy Saturday
Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI’s Holy Saturday: The Thanksgiving