A sermon offered at the celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of Final Profession of Sister Suzanne Elizabeth in the Community of St. John Baptist, May 26, 2019 in Mendham, NJ. The Gospel is John 21:1-19.
I’ve become a little bit of an evangelist about a new app, a new mobile application on my smart phone. It’s even better than “Weather Bug,” which Sister Margo recommended to me some time ago. This new app–and I recommend it to you–is called “Mag Light.” It’s free, and it does what its name implies. It uses the flash on the phone, like the regular light feature, but even more, it uses the phone’s camera somehow to magnify things!
In a restaurant and can’t read the menu? Mag Light to rescue!
Can’t read the instructions on a medicine label or the expiration date on food? Mag Light reveals!
In my physical seeing, I need both aspects of this little application. Often, I need the light. But there are also many times when I also need the magnification.
It’s true for my physical seeing. But it’s also true for my spiritual seeing.
Today’s Gospel leaves us with the words of Jesus to Peter, but also to us: “Follow me.” And though they come in the form of a command, a request, a plea; we can experience them as a question. “How,” Lord?” “How are we to follow you?”
Well, the answer, I think has to do with both light and with magnification.
We see light and magnification in today’s Gospel as the disciples slowly awaken to the reality of the Resurrection. In Simon Peter’s great “re-do” with Jesus (his second chance after having denied Christ three times before the Crucifixion) it’s almost as though Jesus gradually increases the volume, adjusts the light, and gradually turns up a kind of mystical rheostat. “Do you love me more than these?” And then a little louder, a little brighter: “Do you love me?” And then brighter still, louder, and clearer, demanding even more clarity and focus from Peter, “DO you love me?”
Light and magnification happen also in the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts 3, Peter and John have healed a crippled beggar. But in Acts 4, they’re getting into trouble for it. Illumined by the Light of Christ, filled with his healing power, they magnify this light. It’s too large for them to hold on to, so they share it with the wounded and the weary. But to those with eyes for only the world, the light was too bright—they squint, and shut their eyes, and look the other way. But those with eyes to see are healed and made more.
In the 7th century, Pope Gregory wanted to enlarge the Church and so, launched a new mission to the Anglo-Saxons. He sent Augustine, who at that time, was prior of a monastery in Rome. Augustine clearly took with him the Light of Christ—the ability to convey something of the Risen Lord Jesus in his words and in his work. But Augustine also took with him something else. He didn’t need an application for the work of magnifying. As a monk, as a religious who lived under vows, Augustine carried with him, himself. His mission included himself as a complete human being formed in Christ—body-mind-soul—consecrated to God and living as a kind of icon of what faith might look like and how faith might play out in the world. It’s no wonder more people were converted. It’s no wonder the Church in Britain got organized, and seeds were planted that yield fruit even today.
The vowed life of a religious has a force and a form that is beloved of God. I’ve been reading about this recently in an incredibly helpful book called On Liturgical Asceticism by David Fagerberg. Professor Fagerberg teaches theology at Notre Dame and thinks and prays in line of Alexander Schmemann and Aidan Kavanagh.
Fagerberg makes a powerful argument that the life of faith for every Christian is a vowed life, flowing from our baptism and shaped by the liturgy in which we participate in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Between the lay person and the professed religious, there should be no competition, no envy or resentment, since each has their own calling. He quotes Aidan Kavanagh that, “the monk’s [or nun’s] ministry or diakonia among his or her baptized peers in faith is to manifest the costs and radical conditions of Christian discipleship in Christ for all.” [Kavanagh, “Eastern Influences on the Rule of Saint Benedict,” p. 59, quoted in Fagerberg, On Liturgical Asceticism]. Fagerberg goes on to say
When things are enlarged, they are often easier to see, and this is a service the monk [or nun] gives to the Church. A small object lit from behind can extend a nearly limitless shadow if projected upon a flat landscape stretching without break to the horizon—say, for example, across a desert landscape. The [poverty of the religious] in the desert is a shadow of the baptismal liberty from avarice cast upon the vast desert landscape, which, by being elongated and exaggerated, is easier to understand. [Ibid., 137]
For more than fifty years—but especially for fifty years–Sister Suzanne Elizabeth has made following Christ easier to understand. She has underscored it. She has intensified it. She has lit it up as she has said and sung with Our Lady, “my soul magnifies… let my soul magnify … may my soul even more magnify….” She has shown us how to follow Christ. And she has helped us and others to see and enjoy, to be challenged and changed, to draw closer to the love of the Risen Christ, and to take our place in God’s magnifying grace.
As a nurse and infirmarian, Sister Suzanne Elizabeth has served as midwife to the healing love of Christ, quietly testifying to God’s shalom, already present and active even in the midst of suffering or sickness. As a teacher and leader with the National Altar Guild Association, her care and love for the beauty of holiness has been infectious. As a gardener, spiritual director, superior, and so much more—she has helped live out the faithful history of this order.
Thanks be to God for such a life. Sister Suzanne Elizabeth, may God continue to bless you richly, and continue to bless this community, the Church, and the world through your ministry.
I’ll probably keep talking about my little smart phone application that lights up and makes larger. But even more, I’ll keep talking about what God is doing through this order, through all our vowed religious, and I’ll try to keep talking about the special ways through your magnification, the Church is strengthened to follow Jesus.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.