The Sacrament of Confirmation

Because of his dyslexia, a friend of mine wore a pair of glasses for years that had one red lense and one blue lens.   In a way that I never really understood, those coloured lenses helped his brain to interpret the information that his eyes were gathering in a way that unmuddled what he saw and made it comprehensible for him.  In the same way that the darkened or tinted lenses of sun glasses help us to be able to see what is going on around us unobscured by the glare of the noon day sun, his multi-coloured glasses helped him to see with greater clarity.

Whether we ourselves are long sighted or short sighted, whether we need to wear glasses all of the time or only for reading or driving, we are so used to them that we rarely stop to think about how important they are for us. Our current fashionable versions of glasses and contact lenses are simply the latest in a long line of devices to aid our vision, whether to make distant objects closer, or closer objects more distant.  At least a thousand years ago glass sphere reading stones were being laid on top of materials to magnify the detail, and the first glasses that could be worn were invented in Italy in the thirteenth century, so we have had these aids for a very long time.

All those of us who wear any of the variety of spectacles that are available to us, know their power to transform what we see and to bring clarity to our vision.  What is true for those of us who wear physical glasses, is also true for all humans, who wear a more sophisticated set of invisible spectacles.  Each of us makes use of this set of invisible lenses, whether we are aware of it or not, that determine how we see and experience the world around us.  We are familiar with the idea of someone who wears a rose-tinted set of these invisible spectacles, and through them sees the world in an artificially positive way that may not really reflect reality.  We are inspired by the ways that children are able to see the wonder and enchantment and magic of the world, through lenses that we have long since lost and don’t seem to be able to find again.  The spectacles that I am describing aren’t made of physical glass, they have been constructed by layers of things that we have been taught, experiences that we have had, and aspirations and hopes that we hold on to; and although we can’t see these glasses, they are much more powerful than the physical versions that some of us wear, and they act in exactly the same way.  They help to bring into focus clearly what we see around us, but they also dictate how and what we see.  Each of us wears lenses that are made up of a particular set of values, and when we see the world, what we see is filtered through those values without us even realising it.

In today’s Gospel encounter each of the characters in the story that is portrayed so richly for us by the Gospel writers are wearing their own unique set of these invisible spectacles.  The Pharisee, Simon, in whose home the drama takes place wears a set of lenses that dictate both how he sees Jesus and how he sees the woman who comes and kneels before him.  The woman herself, wears a set of spectacles through which she sees a world in which she has been forgiven and given new hope for the future, and that’s why she lays everything else aside in order to simply be close to Jesus and to worship and adore him, no matter what any one else in the rooms thinks about her actions.  Jesus, wears a set of glasses through which he sees people not as others do, but with the love and compassion that his Father has for them.  These three people are in the same physical space together, and yet they see the world profoundly differently.

All of this is taking place at a formal dinner, much less like the kind of private meal that we might have in our own homes with people gathered together in a dining room;  and much more like a public event, in which the doors of the house are probably open, and people are wandering in and out, watching what is taking place, gathering in a wider circle around the guests who are eating, and watching and listening intently to what is being said and done.  In the middle of this meal, a woman makes her way to the centre of the room, where Jesus and the owner of the house and the other guests are eating, and breaking open a jar of costly ointment, and washes Jesus’ feet with a mixture of the ointment and her tears, and then dries them with her hair.  We can detect the embarrassment that such an action would have elicited in the others who were gathered there.  Such an intimate act taking place publicly at a dinner party.  But this woman doesn’t care.  Her natural inhibitions, probably the terror within her of risking doing such a thing, counts for nothing in comparison to the forgiveness that she has received, and the new world of possibilities that she now sees with Jesus.  Simon the Pharisee, the owner of the house sees everything very differently.  This is a notorious woman, perhaps a prostitute, who is disrupting his dinner party, but worse still, Jesus who is his guest is doing nothing to stop her.

It is all to do with these spectacles, these lenses through which the various characters are seeing what’s going on.  When the Pharisee looks at this woman he sees a sinner.  When he looks at Jesus he does not see a sinner, he sees someone who is purporting to be a prophet but who can’t even realise the kind of woman that this is.  When Jesus looks at this woman he sees a forgiven sinner, in other words, someone who is a sinner no longer, and he rejoices to declare this to everyone and to share in her joy at being released from all that has imprisoned her.  The woman sees only Jesus, she doesn’t care who else is in the room.  She sees only him, and the new future of hope in God’s love that is ahead for her.

So who are we in the story, or who would we be if a scene like this unfolded here in Church today?  Are we the woman, wearing spectacles that see the world through the joy of knowing God’s extravagant love for us?  Are we the Pharisee, wearing spectacles that deep down tell us that sinners are sinners, and that this place is really just for people like us and not for them.  What can we learn through our reflections on this story about the lenses that we wear to understand ourselves and the world around us?

It is worth stating the obvious that both of the characters who engage with Jesus in our story today are seeking God in their lives, not just one of them. The Pharisee – probably if we are honest, the one closest to how we see the world – isn’t a villain, he simply sees what’s going on through a set of understandings and values that make him think that this woman is further away from God than he is.  It is an easy mistake to make, most of us probably see the world like that as well, after all we are here week by week, taking the time to worship and pray, and look after this place, and the majority of people around us aren’t doing that.

Through this story we are forced to come to terms with the fundamental injustice of grace. God does not love us because of what we do, he does not stop loving us because of what we do not do.   Membership in God’s family is not something that we earn, or lose, by what we do or what we don’t do – it is a gift that we are freely given because God desires it.

I have been particularly thinking about all of this over the last couple of days because next Sunday morning ten of our brothers and sisters will stand before us to publicly affirm their decision to follow Christ.  When they do that, they will be declaring that from all of the options available to them, from all of the different lenses that they could wear to see the world around them, that from now on they are making a commitment to wear lenses that are shaped by the resurrection of Jesus, because that is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  As the writer of the letter to the Church in Galatia put it, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

That will not be an easy task for them, as it isn’t for the rest of us.  But that’s the commitment that they are making, and the rest of us in turn will be making a commitment to support them in what they have resolved to do.  That is why Bishop Peter will be here, to represent the whole Church, to remind us that what is taking place is of a greater significance than just for us who will be gathered here.  Bishop Peter will pray for them that they will receive a powerful strengthening of the Holy Spirit in their lives to defend them and to help them to see the world through the lense of God’s love and to live their lives accordingly.  Because that is what the Sacrament of Confirmation is all about.  As these brothers and sisters declare their resolve to follow Jesus, Bishop Peter will confirm the Holy Spirit at work within them.

What will they see through these new lenses that they are resolving to wear?  Like the woman in our Gospel story today, our catechumens, our candidates for Confirmation, are on a journey of learning to see the world through the lenses of a God who loves them and has forgiven them, and has a purpose for them, and will be with them in every situation.  They will no longer need to see the world in any other way than through those lenses of hope.  And of course what is true for them is already true for the rest of us.

Their Confirmation provides an opportunity for us to give our lenses a good clean.  To re-focus on the way that we who have already made a commitment to Jesus see the world through him.  As we are inspired by those who will respond to Christ next week, my prayer is that you and I may also re-capture for ourselves that joy of following Jesus; like the woman in our Gospel story today, who regardless of how others saw her, rejoiced at the feet of Jesus because of the love of God that she had found in him.