Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 5, 2017
Last week, my oldest and dearest friends invited me to join them on a short trip to Cuba. The “price was right,” so I decided to escape a few days of January weather here in Michigan to enjoy some quality time in warm sunshine with my friends. It was a short vacation, but it was also a very profound experience.
The paperwork needed to enter the country offered a heads-up to the fact that life in Cuba is much more regulated and far less casual than we are used to here in the U.S. The reception at the airport was official; some might even say “severe.” Entry was serious business, devoid of any warm welcome. I found it unnerving.
During the taxi ride into Havana, we passed through a neighborhood that the otherwise silent driver described as one of the more elegant and fashionable areas of the city prior to the revolution. He then offered the comment that when Cubans “who left” return home, “they turn their heads.” He gave the impression that these words had become an idiom to express the feelings of pain people experience when they see how formerly beautiful things have severely deteriorated.
One evening, we enjoyed fine dining at its very finest. My friends splurged and took us to a restaurant that only “the 1%” of Cubans could ever hope to patronize. As one person explained to us: “What you Americans call expensive, we Cubans call impossible.” Arriving early, we were escorted to a rooftop bar. A cool ocean breeze added to the glamorous décor and the festive atmosphere. From our vantage point, we got a view of the entire capitol city. At first glance, it was magnificent. But, it suddenly occurred to me that I was looking at a city in darkness. Even the imposing capitol building, modeled after ours, was completely dark. There are almost no streetlights in Havana. Most of the homes and even the businesses are “shuttered.” What little artificial light there is comes from a partially opened door or window, or the headlights of a passing car. When the sun sets, Havana contradicts today’s Gospel. It is literally a hidden city. A city of shadows.
The next day, in the almost blinding sunlight, we toured an enormous cathedral/convent complex dating back to the Spanish colonial times. Unlike most of the buildings from that era, these were perfectly preserved and maintained; no longer a place of worship, however. After the revolution, Castro nationalized all Church property, declaring this overwhelmingly Catholic country a bastion of Soviet style atheism. Historic churches were repurposed to things like museums and concert halls. In fact, as I walked through the nave of the cathedral, an orchestra was rehearsing. The beautiful music, for me anyway, re-sanctified the church that “the revolution” tried to de-sanctify. The government tried hard to suppress Christianity. There was an attempt to put a bushel basket over the Light of Christ. But of course, The Light of Christ cannot be extinguished. The Holy Spirit cannot be driven out of a building, a nation…or the hearts of the faithful.
Only 90 miles away from the United States, and, in spite of the fact every Cuban has a cousin in Miami (an expression used to convey the financial support that native Cubans enjoy from ex-patriots living in the U.S.), very few speak English. They have been isolated from American influences, including spoken English, for almost 60 years. The younger generation has not been taught our language. Likewise, while many Cubans still bring their children to the few churches that have reopened to be Baptized, we were told that very few practice the faith. Why would they? Like English, they have not been taught our faith. They have been estranged from the Body of Christ. They have nothing to pass on to the next generation other than the memory of Christ and our Sacraments…and desire!
Finally, a word about the Cuban people. They seemed to me to be reserved or distant. Folks on the street were not unfriendly, but neither were they engaging. There was a reference in a guidebook explaining that the isolation they have suffered for decades has left them wary of Americans. The few that did share their feelings explained just how hard life is for them. Even the more privileged wrestle with concerns over “feeding the kids.” Low wages, shortages, and deprivations across the board drain the joy out of day-to-day life. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? Possibly hope! Hope can re-season even the most desperate of lives. And it seems that the average Cuban has enjoyed an infusion of hope in recent months through the visits of President Obama and Pope Francis.
The average Cuban hopes that restoring relations with the U.S. will revitalize the extremely depressed economy, even as American business interests see a lot of potential for profit in restoring Cuba to its former glory. U.S. dollars might help to light the city…but money will not bring the Light of Christ to Havana. You can’t buy the City of God. You have to build it. And the work begins by teaching the language of the Gospel. American business interests might be looking to Cuba with an eye toward fat returns on investments, but Christians should be looking to Cuba with the hope of re-sanctifying not just buildings, but a people. Disciples are called to take the bushel basket off the lamp and place it high…on a stand. Our First Reading explains just how to do that. Live Jesus! Live charity and love! Then your light shall break forth like the dawn!
Investors might well be looking to normalize relationships in order to open new markets, but Christians should be pondering ways to reunite our estranged sisters and brothers with the Body of Christ. Our corporations might very well help to put money in the average Cuban’s pockets, but Christians should be anxious for ways to restore joy in their hearts.
I had a profound experience in Cuba that left me with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for this week’s Gospel. I saw firsthand a hidden city, efforts to extinguish The Light of Christ, and lives lived without the seasoning of joy and hope. But, it isn’t necessary to travel to Cuba to have this kind of profound experience. We drive by dark, abandoned, or repurposed churches in our own cities. As we pass by, we should not turn our heads. Instead, we should look for ways to turn the lights back on.
Many of our children are baptized, but are never taught the language of the Gospel or the traditions of our faith. It’s as if they are isolated from the Christian community that’s not 90 miles away…but right across the street from them. Parents need to be more faithful to the promises they made, first in Christian marriage, and later when they presented their children for Baptism. A greater effort needs to be made to teach our kids our faith.
And as for us, we should be eager to offer a warm…inviting welcome…without formality. When people who have left, then “return,” they should encounter Christ at the door of our churches…that haven’t been closed but have certainly been diminished. We live in a culture that is as toxic to our spiritual lives as oxygen deprivation is to a candle. We need to open ourselves to the cool, refreshing breeze of the Holy Spirit so that the flame of faith grows bright…and can push back against darkness.
We attempt to season our lives with possessions and entertaining distractions of every sort, only to find them lacking. And so, we turn to addictive distractions that rob us of our freedom and our hope. We need to reawaken our appetite for Eucharist, which is the only thing that can season our otherwise bland lives with hope and joy.
After my short trip to Cuba, I came to see our Readings this week as a call to revolution… a spiritual revolution. We are called to revolt against darkness by rekindling the fire of faith. We are challenged to place the Light of Christ above everything else in our lives, so that, as we hear in our First Reading… light shall rise for us…and from us…for those around us…and the gloom shall become like midday.
We need to revolt against anyone…and anything that tries to estrange us from Christ!
And the revolution begins with you!