On Fixing our Eyes on the Prize
[Wis.11:22-12:2; 2Thess.1:11-2:2; Lk.19:1-10]
St Martin de Porres (1579-1639) really should have vanished without trace long ago. In the eyes of the world he was a nobody, and that’s how he was treated: he was ridiculed, abused and excluded. Why? Because he was poor and black.
Yet, here we are today, four centuries later, celebrating his life on his feast day in a church that proudly bears his name.
Why do we celebrate this son of a former slave who was born so far away in Lima, Peru? It’s because he has something remarkable to teach us. St Martin’s relationship with God so transformed his broken life that he went on to transform the lives of countless others.
St Martin’s father abandoned him in his infancy because of his colour, leaving him to live in poverty with his mother and sister. He often went hungry, he only had two years of schooling and he was regularly bullied in the streets.
When he was 12 he was apprenticed to a barber who taught him the basics of medicine and healing, as barbers did back then. And at 15 he joined the Dominicans as a servant boy, but his training was ignored. He spent most of his time cleaning and laboring in the kitchen and in the fields. He never complained, though. He was always patient and cheerful.
Eventually his gifts were recognized, however. At 24 he was invited to become a Dominican brother, and 10 years later he was given responsibility for the monastery’s infirmary where he worked for the rest of his life, healing the sick and helping the poor. He helped everyone, regardless of their race or social status. It made no difference whether they were archbishops, monks or slaves.
St Martin went on to do remarkable things: fundraising, feeding and sheltering hundreds of people and animals, planting orchards, teaching people how to farm and establishing a school and an orphanage for street children that are still operating today.
In today’s Gospel, Luke gives us the story of Zacchaeus, the unpopular tax collector. Unlike Martin, Zacchaeus was rich, but like Martin he was rejected by his own community.
St Martin and Zacchaeus also shared something else: both kept their eyes firmly fixed on Jesus (Heb.3:1; 12:2). St Martin did this by spending his nights in prayer and contemplation before a Crucifix. Zacchaeus did this by climbing a tree to get a clearer view of Jesus as he passed through Jericho.
By firmly fixing their eyes on Jesus, both men found their lives transformed. St Martin found himself filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and able to perform miracles (Acts 1:8); while Zacchaeus found joy, acceptance and forgiveness, and a brand new way of life (Ps.16:11).
The message for us today is that as long as we keep our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, then we’ll find ourselves living happy, meaningful and purposeful lives, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
We see this in Matthew’s Gospel, when the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee during a storm one night. Peter discovers that as long as he keeps his eyes firmly focussed on Jesus, he can actually walk on water. But as soon as he’s distracted, he starts sinking (Mt.14:22-32).
That’s the risk we face. There are so many temptations and distractions out there. When we turn away from Jesus and focus instead on our grudges or illusions or worldly obsessions, then we’ll find ourselves troubled and even overwhelmed.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to talk about the red lamp near the tabernacle in our churches that signals the presence of Our Lord (Jn.8:12). When we’re near the light, he said, we bask in its glow and we enjoy its comforting warmth. But if we walk away from that light, the shadows grow longer and the darkness grows.
And so it is with us. When we lose a sense of God’s presence, or when we refuse to acknowledge his existence, the shadows lengthen, the darkness envelops us, and the storms become more terrifying.
God didn’t want St Martin to vanish because he has something important to teach every generation: that God’s grace can transform our deepest sorrows into the greatest love and happiness, as long as we keep our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus.
As St. Augustine put it, ‘In my deepest wound, I saw your glory and it dazzled me’.
St Martin de Porres kept his eyes firmly fixed on the only prize that really matters in this life (Phil.3:13-14).
We must do the same.