A Kind Smile, But Not a Happy One

Some of us know St. Josephine Bakhita.  Born in 1869 in Sudan to a loving family with six siblings, she was abducted by slave raiders at the age of seven, and was so traumatized that she forgot her name.  The name ‘Bakhita’ was given to her by her captors, and it meant ‘Lucky.’  In the next six years, she was sold numerous times, often standing naked before various purchasers, and the last three years were under the ownership of a Turkish general, whose wife beat Bakhita daily.  Perhaps most horrific was that they cut her to give her tattoos, with a total of 114 scars.  At age 13, her life improved when an Italian diplomat to Turkey bought her and assigned her to help the housekeeper, and they did not beat her.  Though treated much better, she was still treated as an object, and was given to an Italian woman back in Italy, where she served as a nanny.  When this woman and her husband left on a yearlong trip, they left Bakhita in Italy to live with some Canossian sisters.

It was during this time that she began her encounter with Jesus.  A devout Catholic gave her a crucifix, and, when he did so, he kissed it, and explained that it was Jesus, the Son of God, Who was on the Cross and Who died for us, and Bakhita later wrote, “I didn’t know what it was, but, impelled by a mysterious force, I hid [the crucifix] in case my mistress took it off me.  Before then I had never hidden anything, because I was never attached to anything.  I remember how I used to look at it in secret, and feel inside myself something I couldn’t explain” (Dawn Eden, My Peace I Give You, 15).

It was while living with the sisters that she agreed to learn about the faith.  She wrote, “Those holy mothers instructed me with heroic patience, and brought me into a relationship with that God whom, ever since I was a child, I had felt in my heart without knowing who he was.”

Within a year, she asked for Baptism, and, when her owner decided to take her back to Sudan, Bakhita refused, and, she was supported by Italian law, which didn’t officially permit slavery.  At 21, she was baptized and given the name Josephine.  She later joined the Canossian sisters, was loved by the children she taught and by all the townspeople where she lived and trained sisters to go to Africa.


Interestingly, before her Baptism, an Italian girl used to notice that “Bakhita was always smiling—and yet there was something odd about the smile: it was a kind smile, but it wasn’t a happy one.”  Later on, after her Baptism, this same girl was “overwhelmed to see Bakhita’s radiant joy: the sadness was gone, and she seemed completely transfigured.” …  According to her official Vatican biography, the saint ‘was often seen kissing the baptismal font and saying: “Here, I became a daughter of God!”’”

When we look at her face, we see someone who is now full of peace and joy, a joy that the world cannot give.  This picture is perfect, because St. Josephine always found comfort in praying before the crucifix, seeing the One Who suffered like her, for her, and loved her.

Jesus wants all of us to have a similar transfiguration because sometimes we smile but they’re not happy smiles.  Is there anyone in our life who doesn’t have a happy smile?  …  Today, celebrating Jesus’ Transfiguration, the Gospel begins: “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves” (Mt 17:1).  ‘Six days later’ is very specific as far as the Gospels are concerned.  The disciples must have remembered this event, because Jesus’ last teaching was that He was going to suffer and die, and they were shocked (Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark in Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 173).  But the event that strengthened them happened six days later: “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (17:2).  As we’ve pointed out before, in the Old Testament, Moses’ face shone with God’s glory, but his glory came from outside of him, whereas Jesus’ glory comes from within because He’s God.

Jesus wants our faces to shine with His beauty and His love.  God wants smiles like that of St. Josephine.  And this comes by letting Jesus more fully into our lives, by loving Him in return, and by following His teachings and His plan for us.

There are many of us who are happier than ever because Christ has become the center of our lives.  I recently reflected on how two teenagers in our parish have come alive: One girl is beaming.  For the years I’ve seen her, she never seemed that happy.  And I know it’s not on a human level, but she’s started to understand God’s love for her.  Also, one boy is coming into his own because he’s serving others in concrete ways like Christ.  He now acts with energy because He’s following God’s purpose for him.

“Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking to him” (17:3).  Moses represents the Law and Elijah the prophets, the two major parts of the Old Testament, and their presence reminds the disciples to trust in Jesus even though they don’t understand the Cross.

“Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’” (17:5).  Again, the last thing Jesus had taught them was about the Cross: the only way we get to life is through dying to ourselves; the way to the Resurrection is through the Cross.

Moreover, this leads to a problem in the human condition: We all want improvement, but we resist the suffering that will get us there.  Everyone wants to be healthy, but not spend money on a trainer, etc.  Everyone wants to be closer to God, but without changing our schedule.  One reason why we may be stuck in life is because we like to make small tweaks, but God wants bigger changes.

The key is God’s plan for us: He wants us to be transfigured, and offers us grace.  Notice how St. Josephine Bakhita was courageous and cooperated with God!  When offered the crucifix, she held on to it as a treasure.  She agreed to let the sisters teach her about God; then she asked for Baptism; then she put her foot down and refused to go to Turkey; and then she asked to become a sister.  These were big changes!

We’re halfway through our Sabbath Summer and there’s still time to achieve God’s goal for us: that we rest in Him and be overflowing with Him!  Here are three ideas to keep in mind: 1) Keep on filling yourself up with Jesus and His love for you.  2) Next week, we have our outdoor event from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.  The goal for our parish family is that we all come, enjoy free food, and meet one new person.  There are times in our lives when we don’t want to meet people, especially new people—that’s understandable—but sometimes that’s the cross that brings Jesus’ life into us; it’s by getting out of ourselves that we find joy.

In addition, think about giving life to others.  We may not want to go, but, what if we’re like that man who gave St. Josephine the crucifix?  What if we’re the one person who may give life to someone who’s hungering for it?  Speaking of which, and this is 3) when September comes, invite someone to Alpha, because the life that we have is meant to be shared.  After the Transfiguration, the disciples had a choice: Avoid the Cross, or go to it and find Jesus’ Resurrection.

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