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Archive for January, 2008

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” This line from the words of Isaiah in our first reading has long been a personal favorite. As I reflected on today’s reading, though, I discovered the line that precedes it: “Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness: for there is no gloom where but now there was distress.” In many ways it’s simply a rephrasing of the same idea.

The wonder of the Sacred Scriptures is that they’re the living word of God. We hear them differently depending on what is happening in our lives, on what kind of mood we’re in, even on how closely we’re paying attention or not while they’re being proclaimed at Mass. And then sometimes God hits us with  a line of Scripture in the manner of what a friend describes as “the divine clue-by-four.”

Today’s Gospel is the familiar call of the Galilean fisherman. Jesus invites them to leave their boats and nets and follow him. At different times in our lives, we might think they’re crazy. At other times, we think they’d be crazy not to follow his call. And then it dawns on us that the Lord calls us in much the same manner.

St. Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, encourages people to place themselves imaginatively in the stories from the Gospels, using all of their senses to enter into the experience of Jesus and the disciples. This passage is a common one to use for such a practice. The hot sun, the smell of fish, the breeze off the sea, the grittiness of the sand, the texture of the fishing nets, the rough wood of the boats—all these details make it easy to imagine what it was like for those fishermen who became Jesus’ first disciples.

But sometimes those very details that help us imagine a time two thousand years ago can keep us from  seeing ourselves in the same boat, as it were. For most of us, our lives are spent indoors, in offices and cubicles, in trucks and cars, operating heavy machinery or delicate medical instruments. And more an more of our time is spent with our hands on a keyboard and our eyes on an LCD screen.

It’s easy to romanticize the life of a first-century fisherman because it’s so far removed from our everyday lives. Most people in the first century had few occupational choices. But work is work. And no matter what we do our how many choices we had or even have in what we do to earn our daily bread, the day-to-day experience is going to have ups and downs, periods of great satisfaction and dry spells of boredom and frustration. I suspect it was the same for those first-century fishermen. We think of them as being dedicated to their work, their nets, their father and coworkers. But maybe at the time Jesus came along the beach, they were having a bad day and were eager for a change. Only later did they discover what they had traded in their nets to embrace.

One thing is certain in all of this: God may not pay very close attention to what we’re doing when he calls us. It’s up to us to hear the call, perhaps trading something we love for something we will come to love more, perhaps finding a welcome escape from a situation that has become difficult. God chooses to call us. It’s our choice to hear and to follow.

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A legendary and somewhat humorous epitaph reads, “Here lies the body of Michael O’Day / who died defending the right of way.” We laugh somewhat ruefully because we all know the truth of it. If we admit it, there have been times in all our lives when we’ve been willing to go to extremes to defend the rightness of our position on something.

Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus contains an interesting exchange that the other Gospels don’t include. John the Baptist protests, with some cause, that it is he who should be baptized by Jesus. He recognizes that his is the lesser calling, that he is the forerunner, not the Messiah. And he’s right. But Jesus tells him, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” This is a bit of a mouthful. We might be inclined to say, “It’s okay, let it slide for now.” It’s a recognition that there’s a larger perspective, a bigger picture, than the immediate issue at hand. In the case of Jesus and John, Jesus knows that his ministry is just beginning and must be seen to be part of the bigger story of salvation, that began with creation, with the calling of the chosen people, the exodus and the words of the prophets. He is the fulfillment of all that has gone before, not a renegade bursting on the scene set to take over and dominate everyone around him. He doesn’t need to prove that he’s greater than John the Baptist.

We see a similar attitude in the other two readings for this feast. The prophet Isaiah notes that gentleness is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Servant of the Lord: “A bruised reed he shall not break, / and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, / until he establishes justice on the earth.” And in the second reading, we hear a bit of the revolutionary turn of events in the house of the gentile Cornelius. Peter, the leader of the Jerusalem church in the days after the resurrection and ascension, has been somewhat uneasy about Paul’s mission to the gentiles. In the early days of the Christian community, the question of the place of Jews and gentiles in the new dispensation was one of the biggest questions that needed to be resolved. So this event dramatizes Peter finally accepting that the gentiles were equal to the Jews. He proclaims, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”

Again and again the Scriptures remind us that God is bigger than our human boundaries and power struggles. At times it takes a great deal of faith to believe that God has a higher purpose than we can discern at any given time. And the more we’re invested in a conflict, the harder it is to let God be God. We fall into the trap of needing to be right, and needing others to see that we’re right. And we don’t always care who we trample in our stampede toward rightness.

It can be helpful in a difficult situation to take a step back and reflect on the difference between what’s merely right and what’s righteous, on the difference between human judgment and divine justice. The baptism of Jesus, like so many other events in his life and ministry, reminds us that while he closed the gap between the human and the divine, he did it in such a way that we would be able to resist the temptation in the Garden of Eden to be merely like gods. Through Jesus, we, too, are children of God. If we live that way, others will listen to us.

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When we hear the phrase “speaking truth to power,” we usually think of those particularly courageous and prophetic figures who confront tyrants and oppressors, often at the cost of their own lives. And while such people are essential to our world and our church, many, if not most, of us know in our hearts that we can’t be like those people. But facing this truth about ourselves doesn’t mean that we give up our values, our beliefs, our commitment to positive change. It just means we need to find our own way.

We each have unique gifts to offer the world, and today’s solemnity of the Epiphany reminds us that we are called, first and foremost, to bring those gifts to the newborn King, the Messiah, the Christ child, the Lord of all who was born in a humble stable in Bethlehem.

The story from Matthew’s Gospel about the visit of the Magi that forms the basis of this feast shows us that the kingdom of God will always be at odds with the kingdoms of this earth. Were these visitors kings, wise men, astrologers, astronomers, philosophers? We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that they were seekers. Their field of study had led them to an awareness of a great event taking place in a distant land, one that was worth a long and arduous journey, the journey of a lifetime.
When they arrive in Jerusalem, their natural expectations are met with confusion, suspicion and subterfuge. King Herod, threatened by the idea of a new ruler supplanting him, subverts the work of his own scholars and wise men to find out the answer to the magi’s question for his own purpose. But the men from the east continue on their journey. They arrive in Bethlehem, worship the child and present him with symbolic gifts: gold for kingship, frankincense for divinity, myrrh for the death that he would both endure and conquer. And the reading concludes with a telling sentence: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.”
As I reflect on this, I find myself thinking of a number of questions, all of them slightly disturbing. Was it their coming to Jerusalem with their curiosity and questions that alerted the wicked king to the baby’s existence? If they hadn’t asked, would the prophecies naming Bethlehem as the Messiah’s birthplace have remained in the dusty custody of the Torah scholars? We know that Joseph was similarly warned in a dream to take the child to Egypt, but might it have prevented the deaths of all those babies? They didn’t return to Jerusalem and Herod with the specific location of the child, but had the damage already been done? Clearly they weren’t in a position to stop Herod. What could three foreigners do in the face of that notorious despot?

Two thousand years later, we still wrestle with these same issues. What is our role, our responsibility? How do we confront the despots in our life? What do we do to protect the innocent, whether it’s one child or many? Epiphany refers to the manifestation of God’s presence in our human world, the showing forth of the kingdom of heaven. The Magi found the child because they sought him. Herod sought only his own power and destruction followed in his wake but he didn’t find the child. Faced with the choice of darkness or light, destruction or peace, which will we choose?

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