No one can look on the face of God and live. The Hebrew Scriptures say that. I wonder why. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean to sound presumptuous. The awesomeness of God is beyond imagining. Humankind is made in the image and likeness of God. God is the source of our being and our destiny. We must be called to see God. Perhaps we do see, but are unaware.
The majesty and glory of the transcendent God fill the whole earth, and yet strikes terror in Isaiah’s heart. The contrast is obvious: the holiness of God versus the sinfulness of Isaiah. Woe is me! But if God’s glory fills the whole earth then Isaiah has been looking into the face of God all along, albeit unawares. That glimpse into the transcendent strikes the terror, as if in a moment scales fall from his eyes. Or is it to emphasize the otherness of God and God’s distance from humans that causes the terror and the awe? After all, if Isaiah could see, he would recognize the face of God all about him and in the visage of each person into whose eyes he looked. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said: The earth is charged with the grandeur of God. Perhaps it is safer to be unaware.
Obviously there had been some association between those fishermen washing their nets, and among them, Simon, and Jesus. A first encounter would hardy have resulted in Jesus climbing into Simon’s boat and ordering him to push off shore. Jesus’ reputation already had begun to build. He was becoming the topic of conversation among the locals. People had begun to speculate about whom he might be when he stood by the Lake of Gennesaret that day and began to break open the word of God. The crowds pressed in and strained to hear him because they were starved for the word. It had been one of those periods of long duration during which the voice of God had not been heard in the land. Then Jesus spoke. The people lapped up his words as pups might the scrapes left from a meal.
Simon, James, and John all had heard his words and may well have been fascinated. Hearing Jesus did not make them uncomfortable in his presence. Simon even grumbled when, once away from the shore, you directed him to lower the nets after they had fished the night through and had caught nothing. Nevertheless, he did as Jesus asked. That is incipient trust. Peter is comfortable with Jesus. But then came the fish. Night-long-empty nets became engorged with fish. Simon had caught his share before on other outings. What made the difference this time? What brought Simon to his knees before Jesus and made him call Jesus, Lord? Did his face change as it would on the mountain of transfiguration? Did the heavens part again as they had over the Jordan? Probably not.
That moment of connection became for Simon and the others a glimpse of the glory that Isaiah saw the year King Uzziah died. All of that glory they saw blazing out from Jesus. Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man. Who can look on the face of God and live? What sinner can come into such proximity with the All Holy?
What they had yet to understand was that Jesus came to bridge the chasm between the divine and the human. It wasn’t Jesus’ intention to keep people on their knees, striking their breasts, as they gaze heavenward. Jesus has come to bring the human and the divine together, to heal the wounds, forgive the sins, and transform the relationship with the Divine forever. In an instant fish were not enough anymore for Simon. On the other hand, astonishment is not the response Jesus seeks. That just means that someone stands with gaping mouth before some spectacular moment. That’s when people ask: How did he do that? It is one thing to be caught up in the wonder of it all. It is another thing to become a disciple.
Depart from me Lord begins the transformation Jesus seeks, the transformation from a member of the crowds to a disciple, one who accepts Jesus’ invitation to accompany him on the way. When they brought their boats to shore they left everything and followed him.
I remember a moment from the past. I held a baby over the waters of the Font. Children pressed in on every side and jostled for the clearest view, not wanting to miss the moment. The infant gazed down at the moving waters and seemed to be transfixed as I began to lower him into the waters that are at once your tomb and your mother. There was no tension, nothing akin to fear, no bracing against the waters as I plunged him into the deep. As I raised him out of the water after the third dipping, he looked up and, beaming, laughed.
I saw the glory of the Lord and the wonder Jesus brought to me so many years before and now to the child in my arms. But in no way did I want Jesus to depart, not because I was unaware of my being a sinner, but because I believe that through Jesus the transcendent God, the omnipotent and all holy One has chosen to become immanent and to live in me and in this child in my arms. Through Jesus all those baptized into Christ become God’s beloved, never to be separated from God forever. Most wonderful of all, the sinner is forgiven.
Next Sunday we leave Ordinary time and begin our Lenten journey. The Catechumens among us will be journeying to the Font and their Baptism in the splendor of the Easter Vigil. Along their way they will be supported and inspired by the witness of your faith and your prayers for them. Perhaps the year past held its challenges of faith for you, to the point that you question whether you believe. Make the journey of Lent. Listen to the Word. Be strengthened and renewed by the witness of the Assembly around you. Then, when you reach the Vigil and the renewal of your own Baptism, you will see the glory in a new way and experience rebirth.
Pray along the way and let it happen. It is the Lord who beckons and will do it.
A prophet is usually thought of as a seer or fortuneteller. While it is true that sometimes within the prophetic utterance are contained negative implications should the people not respond to the prophecy, or the good fortunes should they change their lives, the primary role of the prophet is to be the voice of God, proclaiming those things God wants the people to hear. Always the call of the prophet is to conversion, a challenge to the people to change their ways and change their hearts so that they can be more obviously the Chosen People of God. The responsibility for the prophet is huge, as is the challenge for the prophet not to make himself the focus of the message. The prophet must become less and less that God might become all in all.
How would you feel should you sense the call to be a prophet? Given the times, wouldn’t you cringe and then try to pass the call on to those around you that you deem much worthier of the vocation? If you could sense the onus the prophetic role would bring you, well, all the more reason to run, wouldn’t you say?
I don’t know if Martin Luther King, Jr., would qualify as a reluctant prophet. There is evidence that he struggled before taking up the mantle. Who could have blamed him, given the violence of his times, had he confined himself to the pulpit and had never gone into the streets? That certainly would have been safer. But then there would not have been that transcendent moment on the night before he died when, like Moses just before his death, King gazed from the mountaintop into the Promised Land of Racial Equality, convinced that his brothers and sisters he had led on those harrowing marches would enter it without him, just as the Jews had without Moses.
Jeremiah was a reluctant prophet. When he heard the call he protested unworthiness because of his youth. Ah, Lord God, I know not how to speak. I am too young. But the Lord protests in return. The call to Jeremiah began before he was born. This was his vocation from his conception. Today I suppose we would say that being a prophet was in Jeremiah’s genes. It’s clear, too, that much of Jeremiah’s message will be difficult. People from the most powerful to the lowliest will reject him. But the foes will not defeat him because God will be with him and deliver him. If you know the story you know the dreadful perils Jeremiah experienced and his moments of desolation. He felt abandoned even as he had to cling to the belief that he was doing God’s will and God was with him.
The Gospel for this Sunday begins with the repetition of the final sentence of last Sunday’s proclamation. Remember the moment? Jesus has just stunned the people with the power of his reading from the Prophet Isaiah and Jesus’ declaration that today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing. To be stunned is one reaction. Another is to respond and change. Was it the sensing of the magnitude of the moment and the implications incipient in it that made the people want to deflect the prophecy from them? Isn’t this Joseph’s son is another way of saying, who does he think he is? Remember, we are in Nazareth where Jesus grew up. These people remember him as a child and know his parents. Now he proclaims himself to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Come on!
So it is that Jesus points out to them that they will not be the first of the Chosen People to reject the Prophet sent to them. The people rejected Elijah. The blessing of his prophecy came upon the Gentile widow of Zarephath instead of on the many widows in Israel. Elisha was rejected before his blessing came upon Naaman, the Gentile Syrian leper, instead of upon the many lepers in Israel. The people of Nazareth got the implications of Jesus’ message. He was telling them that they would not respond to the Good News of fulfillment that the proclaimed, but Gentiles would. They would experience God’s favor and blessing. And in a moment, great admiration morphs into outrage. Jesus’ neighbors want to throw him off a cliff.
What does all this have to do with you and me? Remember, this is the living Word of God that washes over us. How should we respond? What should be the impact on our lives?
How does the Word challenge you this week? Do not be too quick to respond. Sit with the Word for a few moments. Pay attention to what makes you uncomfortable. That may well be the beginning of the grace of the Spirit prodding. Are you called to take a prophetic stance regarding some local or national situation? Or, do you identify with Jeremiah and think of yourself as either too young or too inept? Are you the wrong gender or race? See the excuses we can take to ourselves that spare us from having to act. Don’t forget that you were chosen by God, gifted with faith, and were called to the Font, where you were baptized and given a new birth in Christ. The Font is a womb, you know. It is also a tomb. Baptism involves both dying and rising. The Lord drew you from the Font, having died to your former life, to live Christ’s life as God’s beloved. Youth is not an excuse to keep you from acting. Neither is gender nor race. God sent Jesus to bring glad tidings to the lowly. Is the Lord inviting you to go and do the same?
There is risk involved. Before you can make a decision about any of the above, you have to dare to be vulnerable under the Word. It is not enough to be like the people of Nazareth and be stunned by the message. Then the tendency is to think of all the others who would benefit from hearing it. As much as it confronts you or opens you to issues you would rather not face, the Word is sharper than any two-edged sword and is meant to penetrate to the very core or your being. That might make you tremble. That’s all right. If the Lord is calling you to conversion, to be a witness, to do anything in his name, he will also empower you with the grace to carry out the calling. That is the nature of vocation. You will notice a certain lack of specificity here. That is because there is a wide variety of vocations and no one vocation fits all – except, however, the vocation to put on Christ.
Paul has been telling us for the past several weeks that there are different spiritual gifts but the same giver. The same is true of vocation. There are many vocations in the Church. Recognize them all in the various members of the community and you will see the Body of Christ working today, meeting the many and sundry needs of God’s people.
At the same time there is one Spirit-inspired and grace-strengthened vocation for all; and that is the call to love. All of the other vocations flow from love. Without love, none of the others is valid. Love is patient. Love is kind. It is not jealous. It is not pompous. It is neither inflated nor rude, nor self-aggrandizing, nor quick tempered. And the list goes on. Love doesn’t brood over injury. It doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoing. It rejoices with the truth.
This love demands loving enemies, forgiving those who betray or harm you. This love must embrace all. If you put all the facets of love together that Paul puts before us, an image of Christ emerges. Essentially Paul’s vision of love is self-emptying, just the way Christ’s love is. Christ emptied himself of all the majesty and otherness that we associate with God that he might be like us in all things but sin. God is love. So is Christ. And so are we called to be.
Why else is the Eucharist at the center of our faith life? We come together as the assembly at various stages of faith, variously wounded, or disenchanted, even scandalized by experiences of Church. We listen to the Word and recognize ourselves, our needs for conversion and for strengthening grace, and we say, let it be in me and in us. We gather about the Table of the Eucharist to renew Christ’s dying and rising in bread and wine, and we say, let it be in me and in us. And somehow, if we enter into Mystery we experience that transformation and vocation and can be sent individually and collectively to be the continuing presence of Christ, ministering to in Christ’s love.
All this requires faith, believing in the message and the call, believing in the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. This faith gives rise to hope that one day the promise will be realized when Christ comes again. When he does come again, faith and hope will be no more. Only love endures forever.
Do you believe that?
Try, if you will, to identify with the people in the first reading. Have you ever been moved either to tears or to great exultation as the proclamation of the Scriptures, the Liturgy of the Word, washes over you? The truth is that such experiences ought to be the norm, rather than the exception. We believe it is the Living Word, after all. The Lord is present in the Word, just as Christ is present in the Eucharist and in the Assembly. Shouldn’t that encounter thrill us and change our lives? That is what is happening to those men, women and children old enough to understand as they assemble before Ezra, the priest. The people gathered around Jesus in Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry will be so moved as Jesus opens the scroll and reads from the Prophet Isaiah in today’s Gospel.
Part of the intensity of experience for those assembled in the first reading is due to their situation. This is the people newly restored to Jerusalem after having lived in exile and slavery during the Babylonian captivity. While in Babylon many had wandered from the Lord and gone after the gods of the Babylonians. Now they have returned to find the Holy City in ruins, the temple destroyed, all needing to be rebuilt.
Ezra stands on a special platform and holds the Scroll high so that all the people can see it as he proclaims from the Law from daybreak until midday. I won’t ask you how you think a reading of that length would go over today. But then probably we are not starved for the Word as those people were. Or, we may not recognize that we are.
We think of laws, even the Decalogue as repressive, curtailing our freedom. Believe it or not, that was not the Jews’ primary reaction to the Law. Hearing the Law proclaimed gave them an opportunity to examine their consciences and recognize how unfaithful to God they had been. Hence, they bowed down and wept as they felt sorrow for their sins. In the midst of their tears burst forth a resurgence of faith in the One whose love led their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. They raised their hands high and shouted, Amen! Amen! Why? Because the reading of the Law gave them an intense experience of this same Lord’s presence in their midst, the Lord who loved them and led them out of their captivity and restored them to the Promised Land. They remember they are God’s people. Even though they had been unfaithful, God has remained faithful to them and loving them, has restored them.
Imagine the power of Ezra’s reading and the fervor with which he proclaimed the reading to that assembly. The Spirit of God animated him and spoke through him. The proclamation touched the people in their vulnerability and strengthened them. God acted. The people reacted and woke to belief. To be similarly moved, perhaps we have to come before the Word similarly vulnerable and conscious that we are sinners, not to stay there, but to be awakened to and strengthened by our experience of God in our midst. We are to live in the love God has for all of us, forever.
Pardon an aside here. It is obvious that God gifted Ezra with the charism to read the Word. Today we would say that God gifted Ezra as a Reader or Lector. Notice, Ezra isn’t preaching, i.e., breaking open the Word. He is proclaiming the Law as it is written in the Torah. Sometimes I find listening to the proclamation of the Word at Mass a tortuous experience. Some of those who stand up in the midst of the Assembly and read from that platform designated for that purpose clearly do not have Ezra’s gift. There is no enthusiasm in the reading. Often words are mispronounced. The phrasing is pedestrian to poor. Sometimes it is clear that the Lector does not understand the reading, or is reading without having prepared it prior to the proclaiming of it.
Paul, in the second reading from the first Letter to the Corinthians, urges us to recognize that everybody does not receive the same gifts. There are different gifts but the same giver. Having a gift does not raise that person above the rest. Rather, the gift is a call to share that gift in the midst of those other and differently gifted people.
Sensing a call to a certain ministry is not a guarantee that that one has been so gifted. There ought to be a discernment process done through prayer and reflection by which it becomes clear to which ministry a person is being called by the Spirit working him him/her. Not everyone has the gift to Lector. Not everyone has the charism to Preach. Not everyone is an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist. The same is true for all of the other ministries needed for the parish to thrive. Where there is a ministerial need, the Lord provides so that the need can be met and the work of the Lord can be carried out and God’s people are ministered to.
The Gospel for this Sunday is from Luke, as will most of the Gospel readings for this Liturgical Year. The reading comes from two different chapters, the first and the fourth, combined to orient us in the journey we are beginning with Luke. Notice that Luke addresses the Gospel to Theophilus. Some say there was someone of significance by that name in Luke’s community, a wealthy person to whom Luke would address both his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Most commentators take their cue from the name’s translation and see that both books are addressed to One Who Loves God, that is, to you and to me. Take your pick. I won’t tell you which one I prefer. Luke also explains to the reader that he is a thorough researcher, has read other accounts, talked to eyewitnesses, and now is ready to write his own sequence of the events that evidence our salvation.
We come to Jesus’ return. From where? From the period of temptations in the desert. Having triumphed in that struggle, the Spirit that had led him into the desert for the temptations now leads him back to Galilee where his reputation is swelling rapidly among the people who marvel at his words and his deeds. Then he come to Nazareth, the town where he grew up, and goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day and in the midst of these people who have known his family, and him since his childhood, and stands to read to them from the Prophet Isaiah. Isaiah, as one animated by and anointed in the Spirit of the Lord, speaks of one who will be sent to bring good news to the poor, to set captives free, to restore sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.
The reading is a composite sketch of Jesus’ ministry. All of these charges are meant to remind the people of God’s undying and unconditional love for them. Jesus brings God’s love to the little ones, to the off scouring of society, so that they might know their favor with God. They are destined to live with God forever. The hungry will be fed. The little ones and the oppressed will be lifted up and freed. Wars will end. Jesus says that all this will happen in, with, and through him beginning today. That is thrilling, isn’t it?
What is a thumbnail sketch of Jesus’ ministry is also the same for the ministry of the Church, as Pope Francis continually reminds us. The work is not finished yet. There are still the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. There are still those who need to be convinced they are of worth regardless of their situation. Jesus’ primary focus is always on those insignificant members of society and those deemed to be sinners, or unclean, and therefore to be shunned. The Church is healthiest when it is clear that these same are of primary concern for the Church, and that those in the Church work tirelessly for the liberty and justice of all people and to bring sheep. Those who shepherded, do so in the midst of the sheep, as one of them, and not over them. That was the proclamation Francis made on that evening of his being named pope, when, dressed simply, he bowed before the people and asked them to pray for him.
Just as the Spirit led Jesus and inspired his ministry, so does the Spirit move in the Church today, inspiring members to take up those various responsibilities so that Jesus’ ministry can continue. What is necessary is prayer and discernment to recognize the Spirit’s movement and then for the courage to act. Of course the Church must support those who follow the Spirit’s lead, and those in leadership should not feel threatened by them.
The Church gathers for the Liturgy of the Word. Its Spirit-inspired proclamation will touch the hearers’ hearts. The Spirit-inspired preaching will nourish those gathered and transition them to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, where they will be transformed by the Sacrament they celebrate and the meal they share so that they can be sent to do what Jesus did and proclaim a year acceptable in the Lord. The time of fulfillment is now.