Third Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Neh 8:1-10, 1 Cor 12:12-14, 27; Lk 1:1-4, 4:14-21]
St. Teresa of Avila teaches that no one is so advanced in a life of prayer that one does not have to return very often to the beginnings, to go from a contemplative experience one hour to humble repetition of the Our Father and Hail Mary the next hour. Old Br. Peter McSweeney, a monk of New Melleray who died at the age of 96, knew this very well. In spite of his age, he never overcame his gruffness. He used to answer phone calls with an almost angry voice, something like this: “Hello, MONASTERY! WHAT DO YOU WANT?” When a monk went shopping in town he had to call Peter before coming home to ask if there was anything else to pick up. If not, Peter would say one word, “COME!” and abruptly hang up. During brother's final illness, he received a visit from the famous author, Dom Andre Louf. He asked Br. Peter what he had learned as a monk. Brother looked up from his pillow and replied in a gruff tone, “NEVER GIVE UP!” Then Dom Andre Louf said, “Br. Peter, when did you become a monk?” Peter paused for a moment before replying in a humble, gentler voice, “I have just begun.” Andre Louf was left speechless with awe!
We are never so advanced in seeking God by a life of prayer that we don't have to return very often to the beginnings, to learn afresh what it means to follow Christ. Today we are at the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Luke. We are hungry for union with God, we thirst for words of wisdom. On his fifty-first birthday a man named Jackson Brown, Jr., decided to jot down bits of wisdom that he and others had learned. He gathered them in a little book called “Live and Learn and Pass It On.” He writes, “I've learned you can't hug your kids too much.” An elderly man said, “I've learned that you can get by on charm for about fifteen minutes. After that you better know something.” A fifty-four year old woman learned that there are people who love you dearly but just don't know how to show it. A young man said, “I've learned that a smile is an inexpensive way to improve your looks.” And a seven year old child said, “I've learned that you can't hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk.” But the wisdom we seek is not just human but divine, to be united with Christ in all the mysteries of his life.
St. Luke spent his life learning Christ, seeking out eyewitnesses, recording their responses, investigating everything accurately, and writing it down in an orderly way for the most excellent Theophilus. Now this is a wonderful lesson. We believe that Sacred Scripture is the inspired Word of God, but it is also the result of hard work, careful historical research, a lifetime of learning from others, of seeking for true wisdom. Commentator William Barclay writes that, “God's inspiration does not come to one who sits with folded hands and lazy mind, but to one who thinks and seeks and searches. The word of God is given [divinely], but it is given to the person who is seeking it.” We are never so advanced in seeking God by a prayerful, holy life that we don't have to work at it, to overcome our sloth, to start over again and again.
St. Luke returned often to the whole story of Christ's life, from beginning to end. He wrote it down for the most excellent Theophilus—someone whose name means “Friend of God”—to teach us that we are all called to be most excellent friends of God, adopted by God, sharers in the divine nature.
St. Luke tells us that when Jesus returned to Nazareth, where he grew up, where he learned to pray, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath “according to custom.” These words are important. They occur only two more times in Luke's Gospel: first when Jesus goes to the Temple for the Passover each year as was the custom, and again when Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives as was his custom. Each time it refers to his life of prayer. Every Sabbath Jesus prayed with others in the synagogue. Every year Jesus celebrated the great feast of the Passover with all the people in Jerusalem. And every day Jesus prayed in solitude, going apart to be alone for awhile, sometimes all night long. St. Teresa of Avila describes prayer as an act of friendship, “conversing with God who we know loves us.” To be the most excellent friends of God means that we pray frequently, alone and with others, never giving up even when it's hard work and we have to return to the beginnings.
No one was ever more advanced in the life of prayer than Jesus. At his baptism and Transfiguration he experienced the height of mystical prayer. But a time came when all Jesus could do was pray a short form of the Our Father: “Abba, Father, if it be possible let this chalice pass from me. Yet, not my will but yours be done.” His Passion was very hard work, so hard that he sweat blood and cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But he never gave up. And when his work was done he could say, “It is finished,” and breathe his last.
Br. Peter never gave up either. When he closed his eyes for the last time I believe he heard one word from Christ, “COME!” And when Br. Peter saw Christ for the first time he knew that truly his life had just begun.
Third Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Mk 1:14-20]
In one comic strip Dagwood is sitting in an office with his feet propped up on his desk sound asleep, snoring loudly. His boss, the formidable Mr. Dithers, is standing in the doorway furious with anger, as a storm cloud rises over his head. He shakes Dagwood awake and says, “Do you ever wonder where you stand in the grand scheme of things?” Dagwood replies, “No, I never have.” “Do you ever wonder about your untapped potential?” He responds, “No.” “Do you ever wonder about what you will be doing five years from now?” Dagwood says, “No, I don't.” Mr. Dithers points to the door and yells, “WELL, START WONDERING! YOU'RE FIRED!”
Did the first apostles ever wonder about God's plans for them, their untapped potential, and their place in the grand scheme of things? Sure they did, and so do we. But the answers don't come all at once, do they? God's will is revealed gradually. In the course of a lifetime we have many calls from God. Look at the life of St. Andrew in particular. He had seven calls revealing his place in the grand scheme of things. (You can tell this is going to be a long homily!)
The first call that shaped Andrew's life was the very timing and place of his birth. Born as a Hebrew child in the time of Christ, he grew up with his brother, Simon, in Bethsaida, a city on the Northern edge of the lake of Galilee. It was a wealthy city because of its flourishing fishing industry. And it became even wealthier in their time because the tetrarch Philip developed Bethsaida into a vacation resort for the Roman occupiers of Palestine. Citizens of Bethsaida became multi-lingual, speaking Latin and Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. The parents of Andrew even gave him a Greek name. He grew up understanding and relating easily with the Romans and Greeks, a skill that would be important later on in his life as an apostle.
The fishermen of Bethsaida grew wealthy as they rubbed shoulders with the Gentiles who vacationed on the lakeside. But Jesus did not speak kindly about what went on there: “Woe to you, Bethsaida! … On the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you,” (Mt. 11:21f). That Andrew and Simon were not corrupted by the things of Caesar is a good indication their family gave first place to the things of God.
The second call that shaped Andrew's life came through John the Baptist. Andrew was an alert and fervent young man longing for the coming of the Messiah when he first heard the preaching of John. While Pharisees and Scribes were unable to make up their minds about the Baptist, Andrew, with a clear mind and ready heart believed him. Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe writes about those who respond to God's call: “Until one is committed to a task or inspiration, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. One elementary truth … is this: the moment you definitely commit yourself, then Providence moves in. All sorts of things happen to help you that would never otherwise have occurred, unless you are committed to act. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, which you could not have dreamed would come your way. Begin! Boldness has power in it.” Andrew, whose name means manly, courageous, did exactly that. And a whole series of new calls followed from his commitment to John the Baptist.
Andrew's third call came from Jesus himself. Among the followers of the Baptist, Andrew and another disciple were the only ones we know of who responded when John pointed to Jesus as the Messiah. They followed him and then asked Jesus where he was staying. So he invited them to come and see.
The fourth call that shaped Andrew's life came when he and his brother were casting their nets into the sea. In Greek the words of Jesus are stronger than a simple invitation to “Follow me” or “Come after me.” His words are insistent, a command, “COME HERE! AFTER ME!” Andrew and Simon, James and John immediately left everything. There was no group meeting, no discussion, no hedging, no delay. They didn't say, “We're busy now. Today isn't your day, and tomorrow doesn't look too good either.” Their commitment to discipleship was immediate, without reserve, without regret, without recall, just like our vows.
The fifth call that changed Andrew's life was his selection by Jesus from among many disciples to be one of the twelve apostles, to become witnesses, preaching, teaching, and bringing the good news to others.
His sixth call came through pious Greeks at Jesus' last Passover in Jerusalem. They wanted to see Jesus, to meet him and learn from him. The boy from Bethsaida used his language skills and his understanding of Greek and Roman culture to bring Gentiles to Jesus. St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Jerome, and St. Paulinus tell us that after Pentecost Andrew became an apostle to people in the land of Greece and bordering countries.
The seventh and final call in Andrew's life was to martyrdom by crucifixion. Here his untapped potential for making the ultimate sacrifice was fully realized. Andrew lived up to the meaning of his name with manly courage. “O good cross,” he said, “I have ardently loved you, long have I desired and sought you, receive me gladly into your arms, take me from among men, and present me to my Lord.”
Seven calls from the Lord came one after the other, consistent with the previous calls throughout the course of Andrew's life. His response to each call gave new shape to his life and prepared him for the next one. Like Andrew, in the course of a lifetime we have many calls from God that shape and reshape our lives.
As we enter into a new cycle of Ordinary Time the call of the first disciples, Andrew and Simon, James and John, reminds us to wonder at our place in the great scheme of things and how Jesus will keep calling us to even greater intimacy and deeper union with him both for ourselves and for others.
May we not be caught napping like Dagwood, but alert and fervent, ready to respond courageously to each new call, to each new development and unfolding of God's will in our lives.