Thursday, February 14, 2013

Flailing on the Operating Table?

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2013

“Woe is me, I am doomed.”  This seems to be the most common response of someone who has an authentic call from God to minister to his people.

And this might seem a bit strange, given that we know because of Christ that our God is a God of love and mercy and not of wrath of vengeance.  It would seem that those who would experience him most intimately would be comforted by his presence and set at ease by his love.  And yet it is interesting that in the inspired scriptures of the Church, those who encounter God most intimately so often were overcome by fear and the sense of being unworthy.  Moses was petrified when he saw the burning bush, Jeremiah felt he was too young, Isaiah as we hear today, did not feel worthy.  We could list a whole litany of other prophets and kings who trembled before the presence of God.  Some might say, “Oh, well that’s because the God of the Old Testament was severe and full of wrath.” but this is hardly borne out when we read the New Testament, is it?  Ss. Peter and Paul both reacted in the same way as the prophets before them when they were called by Christ: “Depart from me Lord, I am a sinful man.” St. Peter says.  Hardly the words of one who is confident or unafraid.  St. Paul’s encounter with Christ had left him blind and entirely disoriented.  In our second reading today, he reminds the Corinthians of his unworthiness and sinfulness, that he does not even consider himself fit to be called an apostle.

Does this mean, some might ask that we should start teaching our young people, and all Catholics for that matter, that they should be afraid of God?  Of course not.

But do we not have to somehow take account of this?  Can we really pretend that an experience of God should always be pleasant when it seems that for so many saints it really was not?

Now clearly many people have had incredibly pleasant encounters with God.  In fact, that is a huge understatement: the heights of joy and peace have been found in his presence by countless saints.  One only has to read the great mystics to know that intimacy with God is to be embraced by love himself, to be surrounded by love, to be filled with it – and that no greater joy can be found than this experience of God.  Indeed, that is what we all await in heaven, right?

But there is the rub – the heights of joy in God’s presence are experienced by saints.  Saints who are pure of heart and receptive to God’s grace, who are completely at home in his presence, whose wills are entirely aligned to God’s will.  Unfortunately, most of us don’t fall into that category.  And so our experience of being in God’s presence, of receiving his invitation to follow him, of growing in intimacy with him is not always easy.  Often, when we encounter God, we feel a kind of dividedness inside of us, in the will – a sense of friction, of being unsettled, of tension.  Sometimes, if we are clinging to sins or to worldly idols, God’s presence can even feel menacing, threatening.  Like a surgeon with a scalpel, or a dentist with a drill.  And we want to cringe, we want him to leave us alone.  Many times the experience of God drawing near to us downright uncomfortable.

As we enter into the season of Lent, these readings provide us with a valuable reflection.  They remind us that those whom God calls he also purifies, and that this work of purification and healing is often difficult.

Rather than resisting this redemptive work of God, like a patient flailing about on the operating table, or squirming on the dentist’s chair, lent invites us to enter into this penitential season with trust and courage.  The courage to stand before God.  And maybe we will tremble a bit – not because we don’t trust him but because we know how much work he has to do on us, we know how serious the illness is, how attached we are to idols that need to go.  If we find ourselves a bit anxious, a bit apprehensive about serious spiritual renewal, then our readings today remind us that we are in good company.  

But remember: Isaiah held still as the burning ember was touched to his mouth.  St. Peter did not jump out of the boat.  They knew that whatever they had to endure, whatever they would be asked to leave behind, whatever discipline they would need embrace – these things would be but light afflictions compared with the joy that awaits those who are united to God’s will and vessels of his love.

May we be given the same grace as we enter into this penitential season: the grace to be humble and courageous in placing our lives before the Lord.  He wishes to heal us, to purify us, and then to send us into the world to proclaim his love and mercy to all people.  May we not shrink back at his approach, turn away from his invitation, but instead even though our knees weaken a bit, though our palms begin to sweat – may we humbly place our lives before him this lent: through our reception of the sacrament of penance, and through our increased prayer, penance and almsgiving.

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