In Ordinary Time, the readings at Sunday Mass follow a definite structure. The first reading, psalm and gospel all unite around a common theme. The second reading is usually taken from one of St Paul’s letters and follows its own chronology, that does not usually reflect the theme of the other readings.
So what is the theme for today?
We can put it like this: “the importance of staying in the presence of the Lord”. This can take many forms: adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, our time of personal prayer in our own prayer space, maybe praying the rosary or listening to sacred music while we are in our car or on public transport, going to work. While I was working at a secular job in England, I used to go to a nearby park at lunch-time, to eat my lunch and pray and read Scripture or a devotional book. Where and when doesn’t matter. The important thing is that we try , as much as possible, to be aware of God’s presence and connect with him during the day. We know that God is always present to us. Jesus promised at the end of Matthew’s gospel: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The very name for God in the Old Testament, Yahweh, means literally “I am” or “I will be”, in other words, I am with you always, or I will be with you always.
Yes, God is always present to us. But we are not always present to him. We get distracted and worry about many things, like Martha in the gospel story, fussing away among the pots and the pans, being gently chided by Jesus for not taking the time, like her sister Mary, to sit down with him and share time together (Luke 10:38-42). Don’t get me wrong, there certainly is a time when we need to be busy about our daily duties, but there must also be a balance-time when we sit with the Lord and pray. Prayer, without action following it, is futile, but equally action without prayer, to surround it and direct it, is blind. And certainly the way our world is set up nowadays does not encourage us to be mindful of God at all. When was the last time you heard a politician, for instance, in these days of the coronavirus, invoking God’s name, and leading us to pray for his protection and deliverance? There seems to be this general belief that, somehow, faith and prayer are private, or should be private, away from the public arena. But who made the world, and who gave us the laws by which to govern the world? God did. At least the President of the United States finishes off his addresses to the nation by saying: “God bless America.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if our political leaders in this country would do the same and say, “God bless Canada”?
That is a prayer you know. We are asking God to bless our nation, and God is happy to oblige. But He won’t force his blessing on us if we are not prepared to ask for it. How many of us believers, in our daily prayer, are in the habit of asking God to bless our nation – with peace, protection, deliverance from evil, etc?
Well, enough of that rant.
Let us get back to our theme for today: the importance of staying in the presence of the Lord. Our first reading contrasts the elderly priest, Eli, and his young helper, Samuel. Why does it take Eli three times to realize that it is God who is speaking to Samuel? They are after all in the temple or shrine of the Lord at night, when everything is locked up and everyone else has gone home to bed. So who else could it be? But Eli is not a good or holy priest, unfortunately. He probably started out as one, but somewhere along the way, as the opening chapters of the book of Samuel make clear, he lost his way, spiritually. He becomes lazy and complacent, carrying out his duties in a perfunctory fashion. As a priest, I can empathize. I know the temptation to cut corners, to pay lip service to one’s worship of God, but your heart is not really in it anymore.
The first clue to what is going on is that Samuel is meant to be Eli’s prodigy, his disciple and student, yet, as our first reading says, Samuel still does not know the Lord or his word. How can that be? Because Eli has not taught Samuel how to have a relationship with the Lord. And that is because Eli barely has one himself. (Why visions and prophecy were rare in those days.)
The second clue is that, when our first reading opens, Samuel is lying down near the ark of the covenant, where the presence of God was believed to dwell, but Eli is in his own room , away from the presence of the Lord. When you are weak in your spiritual life, or in outright sin, and you know it, you tend not to want to be too near God’s presence, in case your conscience starts troubling you and pointing out to you where you are failing God and your religious duty. Eli’s sight and hearing are failing, not because he is getting physically older, but because his spiritual sight and hearing are dimming , and he can barely recognize God’s voice for himself, let alone for others.
Eli not only is falling down with regards to his spiritual duty as a spiritual father to the nation, but he is also falling down with regard to his ordinary duty as a biological father to his two sons, both also priests. We learn in the previous chapter that they are priests behaving badly, taking for themselves meat which should be offered to God, and sleeping around with the women hanging around the temple. But Eli merely says “Tut, tut, naughty boys, you shouldn’t be doing that” but takes it no further, so of course his sons ignore him, as they are ignoring God, whom they are supposed to be serving as priests. When the spiritual rot starts at the top, it will soon enough find its way down. Which is why we who are biological or spiritual parents have a double responsibility: both to our God, and to our children, to teach them the ways of God, and model that for them by own actions. Eli fails on both counts, and knows it – he has already been warned about it twice , by God, yet merely shrugs his shoulders and says “in effect, que sera, sera.” There is a spiritual state, brothers and sisters, and it is a very serious one, that of spiritual inertia, the state of spiritual passivity, apathy, complacency, when we can hardly be bothered to give God a thought, when the idea of prayer is itself unpleasant, when we can’t take the trouble to anymore go near the church or have anything to do with it, or God. As we head down the road of spiritual deterioration, which leads to spiritual death and hell, our conscience may initially stir and try to provoke us to turning round and making our way to God, but we gradually learn to dull the voice of conscience and surrender to a life centred round our own comfort and pleasure. I wonder, for instance, how many people now watching this from afar, will bother coming back to church once the virus is over? How many already, before the virus, have only bothered to come to church at Easter or Christmas, or when their children were baptized , or made their first communion , or were confirmed? Their Sundays are spent running their children to hockey or soccer, or music practices, or other family activities, or simply working. Nothing wrong with any of that, of course, in its right place, but then, family or work are not meant to be our first priority as parents. God has to be first and centre for us, and we must bring our children up to know that, and to encourage them to follow our example of giving God first place in our lives. Eli is condemned by God because he “honours his children ahead of honoring God” (1 Samuel 2:29).
Brothers and sisters, what kind of example of honoring God first, are we ourselves giving to our children, whether biological or spiritual?
Contrast the scene in our gospel. Here we see John the Baptist with two of his disciples, Andrew and another one. John knows his mission in life is to point out Jesus as the Messiah and to prepare the people of Israel to welcome him as their Savior, the anointed one of God. So when John points to Jesus and says “Look, here is the Lamb of God”, his disciples don’t expect to see a little lamb skipping along. They have been with John some time, they have absorbed his teaching, together they have pored over the Jewish Scriptures about the coming Messiah. They know the stories of the Passover lamb whose blood was sprinkled over the door posts of the Jews’ homes in Egypt, on the night that God punished the Egyptians for mistreating his people and strikes down their first-born sons, but “passed over” the homes covered by the lamb’s blood. They knew all about lambs being sacrificed as sin-offerings to God in the Temple. They had read the passage from Isaiah 53: 4-5 about the Messiah sacrificing his life so as to be THE offering to God which would take away the sins of a guilty world. Taking all that into consideration, these disciples knew that John, their master, their guide, was pointing to Jesus to be the Messiah, and was telling them, in so many words “That’s it guys, I ‘ve taken you as far as I can. Leave me and become disciples of Jesus instead.” That is our role as spiritual parents and guides ,brothers and sisters, to teach our spiritual or biological children the ways of God, but above all, to help them develop their own personal relationship to Jesus, who will take them the rest of the way of their lives, to their eternal destiny in heaven. If we have spiritual inertia or laziness or complacency ourselves, like Eli, we will never be able to help our children come to know and love Jesus for themselves. We will have failed in our spiritual duty towards God, no matter whatever else we might have passed onto our children.
The two disciples do not waste time, therefore, but immediately set off to follow Jesus. In the gospels, the word “to follow” always implies discipleship, which involves spending time with your spiritual guide and master, getting to really know them, absorbing their teaching and their lifestyle, so as to be able to perfectly imitate them in our own way of life. The disciples are said to “stay with Jesus” the whole day, no doubt in listening and speaking with him, learning from him, becoming convinced that he truly was the Messiah and Savior. Learning and listening are the essence of a relationship with Jesus, they are what spending time in his presence is all about. From there flows the desire to tell others what we have learned about Jesus, and lead them to discover Jesus for themselves. This is the new evangelization that recent popes have been urging us to pursue – bringing Jesus to a world of spiritual barrenness and bankruptcy and bringing that world to Jesus, one person at a time.
Are you ready for that challenge, brothers and sisters, am I? But be advised, we will never be willing or able for such a challenge if we have not first learned to spend time regularly in the presence of the Lord.
Let that be our new year’s resolution, and let’s make this one stick , shall we?