Four in the Afternoon (homily)
January 18, 2009
Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
1 Samuel 3:3-19, 1 Corinthians 6:13-20, and John 1:35-42
What strikes me most in the gospel today is the sentence, “It was about four in the afternoon.” I don’t know. That time of day probably has some kind of symbolic meaning in the story, but what strikes me as I read it is just how ordinary it sounds. How random. Particular.
It was four in the afternoon.
Four in the afternoon is the hardest time of the day for me. It’s when I start snapping and snacking. My blood sugar is low then and that makes me cranky. My mind shuts down. And I’m hungry, too, and I just starting roaming around the kitchen stuffing things into my mouth. Whatever I can find.
We act like we don’t have bodies, but we do. We act like the body doesn’t matter, but it does. We act like it’s wrong to get hung up on little rules and sins. But it’s the little things that are the most dangerous, exactly because they’re little. They creep in and start to infect us, from the inside, like computer viruses. We are people with bodies, bodies in time, and the body is Christ’s, who is also in time, the body is sacred, and we have minds, too, and will, and we can just exert a little self control in those cranky times and those binging times when we do things we know we shouldn’t.
An Episcopalian friend of mine recently gave me a copy of a really lovely daily prayer, and the middle part of it puts this sweetly and beautifully: “In particular I will try to be faithful in those habits of prayer, work, study, physical exercise, eating, and sleep which I believe the Holy Spirit has shown to be right. And as I cannot in my own strength do this, nor even with a hope of success attempt it, I look to thee, O Lord God my Father, in Jesus my Savior, and ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit.” No, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over the little things, but neither should we let ourselves off the hook.
It’s interesting that Samuel is sleeping when the Lord calls him, so in the morning, I guess, when the mind and the body are open and susceptible, as is often the case in the scriptures--that the Lord comes in a dream, on the edge, in the darkness or the half darkness. God is always calling us, all of us, and it’s our bodies that are the receivers, our senses. He comes not in general and not in the abstract but in time, at particular moments, and that’s where are bodies are, too. So we have to tune them, clarify them. Our eyes. Our ears. This is exactly what I think John the Baptist is calling us to. “Behold,” he says. Pay attention. Think of how many people watched Jesus walk by and didn’t know, didn’t notice. The disciples apparently wouldn’t have known. They needed John as their mentor, to point Jesus out, as Samuel needed Eli, needed a mentor, to interpret for him the meaning of his own experience. And John is a model of that kind of seer, entirely clarified, there in the wilderness, his vision cleansed. He is present in his body and present in the moment and so when the Lord comes he can see him. Behold!
It’s not: Think. Argue. Debate. Read. Analyze. It’s behold. It’s go and see. It’s go spend a day with this man, this Jesus. We’re hiring somebody in the English Department right now. I just spent a week picking people up at the airport and taking them out to dinner. Vitas are fine, and writing samples are fine, but finally you’ve got to see the expressions on faces and hear the tenor of voices. Because it’s only when we spend time with people like this, are just in their presence, that somehow, in our bodies, we know. If this is true for a job candidate, how much truer for Jesus. A thousand times truer.
So time and the body. The moment. Recently I was visiting an elderly woman in the hospital. She has an inoperable brain tumor and doesn’t have long to live. She’s a writer, and she’s always been driven, but now, as she faces death, she’s becoming aware that only the moment matters. All we have is the moment, she told me. This moment. When I went to see her the other day in the nursing home, she was fast asleep, her gray hair fanned out around her face. She looked just like a little girl again.
Time and the body. The moment. And pattern. I guess that’s the other thing that strikes me today in the readings and that speaks to my own experience as a believer and someone who struggles to believe. Patterns and the Pattern. Because to discern the will of God in our lives is to keep track of what repeats itself. To know what God wills for us is to stay open and ready and to note how over time the same thing keeps happening, in the same way. That’s the sign. It’s not the first time that Samuel hears the Lord calling him, or the second, or even the third. It’s the fourth. The fourth.
Four in the morning and the fourth. I keep hearing people say that only the moment matters. I keep seeing people who are dying and how they face their death. I keep being humbled. I keep reading the scriptures and seeing patterns there, too, the Great Pattern, the Pattern that helps me interpret all these things that are happening to me, and it’s the pattern of dying to live, of surrendering, of dropping everything and following Jesus, of forgetting what I’m doing, tearing myself away from it, letting it go, and spending the day instead in the presence of Jesus, in the presence of the beautiful and the precious and the real.
At the end of every day think about what you’ve experienced, the good and the bad, the light and the dark. Consult your feelings, again and again. Over time the pattern will emerge. Follow the light. Every day, in your body, follow the light.
There’s another beautiful prayer I came across again the other day, from the great 20th century Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, and I want to end just by sharing it. I just want to give it to you, because it takes all these little meditations and brings them together, relates them, offers them up.
Lord Jesus Christ, let me know your will, your will for me, your will here and now, at this moment of my life. I know, O Lord, that I am forever trying to fashion your will according to my own wishes. I know the thousand tricks of argument my sinful heart uses, bargaining and haggling with my conscience until it gives in and only dictates what I want and what I like doing. Free me from my preconceived and false ideas of my life. Enlighten me. Give me the courage to be prepared for the unexpected demands you may make on me, the courage to justify your confidence in me, even in the things for which I think my strength is insufficient, the courage to believe that your strength is in my weakness and then to ask your will. Give me the moderation of the true and honest servant who knows that a small deed in your service counts more than a great rush of emotion and thousand enthusiastic intentions. You can do with me what you will, O Lord. You can hide your treasure in earthen vessels, you can hide the wonders of your overflowing grace in the mediocre and ordinary life of any person. But do not permit me to use this truth as a pretext behind which my heart can hide its cowardice, laziness, and mediocrity. This is never your will. Show me your will. Give me strength as a good and faithful servant to recognize your will and to fulfill it always.