Sunday, January 17, 2021

Speak, Lord.

Today’s readings are clearly ordered around the theme of the call. In the first reading we heard the charming story of the call of the young Samuel and in the Gospel the call of the first disciples. As you remember, Samuel’s mother Hannah had prayed at the temple before the Lord, in bitter tears over the humiliation of her barrenness, that she be granted a child, and when the Lord granted her desire, in gratitude, after the child was weaned, she brought the child to the Temple to be dedicated to the Lord, as she had promised in her prayer. Eli was responsible for his upbringing, education, and initiation into a life of service to the Lord.

Eli and John the Baptist are both entrusted with the important task of preparing future servants of God for their particular mission. Both are models for us because they recognize that a divine call is a very delicate thing. It is a mystery that comes entirely from the divine initiative and is perceived by the person in the secret depths of the heart. Both Eli and John manage not to interfere in any way with the divine initiative, yet on the other hand, they don’t step away from the responsibility of giving assistance.

Eli, we see, acts with much wisdom. When he suspects that it is the voice of God that Samuel is hearing, he simply advises him in being wholly available to the Lord with an open, peaceful heart. Go back to sleep, he says, and if you are called reply, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

With John it is similar. In today’s passage, he says just one thing. “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Everything else is left to the disciples and the Lord. This one phrase sums up John’s whole life’s meaning and purpose: to point people to the Lord. He did this by calling them to “make straight the way of the Lord” that is, restore the conditions of the original covenant relationship with God, where God can communicate himself freely and everything is light and fire. It is there that the heart of God will disclose itself, in the appearance of his beloved Son. It seems to me it would have been the same with his disciples, the aim would have been to bring them to  the purity of the original covenant, insofar as this is possible in our fallen condition, where they can respond freely to God’s free self-disclosure when it comes, in a state of watchful attentiveness, free of all calculation, setting up no conditions, presuming nothing, in pure love.

When Samuel believes that it is Eli who is calling him, he runs to him. Part of what is touching in this scene is Samuel’s spontaneous, natural, unaffected, and unguarded response. He believes he hears his guardian’s voice, rouses himself immediately from his slumber, and runs to him and says, “Here I am, you called me.” It is the response of a child, of one of the ‘little ones’ Jesus held up for our example.  It is the response God is looking for. It is the straightforward, simple, trusting gift of self that John no doubt hopes to instill in his disciples. It is the response Jesus is looking for from John’s disciples.

After the third time, once Samuel had received Eli’s instructions and gone back to sleep, the text says that Lord came to Samuel’s bed and stood there, calling out to Samuel by name as before. Clearly, the intent is to portray a great paternal care and intimacy on the part of the Lord toward Samuel. God appears first as a voice that for Samuel is indistinguishable from a human voice. Next, he is said to be standing next to his bed. This is not an angel sent by God but God himself. Obviously, this is metaphoric language; nevertheless, remaining God, he all but becomes flesh. Yet he comes in the darkness of night, in the realm between sleep and wakefulness, where all is unseen and remains in mystery. By God’s own initiative the borders between the divine and the human are as thin as possible.  Samuel responds to the Lord with the same simple, unaffected spontaneous simplicity he had shown before.

In the Gospel, the two disciples in their own way show the same trusting gift of self that Samuel did. On the basis of the Baptist’s witness, they follow Jesus. There is nothing naïve, imprudent, or headlong about this. God can ask for this kind of response because once he makes himself known, we are immediately caught up to him, and he imprints us with his seal. At once a claim has been made on us and calls for a response. It cannot be ignored or undone. A choice must be made. The simpler, purer, more open, and genuine the interior space is that this encounter finds, the more spontaneous and generous the response.

The disciples ask the Lord, “where are you staying.” Jesus answers, Come and you will see.” When the disciples accept his invitation, they begin the process of being introduced into his world, which is primarily his life with the Father in the Spirit, the deepest thing he wants to share. In the farewell discourses, Jesus makes much of this staying, abiding, or remaining with him in the Father. He tells them that although he is going away, he is preparing a place for them in the Father’s house, where there are many rooms; that where he is they may be also.

Abide in me, he tells them, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me… Abide in my love, he says. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” His commandment is that they are to love one another, even as he has loved them. By this, all will know that they are his disciples if they have love for one another.

For the apostles, this loving one another will take a particular shape: carrying out their mission as apostolic witnesses. For Samuel, it meant carrying out his prophetic calling. In neither case will it be easy. Abiding in God will have its cost. To close, I want to look at Samuel’s first taste of this abiding. After Samuel says, “Speak, for your servant is listening,” the Lord tells him his intention to condemn the house of Eli once and for all on account of the blasphemous behavior of Eli’s sons Hophni and Phineas. Thus Samuel is entrusted with his first prophetic act. It is a moment of crisis for him. When morning comes, Samuel is afraid to tell Eli the vision. But Eli insists and Samuel tells him everything, holding nothing back, just as Eli has requested of him. By this act, Samuel manages to maintain the same simplicity he had before, and his union with God and his neighbor is not only maintained but strengthened. In him, the way of the Lord has been kept straight. He continues to abide with the Lord in the light and fire at the heart of the covenant.

The text continues:  "Samuel grew up, and the Lord was with him, not permitting any word of his to go unfulfilled. Thus all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba came to know that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.  The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, manifesting himself to Samuel at Shiloh through his word. Samuel's word spread throughout Israel.   

For us, this abiding takes the shape of our monastic conversatio. Through it the Lord is constantly calling us to abide with him, to remain with him where his light and fire can transform us and make our lives fruitful and where we experience a share in the joy he has with the Father. This journey does not always go smoothly, as was the case with Jesus’ first disciples. But the Lord, who loved to the end those who were his own, through his cross and resurrection established the means to right the relationship no matter badly or how often his followers have gone astray. Fortunately for us, he is always ready to begin again. So let us take up his invitation to “come and see” by continuing our celebration of this Eucharist.

Photograph by Brother Brian. This morning's homily by Father Timothy.