Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Personal God who Calls Us By Name: 2nd Sunday in OT

George Lucas’ concocted an interesting religion for his Star Wars film series by combining elements of Christianity and eastern religion.  Ultimate reality, or “God,” in Star Wars turns out to be “the Force,” an impersonal power with a “dark” and “light” side, similar to the way many forms of eastern religion conceive of the divine.  So, instead of the Christian farewell “May God be with you,” Star Wars characters say, “May the Force be with you!”

Is that the ultimate nature of reality?  An impersonal force which is neither good nor evil but somehow combines both?  Or does nature ultimately come from a loving and personal Being, who created us for a relationship with Himself?

The readings for this Sunday’s Mass come down clearly in favor of the personal view of God and reality.

1. Our First Reading recounts the call of Samuel, one of Israel’s greatest prophets, the one who would ultimately anoint Israel’s greatest king, David:

Reading 1 1 Sm 3:3b-10, 19
Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD
where the ark of God was.
The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, "Here I am."
Samuel ran to Eli and said, "Here I am. You called me."
"I did not call you, " Eli said. "Go back to sleep."
So he went back to sleep.
Again the LORD called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli.
"Here I am, " he said. "You called me."
But Eli answered, "I did not call you, my son. Go back to sleep."

At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD,
because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet.
The LORD called Samuel again, for the third time.
Getting up and going to Eli, he said, "Here I am. You called me."
Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth.
So he said to Samuel, "Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply,
Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening."
When Samuel went to sleep in his place,
the LORD came and revealed his presence,
calling out as before, "Samuel, Samuel!"
Samuel answered, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him,
not permitting any word of his to be without effect.

The LORD calls Samuel by his name in an audible voice—a rare but not unheard-of privilege in salvation history.  Nothing is more personal than a name.  We all love to hear our name called, and perk up our ears when we hear it.  We’ve all experienced the awkwardness of forgetting someone’s name—sometimes even the name of someone we know fairly well, but if we run into them after a lapse of a few years, or in a context where we don’t usually meet them (like at the grocery store), our memory temporary fails us.  Unable to evoke their name, we can’t renew our relationship with the person. Comedians have commented on this phenomenon (

God knows us by name.  He is personal, and knows us as persons.  That’s part of what it means to be made in the image of God.
In this Reading, Samuel provides us an example of growth in faith.  Many of us are “cradle Catholics” or at least “cradle Christians”—we grew up raised in Christian homes, learning to pray and worship from childhood.

Yet for each of us, there comes a time when we have to embrace a personal relationship with God, a direct relationship no longer mediated by our parents or others who may have raised us.  We have to come to an awareness that God has a unique call and purpose for our lives, and we have to embrace that vocation.  If we never make this transition, we end up losing the faith or simply “going through the motions” for the rest of our lives.

At the beginning of this Reading, Samuel’s relationship to God is mediated through his adopted father, the priest Eli.  But by the end of the narrative, Samuel has learned to hear God for himself and submit to God’s will for his life.  In fact, the message that God delivers to Samuel (1 Samuel 3:11-18) actually concerns judgment on Samuel’s mentor, Eli.
We all have to go through this maturation of faith, and sometimes—as in the case of Samuel—this maturation and personalization call us to move beyond the spirituality of our parents, mentors or elders, into a deeper and more radical faith. Sometimes, for example, parents who passed their faith on to their child will oppose that same child’s vocation to priesthood or religious life. But Jesus says, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37).  We must be open to that call, while never harboring disrespect or disdain for those who raised or mentored us.

R. The Responsorial Psalm continues to pursue this theme.  The traditional Hebrew text labels Psalm 40 “a psalm of David,” and we are to understand the Psalm as his words of prayer to God:

Responsorial Psalm Ps 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10
R. (8a and 9a) Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.
I have waited, waited for the LORD,
and he stooped toward me and heard my cry.
And he put a new song into my mouth,
a hymn to our God.
R. Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.
Sacrifice or offering you wished not,
but ears open to obedience you gave me.
Holocausts or sin-offerings you sought not;
then said I, "Behold I come."
R. Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.
"In the written scroll it is prescribed for me,
to do your will, O my God, is my delight,
and your law is within my heart!"
R. Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.
I announced your justice in the vast assembly;
I did not restrain my lips, as you, O LORD, know.
R. Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.

David was remembered in Israel’s history for the intensity of his relationship with the LORD, an intensity captured in the deeply personal and emotional language of so many of the psalms.  David uses strong language to emphasize that merely going through the formalities of worship does not satisfy God’s will for us:

Sacrifice or offering you wished not,
but ears open to obedience you gave me.
Holocausts or sin-offerings you sought not;
then said I, “Behold I come.”

The words are not to be taken strictly literally—both Samuel and David worshipped God in the public liturgy and offered sacrifices as prescribed by Moses.  But this is typical Hebrew hyperbole to express the idea that external worship is not pleasing without the interior and personal consent of our will.  Obedience to God’s will, the embrace of his purpose for our life—these are fundamental:

To do your will, O my God, is my delight,
and your law is within my heart!

This verse dispels instantly the false notions of God’s law that are so prevalent in Church and society nowadays.  God’s law is contrasted with faith, such that the two seem in opposition.  If anyone speaks up in defense of the moral law of God, or stresses the need to follow it, that person is labeled a “Pharisee,” some kind of religious sociopath who gets delight in telling others what they ought not to do.  So parents, teachers, and priests are afraid to talk about morality and the Ten Commandments, because even prelates of the Church appear to promote a view of God that separates love and faith from obedience to the law.

How different was David’s experience of God’s law!  For him, the law of God was delightful, like a path of safety marked out before him in the treacherous terrain of this world.  God’s law taught David what was truly helpful, healthy, and good, so he could see it clearly and desire it.  For David, God’s law was the path of love: it showed him clearly how he could express and maintain his love toward God.  So David writes, “To do your will is my delight!  Your law is within my heart!”  Similarly, St. John the Apostle writes: “This is love for God, that we keep his commandments.  And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2-3).

How wonderful it would be if Christians today were to rediscover that God’s law, in all its expressions, is an expression of his love and a pathway to love for him.  Sin is really never loving or helpful.  God’s mercy does not simply condone our sin but leave us in it.  God’s mercy empowers us to leave a life of sin and walk in God’s ways, which are pleasant, wholesome, and just. “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).   

God’s law provides us the parameters and instructions for entering into and maintaining a relationship of intimacy with him.  That is why David connects God’s law with the heart: “your law is within my heart!”  In so saying, David anticipates the New Covenant, where God’s law will be written on the heart through the Holy Spirit.  So Jeremiah says “this is the covenant which I will make … after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it up their hearts” (Jer 31:33). We believe that this happens to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation. 

Jeremiah follows up this statement with a variation of the ancient Israelite wedding vow: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”  This is probably based on the ancient Israelite phrase, “I will be your husband, and you shall be my wife.” The relationship God desires for us is so profoundly intimate that the Scriptures speak of it using the image of marriage, and St. Paul draws out the implications for our sexual activity in the Second Reading:

2. Second Reading: 1 Cor 6:13c-15a, 17-20:

Brothers and sisters:
The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord,
and the Lord is for the body;
God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?
But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with him.
Avoid immorality.
Every other sin a person commits is outside the body,
but the immoral person sins against his own body.
Do you not know that your body
is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,
whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?
For you have been purchased at a price.
Therefore glorify God in your body.

Contemporary atheist culture views sex as merely a physical act whose purpose is pleasure.  The result is that people in modern society experience sex with more and more partners, but with less and less love.  In the words of from a famous80’s song by Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it? It's physical, only logical” (  Recent scandals have shown us the Hollywood (Harvey Weinstein etc) was and doubtless still is a sick subculture of sexual abuse and guilty silent complicity.  Politics has been like that for a long time (too many to name). So is the world of TV journalism, as we recently discovered (Matt Lauer etc).  So is the world of Silicon Valley, as the newly-wealthy nerds who founded tech firms arrogate themselves to think they represent a new “evolution” in human sexuality, an “evolution” that is actually a regression to ancient paganism: see here.

So the leaders of our culture—whether in entertainment, journalism, politics, or technology—practice a form of sexuality that is completely alien to the concepts of self-sacrificial love, exclusivity, and lifelong fidelity, and adjectives like "tender", "affectionate," "faithful", "pure."  In fact, they heap scorn on the idea of Christian marriage and the people in middle America who still practice it.

But this flows from their atheistic worldview, that views the cosmos as an impersonal accident, a meaningless flux of the space-time matrix, where, in the words of self-appointed prophet Richard Dawkins, “There is, at bottom . . . no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”  If we are all just cosmic accidents, what meaning can love have anyway?  Only real persons can love.  Biological machines accidentally descended from an amoeba can’t love, they can only follow biological urges to reproduce their selfish genes.  That’s why modern atheist society, based on the worldview of Darwinism, celebrates every sexual expression, no matter how unnatural or transient, observing only the principle of mutual consent (well … not even that, for those at the top).

The Bible obviously does not view sex this way.  In the Scripture, sex is a physical act with a personal meaning.  The meaning is a total gift of self.  Even in the Old Testament, a sexual act obligated a man to marry the woman he slept with (Exod 22:16).  He had to live up to the meaning of the statement he had made with his body; in other words, he had to care for her, provide for her, protect her, and grant her intimate access to his own body, for the rest of his life.  The meaning of the sexual act is not conventional (that is, decided by consent of persons in society).  The meaning of the sexual act is inherent in itself.  The meaning is, at base, covenantal.  The sexual act is an attempt to make one’s partner a member of one’s family.  By attempting to conceive a child with another person (because that’s what the sexual act is—an attempt to conceive) you are inherently saying: “I take you as my spouse—I want to have and raise children with you.” [Pope Francis teaches clearly and in vigorous language that sexuality is ordered to conception and no sexual act is moral if it is not open to conception: Amoris Laetitiae  §80].

Sex has a spiritual dimension—it is the uniting of persons, not just bodies.  Through baptism and the Eucharist, all of us are wed to Christ first and foremost.  We are joined to him body and spirit, and not free to “share” ourselves with others.  We belong to Someone who knows, loves, desires us personally.  In answer to Tina Turner’s question, “What’s love got to do with it?”; we can say, “Love has a great deal to do with it, Tina!”  But hers was a cry of anguish, of a person who did not experience the exclusive and faithful love of a husband that should have been expressed by the sexual act.

So in this Second Reading, St. Paul calls us away from all immorality, which would be any sexual act outside the context of a life-long, exclusive, covenantal relationship between one man and one woman, which is the only appropriate context for the conception and bearing of children, which is what sexuality is ordered to.  [This is why Pope Francis urges young people to live chastity before marriage: see here.]

G. The Gospel Reading is a passage of John taking from the aftermath of the Baptism in the Jordan, which we celebrated this year on Monday (when Epiphany falls on Jan 7 or 8, the Baptism is celebrated the following day rather than the following Sunday).  The narrative emphasizes the personal call of each of the disciples:

Gospel John 1:35-42
John was standing with two of his disciples,
and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said,
"Behold, the Lamb of God."
The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus.
Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them,
"What are you looking for?"
They said to him, "Rabbi" - which translated means Teacher -,
"where are you staying?"
He said to them, "Come, and you will see."
So they went and saw where Jesus was staying,
and they stayed with him that day.
It was about four in the afternoon.
Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter,
was one of the two who heard John and followed Jesus.
He first found his own brother Simon and told him,
"We have found the Messiah" - which is translated Christ -.
Then he brought him to Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said,
"You are Simon the son of John;
you will be called Cephas" - which is translated Peter.

Jesus not only knows Peter’s name—“you are Simon, son of John,”—he also gives Peter a name (“Cephas,” Aramaic for “Rock”), a very intimate gesture.  Usually only parents give us our names—or perhaps a spouse creates a nickname for us.  In any event, no one without an intimate connection to a person can truly bestow on them a name.

It is not just Peter who receives “a new name” when he encounters Jesus—in a sense, we all do.  Revelation 2:17 promises:

To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it.’

The idea of a “new name” in Christ is represented in the liturgy when, for example, we adopt “a new name” for the Sacrament of Confirmation.  I was confirmed as “Francis de Sales,” taking as my name saint the patron of converted Calvinists.

A friend of mine has several endearing nicknames for his wife that he uses even in public, but I would never call his wife by those nicknames!  That would be inappropriate—the nicknames are a personal thing between himself and his wife, that convey the affection and closeness between them.  My wife Dawn and I have our own “pet” names (which we typically don’t use in public, for what it’s worth!)

The idea of a “new name” given by Christ expresses the intimacy of our relationship with him.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus does not call some random person to be the foundational “Rock” of his Church.  He calls Simon, son of John, a fisherman in first century Galilee with a strong personality and impulsive temperament.  He accepts him with all the virtues, foibles, and peculiarities that make him unique, that make him “Peter.”

God is no impersonal “Force.”  He is the person, Jesus Christ.  He comes to us in this Mass and gives his body for and to each one of us.  He calls us by name and commissions us for a path of service unique to each one.  May we each respond, “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will.”

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