16 Jan Sermon for Epiphany 2, Year A
The story is told of a monastery somewhere, somewhen, where the brothers love for one another had grown cold, where prayer was perfunctory, choir often only half full. The Abbot, in despair, went to visit a holy man he knew of, and poured out his heart, his frustration, his knowledge that something was badly wrong. The holy man listened, and sat in silence. And sat, and sat. Eventually he looked at the Abbot and said simply, “Go and tell your brothers: the messiah is among you”. When he arrived home, he passed on the holy man’s message, saying to the brethren, “the messiah is among you”.
At first, the monks were inclined to take this rather literally, and hence with some disbelief: could David, who always sung flat, be the messiah? Or old Bartholemew, who slept more than he was awake, these days? Or Simon, or John? How would they know which it was? As they thought, they began to notice some other things, too. The care with which David made the beds in the guest wing. The kind words of Bartholemew on the phone to a distressed caller. The word of encouragement given, and received. Even the cooking seemed to be improving. As time went on, they realised more and more the truth of the holy man’s words, in a way that went beyond any literal interpretation. The messiah was always among them, and so love and joy returned to the community, as each of them became more alive to the presence of Christ within each person. Community life was not always kum-by-yah perfection, but the direction of travel had changed. All were more and more oriented towards life, love, acceptance and, ultimately, God.
This story exists in various forms, and may indeed be familiar. No doubt it’s a great over-simplification of how this would play out in any given community, but there is nonetheless a truth at its heart, perhaps several truths. The one that struck me as I looked at today’s Gospel reading was the importance of the here and now in our encounter with Christ. For the monks in our imaginary community, the ongoing encounter with Christ happened in the midst of their immediate community life, in the bed-making, the phone calls, the quick hello in passing, and the more in depth conversations too. Christ was there, among them, and Christ is here too, among us, waiting to be found. We don’t have to travel the world or visit far off places to find Jesus, because he is with us in all the humdrum everyday ordinariness of our lives.
This was certainly true for John the Baptist, for all that his ‘ordinary’ – wilderness, locusts, honey, baptising in the Jordan – was certainly not ours. I wonder how he expected to encounter the messiah. Did he know that it would be in baptism? Or did he think it would happen in the temple, or the wilderness? What was it like to look at Jesus’ face and realise that this man was it, the one he’d been sent to proclaim and reveal. Had he looked intently at everyone who presented themselves to him for baptism? Or did Jesus catch him off guard with a sudden burst of realisation? However it happened, it was in being faithful to his mission, faithful to his everyday, that John was able to fulfil his calling.
And John’s disciples, too, heard the message by being where they were supposed to be, in their everyday. Disciples, generally speaking, belong with their teacher, and because they were there with him, John could point out Jesus to them, say to them, “this is the one!”. Notice that he doesn’t tell them to follow Jesus. He just points out the Lamb of God, and trusts that his disciples will know what to do. Presumably he had spent some time preparing them for the Messiah, sharing the great longing he carried with him to see God’s Chosen One. I wonder, did their hearts burn within them when John said, “look, here is the Lamb of God”? Was it a moment of sudden clarity, a glance at each other that said, “Are you going?” “Then so am I”. Whatever it was, they were open and ready enough to be able to walk away from their teacher up to this point, presumably because they had been open and receptive to John’s teaching. John had obviously prepared them well: in making it clear that he was not the main act, his disciples were free to go where he pointed.
In this these disciples show us the important “other side” of the everyday: we need to remain faithful to where and what we are on any given day, but that fidelity is not the same as passing our days in a consistently semi-dazed torpor, barely awake as we stumble from one task to the next. Or, to put things in more Benedictine language, we need both stability and conversion of life.
In our current meal book, about the place and role of the sea in Christian tradition and spirituality, we recently heard about the Irish monk, Brendan the Navigator, or Brendan the Voyager, one of those monks who left his home to take the sea in his coracle, ready to be led wherever the currents, i.e. God, took him. The reports of his journeys suggest that he made it as far as Iceland, Greenland and possibly North America, as there are descriptions of icebergs and glaciers, in which Brendan perceives the glory of God. It seems to me that it was only because he was able to be present to the ‘now’, not looking back to Ireland, nor ahead to tomorrow’s difficulties, that he could see God in such unfamiliar surroundings.
In a letter to members of the Dominican Order in formation, the then Master General, Timothy Radcliffe, said, “we have to nail ourselves to our chairs, not so that we may master knowledge, but so that we may be ready and alert when it comes unexpectedly, like a thief in the night.” This point, I think, can apply to much more than just knowledge. I remember misquoting this once as “we have to nail ourselves to our prayers”, which perhaps helps to make the point. Wherever we are, we must be in that place if we are receive God as he comes among us, even if the call of God is then to follow someplace else. So if we’re in chapel, let us be fully present to God, to the liturgy, to our brothers and sisters. If we’re at table, let us be available to serve one another. If we’re praying in the silence of our cells, let us love and inhabit fully that secret place with God, that we may continue to be strengthened for God’s service.
As we journey through this Epiphany season, may God grant us the grace to be faithful to our baptism, faithful to our lives, faithful to our everyday, that we may see and know that the Messiah is indeed among us. Amen.
Image: John and disciples acknowledge Jesus as the Lamb of God, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56616 [retrieved January 16, 2023]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/16120011720 – Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.