Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
3-4 February 2007
Holy Cross Parish – Hutchinson, KS
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him…
I saw the Lord seated on a high throne… I said: “What a wretched state I am in! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have looked at the King, the Lord of hosts.”
You almost have to be a little older than I am to remember a time when the experience of Simon Peter before Jesus and the fear which filled Isaiah the Prophet in his vision of the Lord Almighty were the common experience of good Catholic people. A good half century and more ago people approached the Lord with fear and trembling. Altar servers never touched sacred vessels, like the chalice or paten, with their bare hands. Daily Communion was something extraordinary and most people, who received Communion on Sunday morning, did so after having fasted from midnight and only if they had gone to confession on Saturday afternoon or evening or maybe that same Sunday morning.
Fear and trembling: are they part of the Catholic experience, yes or no? Or maybe it would be better to put it in other terms and to ask: Isn’t honest soul-searching something believers must do? And what man or woman, who knows himself or herself deep down inside, does not hesitate to approach God in Jesus Christ?
Don’t get me wrong! The fear and trembling we are talking about here is not born of dread but of love. Its corollary would be the radical sort of respect which should reign among the members of a truly loving family.
“What a wretched state I am in!” “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
I’m making a plea today for more reverence in the house of God, when receiving Him in Holy Communion and in living out each day, in the only place where we can possibly live it out, namely before His Face. More reverence: you and I cannot hide from God or escape His glance any more than Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden after they had sinned. The Psalmist sings: “where can I hide from your face, from your presence where can I flee?” A lack of reverence, turning our backs, well, how can we? How can we ignore the Lord of Life, who loves us and redeemed us in Christ?
I haven’t reached the end of my thought development here and there are, I suspect, some grown-ups in particular out there, who are nervous or upset or maybe even objecting to what I am saying, thinking to themselves: well, that can’t be right! Why aren’t things today the way they were over 50 years ago if not because we know better today and have a better handle on things than our parents, grandparents and great grandparents? Progress is progress, right? It’s not that we have gone astray as a Church or fallen into some kind of error, is it? No, but the point is that there are at least two extremes which can take us off the beam when we interpret or apply in our own lives the words “Oh Lord, I am not worthy”.
a) The one extreme, if you’d believe the media, is represented by those folks out there who are looking for the “ultimate rush”: bungee jumping, skydiving, flat lining, substance abuse, intimacy with another person without any commitment and without any respect for what God has decreed in terms of the proper use of our sexuality… and so it goes.
The chase after the ultimate anything other than God and fulfilling His will in our lives is an illusion. St. Paul would say, don’t kid yourself, let the truth, which or who is God living and true, take your breath away and be happy. As odd and silly as it may sound, be lifted up, be entertained, if you will, by God! Evel Knevel, Houdini and all their modern day daredevil and magician counterparts, Las Vegas and the Cirque du Soleil may entertain and even sometimes mystify, but they have no more to offer us ultimately than the old Romans’ “bread and circus” which had the advantage of being offered free of charge. Too often today we pay for entertainment or pleasures which don’t satisfy for long and may even leave a hang-over. All such comes home to roost when we walk through the doors of God’s house and speak an “Oh Lord, I am not worthy”, which has suffered all sorts of collateral damage all week long.
b) While such a chase is darkness, so also is the other extreme, where we find ourselves sitting in the shadow of death and not even trying, cold or lukewarm you might say, rationalizing away our sins and failings. How many folks are there who excuse themselves from confession on a regular basis (in some cases on any basis at all!) claiming that since they are bound to fall again, it’s better not to be hypocritical? Such are the folks, who have thrown in the towel in a sense, making it clear enough by their words and actions to both God and neighbor, that you’ve got to take me as I am – love me or leave me in my mediocrity.
So far, I guess, what I’ve said could have been preached 50 years ago too. I say this full well knowing that back then church-going and faith life were more regimented and there was less room maybe for stepping openly out of line. The temptation, the sin or failing back then however was essentially the same: no reverence, no awe, no awareness to compare with that of Isaiah, in his vision of the Lord Almighty, or with that of Peter, down on his knees in the boat, recognizing Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed, the Holy One of God. In case my clarification didn’t register the first time, I’ll repeat myself: The fear and trembling we are talking about here is not born of dread but of love.
If we were to live every waking and sleeping moment in the presence of the Living God, what a difference it would make! The ultimate discourse about quality of life is not about giving up because it’s a hopeless chase, nor about contenting ourselves (brainlessly, godlessly, really) with appearances and moments. The bottom line of a message to be taken home for further reflection on this our day of rest is a foundational one, one which makes all the difference in the world. If you place yourself in God’s presence, really, you are going to be awed. The message is an exhortation: Don’t run away! Finding yourself before the King, the Lord of Hosts, finding yourself before Jesus, true God and true Man, cry out for help! Let an angel purify your lips with a burning coal from the altar, as Isaiah did, and then respond to God’s call.
What I am saying applies to the life of every Christian, but it is at the heart of the whole vocational crisis in many parts of our world today as well. Why aren’t there more young women entering the convent today? Why aren’t more young men going to the seminary? Because they’re off to the circus, so to speak, they’re chasing after passing pleasures, or with a very sad face, they say they’re “not worthy”. They continue to sit in the darkness instead of crying for help. Worse, in some cases, they come and challenge the Lord and His Church to take them as they are, not admitting that they themselves are unworthy and in need of change.
I ask you to take time today to reflect on the “Lord, I am not worthy” and its meaning for you in your life. I ask you to pray for the continued renewal of the Sacrament of Penance in the life of the Church. I ask you to pray for vocations. The Lord does not leave his flock untended. He called Isaiah and he called Peter. They responded turning their lives over to Him completely. Good Catholic families, happy Catholic marriages (until death do us part) are carried by this sense of devotion, wonder and awe: husband or wife for each other, parents for their children, children for their parents.