Sunday, 18 January 2009

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time Year B

The first reading gives details of Samuel’s calling. He played a big part in the building up of Israel. Through him, Israel entered a new era because it was through him that Israel got her first kings. The Gospel describes the call of Andrew, John and Peter. In this vocation story, Peter’s call is highlighted to reflect his importance in early Christian history and is the basis for the Catholic teaching of what we know to be an important ministry for the Church: The Petrine Ministry concretely expressed through the Ministry of Pope Benedict XVI.

Today the theme centres on God’s call and our response. However, vocation, that is, God’s call and our response, is often understood in terms of calling to be a priest or a religious brother or sister. As a result of a restricted definition of vocation, Catholics tend to exalt the vocation to the priesthood and religious life and to downplay the importance of the non-priestly or religious vocations. The truth is: baptism is a response to God’s call and so it involves every Christian.

Our first call is to life. Baptism calls us to a life in Christ Jesus our Lord. This life in Christ Jesus is spelt out by St Paul in the 2nd Reading in terms of purity of the body, that is, through abstention from fornication. Through Baptism, the body becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit and as a result, there is need to give due reverence to the body—living or dead. This explains why we incense the congregation during Mass at the moment we enter into the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Also at the end of a funeral Mass, the body in the coffin is incensed. And, because the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the Church prohibits the scattering of the ashes of a faithful departed who has been cremated.

Baptism is so serious a matter that in the early Church it takes place only after a prolonged period of initiation into the life of the Christian community. The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus describes this period in terms of 3 years in what is known as the catechumenate. This long period of waiting for baptism shows how seriously the Church takes the call of Baptism to be.

Baptism takes us into the life of Christ. It is in the context of our life with Christ that we may speak of the call to become a priest or religious. But, priesthood or religious is a particular call which does not diminish the importance of any other vocation or state of life.

Baptism is both a call and a response.

Granted that not everyone here is inclined to run to the seminary or the convent, how are we to step up to the mark?

The Catechism speaks of the relationship between the priesthood of the ordained, that is, the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the laity. “The common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace—a life of faith, hope and charity, a life according to the Spirit. The ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians” (CCC1547). If the priest is ordained to help a lay person to live out his or her baptism, this means that every vocation is important. [1]

It means that we first take what we do with great humility. In the context of the Gospel, take a look at John the Baptist. If we think that vocation is to become an ordained priest then we will think of anything else as less. But John the Baptist did not feel his vocation any less. He simply stated: “Look, there is the lamb of God” and pointed Andrew and the other disciple to Jesus. The ordinariness of John’s vocation tells us that life is often lived in someone else’s shadow. Not everyone will be a CEO or will have his or her picture in the papers.

Once, I received an email, which was sent to quite a number of people by a self-serving community leader. Unfortunately, for that leader, I was accidentally included in the mailing list. The content of the email is not important but it was revealingly indicative of the way we perceive vocation. We seemed to have attached glamour to the vocations which are more prominent or visible... like becoming a priest or becoming a leader who must be seen to be taking charge of things. It is only worthwhile to serve if we stand in the lime-light.

But life is not described as mundane for nothing because there are vocations that are by and large hidden and unglamorous, just like John the Baptist whose life’s motto was “He must increase, I must decrease”. For John, life has always been in the shadow of Jesus. Even then, there was no less dignity in being the herald of Christ.

For a Jesuit too, after a long life of service (actually after a life of long service) and after all the publicity of the vocation is gone, he will enter a period of inaction characterised by nonentity. He becomes nobody. In our Jesuit catalogue, what appears next to the name of this Jesuit will not be, “Parish Priest”, “Director of Retreat House”, “Treasurer” but simply “Praying for the Society of Jesus and the Church”. These Jesuits are also those who are aged, sick or dying. But, what they do is no less important that the Jesuit who is quote left and right and courted by the intelligentsia.

To those whose lives are neither exciting nor dramatic, this Sunday marks ordinary time. The call and response of Peter, Andrew and John is a reminder that ordinary time is not less than extraordinary. Ordinary is by and large characteristic of our vocation or state of life. It means that where we are, no matter how hidden, we may be able to give praise and glory to God. But that can happen only if we believe that our vocation is the living out of our grace of baptism, the grace of a life with Christ Jesus our Lord.
[1] You know that people do not like priests to wade into political waters. Reflect upon this. It is because the laity has by and large remained uninvolved in living out their vocation that the priests step in to fill the void that is left by social and political inaction. Perhaps when the laity is more conscious of their greater involvement in body politics that the priest can go back to doing what they do best.