In the name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” I wonder. Is the word of the Lord so rare in our own days? Are visions not widespread? The opening scene of the young boy Samuel’s call as a prophet gives us a unique opportunity to reflect on how God speaks to us today, and through which medium. As Christians, we are surely compelled to believe in God’s active presence in history and in our lives. The voice of God may well not be a spoken one—because that is indeed rare—but it is still vigorously made manifest. Maybe we need to learn to listen to where it’s coming from. Just like the boy Samuel.
It’s actually rather amusing. Samuel and his mentor Eli are asleep. Samuel, who is in the Temple near the ark, hears a voice calling him. Not thinking that it might be God, he rushes to Eli to ask him what he wants—not once, not twice, but three times. Finally, Eli clues him, and he tells Samuel that he needs to respond to God directly, which is finally what happens when God comes calling a fourth time. “Speak, for your servant is listening,” Samuel says. It’s a simple line, yet it is packed with multiple layers of meaning. At first glance, it reminds us of Mary’s response to the angel at the annunciation: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.” There is a sense of openness and receptivity in Samuel’s words, of an active and engaged listening. While no commitment has yet been made, one senses that he would not be shy in making one. Samuel does not really know what to expect—except perhaps that he might be called to a prophetic vocation—but he is willing to listen to God, to give God a hearing. And so, God breaks the pattern of rarely speaking in those days by directly calling the boy Samuel. The funny thing, of course, is that God has to speak several times before people finally clue in.
The situation is not all that different in the brief excerpt from John’s gospel, which narrates the call of the apostle Philip, but also the encounter with Nathanael, obviously a friend of Philip’s. I wonder about Nathanael. He does not become one of the canonical twelve, but he does seem to have a strong and confident faith, and also a rather sharp tongue. John includes that sarcastic line of Nathanael’s: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It may be a literary ploy on John’s part to imply a response in the affirmative: “Of course, only the best, Jesus, comes out of Nazareth.” But I like the sarcasm and the irony. It shows that Nathanael, despite his confident affirmation of Jesus as Son of God and King of Israel, still retains a hint of a critical and somewhat cynical perspective on things. Actually not a bad position to take when you think God may be speaking to you. One can never be too sure, because there can be a great deal at stake when you listen to God.
Both Samuel and Nathanael, despite their confusion and their cynicism, do, in fact, listen. And they listen keenly, because they know much will be expected.
And so, I wonder. Is the word of the Lord so rare in our own days? Are visions not widespread? Were Samuel and Nathanael only historical exceptions?
Last Sunday, we celebrated the feast of the Epiphany, and we are still in the Epiphany season. Epiphany is all about the divine Godself being made publicly manifest in the human person of Jesus, whether to the magi, on the occasion of the baptism by John, or at the wedding feast of Cana: all very public displays of Jesus’ divinity. But such manifestations are not simply a thing of the past, found only in the scriptures or in our liturgical feasts and texts. The Godhead of Jesus continues to be revealed to us today, here, now. It always has. It seems that we have not been listening as attentively as we really should. Perhaps we were distracted.
We know already that God speaks to us actively and unfailingly in many different ways: in the living word of scripture; nature; the look and touch of others, especially the poor and the marginalized; through the vulnerability and angst of human suffering; and in the gathering of this Christian community. All privileged moments for a divine encounter. Sometimes, these occasions can also be special times for what we might call a visionary experience, a sliver of time when the curtain between our human material world and the one beyond is momentarily pushed aside, a time when consciousness becomes whole. That is a Godly moment, when the divine voice can be heard, if not loudly, at least faintly and confidently attended to, a time when the touch of the sacred brushes up against us.
I think we also need to look to history to hear the voice of the Lord being spoken to us, and especially to those historical moments when something new and stirring is about to be brought forth. I’ve spoken before about the insights of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and paleontologist who wrote beautifully about how all creation is evolving toward the Omega point, that is, how the entire creation, made increasingly perfect, will eventually become the body of the cosmic Christ. He was condemned by his church for pantheism, but there remains a solid core of deep Christian hope in his thinking. For Teilhard, both the natural world and human history itself are sites for God’s epiphany, manifestations of the divine will and presence. Those are places where we can still make out the divine voice and see visions—visions of new, better and more generous tomorrows.
When Martin Luther stood at Wittenberg in 1517, that was a moment of epiphany. When the suffragettes protested in the late-1800s, that was an epiphany. When Mahatma Gandhi fasted in India in the 1930s and Martin Luther King marched in Selma, Alabama in 1964, those were epiphanies. When Nelson Mandela assumed the South African presidency in 1994, that was a moment of epiphany. All significant historical moments, yet also times when God was speaking to us, disclosing a different vision of what the world should and could be. God was made manifest in those times. And what about today? The divine presence remains active. Consider Black Lives Matter, or the movements for environmental sustainability, or the rights of indigenous peoples. Consider especially what is happening at this very moment with regards to issues of sexual equality, or the outcry and disclosures about sexual exploitation and harassment. Of course God is present in all this. Of course God is speaking to us through these occurrences. Of course we are being sent visions of a different world. This is not about a vapid and ultimately empty belief in the inevitability of human progress. This is about Christian hope gone wild; it is about Christian hope springing forth eternally. It is about us being pulled incessantly toward Christ, the Omega point.
What should be our response to all these contemporary epiphanies? How should we heed them? Being aware and supportive of them is one thing, and all to the good, but more, in fact, is expected. Much like the boy Samuel, God keeps calling, but we keep mishearing, or at least looking for the voice in all the wrong places. And like Nathanael, perhaps we are tempted to ask: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” In other words, “Can anything good come out of human effort, out of human care, out of human struggle?” What the Epiphany season allows us to do is to give a resounding “yes” to this question. Jesus, the ultimate good, came out of Nazareth. Jesus, the ultimate good, still comes out of all those current efforts where women and men strive for a different world. We are asked to be a part of this magnificent exertion, to make Jesus ever more manifest, here and now. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. Amen.