Saturday, December 4, 2010

The most powerful signs efface themselves (Reflections on the Gospel of the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Matthew 3:1-12)

One of my students at Providence College, once turned red as a ripe tomato when he realized I was his professor and not one of his classmates—after having told me before class that he hated philosophy and would just “die” if the professor turned out to be a “sleeping pill”. I have a lot of student-stories I’ve jotted down over the last couple of years, a number of them funny, a few not-so-funny, a couple sad ones, but always good ones.

Each time a semester draws to a close, or every time I celebrate mass at a parish and greet people as they leave—I always find myself asking: “Did I make a difference?” “Did my teaching make a difference in the lives of my students?” “Did my preaching make a difference in the lives of those with whom I celebrated Mass?”

It’s hard to tell. Last Friday I was telling one of my students that I was completing my 31st semester of teaching; turns out it’s only the 30th. Over the weekend though, as I did my readings, my prayer, my journal, I decided to go over my old school and student records that are still saved in one of my computer files. In fact, I still have the lists of all my students since I began teaching almost fifteen years ago. Anyway, as I was going through my lists, I realized that I’ve taught approximately 130 classes, taught close to 3500 students—on three continents, taught at seven seminaries, nine universities, and have celebrated at least 4500 Masses. That’s a lot of words!

Do our words make a difference? Do we even make a difference? Did the countless words I have spoken at the courses I taught, the masses I celebrated, the conferences and seminars I’ve given, made any difference at all?

A few years ago I had a student who had shown much promise in school. He was bright, hardworking, was a normal, well-balanced kid. He left in the middle of his college studies, and while he kept in touch for a while, after some time, I no longer heard from him. A couple years later, I learned from one of his friends that he had gotten involved in a gang, did drugs, killed someone, and was now in jail. I didn’t know the details of what had actually happened to him, but to this day, whenever I think of him, I couldn’t help but wonder: “Did I make a difference in that young man’s life?”

It’s one of those questions priests, doctors, teachers, counselors, and many others in the helping professions find themselves asking every once in a while. “Did I make a difference?” And I’m sure you have found yourselves asking that question as well. Whether it’s to your family, your friends, your classmates, or the people you meet or serve in the many things you’re asked to do as seminarians.

When I was newly-ordained and was particularly concerned whether I was being effective in what I was doing, I remember talking to Albert, an old Belgian missionary priest who had been in the missions for more than 50 years. “Don’t worry”, he said. “You plant the seeds. God does the watering. He does the nurturing. He does the harvesting as well. All we can do is plant the seeds”.

John the Baptist is such a prominent figure in the New Testament, second only to Jesus. In fact Jesus himself says that “no man born of woman is greater than John”. And yet, over and over again, we encounter John in Scripture saying he is no more than the messenger, “a voice crying out in the wilderness”, sent to “prepare the way of the Lord” and that he isn’t even “worthy to untie the straps” of Jesus’ sandals.

And in what are perhaps the most humble and at the same time, most powerful words spoken by any of the biblical prophets, John says, “he must increase, while I must decrease”. The philosopher, Paul Ricoeur once said: “The most powerful signs efface themselves”. In his effacement of himself, John became the most powerful force that leveled the path on which was to walk, the Son of God.

We are, in truth—seminarians, priests, as well as every Christian man and woman—like John. We are but messengers. Our task is to prepare the way, to plant the seeds, and leave the rest to God: the watering, the nurturing, and the harvesting.

We are, like John, but messengers. Christ is the message. We are merely pointers. Jesus is the point. We are simply signs along the road, Jesus is the way as well as the destination. Nothing we do is ever about us, but always about Christ. To realize this and to live it concretely, does two things to us.

First it teaches us humility. It’s God’s work that we do. Not our own. It’s God’s people we minister to, not ours. It’s God’s church, not ours. Like Moses we hear God speaking to us: “Take off your sandals. The ground you walk on is holy ground”. Humility teaches us to reverence all things, persons, events, and circumstances—for they are all, good or otherwise, the incognitos of God whose beloved Son redeemed the world two thousand years ago. We aren’t asked to save it yet again, but only to ‘divine’ His presence in it, and share the wonders we find. A poet once said that all we do is “write one verse in the everlasting poem written by God himself”. Even our lives are never completely our own.

Second though, it teaches us confidence and trust in God whose work we do, and in whose providence and care we must commend everything we are. Thus, we don’t have to keep worrying about how our words, our preaching, our teaching, our homilies, are ultimately received by people. We simply plant the seeds. God does the watering, nurturing, and harvesting. And so there is nothing for us to worry about. For as the protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer, who was murdered by the Nazis, once said: “Our work is in good hands”. In God’s own time, he will bring to fruition the work he had us do. Or as Blessed John XXIII was said to pray when confronted by big problems in the church: “It’s your Church O Lord. I’m going to bed. Amen.”

Have we made a difference? Perhaps we can never fully tell. But with humility and trust in our hearts, we know that God has made that “difference”—hopefully through us.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)