Saturday, December 3, 2011

Prophets in our midst, messengers of God's "tough love" (Reflections on the Second Sunday of Advent, Mark 1:1-8)

On the 19th of September, 1998, I received what I've always considered a most valuable piece of advice from a good friend who attended my doctoral defense at the Institute of Philosophy in Louvain: “Always remember”, he said, “be kind to your students. You were a student once”. It’s something I try my utmost to remind myself every exam time. (Not that I’ve always succeeded, as I’m sure some of my students will attest.)

The interesting thing is, when I look back at my days as a student, whether in grade school or graduate school, it wasn’t always the teachers who went easy on me that I remember as having had the greatest impact on my life. Instead it was those teachers and professors who showed me what is at times called,
“tough love”: the ones who called me out, who challenged me, who instead of allowing me to sink into mediocrity and indifference, reminded me that God calls each of us to make a difference in this world, and that I should leave this world a better place than how I found it.

Two of them stand out in particular. When I was new to seminary, I was pretty arrogant. I was ahead of my class and made sure everybody knew it. One time we had an exam and I finished before everybody. The exam was meant to be an hour and a half long, I finished mine in 20 minutes, I looked around, noticed everyone was still writing, so I tried to get everyone’s attention. When I couldn’t, I decided to whisper to the kid sitting next to me: “Man, this is easy. I can’t believe she made us answer these questions. What a joke!”

Sister Kremhilda (yes, that was her name) who was our professor, heard what I said, stopped the exam, called me to the front of the room, and made me stand before her desk which happened to be on a raised platform. “Do you think you’re better than all of us here?” “No sister,” I replied. “Then stop being a show off, and stay in your seat and be quiet!” That was the first time in my life, I was scolded - by a nun! - in front of a whole bunch of people. I felt my oversized ego shrink to the size of a pinhead.

After class, Sister called me, and explained that while she didn’t like the fact that she had to call me out in front of everybody, I also had to learn my lesson, and it had to be such that I'd remember it for a long time. “You seriously want to become a priest?” “Yes sister”, I replied. "Then learn humility now; and remember that while God may have given you gifts, your task in the future is to help people, especially the least, the poor, and the weak. How will you be able to accomplish that if you think so poorly of them?" She was right; it was a lesson I would never forget.

The other was a priest named John, an extremely tough professor who some of us his students called all sorts of names (some of them, I must admit, were rather unkind). He was very hard on his students, myself most especially. After exams, I’d usually get called to his room and be reminded that I was “underachieving”, was “wasting my time, and his time”, and "would never be a good priest if I continued being satisfied with mediocrity".

One of the stories that got passed from one generation to the next in seminary was that when John was younger, he’d station himself at the back of the chapel every morning before prayers. Whenever he noticed someone being absent from morning prayer or Mass, he would go up to the students’ room, knock on his door and say: “Oh, you’re sick. That’s awful. Here sit up and lets check your temperature”. He’d have a thermometer at hand, and if that thing didn’t show the student running a temperature or if it looked like he were just trying to skip Mass and prayer, John would instruct him to get up, get cleaned, dressed, and head to chapel, even if he were already late. (On the other hand, if he saw that the guy wasn’t faking illness, John would always have an aspirin or Tylenol at hand.)

A lot of times, when people speak of prophets, they think of men and women who can foresee or predict the future. Prophecy and prediction are sometimes thought of as synonymous terms. If we read the Bible, however, especially the Old Testament—and try to understand the role the prophets played, we discover that they were not really people who could predict the future. Rather they were persons who called Israel to task—called them out, challenged them—whenever they started forgetting important things: like following God’s commandments or keeping to the straight and narrow path.

And prophets weren’t easy to deal with either. This was why most of them were disliked and even killed. People don’t like to hear about their mistakes, faults, and shortcomings. In fact, one sure way of knowing true prophets from false prophets in the Old Testament was quite simple. False prophets told people what they wanted to hear; true prophets told people what they had to hear—even if this didn’t endear the prophet to his hearers.

John the Baptist shows up in the Gospel reading today. He was one such prophet. He came to prepare the way for the coming of Christ, but he did so by reminding people of their need for conversion and repentance. It was a message that wasn’t easy for John’s hearer’s to swallow, especially not the Scribes and Pharisees who ironically were regarded as the most religious, pious, and devout men of that time.

Also, John was not exactly a pleasant person. He wore camel hair, ate locusts and wild honey, lived in the desert, and was most probably unkempt. He was certainly not an attractive sight to see, and his message was even harder to accept. And yet, he was sent by God to prepare the way for the coming of His Son, to prepare a path for the coming of Christ. John stood in line with the great history of prophecy in the Old Testament. In fact he is sometimes considered to be the last in that line of Old Testament prophets.

There’s one sure thing we learn about prophecy in the Bible. Prophecy is meant by God to wake people from their sleep, from their indifference or apathy. Prophets shattered people’s complacency and reminded them once more of those things that should really matter in their lives. They kept people on the straight and narrow path.

For us, prophets can come in the form of the persons we encounter: a friend or a loved one perhaps who reminds us of the things that are important in life. Or it may even be an experience God sends us—an experience that might in fact be tough and challenging for us, sometimes even painful and hard.

Prophecy in our lives can in fact take the form of these difficulties and problems that show us God’s “tough love” toward us. It’s a love that isn’t meant to break us or tear us down, but to strengthen us, by challenging us to remember what is truly important and valuable.

As we prepare our hearts and minds, bodies and souls for the coming celebration of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day, let us pause for a while and give thanks to God for the persons, the events, the experiences that have challenged us, stretched us, and reminded us of those things in life that truly matter - things we too often, tend to forget. Let us be grateful to God for these prophets and these ‘prophetic moments’, and let us continue welcoming them and learning the important lessons they teach.

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