Sunday, January 22, 2012

Christ's invitation is to abandon our nets, over and over again (Reflections on the 3rd Sun. in Ordinary Time, Jn 3:1-5,10; 1Cor 7:29-31, Mk 1:14-20)

It isn’t often that all three readings for Sunday Mass contain a comparable or even unified message; a lot of times two would say something similar, and the third would contain a message that stands on its own.

Today is therefore one of those few occasions when all three seem to point us to the same thing: urgency, earnestness, eagerness, and immediacy.

The city of Nineveh listened to Jonah and they repented, averting catastrophe. “Time is running out... and the present world is passing away”, says the second reading. “The kingdom is at hand”, Jesus tells us in the Gospel, then he calls his first disciples who immediately abandon their father and their nets and follow him.

The past couple of months that I’ve been away, I had the opportunity to reconnect with a lot of people I know, friends, former students, parishioners at the different parishes in which I’ve assisted in the past, classmates from Asia, Europe, and here in the States.

Two of these encounters, however, stand out among the rest. The first was with an elderly couple with whom I’ve been friends since my early days in Louvain in 1992. I was twenty-one then and they were in their early fifties. The guy was a visiting professor at the university. They’re both in their seventies now and the husband’s health is declining.

It was such a joy to meet them again because even in Belgium, what I remember most about them was how, even at their age, they still acted like the high school sweethearts they once were. In fact that was still pretty much how they were when I saw them recently. Back in 1992, I remember asking what their secret to sticking together was. They said the same thing: “You just keep your interest in each other alive. You know, “keep the fire burning”; but you’ve got to work on it, every single day. It's not a one-shot deal".

The second was with a friend with whom I used to share ministry and homily ideas until a few years ago when he decided that the priesthood was no longer for him. He left the ministry and asked to be laicized. Like the elderly couple, I felt good to see him, and it really didn’t matter that he was no longer active in ministry. It was a joy to talk to him again and remember our days as students.

He didn’t leave because he had problems in the ministry or with the church. There were no scandals, no accusations. As he told me before leaving, “I just lost interest in the priesthood, I guess. I’m not angry or frustrated. I don’t think I’ve made a mistake, and I don’t regret getting ordained. I’m just not interested anymore”. Hard as it was to understand what he meant, I respected what he said, as well as his decision to leave.

How do you keep the fire of interest in something going, especially in something that’s meant to be a commitment for life? How was it possible for that elderly couple to remain so much in love with each other for more than fifty years, while my friend lost interest in his ministry in less than seven? How is it possible for us to keep the initial fire of our enthusiasm for seminary life alive, months or years after our we’ve entered?

The key lies in the message of all three readings today: urgency, eagerness, immediacy, and earnestness. Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, James and John; and they immediately follow him.

Each one of us here has heard the same call, and we followed. Like the disciples, we’ve left our families, our former life, and many other things we were used to, and committed ourselves to something else: my friend to his ministry, the elderly couple to one another and to raising a family, and we, to being formed as future ministers of the Gospel.

I’m quite certain that at their wedding, and at my friend’s ordination, the fire of interest, the sense of earnestness and eagerness for the new life they’ve chosen was at its most intense. So why did their paths diverge? Why did the elderly couple retain the fire of interest, while my friend’s simply petered out?

The answer lies in this: that whereas the elderly couple knew that such urgency, immediacy, and earnestness in responding to an invitation is absolutely necessary, it’s no more than the beginning. And it’s never a one-shot deal. Rather, the urgency of the call, and the immediacy and earnestness of the response have to be re-lived and renewed. Its fire has to be kept burning and rekindled, over and over and over again, at every moment of our day.

Failure to do so leads to complacency, to smugness, and gradually, to a loss of that original fire that accompanied our initial response.

When we chose to enter seminary, or when we gave ourselves to someone in marriage, or simply committed ourselves to something important and worthwhile in life, like Simon and Andrew, James and John, we abandoned our nets and followed Jesus.

But such abandonment must happen again and again; we must leave our nets daily, hourly, minute-by-minute, and respond with a wholehearted and unhesitating “yes” to Jesus’ call that also happens again and again.

It happens when we get up in the morning, and eagerly face that day's responsibilities, especially on days when we’re too tired to get out of bed. It happens when we give ourselves wholeheartedly to prayer, focusing our minds on Christ, especially in the Eucharist. It happens when we give ourselves completely to our studies, most especially those classes we would rather not take, and whose relevance to our future life we sometimes question.

It happens when we give ourselves in charity, kindness, and generosity to everyone we live and work with, our teachers, our co-workers, the persons who work for and with us. It happens when we do the work we have to do, no matter how difficult it might sometimes be. It happens when we do those many small and unnoticed acts of good that only our Heavenly Father can see. It happens in everything we do, say, and think; it happens in everything we strive to be.

“Come after me, and I shall make you fishers of men”, Jesus invites the disciples. And in one instant, without calculating, without reconsidering, without hesitating, they leave everything behind and follow him.

He bids each of us to do same, every day, every hour, every minute; he bids us to follow him by “leaving our nets” again and again, and again.

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