Monday, January 2, 2012

"There is one among you whom you do not recognize." (A brief reflection on the Gospel of Jan. 2, 2012, John 1:19-28)

John testifies to Jesus in today’s gospel reading. Meanwhile, the priests, Levites, and Pharisees sent messengers to inquire of him whether he was in fact the Messiah or not.

When John tells them he isn’t, they ask him why he was doing those things that they have always been taught the Messiah was to do when he appears. To this inquiry, John points to someone who is to come after him, one whom they do not recognize.

God is never stingy with his gifts, graces, and blessings. From the break of dawn to the last rays of the setting sun, our world, our life is full of them.

Too often, however, we fail to recognize that they are right there in front of us, often staring us in the face.

They come in the guise of those who love us, who care for us, who have our best interests in mind: our family, our friends, the ‘prophetic’ voices who offer us critical advice and keep us on the straight and narrow, lest we lose our way.

Too often, our ways of understanding things, conditioned and determined by our past experiences (good or otherwise), our upbringing, and often, even our very character, temperament, and disposition, prevent us from seeing and acknowledging the presence of these gifts.

A very bright friend of mine once told me that one of her students who was rather weak and difficult to teach used to infuriate her, until one day, for some strange reason, "grace", she said, "must’ve filled" her mind and heart and she began to see the young man in a totally different light: not simply as a weak and difficult student who had to be taught, but an eager and willing young person who was sent to her that she might learn the virtues of patience, kindness, and gentleness.

At other moments, we fail to recognize that these gifts aren’t always what we expect them to be, cloaked in pleasantness and beauty. Sometimes, they aren’t; sometimes these gifts, blessings and graces come in the form of challenges, hindrances, difficulties, tough experiences.

One of my most embarrassing moments as a student was when a religious sister who taught us in seminary called me to the front of the room in order to reprimand me for being a show-off during one of our exams. My oversized ego was reduced to the size of a pinhead. I couldn’t sleep for several nights, thinking of the embarrassment she put me through. “What are my classmates going to think of me now?” I kept thinking. Until a few days later, when, with the sisters’ help, I came to realize the value of humility in learning something for the first time. “One who is so full of himself and thinks he already knows everything, will end up learning nothing”. It was a lesson I had to learn the hard way; but it was grace, a tough gift—something I didn’t so easily recognize.

At other moments still, it is the fact that our sight is constantly set, not on what we have, but on what we do not, or do not yet have, that causes blindness to these gifts.

A young lady who came to me for advice once began reciting a litany of disappointments, frustrations, and unfulfilled dreams, until at some point in her recitation, she started talking about how her parents had sent her to the best schools, how she always performed well in class, how her friends have always been there to support her, how she had just moved into a place that was now her own. “And what do you call these last things you mentioned?” I asked her. She stared at me for some time and then tears began filling her eyes. “I feel so ashamed, father”, she said. “How could I be so blind and ungrateful?”

The story of the priests, Levites, and Pharisees is the story of persons who failed to recognize the one of whom John had spoken and to whom he testified, because their hearts, minds, and souls have become closed and blinded by the ways they have ordinarily understood things, life, themselves, and even God.

Would that our story might be different; would that we may recognize the amazing gifts, blessings, and graces that fill our lives, that fill our days, from the rising of the sun to its setting. They are right there in front of us, waiting to be recognized, waiting to be received.

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