Monday, May 14, 2012

"I no longer call you servants... I call you friends". (Reflections on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, John 15:9-17)

"Friends", not "slaves", not "servants". They are words that would’ve sounded greater for the disciples than to us today. The Greek word that the gospel uses is “doulos”, which means “slave” or “servant”. In the ancient world, to be called a “doulos” was not a title of shame, but a title of great honor. Moses was called God’s “doulos”. So was Joshua, David, and Saint Paul. The greatest men in the past were proud to be called “doulos”.

But what Jesus is saying is that that honorific title isn’t good enough for his disciples. “I do not wish to call you servants. I wish to call you friends”. Not “doulos”, says Jesus, not servants or slaves, that won’t work for the people who are dear to me. “I call you friends”, “philos”—is the Greek word, it means “beloved”.

In the ancient world, the so-called “friends of the court”, were individuals who at all times had access to the king. They even had the right to enter his bedchambers. The “friends of the king” were persons who had the closest and most intimate connection to him.

Jesus calls us to be his friends, and the friends of God. That is a tremendous offer. It means that no longer do we need to gaze longingly at God from afar; we are not like slaves who have no right to enter into the presence of the master unless called. We are not like a crowd whose only glimpse of someone important is when he passes us on some occasion.

By dying on the cross, by "laying down his life" for us, Christ gave us the greatest gift one could give—not only access, but intimacy with a God who is always there for us, welcoming us, forgiving us, consoling, comforting, and strengthening us, any time and any place, whenever we want it, whenever we need it.  The offer is there; we have only to take it.

This past Tuesday, as I took Bella, my English bulldog for her walk around the seminary chapel, I heard someone calling, “Father... father”. I stopped and looked around but didn’t really notice anyone, so I kept walking. Bella was only too happy to resume her afternoon constitutional. Suddenly, I noticed a young man, in his twenties, running towards us. He had just gotten out of his car and was still trying to park when he began calling me earlier. “Oh, I’m sorry”, I said. “I didn’t see you”.

“That’s alright, father”, he replied, and introduced himself. “I’ve been to five different churches and have been trying to find a priest who’s available to talk. This is my sixth attempt. This is a church, right?” I explained that we were in a seminary, and the building in front of us was the chapel. 

“Please, father; I just need someone to talk to. If you’re busy right now, I’m willing to come back, even later tonight”. He looked quite distraught, so while I had something going on as soon as I brought the dog back to my room, I asked him to return in two hours and I’d make myself available.

Two hours later, he was back, looking even more flustered than earlier, his eyes looking bloodshot, probably from crying. We talked for close to three hours; I sat there listening to his story, punctuated every now and then by sobs and silences. 

His was a typical story, one I’ve heard in confession or in counseling sessions many times before: a young man with very loving and supportive parents, but who had somehow lost his way in drugs, sex, and alcohol; and was now looking at possibly doing time.

And yet there two things in his narrative that struck me. First, he was once a very religious child he said, educated in a Catholic school, got good grades, loved praying the rosary with his parents, loved going to Mass with his two siblings, was an altar-server, and at one point, even thought, albeit not-too-seriously, about possibly becoming a priest.

“My family’s still very religious”, he said. “In fact, my mom was the one who begged me to look for a priest. She’s very religious. And she’s the one who’s been most hurt by the sad turn of events in my life. And that’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to do this even if it embarrasses me so much. I don’t want to see my mom crying all the time. And I don’t want to loose her or my dad without being able to make them proud of me again”.

The first thing that came to mind when he was saying these things was Saint Augustine’s account in the Confessions, of his mother, Monica, who prayed and wept daily, for his conversion and who never gave up on the son that she so dearly loved.

Second, this young man who by now had completely broken down as he sat there in my office, said something that I believed to be an unmistakable sign of the subtle yet powerful stirrings of God’s grace. “I want to be able to pray again, father. But I just don’t know how anymore. I think I’ve forgotten. I don’t even remember how to say the Our Father completely”.

It was at that point, that I stopped him, and asked if he wanted us to say the Our Father together. He was holding his phone, so I asked him to look it up on the internet—which he did; and together we prayed. 

I tell you, it was perhaps one of the most meaningful, and yes, memorable, recitations of the Lord’s Prayer I’ve ever done, for as I sat there in front of this troubled young man, his voice quivering, tears rolling down his cheeks, I knew I was witnessing a profound manifestation of the grace of God welcoming back a child at his homecoming, Christ throwing his arms wide-open to embrace a long-lost friend, picking up where they had left off years ago, before his friend had lost his way, as if his friend had never gone. 

“I no longer call you servants... I call you friends”. 

What I was given to witness this past week, was a homecoming like no other. That night, I said a prayer of thanks for that young man, for the grace of his conversion, for the grace of his loving parents, especially his patient mother who never gave up on him, and I prayed that he may be set on a path towards a renewed relationship with Christ.

But I also said a prayer of thanks to God for having given me the opportunity, as a priest, to see with my own eyes, to hear with my own ears, and to feel with my own heart, the depth of Christ’s friendship, his forgiveness, and his love—one that “lays down its life for one’s friends”, one that never gives up on us, no matter how far or long we’ve strayed, and one that is willing to welcome us back, again and again, and again.

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