Saturday, December 9, 2017

WE ARE MERELY POINTERS, JESUS ALONE IS THE POINT (Reflections on John the Baptist, on the Second Sunday of Advent, Mark 1:1-8)

A few years ago, when I began teaching at Providence College in Rhode Island, I remember standing outside the room before classes started. I wasn’t dressed in clerics that day, and I had a heavy jacket on. One of the students waiting in the hallway, turned to me and said: “You in this philosophy class too?” I nodded. “Dude", he continued, "I hope this guy Santos doesn’t turn out to be a sleeping pill, or I’d just die!” 

A few minutes later, as they took their seats in class and I took mine at the professor’s desk in front, the kid turned red as a ripe tomato when he realized I was the teacher and not one of his classmates. He came up to me after class and apologized; we both had a good laugh. I have a lot of student-stories I’ve jotted down over the years, a number of them funny, a few not-so-funny, a couple of sad ones, but always good ones.

Each time a semester ends, and 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 the Eucharist?” 

I remember attending a young friend’s graduation once; she was the youngest of five children. At the reception afterwards, I had the opportunity to have a brief conversation with her parents who had also become good friends. 

“We’ve done our best to teach her well, father”, the mom said to me. “My husband and I have tried really hard to share all our values and principles with our kids. Now that our youngest is done with college, we’re happy,” she paused, then continued, “but I guess there will always be that apprehension whether we’ve prepared them well for life or not. I hope so. But it’s really hard to tell”.

It is often hard to tell. At the end of this semester, I will be completing my 38th semester of teaching and seminary work. And over the past couple of days, 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 the students I’ve taught since I began teaching in 1995.

As I was going through my lists, I’ve discovered that I’ve taught approximately 150 classes, taught around 4200 students—on three continents, at seven seminaries, nine universities, and have celebrated at least 3500 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’ve taught, the masses I’ve celebrated, the conferences and seminars I’ve given, made any difference at all?

Do the words of advice, caution, teaching, admonition of parents who wish to impart their values and principles to their children, ultimately make a difference? What impact do the words, actions, and examples of teachers have on their students? How much of them will these young men and women remember? What effect will they have on their future lives? 

A few years ago I had a student who had shown much promise in school. He was bright, hardworking, was a normal, well-balanced young man. He left in the middle of his college studies, and while he kept in touch for a while, after some time, I stopped hearing from him.

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 that former student, I couldn’t help but wonder: “Did I make a difference in that kid’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 about it", he said. "We simply plant the seeds. God does the watering. He does the nurturing. He does the harvesting as well. All you can do is plant the seeds”. 

John the Baptist is such a prominent figure in the NT, second only to Jesus. In fact Jesus himself says, in another part of Scripture: “no man born of woman is greater than John”. (Luke 7:28) 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—that is, every Christian man and woman, but especially seminarians, future, priests, parents, and teachers, are meant to be like John the Baptist. We are but messengers. “We are not the Christ!” Our task is merely 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 just road signs, Jesus is the way as well as the destination. Nothing we do is ever about us, but always about Christ.

[Allow me, at this point of the reflection, to speak very briefly, to my students who are future priests, and to all seminarians:

Never forget that only Jesus deserves to have a ‘fan club’. People will naturally find you ‘attractive’ in many different ways. Many priests and seminarians after all are kind, gentle, and caring. Many of us are good speakers, and not a few have pleasant personalities. People like those qualities. 

The thing is, while there’s nothing wrong in receiving their praise and admiration (and we should learn to say “thank you” sincerely, by the way, whenever we are appreciated), we also shouldn’t forget that those words of praise do not primarily belong to us.

They are first and foremost directed to Christ, not to ourselves. Granted that doesn’t always happen—some of us forget the Baptist’s words, “I am not the Christ!” That still doesn’t change the fact that without our identification with Christ, those words mean little. They’re Jesus’ ‘fans’, not ours.

And we shouldn’t be going around trying to form our own ‘groupies’. One who does so completely misses the point of the whole situation. We are meant to be ‘attractive’ to people, that is true. Adrian Van Kaam the author of “Religion and Personality” even suggests that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being “a little vain”, meaning keeping oneself well-kempt so as not to turn people off.

But neither should we forget that looking pleasant and attractive or speaking and acting well, are not meant to draw people to ourselves. That will naturally happen. What we’re really supposed to do is to lead them—when they do come to us—to Christ. He is the chief shepherd, remember. We aren’t the point. He is. Never lose sight of the Baptist’s words: “I am not the Christ!”] 

We are merely paths that should lead others to Christ who alone is the true destination. To realize this 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 the hand of God”. Even our lives are never completely our own.

Second though, it teaches us confidence and trust in God whose work we do, and to 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.

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)