Traveling back to Ireland for the Christmas holiday provided a welcome opportunity to catch my breath after a stressful year, not least because of the political chaos that has descended on this country over the past twelve months. Perspective helps. Today’s second reading certainly casts some needed light on a good deal of the chaos that erupted just in the period I was away, but there had been plenty of forewarnings.
St. Paul wasted few words in coming to grips with what he perceived as a desperate situation in the promiscuous port city of Corinth, where his fledgling Christian community was struggling to secure a toehold. We here in the United States could also benefit from reflecting on his teaching in the face of the spate of allegations of sexual misconduct being brought increasingly against celebrities, media moguls, film stars, symphony conductors, and politicians, including even the head of state:
“The body is meant not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body… Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him… Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”
Paul’s language is much stronger and more direct than the tempered version we use in the liturgy, but his
message is clear enough.
Even more urgently, the birthday observance tomorrow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., provides the occasion for reflection on race relations in the United States and our general attitude toward minorities. Given recent shocks to the system, I can’t help wondering if our nation is not actually sliding backwards in regard to respect for human rights and dignity here and throughout the world.
In today’s reading from the first Book of Samuel, we learn that a prophet can be described as someone who not only hears God calling in the night, but like a worried spouse or parent stays up waiting for the call. Samuel is remembered as the first great prophet after Moses. Even the name “Samuel” means “heard of God.” His whole life was centered on hearing the word of God and keeping it — no matter what the cost. And the cost was high. It still is.
Prophets like John the Baptist, Jesus, and Martin Luther King, Jr., often end badly as the world sees things. I suppose that’s why not many people are eager to stay up listening for heavenly voices in the night.
Before his life was cut short by a bullet in 1968, King had received over twenty honorary doctorates and several hundred awards for his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963 Time magazine named him named “Man of the Year.” In 1964 he won the John Dewey Award from the United Federation of Teachers and the John F. Kennedy Award from the Catholic Interracial Council of Chicago. Later that year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — at 35, the youngest man, the second American, and the third black man awarded the honor.
But years before, in the dark days of the early civil rights movement, the young Baptist minister spent a sleepless night praying at his kitchen table in Montgomery, Alabama. A bus boycott was getting underway as a protest against discrimination and segregation. His work seemed to have gone nowhere. Faced with disillusionment and fear, he prayed. And the Voice he heard within him that night told him not to be afraid, to go ahead, that he would never be alone.
Like the prophets before him, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., listened to that voice, obeyed it, and ultimately paid for that call with his life. Samuel, so far as anyone knows, died a natural death — but the fate of prophets is not as important as their life and work are — being attentive to the Word of God, reading the signs of the times, and then doing what has to be done to prepare the way of the Lord without counting the cost.
In the passage we have just heard from St. Paul’s letter, we are reminded that as bodily temples of the Holy Spirit, God lives within each of us. We are not limited to external hints, clues and directions. God is right here, inside, whispering, listening, guiding, and raising us up. The problem is that we only rarely pay attention. Sometimes we are so distracted the only way God can get through is when we’re dreaming. Or maybe it’s because we’ve been deafened by the incessant stream of commercial claptrap pelting us from every side. Perhaps we’re just at our wits’ end. Or possibly we just don’t want to hear.
Every moment of our life is an opportunity to hear the Word of God and keep it. But there is something more — something the gospel tells us today. We are not merely passive recipients of instructions that come to us in a burning bush or a still small voice in the night. We also need to act.
In the story from the gospel, the first disciples are also given an invitation, a call — “come and see.” Like Samuel, Andrew, Peter, and King we have to go somewhere — maybe a trip into the desert of our times in order to find what we’re looking for. What was it they went out to see? They hardly knew. Still they went. And what they saw changed the world forever.
For they saw Jesus. But going to see Jesus means looking for the Word of God — paying attention, even in the still small hours of the night. Even in our dreams. But as Martin Luther King learned, the dream has to be made real. We have to do something. That is how we follow Christ. So let us pray that both awake and asleep we continue to keep open the eyes and ears of our hearts and minds, ever attentive to the signals of divine intent that ring within and around us like a voice calling in the night. But let us also pray that we will put into practice what we have heard whispered in that dark stillness.