FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – FEBRUARY 8, 1998- BLESSED SACRAMENT
Well, we certainly cannot complain that today we have heard scripture-passages of minor weight! These texts bring us to the heart of Christianity, concentrate on the essentials, pose challenges of depth.
The passage from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians includes one of the earliest formulas of Christian faith. Paul recalls in brief, creed-like form, what he had himself received and what he handed on to the Corinthians: that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he rose on the third day, that he was seen by Cephas and the Twelve. Literary analysis places it back to a period when Aramaic was still the Church’s language, within ten or fifteen years of the events it reports, perhaps even much closer. We are here brought very close to the historical origins of the Church.
We are also at the permanent origins of the Church, at the origins of the Church today, at the defining and constitutive origins of this assembly. As the Church in the beginning arose, not simply because his disciples remembered Jesus of Nazareth but because they were convinced that God had made him Lord and Messiah by raising him from the dead, so the Church now arises out of this message: “You are being saved by it at this very moment,” Paul writes, “if you retain it as I preached it to you.” Later in the same chapter he will put it even more strongly: “If Christ was not raised, your faith is worthless, you are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ are the deadest of the dead.” Then as now, Christianity is built upon the resurrection of Christ; it has nothing to offer that does not derive from this originating central conviction.
If this constitutes what one might call the “objective” element of Christianity, i.e., what sets it apart and poses a challenge to us, as it were, from outside, the other two readings draw us to the no less central and originating “subjective” element, the personal encounter with God. Certain features are common to Isaiah’s experience in the temple and Peter’s experience in his fishing boat. Neither expected the encounter. The prophet had come to the temple as we have come to this church, but did he, anymore than we, expect that the walls would fade away, that the smoke of God’s very presence would fill the space, and that he would hear the seraphim crying out in praise of the thrice-holy God? Peter was where he was an expert, in his fishing boat, unlikely to need advice from a carpenter’s son, and suddenly has to confront a miraculous catch of fish. The two men are alike in their initial reaction to this encounter with holiness: Isaiah cries out in alarm that he, an unclean man, should have seen the Lord of hosts, Peter begs the Holy One to depart from him, a sinner. And each of them receives not only forgiveness but a mission. Isaiah is purified and is perhaps surprised to hear himself responding to God’s question, “Whom shall I send?” with the words, “Here I am, Lord, send me.” Peter not only has his fear calmed, he is told: “From now on you will be catching men.” The one becomes the great prophet, the other the great apostle.
The Church and the existence of every Christian arise out of these two experiences, what Bernard Lonergan has called the outer word of the Gospel and the inner word of the Spirit–the word that took flesh in Jesus Christ and was expressed in the public world of human history in his words and deeds, death and resurrection, and the word that is spoken in the silent depths of our hearts, where what is most personal, most distinctive, most defining about ourselves is determined. It is the coincidence of these two that leads people to become Christians, when what has been uttered and done in the outer world of time and space is found to echo and interpret the still and small, perhaps fleeting, voice that we hear within ourselves, when the story of Jesus Christ is found to be, not merely a word about another, who lived long ago, but a word about ourselves, telling the truth about ourselves, revealing our sinfulness, yes, but also calming us, forgiving us, strengthening us, encouraging us to a hope we would not have dared to entertain and to undertake tasks we would not have dreamed possible. This is what makes Christians Christians and the Church the Church.
We are here at the heart of things, called by these readings with uncommon clarity to recognize what we are about at this very moment and even to admit the possibility that like Peter in his fishing boat we might be shaken out of our taken-for-granted worlds and selves, that like Isaiah in the temple we might actually encounter God in this church, in this assembly. Is not the latter what we claim when in a few minutes we will sing the song that Isaiah heard: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts”? Perhaps–do we dare pray for it?–we might even experience what the prophet and the apostle experienced and find ourselves surprised to be saying and meaning our own “I believe”, our own “Amen,” our own “Here I am, Lord, send me”.