Over the last several Sundays I have been connecting the readings beginning with Holy Family Sunday. St. Paul gave us advice on being a holy family: to put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and over all these, love. (cf. Col 3:12-13). And so I encourage you to use your family to practice those virtues, to become the embodiment of those virtues. Then on Epiphany Sunday, the message was to reveal those virtues to the world through your life – to become the epiphany of Christ to others. The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord followed in which the prophet Isaiah’s word says that in our baptism we are formed as a covenant the people – a vow, a promise, a bond, a connection that binds us to the promise and the power of Christ on one side and to the world on the other.
And so with good intent and hopeful hearts we work away in our personal lives and in our families – to be the person, the family, the witnesses to heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and over all these, love. We want those virtues in our lives and in our families, but have we been practicing them? Have been talking about them within the family. I suspect most of us pray about it, we work at it, we succeed, we fail, we start over… mostly silently. And think about it. If we are hesitant to speak about it within the safety of home, how likely are we to testify about it all in the company of others.?
We are challenged – or we should be – when the prophet Isaiah tells us: “It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant…. I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” We think of ourselves as good and faithful servants – even the gospel commands us to become that, but we also have an image of the role and place of the servant from Dowtown Abbey and other shows and movies. A servant can be present, silently present, taking it all in, but never part of the conversation.
So, yes, we are called to be servants, but we are also called to be more. Called to moments in our lives, when the virtues practice at home, shine through in our life, but there is more. We are also called to testify. Called to testify as did John the Baptist, “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” And not in whispered voices, but loud and proud in the public square. We are called to testify!!
Maybe there is perhaps no word more terrifying in the Catholic psyche that “testify.” To stand up and give a witness for Christ. It’s not what we do. Yet, we have heard such testimony and we know that we are touched and moved at a deep level… we connect to the story. But, like I said, it’s not what we Catholic do. We nod solemnly, reverently, ….silently. I have had parishioners come to me after a Mass and say, “During your homily, I wanted to stand up shout ‘Amen.’” But, it’s not our way.
I grew up in a completely Baptist neighborhood. We were the only Catholic family for blocks. As a consequence of that, along with the neighborhood kids, I have snuck off and spent a summer evening or two peeking under the flaps at tent revival. Places where the Spirit was moving and people were anything but silent. Places where men stood up and testified, words honed by years of practice. There were epic tales of sin and redemption wherein Jesus pulled them from the devil’s grasp and washed them in His blood. Women, spoke of love betrayed, and of loss and pain and joy so fierce, so sharp, that it almost seem to slice apart the humid summer air. People testified and praised God for the times Jesus saved them from despair, raised them up, wiped away their tears, and set them on the road to righteousness.
It is memory of those moments I begin to understand “It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant….” Yet, there I was this Catholic kid who at best had a story about avoiding a ruler wielded by a nun during my preparation for First Holy Communion. That story seems pale when I am living in a world where, no matter your age, or station in life, if you couldn’t tell your story of sin, redemption and being saved out loud to others, well, then you weren’t really much of a Christian, after all. It was just part of the fabric of life. People gave witness in the Winn-Dixie, the Piggly-Wiggly or outside the post office.
But it wasn’t the fabric of my life. Our stories of sin and redemption were confined to the safety of the confessional. And that is good, don’t get me wrong. In the sacrament the mercy, love and forgiveness of God are real, moving, and life-changing. We speak in hushed words, silently do our penance, and return to life as good and faithful servants.
Did you know there is a verse in the Letter of James when he tells us: “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.” (James 5:16) Wisdom and advice from the Apostle that is anything but silent and private. Advice that brings in the power of other righteous people in fervent prayer. Can you imagine Catholics doing that? Maybe, I suspect we will opt for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. That is our way.
It is not that we are not fervent people, people on fire with the Spirit or passion of God. But the heat runs deep, burns quietly, almost smoldering. Is the fabric of an inner life, but different that the heat, the passion, or the fire which poured through the windows of the Pine Street Pentecostal church on a Sunday evening. The fabric of my life was cautious, reserved, not so much on fire. Such fire has its own fascination, but it was foreign to my world where we Catholics whispered our prayers in hushed tones, chanted familiar medieval melodies, and reverently knelt at the altar rail to receive the Eucharist. We were good and faithful servants, but there was a whole conversation we were not part of.
As I grew and those summer memories became more distant, in time, I began to tell myself that my own faith was more discrete, more private more, well…… more sophisticated than asking someone in the local WalMart if they had been saved. But if I am honest, it was more because I did not think that I had stories of loss and redemption, of joy and sorrow, or of the hand of God reaching into the cesspool of sin to snatch me from the devil’s grasp. There were no stories for the inner fire to come out, no stories that would move hearts and change lives. Even if we Catholics wanted to testify, what on earth could we say about our ordinary, messy lives, our doubts, our mistakes? Who would listen?
I mean, what if we opened our mouths and looked like fools? What if we did more harm than good? What if people laughed, or even worse… ignored us? What if we just aren’t important enough, or faithful enough, or interesting enough for our stories to matter? Can’t we just be present, silently present, taking it all in? Can’t we just be good and faithful servants?
“It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant, …I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isa 49:6)
What holds us back? We are not doing the heavy lifting. It is not “you will make yourself.” It is the promise of God that He will make us, shape us, form us, give us voice. Because it is not our salvation, it is His salvation. A salvation that is gift – all gift – and we just need to tells others about the gift. And in the face of so great a gift, it seems to me, that silence is not a grace-filled option.
We are people of faith, deep abiding faith – silent faith. And in that faith our own tales. There are stories of sin, redemption, love and joy, pain and sorrow, the hand of God grasping us and raising us up, and the hand of God simply resting on our shoulder in patient consolation. In our own stories are a witness that someone else may desperately need to hear. We have seen something— maybe something big, like the ones who wrestled evil in the gutter and lived to tell the tale. Or maybe something small— so small and fragile that it will be almost transparent except to the one who is really searching. Our life testimonies, as ordinary as they seem to us, are truly heroic. They are the stuff of legends, worthy to be told and retold – because they are part of the Greatest Story ever told.
As the prophet Isaiah said on Epiphany: Rise up … Raise your eyes and look about.” (Is 60) Out there somewhere. In the pew next to you. In the school lunchroom. At the office. At the dinner table, someone waits for your story. “It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant, …I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Tell your story…. Be the light for another.