Monday, January 20, 2014

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

What does it mean to be a prophet? What do we do when God calls to us in our lives?

In 1955 Flannery O’Connor wrote her second and final novel, The Violent Bear It All Away. It describes the young man Tarwater fighting against his calling to be a prophet. For the entire novel the boy literally runs away, and he is determined to do the exact opposite of his duty. Instead of burying his great-uncle he burns the house down with him in it; instead of baptizing his “idiot” cousin he drowns him. But even in the act of drowning Tarwater says the words of baptism, and by the end of the book we discover the great-uncle safely buried despite Tarwater’s arson. He finally realizes he cannot escape his calling and gives in:

He felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. He felt it rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would wander in the world, strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth. He felt it building from the blood of Abel to his own, rising and engulfing him.

The call of God is compelling. It is impossible to ignore, as anyone who has heard that little voice in the back of their head knows. Tarwater describes it as a hunger, and nothing he eats satisfies him. He feels no peace, no solace until he gives into his call and acts. The mark of a prophet then, is the undeniable call of God that compels them to act.

Their compulsion is impossible for us to ignore. Isaiah prophesied the eventual triumph of Israel, not just its reclamation but its crowning, and his words sustained the scattered Israelites in their exile. John the Baptist retreated to the wilderness, but people burdened with sin flocked to him for hope. Paul converted the world to Christ with his words and his example.

Why are we pulled to these people? Their words still pull us 2000 years away, and their successors strike at our hearts. The mark of a prophet is also the hunger they plant in us. We all know the feeling, when God speaks to us from the Mass, or a book, or a homily, or a friend in conversation. A prophet is not just a man in the wilderness, but one who speaks God’s truth from compulsion. The mark of that truth is its undeniability. The words will compel us to act, compel us to change; to repent and be born again into that strange country, the kingdom of Heaven.

What, then, can we do with the prophets’ words? When they compel us to act, to change, and the call scares us in its compulsion? We are told “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Our fear is honest and justified, because what we are called to is radical. We are called by the prophets, compelled by God, to minister to the poor, heal the sick, to take care of widows and children, and visit the imprisoned. We are called to prioritize the weak and vulnerable in the world over the rich and powerful, and it is terrifying. While we admire those who do so, we know it is risky. To serve them instead of the powerful is to spend our time and money on those who can’t reward us, can’t compensate us. It dooms us to a life on the edges, away from safety. The poor can’t give you fame, or help you save for your children’s college.

The prophets themselves model how we should act, and they point to Christ. Isaiah says in the reading today:

“And I am made glorious in the sight of the Lord, and my God is now my strength!”

It is terrifying to hear the voice of God. It is scary to hear His whisper in our lives, calling us in the quiet moments when we are undistracted by TV or socializing. But we are called. We are called to respond “Yes!,” and the call does not go away because we ignore it. It is compelling in our deepest hearts and secret thoughts.

And if we say “yes,” God will sustain us. That is His promise to the prophets, to Christ, and to us. If we choose to walk with Him we will not be alone. He will give us strength for the journey, and He will help us to do such amazing things!

“It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

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