About Four In the Afternoon

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – January 17, 2021

St. Mary – Derby, KS

1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19; Psalm 40:2, 4, 7-10; 1 Corinthians 6:13c-15a, 17-20; John 1:35-42

“I have not come to explain, to disperse doubts with an explanation, but to fill, or better, to replace the very need for an explanation with my Presence

Paul Claudel
(1) Expectant Waiting…for a Present Presence

We begin Ordinary Time again, but that doesn’t mean a complete “break” with what just happened over Christmas. We don’t just pretend that everything we just celebrated during the Advent and Christmas seasons was just a nice something, and now we’re back to a bunch of cute stories about Jesus. Because if we leave those seasons and those mysteries behind, we leave everything behind. Everything. Literally Everything.

Remember: all during Advent, we were waiting, expecting something to happen, for someone to arrive. Advent puts us back in that original position of the people of God: waiting for someone to come, for God’s anointed messiah to come; waiting for someone to give us what we could not give ourselves; waiting for one to come and set things right, give us peace, and bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Put simply: we were waiting for a Presence.

At Christmas, we celebrated the arrival of that Presence. At Epiphany, that this Presence is for all people, not just the Israelites. And then in the Baptism of the Lord (last Sunday), that this Presence comes not to be a cute baby or a nice guy, but that this Presence comes to renew all of creation and to renew us, liberate us, recreate us. 

But it is precisely that: a Presence. And we can’t underestimate that God’s plan, God’s method wasn’t a book, or a video-series, or the snap of his fingers. God’s plan, the method God uses is a Presence. We can’t underestimate the importance of that.

One of the things you have to get comfortable with as a priest is being around dead people. And I mean, I’ve gotten better at it…but let’s all be honest. Ok. Over Christmas break, I got called in to the mortuary to bless a body, and fine, that’s pretty normal. But usually the family is there. When I got there, the family wasn’t there. Ok, not so normal. But then the lady lead me into the room, and says, “Ok, Father. I’ll let you do your thing.” And leaves me there alone. … Why do we feel this weird fear in the presence of a dead body when we’re alone with it? But, if there is someone there with you, that fear just falls away?

And this is a simple example, but it rings true: our experience tells us that what we need—when it hits the fan, when the chips are down—our experience tells us we need a Presence. A real and permanent Presence that can be approached and encountered. A Presence which somehow responds to what I truly need.

(2) The Arrival…of an Encounter-able Presence

When we hear this story about Samuel in our first reading and then the Gospel today—I don’t know, maybe it’s just me—but I think we can easily think, “Oh, it’s about God calling.” God calling Samuel. God calling Andrew and John. God calls Samuel because he wants Samuel to do something. God calls Andrew and John because he wants them to do something.

But look at what actually happens. In our first reading, Samuel is there sleeping, and we hear,  “The LORD came and revealed his presence” (1 Samuel 3:10). I don’t know why, but we so quickly turn to this idea that we need to go do something. But the first thing, always the first thing? The LORD comes and reveals his presence. Same thing in the Gospel. Those two disciples of John the Baptist, Andrew and John, they are waiting for something. And John the Baptist says, “Behold,” and points them to Jesus, to this Presence.

And again, we take this for granted. We know who Jesus is. We know: he’s God. But Andrew and John? What in the world happened? In the Gospels, when people see Jesus, they say, “Isn’t that Jesus from Nazareth? Isn’t that Joseph’s kid? Didn’t we watch him grow up? Can anything good come from Nazareth?” I mean, honestly, it would be like if Joshua from Mulvane showed up, “Can anything good come from Mulvane?”

So what was it? When Andrew and John come across this Jesus guy from Nazareth, they come across something exceptional. And I don’t mean that Jesus had a halo and was glowing or something. I mean that Jesus was exceptional because he was so natural, he was exactly what they were looking for. They encountered this guy, this presence, and everything changed.

(3) The Event of an Encounter…with an Exceptional Presence

What we have in this scene in our Gospel today is the Christian formula, it is the Christian method. It’s a presence. Something happens. Christianity is an event. Christianity is an event that takes the form of an encounter. It’s an event: something happened, something that wasn’t there before happened at a certain time in a certain place. What does the story say? “It was about four in the afternoon.”

When Andrew and John see this man, they follow him, they are drawn to him. They don’t know why. But they follow after him. And they ask, “Where are you staying?” Not,“Who are you? What are you doing here?” No. “Where are you staying?” They want to remain in his presence. And Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, let me tell you the rules about following me.” No. He simply says, “Come and see.”

And after “staying” with this man for hours, listening to him speak, being with him in his presence, thinking things like, “Who is he speaking like this? We have never heard anyone like this!”—after “staying” in his presence, this impression forms deep within their hearts: “If I do not believe this man I won’t believe anyone, I won’t believe my own eyes!” It’s that simple. They became “Christians” (so to speak) at that very moment.

Pope Benedict XVI said, very famously, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, [an exceptional presence] which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (BXVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1). Pope Saint John Paul II said, “Before being a collection of doctrines or a rule for salvation, Christianity is the ‘event’ of an encounter” (John Paul II).

Christianity is an event. It’s not laws and rules and concepts, or a system of belief, a program or religious doctrines, rituals and prayers, political preferences, a club, values. No. Christianity is an event. It is the breaking in of something new that gives rise to the beginning of something new.

(4) The Announcement…of a Saving Presence

This is what it is. Andrew and John encounter this man, this presence; the event of this encounter happens “about four in the afternoon.” And all of a sudden, in this moment—their life has a whole new horizon, a decisively new direction.

And what is the first thing that happens? Andrew tells his brother, Simon. And why does Simon listen to his dumb little brother? Why? Because Simon sees something in his brother that he has never seen before. He sees the difference this man has caused in his kid brother.

Christianity is an event. To be a Christian is to announce this event, to announce this event of an encounter with this exceptional presence. To be a Christian is to announce this presence which saves us from nothingness.

(5) The Form of Our Witness: Being, not Doing

What does this look like?

There is this famous story of a clown and a burning village. A traveling circus caught fire. And so the manager sent the clown, already in makeup for the performance—and he sent him into the neighboring village to get help, especially since there was a danger that the fire would spread across the dry fields and engulf the village. The clown hurried into the village and begged the people to come as quickly as possible to the blazing circus and help to put the fire out. But the people of the village thought the clown’s shouting was just a brilliant piece of advertising, meant to attract as many people as possible to the performance. They applauded the clown and laughed ‘till they cried. The clown felt more like weeping than laughing; he tried so hard to get the people to be serious, to make it clear to them that it was not a trick, that there really was a fire. But this only made the people laugh even more; people thought he was playing his part splendidly. Until finally the fire did engulf the village, and it was too late for help, and both the circus and the village were burned to the ground.

So often, whenever we try to communicate and share and announce the “Gospel” with others, the way we do it makes us seem like a clown announcing a fire: people laugh at us, dismiss us, and don’t take us seriously. But is it their fault or ours?

I think it’s ours.

We rarely announce a Presence which saves. We presupposed all that Christianity stuff—as in, Jesus’ Presence, the new horizon and a decisive direction in our life—and we go straight to what we are supposed to do. If you ask people, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” you will hear them say all the random rules and laws and doctrines and political positions and rituals and prayers—but they leave out the event, the encounter with the Person, the Presence that stands behind all of it.

If our witness, our announcement of the “Gospel” is just another special interest group, or self-help ideas, or whatever—is this what Jesus had in mind when he told us to go and announce the Gospel?

In the world and culture that surround us, in Derby, Kansas—where there is so much emptiness and fear and shallow living, where everything you do is equal and boring and routine, where everything is amazing but no one is happy—what is there that manages to seize us, attract us, determine our very being?

Only the event of an encounter with an exceptional Presence. We can make Christ present only through the change he has made in us.

As we approach this altar today, receiving his very Presence into ourselves—we come in contact with that same Jesus that Andrew and John encountered at four in the afternoon. And as we leave, as we “go and announce the Gospel of the Lord”—perhaps our announcement will be more about the change the Lord has brought about in us.

“God [Himself] did not respond to the problems of life, to solitude, to suffering, with an explanation, but rather with his Presence

Julián Carrón

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