The First Reading today is from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. It involves a dialogue between God the Father and the Messiah. What is key to note is that the reading starts with verse 3, then skips a line and continues to verse 5 and 6.
Eleonore Stump, a Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University, provides an interesting insight into this omitted passage. To quote Eleonore,
The first verse, Verse 3, is God’s line to the Messiah. My way of phrasing it would be, “You are my servant, and you will be a spectacular success; people will be able to see the glory of God by looking at you.” This is a powerful expression of praise and affirmation, isn’t it? But guess how the Messiah responds to God in the omitted Verse 4? In the first of his two lines in Verse 4, the Messiah says (in my way of phrasing it), “I have labored in vain. I have used all my strength, and it has all been for nothing.” A powerful expression of failure, isn’t it?
Was Jesus Christ a failure – as he hung upon the cross?
The Fall is a monologue-novel by Albert Camus. In the story we find the main character, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, in an Amsterdam bar ruminating about a civilization of empty silhouettes interested only in pleasure and entertainment. Some would see Clamence as a fictional John the Baptist, “clamoring” in a wilderness of no love and no hope. He says, “When all is said and done, that’s really what I am … an empty prophet for a shabby time, an Elijah without a Messiah.” Is Clamence a failure? Was John the Baptist?
Let’s contrast this with the work of Amy Heiden.
Amy Heiden is an explorer and photographer. She moved to San Francisco in 2004 and, at one point, discovered a vacant Public Health Services Hospital. The abandoned hospital peaked her interest in other abandoned and historical buildings, warehouses, churches, monasteries and hospitals. Her photos of these structures are absolutely stunning and haunting. To see them is to witness the architectural genius of times past – yet with a sense of sadness since such magnificent buildings are no longer used.
One would look at these places and might ask, “What was done then is not being done now. Was it a failure?”
Amy writes on her web site:
To me, all these buildings have a story to tell. Years ago, the now empty asylums, factories, churches, resorts and ships were saturated with life. The people working, inhabiting and visiting these locations were experiencing many of the same emotions we feel today; hope, despair, love, sorrow, happiness, tragedy. As these locations vanish, their stories are being forgotten. (So) I strive to fully document these sites in an attempt to preserve these memories before these historic relics are gone forever.”
A little different, and more hopeful, take versus what Camus writes.
Pope John Paul II declared the year of 2008 – 2009 the “Year of St. Paul.” I was working in the Clergy Office at the time and we were tasked with planning and running 4 workshops for the priests of the archdiocese dealing with the writing of St. Paul. The workshops were well received and the presentations interesting. Nevertheless, after hearing several talks back-to-back, a person begins to tune out.
But then one presenter talked about the following. When St. Paul went to Rome, that city was not his intended final destination. Rome was the center of politics, economics, power and the military. But the center of culture, the Hollywood California of the day – was Spain. St. Paul had a strategy. If he could only get to Spain, and the message of Jesus Christ could take hold there, it would spread like an Internet virus around the world.
Paul never got to Spain. He was executed in Rome. Was St. Paul a failure?
The speaker at the conference then said:
Gentlemen, you and I are Saint Paul. Sometime in your ministry, you are going to pour out everything you have into a parish, a school, a building project, a program, a person, a ministry… and you’re going to fail. Or you’re going to find yourself in the midst of a mess and you will be pulled out or reassigned before you have the chance to clean it up. The shreds of the situation will be left hanging and you will not have any chance at closure. You will feel angry of frustrated or sad or depressed or somber. Welcome to the world of St. Paul.
Those words have comforted me over the years when I found myself in a St. Paul situation. Ultimately, we hear the words of Mother Theresa: “God doesn’t want your success; God wants your faithfulness.”
Like we read in Isaiah, maybe God will allow you to “Rise up the tribes and restore the survivors.” Maybe he makes you “a light to the nations.” Maybe not.
I would imagine that most of us have experienced highs and lows in our lives. In some cases, we might have wondered where Christ was in certain moments, especially the times we found ourselves in “low cotton.” At those times, he might be right there, and yet, like John the Baptist we might say “I did not know him,” I did not recognize him.
So what do we do? I close with a poem/prayer by Anne Osdieck:
Lord, you called Paul to be an apostle, John to be a witness. Now you call each of us to be holy, each in our unique way, our own place, our own time where we are right now.
Come Holy Spirit, come, shine through our clouds. Point out Jesus in our lives.
We want to help build your kingdom. So let your light shine in our being and doing. Let all the ends of the earth know your saving love. Maybe, even through us.
Audio version of homily is here below: