Second Sunday in Ordinary Time B
It was just about 75 degrees colder when I left for the early Mass this morning than it was when I went out to get groceries on Friday afternoon. Brrr!
But let’s talk about something other than the frosty weather for a few minutes…
Fifteen years or so ago, when I was still a recently ordained priest, I was appointed as an assistant vocations director. That basically meant that Sr. Rose and I went around to the Catholic schools in the diocese to speak to the classes about vocations. To be blunt: we were looking for new recruits! And as we talked with the kids about our lives as a priest and a nun, we told the story of the call of young Samuel that we heard in our first reading today. As a matter of fact, we’d have the students help us tell it by acting it out. We’d dress up one boy as Samuel, another as Eli, the priest, and then one of the girls as Hannah, Samuel’s mother. And then we’d try to convince the rest of the kids that we’d saved the most important role for them: to be the voice of God. Whenever we gave the signal, they’d all whisper together, “Samuel… Samuel…,” and then they’d giggle as Samuel got up and ran to Eli again and again and again.
This familiar story from the First Book of Samuel is frequently used to speak to both children and adults about vocations. I want to take some time with you today to explore a bit of that story’s wider context so that we can see how it speaks to vocations in a broader, more fundamental sense that just about priests and nuns.
Let’s begin by considering why a young boy like Samuel is having a sleepover in the temple in the first place. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was the second wife of her husband. His first wife bore him children, but Hannah had not. While her husband did everything he could to make sure Hannah would know just how much he loved her, his first wife couldn’t resist rubbing Hannah’s nose in her barrenness.
When the whole family made it’s annual trip together to worship at the temple, Hannah had reached the breaking point. She went off by herself before the Lord to pray, and poured out her hurt and her shame with such passion that Eli, the priest, thought she was drunk. In fact Eli—not exactly known for his stellar people skills, but more about that in a minute—told Hannah just as much and tried to shoo her out of the temple for making such a spectacle of herself. But through her sobs and her tears, Hannah made a promise to the Lord: if he looked with favor on her sorrow and granted her a son, she’d give the boy over to the Lord’s service his whole life long.
Hannah headed home, and soon afterward she and her husband conceived. (In fact, she’d go on to have five other children—three boys and two girls. Now who’s taunting who?!?) When the boy, Samuel, had been weaned, Hannah brought him to the temple to serve before the Lord, and she sang a hymn of praise to the faithful God who raises up the lowly.
At the temple, Samuel is under the direction of Eli, the priest. When it comes to priests, Eli isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. In fact, whenever we hear about him, he’s either sitting down or fast asleep—as he is in today’s reading. This isn’t an indicator that he’s feeble or overworked; it’s the biblical way of telling us that he’s lazy and lax about his duties—literally “lying down on the job.” A priest’s role was to stand before the Lord on behalf of the people, but Eli was always taking a seat. His two sons were worse yet: not only slackers, but swindlers who took advantage of those who came to offer sacrifice and thus stealing from the Lord.
Between Hannah and Eli, we have Samuel: a key figure of the Old Testament who will go on to anoint Israel’s first kings. Samuel is attentive and hard working. In time, he will become quite expert in recognizing and responding to the voice of the Lord. So where does this young man learn how to stand before the Lord? Certainly not from Eli or his sons! It’s not from the “professionally” religious, but from the example of his mother whose devout prayer was heard and who kept her promise to the Lord.
That big picture of the call of Samuel tells us something crucial about vocations! While we focus a lot of time and attention on recruiting priests and nuns—and God knows, we need them!—we must not neglect those vocations which serve as their foundation. I, for one, can attest that I wouldn’t be preaching to you here today if my parents and grandparents hadn’t heeded their own call from God in handing on the Catholic faith to me.
Our gospel reading this Sunday widens the circle a bit further yet. We find John the Baptist pointing out his cousin, Jesus, to some of his own followers and friends: “Behold the Lamb of God! This is the one I’ve been telling you about all along!” So Andrew and a companion begin following Jesus. And after spending only one afternoon with Jesus, what’s Andrew’s immediate reaction? To go and get his brother, Simon: “Let me tell you about this guy I just met. You have to come and meet him, too!” As it is with mothers and fathers, so too is there a vocation for brothers and sisters and friends.
It should be noted that, like any call from God, these vocations are not insignificant, nor can we simply presume someone else will pick up the slack. If Andrew hadn’t gone to get his brother, there’d have been no Peter, no Rock, no Pope, no Church as we know it. And if Hannah hadn’t taught Samuel how to stand before the Lord, he would have never anointed King David, which means there would have been no Son of David, no Messiah, no Christ. God still has plans to do great things, and—as much as we depend on him for everything—he’s also depending on us.
I invite you to ponder this Sunday: who taught you to stand before the Lord? Clearly somebody did, and did it well, or you wouldn’t have ventured out to Mass when it’s 15 below! Thank God today for their good example.
And then ponder: as a mother or father, brother or sister, friend or classmate or coworker, who in my life right now needs me to introduce them to Jesus? Pray for those people, and ask for the courage to bring them to Christ.
As we stand before the Lord today, the Lord is still speaking. Let’s make sure we, his servants, are still listening, still ready to do his will, still answering his call.
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After Holy Communion:
We have indeed just beheld the Lamb of God in the Most Blessed Sacrament, just as really and truly as when John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to Andrew and the first Apostles. And now as then, Jesus asks us, “What are you looking for?” In a few silent moments, as we remain with Jesus and Jesus remains with us—before us in the tabernacle and even within us in Holy Communion—let us consider that probing question. We cannot begin to lead others to Jesus if we’re not clear ourselves about what we seek. In your heart now, answer that question of Jesus: “What are you looking for?”