Rising very early before dawn, Jesus left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you.” Jesus told them, “Let us go to the nearby villages that I may preach there, also. For this purpose have I come.”
My Dear Friends in Christ,
“Phil? Phil? Phil Conners? I thought that was you… Now don’t tell me don’t remember me because I sure as heck fire remember you. Ned… Ryerson!? Needle-nosed Ned?!! Ned the head…?!! Come on, Buddy, Case Western High!!?? Ned Ryerson… did the whistling belly button trick at the high school talent show? Bing! Ned Ryerson… got the shingles real bad in senior – year almost didn’t graduate? Bing Again!! Ned Ryerson!!!? I dated your sister Mary Pat a couple times until you told me not to anymore… Bing!! Am I right or am I right or am I right?? Right?? Right?? Right?? Whooooohoooo!! Watch out for that first step is a doozy!” – Groundhog Day, 1993
Those with any class or taste at all, and even some with no class at all, will certainly recognize that introduction. It’s a scene in the tiny but infamous town of Punxsutawney, PA on the day that gives them their claim to fame, a day we just celebrated this past week: February 2nd, Groundhog Day. And these words came from the beloved cult classic of a movie starring Bill Murray. Murray plays an acerbic, sarcastic Phil Conners, big city weatherman assigned to cover Groundhog Day in, as he calls it, the hick filled town of Punxsutawney. Stranded by the blizzard he had predicted would pass over the area without impact, Phil is forced to relive the worst day of his life over and over and over again.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about this movie, how everyday seems to be the same. COVID has kept so many of us inside, away from office or school and regular schedule. Many days seem a repeat of the one before. Admittedly, some days, I’m tempted, like Job in our first reading, to write them off as drudgery, a check mark until my end comes like a weaver’s shuttle, fast and furious, (even if there are so many sequels!). Truth be told, most are neither fast nor furious, just drudgery. I struggle on those days to avoid falling into the rut of letting another pass by with little to show, save a turn of the calendar.
God wants so much more for us, not just from us but for us than a day of drudgery, even in this pandemic, which has helped me to face this and realize it and at least start to do something about it. I’ve said it before in this past year, God does not want us to return to normal, meaning our lives as they were before COVID. No. God wants us to use this time to see the opportunities we have so that we can establish a new normal, based on the teachings and the live and the example of Jesus Christ, an opportunity, as Saint Paul says in our second reading, to preach the Gospel.
Over the past few weeks, our message series, Come and You Will See! has been focused on the most basic aspects of our faith and the call we share as a community: our individual relationship to and belief in Jesus Christ, and the call Jesus has given us to make disciples. Remember Andrew and his unnamed friend? Both are disciples of John the Baptist, going about their daily lives but also looking for something more. There’s an unfilled ache in their hearts, not enough to upend their lives, but there is a tug to something more.
So, when they encounter Jesus, they start to follow but only hesitantly, unsure, unwilling to commit themselves to more than following from a distance. Jesus accepts that, accepts them where they are and, rather than trying to explain anything to them, he simply invites them to join Him: Come and You will see. Jesus invites them to draw closer, to come along with Him. Accepting this invitation changes Andrew’s heart and life. Immediately, he runs to his brother, Simon: “We have found the Messiah.” Simon, his brother, friend and business partner had probably spent hours talking while waiting for the fish to bite. Jesus receives Simon, with the same love and acceptance, and gives Simon a new name. Andrew and the newly named Peter are forever changed by the encounter. Then, we heard the formal call of Jesus for Andrew and Peter, James and John. It’s only after they have encountered Jesus, been with Him, understand enough to experience something special, something important even if they are not sure what that is.
They’ve been listening to Jesus, talking with Him, sharing faith and hope and dreams, discussing the promise of salvation. And from that relationship, Jesus calls them to a twofold mission: to follow and to fish. As Jesus makes clear right from the start, this call, while personal to each of them, is not private, not to be hidden, not to be savored or exercised individually. His call for them is essentially tied up with serving others, sharing with others the Good News. Jesus did all this using terms they could understand and held dear: fishing for others.
And last week we began to see what “fishing” means. Jesus went into the synagogue and astonished the people by teaching as one having authority, not like the scribes… A new teaching with authority. There was a newness in the teaching of Jesus, yes, a new method, a personal authority, coming from his own personal relationship with God. The greater newness came in the content of that teaching.
Jesus was not focused on the law, on the rules, on what made a person unclean or not. Jesus was focused on the love God had for Him as a beloved Son and on sharing with everyone and anyone that same close bond of gentle yet awesomely powerful love. We saw last week that Jesus teaches and brings the love of God not just by speaking content or offering doctrine; His authority moves beyond mere words or concepts. Jesus takes on the demon in the celebrity death match of the century and wins hands down, not only silencing the demon but also healing the man possessed.
What Jesus teaches is how Jesus heals and who Jesus is: the breaking in of God’s kingdom, a tangible human reminder and effector of God’s love, the start of a new kingdom, in this world but not of it, using not brute force or domination, using not power, fame money or deception, but a kingdom born of God’s love for us. And that’s the mission Jesus starts, practically, in today’s Gospel.
Jesus comes out of the synagogue and immediately starts putting into practice what He had taught verbally only moments before. It’s healing people starting with Peter’s mother-in-law who gets right up and starts to serve. On a side note, notice that there is no recorded response of Peter, as biblical scholars are not sure whether Peter thought this was a good thing or not.
All kidding aside, Jesus begins to demonstrate in all kinds of healing that the Presence of God, the love of God, changes things, changes people, changes hearts. He cures illnesses, drives out demons, holds hands and in all cases, draws people back into the community into the very heart of God. And this is not just some parlor trick to appease the locals or placating the home crowd to leave Him alone. Jesus makes it clear that it’s for everyone, that the same love of which He speaks, the love which heals and transforms, the love He shares in service to others, is for the other towns as well, for all the towns.
But, before they move on, Jesus needs to make a pit stop, not for gas or to pop into the loo, but to recharge His spiritual batteries. Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. His relationship with the Father is the heart of Jesus. It’s what drives Him, sustains Him, recharges Him, and it is a cultivated one. It’s important to note that Jesus does not take this relationship for granted. Rather He is attentive to it, develops it, seeks to deepen it. Remember the time the 12-year-old Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem? Mary and Joseph had to run back to search for Jesus, and after three days, find Him in the Temple discussing God with the chief priests and the scholars: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Such a 12-year-old answer from a child obsessed, a child still being formed, still learning about how his actions affect other people.
Then today, as we will see many other times, Jesus goes off by Himself to pray. It’s especially true before big decisions or moments in His earthly life: at the start of His ministry with time in the desert (we’ll hear about that in a couple of weeks in the first week of Lent); before choosing and calling the Apostles; and, most profoundly before His Passion and death. There, we even hear the words He prays: Father, take this cup from me but your will not mine be done.
It is these moments with His heavenly Father that allow Jesus to keep going, keep serving, remaining obedient even when the results don’t seem to add up. And in all of this:
- in his teaching of the bigger picture of God’s love rather than focusing on the law and who lives up to it;
- in his searching out and healing of those who are sick,
- in his love for the poor, the marginalized and the foreigner
- in his serving and being attentive to those in need, most especially those who thought themselves, or, more likely were thought by others to be beyond God’s love,
- in his freeing others from demons, whether by the acceptance of and respect for each person he encountered, or the forgiveness of sins, or the exorcisms of those suffering from manifestations of evil
- in his concentration on and attention to his relationship with God, studying, praying and spending time with His heavenly Father.
In all of this, Jesus shows us what it means to be a disciple. In Church culture, we often use the term “disciple” without defining it or, worse yet, without fully understanding it. Since the term represents the heart of our marching orders from Jesus (Matthew 28:16-20). The word comes from the Greek word “mathetes” which, in turn comes from the verb “manthanein” meaning “to learn” (think of the term ‘math’).
To be a disciple, then is to learn, to be a learner. It’s not so much about remembering the content of individual teachings as it is about knowing the person of Jesus Christ. It’s not about being perfect, we can’t. It’s not about changing the whole world, we can’t. It’s not about giving up our whole lives to serve others, we can’t. But we can accept the invitation of “Jesus to Come and See,” to be welcomed into the heart of God, and to follow Jesus and fish for others, where we are, how we are, who we are. Jesus calls us unreservedly ready to assist even and especially when we are imperfect, not yet ready to change, or sacrifice too much. Jesus takes what little we offer and transforms it, takes the smallest opening and vulnerability and makes all things work together for God.
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to learn about Him, certainly but, even more importantly, from Him and from our relationship with Him. To be a disciple is not a one-time thing. To be a disciple means that we learn of and know intimately Jesus Christ and that we continue to do that over the course of time. To be a disciple is to be engaged in a lifelong process of learning from and about Jesus the Master, Jesus the teacher. It is a lifelong relationship of knowing Jesus Christ. The English term “Disciple” comes from the Latin, “Discipulus,” and provides the connotation that this learning is not haphazard but intentional and disciplined. To become a disciple is to commit to such a process, to learn from the example of Jesus who cultivated His own relationship with the Father.
You’ve heard, I’m sure the adage, “It’s not what you know but who you know. It’s all about who you know.” This is a perfect insight into becoming a disciple. Yes, it’s about making connections, about bringing people together. But it’s all in how we understand and use our knowledge. All of the Romance languages have two words for the concept of knowing, distinguishing between “knowing a fact” and “knowing a person.” For example, in the Italian “sapere“ is the verb I use to know a fact, like geography but “conoscere“ is what I use when I know a person, not just the fact of his or her existence but also who he or she is, something that has to develop over time, by spending time in a relationship. This distinction is what gave rise in days of old to the euphemism often used for sex: Joseph and Mary were engaged but before they “knew” each other. Sex was considered the most profound way one could know another, the most profound way one could deepen a relationship, a physical, tangible expression of the knowledge one has of another. And this is why God sometimes uses sexual imagery in the bible to reference the intimacy God wants with us.
To know Jesus Christ is to make oneself vulnerable, open to the opportunity God offers, to take advantage of the time we have to allow God to change us, make us better, draw us closer, strengthen us not only to serve but to take joy in that service, even when we have to sacrifice.
That’s the heart of the message Phil Conners has to learn, to take what seems like endless repetition, unending days of monotony and make them useful. And Phil gets this after more than a few false starts and misguided concepts about what living in the past means. Phil learns to speak French, play the piano, avoid the puddle, and even gets the girl in the end. More important than any of that, though, Phil must learn to change heart and mind, learn to become the better person even he didn’t know he could be. He can’t get out of that rut, until he learns to leave the past “Phil” behind and look towards the future and a better “Phil”.
You and I are called to something similar these days, even if they seem like Groundhog Day, and to make use of them, to draw closer to God, to learn of and from Jesus Christ, to improve not our skills but our hearts, not only to get the girl but to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. And this call, to make the best use of our time by praying and serving others is also the call that we share as a community. To be disciples and to make disciples.
Lent’s coming up very soon. I want you to take a few moments, even discuss with one another in the family, what you are going to do for Lent, how you are going to be different, how you are going to draw close to God so that you can better celebrate at Easter. Lent isn’t a test of will power. The goal of Lent is to draw closer to God, to strengthen and deepen your relationship with Jesus Christ, to become a better disciple.
We’ll have a very special opportunity to do that next week in the annual Appeal for Catholic Ministries. The Annual Appeal for Catholic Ministries is not just another special collection. It’s an opportunity to join together in mission to make a shared commitment to support the work of Jesus Christ throughout the Archdiocese. This commitment serves the needs of those less fortunate along with schools and parishes throughout our Archdiocese. It’s about reaching out to something bigger than ourselves, serving God together with others. For us here in the Pastorate, we have designated our parish portion of what you give in the Appeal to go to the Frederick Family Shelter. Because of the economy and especially during the pandemic, there’s an increase among homelessness, including families. This shelter will provide a temporary place for the families right here in our area to stay while they get back on their feet. Next week, we’ll be asking those who have not yet contributed to make a commitment or gift. Please reflect on the generosity of God in their lives, and, in the coming week, to decide upon a suitable gift to reflect their appreciation for God’s gifts. Regardless of the amount, we ask each of you to prayerfully consider a gift. No gift is too small. and we ask all to pray for the success of the 2021 Appeal for Catholic Ministries.
Our Mission is to Love God. Love others. Make Disciples. Six simple words, but with the “new” command of Jesus something so radical as to change not only our lives but the whole world as well. Join us as Jesus invites us closer, as Jesus welcomes us and all into God’s Heart, as Jesus calls us to follow and to fish for others. Join us as we continue to look practically at what it means as individuals and as a community to follow Christ, to become comfortable with our faith, and uncomfortable with ourselves unless we share that faith with others, to live better the call Jesus gives. “Come and you will see.”