Friday, June 24, 2016

Before You Were Born

By Colleen O’Sullivan

In the days of King Josiah, the word of the Lord came to me, saying: 
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you. (Jeremiah1:4-5)

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard.  Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.  And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at this birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.  John will drink neither wine nor strong drink.  He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.  He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn their hearts toward their children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”  (Luke 1:13-17)

For I know well the plans I have in mind for you… plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.  (Jeremiah 29:11)

In the first reading God assures the prophet Jeremiah:  Even before you were born I “knew” you.  I didn’t merely know your name or what you were going to look like.  I knew you through and through.  I knew what gifts and graces I would bestow upon you.  I knew that I would set you apart to be my prophet, and you would not let me down.  You would proclaim my message to my people.

In the Gospel reading, the angel of the Lord tells Zechariah that he and his wife, Elizabeth, are to be blessed by the birth of a son, even at this late time in their lives.  This child will be called John.  Even now, as he grows in your wife’s womb, the angel says, I can tell you that his birth will fill you and many with joy.  He will be a fine young man, pleasing in my sight.  Before he even sets foot on the earth, this special child will be filled with the Holy Spirit. In his lifetime, John will lead many to God, and he will prepare the people of Israel for the coming of the Anointed One.

Two stories, centuries apart, where God asks someone to do something in particular for God and then gives that person what he or she needs for the task.  Jeremiah and John the Baptist are well-known figures in the Scriptures, but the Bible isn’t merely a history book.  It’s the story of how God relates to all God’s children, including you and me.  God may not be asking any of us to be prophets; God may not need any of us to prepare the way for something new as John the Baptist did.  But God, by creating us, knows us better than any human being ever will.  God knows the innermost nooks and crannies of our beings, who we are, and what graces he will bestow upon us.  Just as God had specific roles for Jeremiah and John the Baptist to play, so God has a plan and purpose for each of us.  But how do we discern what this might be?  I doubt that either Jeremiah or John stumbled upon their vocation without years of prayer behind them.  To hear what God has in mind for us may take a long time – time spent both talking to the Lord and, even more, listening for the response.

The very idea that we would spend time figuring out what someone else has in mind for us, even if it is God, is totally counter-cultural.   We live lives dictated by social media, television, ads, movies, etc., that together shout one message:  It’s all about you!   All the things that pop-up on the websites you go to are tailored to your likes.  Buy this!  See that!  Need some exercise? Wait, get a Fitbit, so you can do it “properly.”  When we really get sucked into all this, there’s hardly any time to think about God or creation or all God’s other children throughout the world who lack smart phones or computers or, sometimes, food or shelter.  There’s not much opportunity carved out for wondering what it is God specifically has in mind for you or me to be doing.

There are three questions that echo throughout the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.  What have I done for Christ?  What am I doing for Christ?  What ought I do for Christ?   Using these as the basis for prayer may be a start on naming the unique role God has envisioned for each of us in the Kingdom.

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