Thirteenth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Quinquagesima Sunday)
Readings: Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
There’s a scene at the beginning of 1999 film Dogma by Kevin Smith, in which the angel is charging the hero Bethany, a jaded young woman with a grudge against a Church she desperately wants to love, with “a holy crusade.” She’s incredulous and she protests, saying, “I work in an abortion clinic!” – to which the angel replies, “Noah was a drunk, and look what he accomplished. And no one’s asking you to build an ark!” It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it does illustrate a core truth about divine discipleship. As the saying goes that makes the rounds on social media every so often: “God doesn’t call the qualified; He qualifies the called.” And on this last Sunday before the holy season of Lent begins – a season in which the Holy Father is calling on us to reaffirm our own discipleship by concrete acts of mercy – that idea permeates the readings of today’s Liturgy.
In the First Reading the prophet Isaiah reflects on a vision he was granted at the beginning of his ministry, a vision of the throne of God and his holy court. This man who would become the most famous, the most quoted, and the most imitated of the Old Testament prophets feels unworthy of the great sight, calling himself “a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” An angel from the holy court purifies his mouth with a burning ash from the altar, and the LORD calls out to send him forth. And this man who thought himself totally unworthy mere moments before is now anxiously shouting “Here I am! Send me!” A similar incident occurs almost 800 years later in our Gospel reading, as Jesus astonishes His new disciples with the miracle of a large catch of fish. Straightaway Simon Peter – the one whose faith was not strong enough to follow Jesus across the water, the one whom Jesus would make chief of His chosen Twelve, the one who would deny three times even knowing who Jesus was, the one whose successor still presides over His unconquerable Church – falls before Jesus at the sight of the miracle and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And Jesus, knowing all that is to come, simply says to him, “Do not be afraid.” And with that, the fisherman becomes a fisher of men.
The closer we get to God and to what it is He’s calling us to do, the more we have a tendency to back off or run away – as if faith is reserved only to those parts of God’s will that we “understand.” But as Saint Paul reminds us in today’s Second Reading, that’s not how it works. The more our own wisdom tells us to back away from God, the more we need to have faith in God’s own wisdom that yes, even now He knows what He’s doing. “By the grace of God I am what I am,” Paul writes to the Corinthians, “and His grace to me has not been ineffective.” He writes this within one sentence of identifying himself as “one born abnormally,” “the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle.” And because of this he gives the credit to God, for working through him in order to spread His Gospel, a message which Paul himself also had to receive before he could pass it on. When he says to the Corinthians that “[t]hrough it you are also being saved,” he knows firsthand what that salvation means, having experienced it in dramatic fashion. And he knows that our loving dependence upon God in all things applies to exactly that: all things.
Anyone who has read the lives of the men and women we acclaim as Saints will quickly discover two things: not only were they the first to let you know how imperfect they really were, but also their lives were a constant fight against darkness and doubt – even in the midst of celebrating and sharing great faith, hope and love. From Augustine and Athanasius in the early Church to Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Avila in the late Middle Ages to Faustina Kowalska and Teresa of Calcutta in more recent times, their memoirs and biographies are filled with vivid accounts of draining battles against obscure enemies. Yet see how much good, how much love, how much mercy God has been able to work through them, to say nothing of the millions more we’ve never heard of, over the course of 2000 years! So as we prepare once again for the “holy crusade” that is the Lenten Fast, at the end of which we will celebrate the fullness of our identity as the People of Resurrection, remember that being “merciful like the Father” means showing no partiality even to ourselves.
To be an apostle is to be sent out (Greek, apostollein). Do not be afraid to say to God, “Here I am! Send me!” when He calls to you. After all, “yours is a heritage divine,” and whatever we’ve been doing lately, any one of us may be called to become the next generation’s patron Saint!