Awesome Beyond Words

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Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Anniversaries roll around every year. That’s why we call them that. It really is just a point on the earth’s orbit around the sun that we designate as worth remembering with presents and alcohol. Then I find out that in an effort to designate a period of time less than a year, people will coin words just to give themselves an occasion to celebrate. So we began commemorating week-aversaries, month-aversaries, six month-aversaries, half birthdays. And by we, I mean they. I don’t. Then sometime back, I don’t know how far back, someone (I looked it up but no one wants to take the blame for this) decided to arbitrarily equate the passage of time we call an anniversary with material substances which, I can only conclude, reflects the unique beauty and endurance of that friendship or relationship—it usually is one or the other or both. So paper for the 1st, wood for the 5th, tin for the 10th, crystal for the 15th, china for the 20th (dinnerware, not the country), silver for the 25th, gold for the 50th, diamond for the 60th and every anniversary after that. Then the jewelry industry saw an opening and moved to overturn convention, suggesting diamonds for every anniversary … much to the delight of half the consumer market, and the annoyance of the other half.

But after all the partying, anniversaries give us occasion to reflect on the journey behind us. And we often marvel at what we have accomplished, the obstacles and challenges we have faced and overcome, the success and maturity we have achieved. It is a sobering moment that invites us to give thanks, and encourages us on to bigger and better accomplishments. It helps us recognize the inner strength and character within, which we were often prone to doubt. And it gives us an excuse to pause, to take a good quick look around us, to survey the landscape—what’s behind us, what’s up ahead, where everyone else is, to assess the literal and figurative damage, to regain some perspective, before we pick up where we left off, and return to the grind.

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So it makes sense we have more to reflect on the more time has transpired, the more water has flowed under the bridge, so to speak. The intensity of the partying may fluctuate year after year, but the quality of the remembering and giving thanks cuts deeper and represents significantly more. I am able to recognize more intensely my own unworthiness, my lack of conviction, my incompetence, my gullibility, which in turn intensifies my amazement and wonder that any of it did actually happen.

In all three scripture passages we read today, the amazement and wonder that is experienced by the young Isaiah, by Paul—the young fervent tormentor of Christians, and by the simple fisherman Simon Peter, do not result from them looking back upon the journey, but rather from confronting the seemingly impossible task yet ahead.

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Isaiah is serving in the temple when he beholds an angelic vision. Suddenly the Lord God is before him seated on a high and lofty throne, surrounded by seraphim, those six-winged heavenly creatures described in exquisite detail by the prophet Daniel. At once he is filled with fear. “Woe is me, I am doomed!,” he thinks to himself. “I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” In the understanding of the ancients, no one may look upon the face of God and live. The experience is just too intense for mortals. Yet it seems God and his angels completely disregard his doubts. His wickedness is removed, his sin purged through the touch of a burning ember to his mouth. And without hesitation, God announces his need of a worthy emissary to do his bidding. What options does the young Isaiah still have, his self-doubt and protests now laid to rest? As unworthy as he still knows he is, he embraces his call. “Here I am. Send me.”

Then there was the young man Saul, born and raised a Pharisee in the strict observance of the Law. In his zeal, he concluded a number of his Jewish brothers and sisters were contaminating their ancestral tradition with new and disturbing teachings they credited to a popular carpenter turned preacher and miracle-worker whom their religious and civil leaders put to a shameful death. But then, in an intensely personal encounter with the risen Jesus, “as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me.” Some years later, Paul reflected on his own unworthiness, that he was “not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by [that very same] grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.” Perhaps like the prophet Isaiah, Paul was presented a daunting mission that God wanted him to embrace, and like Isaiah, he had his doubts and objections. Whenever he recounts his conversion experience, which he does a few times in the Acts of the Apostles and in his own letters, he does not indicate whether God revealed to him the enormous task for which he was chosen. We only learn from his later writings about the great apostle Paul’s amazement and wonder at the grandeur and magnitude of God’s vision.

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Then there was the fisherman Simon Peter. From the start, Jesus seemed to have chosen him for a special role. Whether or not he truly knew the full extent of the mission he was called to embrace, we can conclude the Galilean fisherman would never have considered himself equal to the task. It only took a great catch of fish as we read in today’s gospel for him to declare, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” But without regard for his perceived lack of confidence or qualification, Jesus calls him to be the rock upon which he would build his church. And from then on, Peter speaks with the voice of his Master, and becomes the great symbol of unity for all the baptized.

The story is so simple and unspectacular, a fisherman moved to the depths of his being by a great catch of fish. But if you ever get the chance to visit Rome and see the great basilica that bears his name, take the tour of the crypt where what is left of Peter’s mortal remains are believed to rest under the high altar. It didn’t take me long to be in awe of the grandeur and magnitude of God’s vision. And just as the simple fisherman of Galilee came to experience, I am forced to recognize my own unworthiness.

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It will be 24 years this summer when I lay face down on the marble floor of the Church of St. Anthony of Padua in Nanuet NY, while the gathered assembly called upon the Holy Spirit, the Great Mother of God, and all the saints and angels, to raise up worthy servants to take up the work entrusted to the church by Jesus Christ, to speak to God’s people the joyful news of his tremendous mercy and love. I have to admit that when I got back on my feet, I didn’t feel any different. But every year since, when I take the time to reflect on the journey behind me, I am amazed. I still cannot claim to be anything more than a sinful man. But I can tell you, God is looking better every time.

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Rolo B Castillo © 2016