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Homilies from St Etheldreda's

The Existential Moment

Posted June 28, 2016

Today’s Gospel reading (Luke 9: 51-62), or part of it at least, is about discipleship.  The three men are faced with stark alternatives.  Either they follow Jesus or they do not.  The call to discipleship admits of no compromise or delay.  It’s all or nothing.  How the three decide will define their eternal future, for only a resolute, single-minded ‘yes’ can qualify a person for the Kingdom of Heaven.  They must now take their destinies into their hands in a single, irreversible decision.  Their encounter with Jesus along the way is their ‘existential moment’.

Is that how we experience discipleship?  Probably not – at first sight, at least.  For most of us, the beginning of discipleship was nothing like as dramatic.  We imbibed our Christian faith with mother’s milk.  Probably there never was a time when we had to make a once-in-a-lifetime option for Jesus that dramatically excluded all other claims.  Our response to the gospel was, and is, a process, that plays out over the years, with scarcely a mention of it in the diary.  Admittedly, a few of us will have experienced existential moments, perhaps at the time of a conversion that required us to make great sacrifices; or when some huge moral dilemma brought our faith to a crisis and placed us in a situation where we had to choose between stark alternatives.  And there are many Christians today who are being forced to decide whether they will renounce their faith or suffer dire penalties.  But for the rest of us existential moments appear to be few and far between, or they don’t come at all.  We manage to be disciples without ever being put in the position of the three men in today’s Gospel reading.  Or so it seems.

But maybe we underestimate the importance of the small moral choices that we make every day and our apparently insignificant decisions, our seemingly casual words and actions.  Maybe our option for God, or our rejection of God, does not take place in one dramatic moment but is spread out over our ordinariness.  Maybe the decisions that we persuaded ourselves were of little moment, choices that we made thinking that they would fade into oblivion with the passage of time, words that we spoke and things we did in mundane circumstances, were in reality ‘existential moments’ for us.  Maybe the existential moment confronts us in small choices just as really, and with the same momentous consequences, as it confronted the three men on the way.  God sees what happens in your heart, and he knows that your ‘existential moments’ do not need to be sensational to be complete and decisive.  Would St Thérèse  have been a more perfect disciple, or her eternity more glorious, if she had had the opportunity of dying a martyr’s death?  Or would the martyrs appear less radiant in heaven if martyrdom had never actually come their way?

Small choices may have hidden depths.  When Jesus says: ‘By their fruits you shall know them’, he surely implies that the roots were there all the time, unseen, spreading silently.  St John also must be referring to something similar when he comments that Jesus ‘never needed evidence about anyone; he could tell what someone had within.’  The point is that ‘what someone has within’ is there all the time, working secretly, before ever it crystallizes in action.  Macbeth’s ‘fatal apparition’, that famous dagger that he saw before his eyes, pointing him on to treason and murder, was not the cause or even the trigger of the act, but the manifestation of a will that was already set on it: ‘Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going!’

How do we know that our little no’s to God’s grace in the ordinariness of our daily lives are not expressions of ‘the way that we were going’: crystallizations, perhaps, of a very resolute ‘no’ in the core of our being?  Or how do we know that our half-heartedness in doing good, our endless procrastination, are not the fruit of fatal ambivalences deep down?  On the positive side, how marvelous, how truly marvelous it is to think that our small acts of trust and self-relinquishment will appear in eternity as so many luminous manifestations of a definitive yes that was always there in our hearts!

The moral of the story is that we should never make light of any moral choice that we make in our daily lives.  None of them is insignificant.  Each of them is our response to the selfsame challenge that confronted the three men in today’s Gospel.  Even our apparently insignificant choices may be a reflection of what we have chosen to be in the mysterious depths of our personality.  God scrutinizes the heart, and what he finds there, good or evil, determines our relationship with him.  Let us pray that what he finds there is good, and let us confirm that goodness at every moment without ambiguity or delay.

Fr Tom Deidun

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