Posted August 22, 2020
21st Sunday of the Year (Yr A)
‘Thou are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.’ What an enormous impact these words in today’s Gospel Reading (Matthew 16: 13-20) have had on the history of the Christian world!
But it is not the history of the Christian world that I want to reflect on now but, rather, on St Peter’s personal history, or, rather, his pre-history. I wonder what his life was like up to the day when that stranger on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, by some mysterious magnetism, drew him to himself. We know very little about him. We know his name was Simon; that he was a fisherman; that he was married; and that he lived at Bethsaida, then later at Capernaum. And that’s about it.
I imagine that the one thing that characterized his life and his thinking in this period was ordinariness. A fisherman thinks mostly of the weather and the next catch and maybe (if he’s got time) the next meal; perhaps of his family’s health, perhaps even of his own health, if he is particularly self-indulgent. Was St Peter any different? Did he ever think, ‘I could do better than this’? Did he ever say to his dad and his brother Andy, ‘I feel the hand of history upon my shoulder’? If he did, I imagine they quickly brought him back to his senses with hearty guffaws. And I suppose everyone who knew him would have done the same. Ordinariness is the lot of most people most of the time, and not least of fishermen trying to earn a living. Simon was one of Jonathan’s boys who worked in the family business.
And what about you? Could it be that in the midst of that unpretentious, unimaginative ordinariness of yours, God has a role for you in his plan for creation, a role so astounding that the angels must contemplate it with awe? Daft as it sounds, it must be true. God puts as much energy and as much wisdom into the details of his creation as he does into his creation as a whole. It is not possible for God to create casually, to add a wisp of white, as it were, to the finished painting, just for the fun of it. If God is God, and you are his creature, it must be the case that you are an irreplaceable part of his eternal design. And since God’s eternal design is centred upon Christ and his Church, this means that your role in the Church is as integral, and as sublime, as St Peter’s.
From all this derives the notion of vocation. Vocation is not an afterthought to God’s act of creation. It’s not as if God said to himself, ‘Well, there’s creation in place, now let’s set about distributing some vocations.’ Nor is it as if God, having examined his creation, said to himself, ‘Now who is best suited to this function in the Church, this key role in history?’ God is not Head of HR. Vocation is the realization in time of God’s eternal design. Its rationale, therefore, is not to be found in a person’s suitability, as judged on human criteria, but in God’s mysterious decision before the creation of the world. ‘Those whom he predestined he also called’, as we heard St Paul say to us some Sundays ago. The key to the mystery of our existence is God’s glory, not our own. For our unique vocations are so many unique ways in which God has chosen to act in his creation, for his own purposes.
We should each consider carefully our own vocation. We should look for it. Search for it, and respond to it generously, for you will never be fulfilled until you find it. Many say: Well, I have searched for it, and I have found nothing in my life that I could consider a vocation. Then perhaps you’ve gone searching for it too far afield, and the answer is under your nose. Look for your vocation, first of all, in your day-to-day ordinariness.
If you are married or about to be married, then consider your marriage to be your vocation. Are you a parent? That is your vocation. Marriage and parenthood are a most serious vocation because it means that God has entrusted his loved ones to you. It is a sublime vocation, because you share it with Jesus himself. Did not Jesus say to his Father (referring to his disciples): ‘They were yours and you have given them to me’? The same applies to every spouse in relation to the person God has given to them as their partner; to every parent in relation to the children God has entrusted to them. What a sobering, yet thrilling, vocation that is: to be entrusted by God with God’s very own so that you can see them along the path that leads to God. It is very important, if you enter into marriage, to do so with a profound sense of vocation. To enter into marriage with a sense of vocation, with a sense of its eternal horizons, is an awesome and marvellous venture. To enter into marriage without a sense of vocation, without your gaze fixed on eternity, is fatuous. It’s like undertaking to cross the seas without a compass, without a sail, indeed without a destination.
There are other vocations too, that are born in ordinariness, and missed if you are looking for the spectacular. There is such a thing as a vocation to the priesthood. Maybe God is calling you that way. It takes you on a journey you will not have expected. It concentrates the mind and heart on Christ and his destiny. It can be difficult, like everything else; perhaps especially nowadays. Be courageous. As Pope Benedict used to say: Christ takes nothing from you: he gives you everything.
There are still other vocations, if only we would recognize them as vocations. You don’t need a title or a uniform to have a special role in God’s plan for the world’s salvation. If you are sick or infirm or bereaved, could not that be the vocation that God had in mind for you from eternity, for his glory, and yours? Even to be a sinner – I mean, of course, along with the imperatives that being a sinner brings with it – even to be a sinner is part of your vocation.
Everyone has a vocation. Simply to be is a vocation. We often say, ‘God called us into being’, without realizing what an astonishing and demanding truth lies behind the word ‘called’ in that phrase. What matters is the intensity and the particularity with which we grasp that fundamental vocation and make it our own. To discover the obvious, and embrace it with joy, that is the key to being a saint, as it is the key to being a genius or to being a child. Think of St Thérèse of Lisieux. After much painful searching and having dreamt of many glorious things, she was thrilled when she finally discovered that her unique, personal vocation was none other than the fundamental vocation of all Christians, namely, simply to love: ‘to be love in the heart of Mother Church’, as she put it. She had discovered that her vocation was to be a Christian, no less. In relation to this vocation, all particular vocations (pope, priest or parent, or whatever) are simply means to an end. For all Christians are called to the perfection of love. ‘God has chosen us before the world’s foundation to be holy and blameless before him in love’, says the author of Ephesians. What distinguishes Thérèse from the rest of us is the thrill, the thoroughness, the passion with which she embraced our common vocation and made it her own. It is upon such ordinary rocks that Christ builds his Church, and our eternity.
Fr Tom Deidun