This morning’s Gospel reading is John 1:35–42:
John was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi”—which translated means Teacher—, “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come, and you will see.” So they went and saw where Jesus was staying, and they stayed with him that day. It was about four in the afternoon. Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two who heard John and followed Jesus. He first found his own brother Simon and told him, “We have found the Messiah” —which is translated Christ—. Then he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas”—which is translated Peter.
I must start out today’s reflection by making a confession… which is a rather Catholic way to start out, no? As I prepared to begin reflecting on today’s Gospel from John, I read through the passage twice from the daily lectionary I use to get all of the readings for today. And at the end of the second reading, it occurred to me that I had no idea who was speaking at the beginning other than Jesus. Was it John the Baptist, or was it John the disciple? Or was it someone else?
Of course, it is John the Baptist, and in other translations it’s a bit clearer from these verses alone. When I prepare for writing my reflections, I eventually read through a longer part of the readings in order to make sure I get the context, so it would have occurred to me at some point anyway.
Still, this confusion made me consider the difficulties of perspective, a point that subtly weaves its way through all of our readings today. We do not see the larger context of truth in part because we live in the fallen world and cannot easily see past our own instant observations. But it’s also often true that we choose not to see past our own experiences, our own hurts, and our own desires to grasp the world as it truly is, too.
Today’s Gospel, for instance, follows immediately after John the Evangelist’s narrative of John the Baptist’s denial of being the Messiah. To the people being baptized by the latter John, he must have looked and sounded like a Messiah, or the second coming of Elijah at the least. A man with more focus on his own desires and impulses might have taken advantage of that, too. What does John the Baptist do instead? Not only does he deny being the Messiah, he puts Jesus into proper perspective for the pilgrims coming to prepare for His arrival. As worthy as those pilgrims see the Baptist, he explains, in comparison to the Christ he will not seem worth to even serve.
This is the first warning in the Gospels about keeping the proper perspective about the Messiah. The expectations of those seeking redemption are skewed by their own time, situation, and desire for political liberation. They seek a worldly power and perhaps haven’t even opened their eyes to the possibility of eternal salvation. The Sadducees, who controlled the Temple and dominated the higher echelons of Judean society, did not believe in life after death, nor of eternal judgment on that basis. The Pharisees did believe in life after death and eternal judgment, but it was a point of contention between the sects. A significant portion of Judea wouldn’t have even considered a Messiah to bring them to an everlasting life in which they didn’t believe in the first place.
Perspective comes up in our first reading as well, in an even more nuanced way. It recalls how the Lord came to Samuel, and how Samuel repeatedly failed to recognize it. Samuel was apprenticed to Eli at the time, but kept misinterpreting the Lord’s call as Eli’s. How could that happen? As the passage explains, Samuel didn’t have the experience or wisdom yet to recognize the Lord’s call, and instead relied on his own limited experience to judge what was happening. Eli, however, had served the Lord for a long time and had the perspective to understand what was happening.
In neither of these cases was this willful rejection — although we see plenty of that in the Gospels and scriptures as well. This is the problem of “unknown unknowns,” as Donald Rumsfeld sagely observed in a far different context. Sometimes we know what we don’t know, but too often we don’t know what we don’t know. That may be because we don’t have the experience to imagine those parameters, but at times it’s because we can’t transcend our own fallen states … or won’t. It’s easier at times to pretend not to know, and to pretend we’re too limited to know, rather than have our eyes opened to any kind of wider perspective.
This is the challenge we all face as we try to form ourselves to the caritas love of God in preparation for the eternal Trinitarian life. That requires us to put aside our own limitations of perspective and care and to allow ourselves to put on a new perspective. We must attempt to transcend those limitations, both through our own efforts and by putting our trust in the Lord for the rest. This is how the Lord opens our eyes to the truth — that we are all His sons and daughters, and that His love for us should translate to true love for Him and each other.
In fact, today’s Gospel has Jesus take a very interesting act. Immediately after meeting Simon bar-Jonah, Jesus changes his name to Cephas, “which is translated Peter.” Why change Simon’s name to Peter, a kind of nickname that one might get from longtime friends? Jesus is challenging Simon to change his identity as a means of changing his perspective. Jesus wants Peter — and everyone else — to see the world differently, and the best way to do so is to rethink our own identity and change our perspective. Jesus wants Peter and the rest of his disciples to realign their perspectives to His, and to have faith that He sees perfectly and clearly where the rest of us cannot and/or do not.
That allows us to see what an act of faith Samuel’s declaration truly was. Eli may have instructed Samuel, but he didn’t have any evidence himself that the Lord was truly calling to him, or what the Lord might have in mind. Even in that kind of blind perspective, Samuel replies, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.”
Samuel put the Lord’s will above his own and made that his perspective. That was true of all the prophets and the apostles, and that is what we are called to do as well. That is the true leap of faith — the act that forces us to admit that we are not the god of our own world, but one of the Lord’s children in a vast kingdom that transcends any possible human perspective.
The front page image is a detail from “Painting of Samuel Learning from Eli” by John Singleton Copley, 1780. Via WikiArt.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.
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