In the six years I spent at one of my previous parish assignments, I was never greeted on Sunday morning by anyone who said, “Good morning, Father.” Every Sunday morning, for six years, the greeting I received was, “Father, there’s a problem.”
The problems spanned the widest imaginable spectrum. On one Sunday morning, the problem was a small electrical fire that had damaged parts of the roof and an interior wall. On another Sunday morning, the problem was that too many Altar Servers had shown up to serve Mass. The nature of the problem really didn’t matter to anyone; what really mattered was having any sort of problem that could sustain the level of anxiety to which everyone had grown accustomed.
The parish had a long-standing reputation for histrionic behavior. For that reason, when I wrote to the Diocesan Chancery to suggest that the name of the parish be changed to St. Crisis Catholic Church, the Chancery staff thought I was serious.
There are some things in the Catholic faith that ought to be treated as urgent matters; my former parish, St. Crisis, felt an urgency about everything except what ought to be regarded as urgent.
The story in today’s Gospel was necessitated by an urgent need on the part of the first generations of Jesus’ disciples. It was widely known that, before beginning his own ministry, Jesus had been a disciple of John the Baptist. This caused no little embarrassment for Jesus’ disciples because it made Jesus look like a follower rather than a Messiah.
As the topic of Jesus’ early devotion to John was unavoidable, all of the Gospel authors addressed it in their narratives of Jesus’ ministry. For that reason, the author of Luke’s Gospel quoted John the Baptist, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.” (Lk. 3:16) In order to avoid any degree of misunderstanding, the Gospel says about Jesus that, “the holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’.” By portraying John the Baptist as the divinely ordained precursor to Jesus’ ministry, the Gospel authors hoped to avoid any future confusion about the roles of these two men whose lives were linked inextricably.
There was a second urgent matter that the Gospel authors intended to communicate to their readers. Luke’s Gospel says, “Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah.” (Lk. 3:15) During Jesus’ lifetime, there was an urgent expectation on the part of God’s People for a Redeemer who would reform Temple worship and restore the People to a right relationship with God. Jesus’ ministry reflected his awareness of this urgent expectation; he was constantly on the move, travelling as widely as possible to spread the Good News of a renewed covenant with God. The urgency of Jesus’ proclamation of the proximity of God’s Reign was reflected in the ministry of his disciples and their immediate successors. In less than forty years’ time, the Gospel message had been proclaimed throughout the known world. This proclamation of Good News is the urgent matter that ought to be focus of every believer’s attention.
Take a moment to think about all the urgent matters in your life: the to-do lists, the unfinished projects, the things you worry about, the things that cause your blood pressure to spike, etc. Does proclaiming the Good News make the list?
At my former parish, St. Crisis, everyone lived in fear of the next tragic problem; unfortunately, they found so much enjoyment in living in fear that their fears seemed always to be justified. We live in a crisis-oriented culture. We have come to expect on-going crises and, if the crises don’t materialize, we precipitate them in order to have our expectations fulfilled.
Our expectations shape our lives. Expectations for disappointment or crisis become self-fulfilling prophecies. In a like manner, expectations for joy and peace lead us to recognize and receive those gifts when they appear.
There ought to be a real urgency in our hearts about sharing our faith. We ought to expect to find opportunities for doing so and for helping those around us who are in need. The sense of urgency felt by Jesus’ first disciples remains a hallmark of faithful discipleship today. Our urgent attention to giving witness to our faith has two redeeming consequences; it spreads the proclamation of the nearness of God’s Reign and it makes us more aware of the nearness of God in our lives. Of all the things that might seem like urgent matters, the single thing that counts eternally is the continued spread of the Gospel message.