Homily for Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Since Boxing Day we’ve been treated to the third and last instalment of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Hobbit, prequel to his enormously successful Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Battle of the Five Armies is the climax of J.R.R. Tolkien’s tale of hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ adventure with the wizard Gandalf and a troop of dwarves, seeking to win back their home from the dragon Smaug. As we witness armies of elves and orcs, dwarves and men, goblins and eagles fighting it out for the dragon’s treasure trove, we learn how the lust for power and wealth can possess a man, even a whole people. But the hobbits, God’s little ones, offer an alternative wisdom: that it’s the simple things of life like homeland, family and friends that redeem and ultimately fulfil us.
Bilbo’s is the story of a vocation. Rather than planning some course for himself, like a personal project, he accepts his mission from Gandalf. Rather than sticking to the familiar and comfortable, he relinquishes some control over his destiny – with curiosity and trust but trepidation also. Rather than saying yes once, he responds repeatedly to his call and invests himself in the outcome. Hobbits, for those unacquainted with Middle Earthlings, lack the strength of dwarves and grace of elves, but they can play a crucial role: on Bilbo’s decision about where to deliver up the ‘Arkenstone’ turns the fate of his world. While the dragon, dwarves and elves are uncorrupted by the desire for wealth and power, this hobbit pursues his calling with purity, embodying the ancient Socratic wisdom that “wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth – and every other blessing”.
Today’s readings are also about vocation. The thought is that God calls particular people from among their fellows to do something special in His plan of salvation. In our first reading the young altar-boy Sammy is awoken to his calling to serve the Lord in a new way as prophet, priest and judge (1 Sam 3:3-10, 19).
It is inspiring. But the risk of hearing stories like those of Bilbo and Samuel is that we think vocation is some voice telling us what to do with our lives, if only we strain our ears hard enough to hear it; some puzzle we can solve, if only we engage in a sufficiently convoluted discernment process of spiritual somersaults. Most people, in fact, discover what they are made for in a less dramatic way, by thinking through for themselves what they are best at, what makes them happy, how best they might serve, while always being open to a wisdom higher than their own. We can over-complicate the search for our vocation, as if it were the Arkenstone, some hidden treasure only uncovered in a strange place by heroic feats or occult formulae; we can over-romanticize it, as if it were the search for the perfect Miss Right who’s out there waiting for us.
Of course, the initiative in vocation lies with God, who graces our minds with insights and prompts our hearts with desires beyond our own. But as Bilbo’s vocation was not the attainment of the gem but the application of his wit and courage to a search more perilous than romantic; just as Samuel’s call was not to some perfect fit with an appreciative partner or people or plan, but to serve God’s mysterious will as best he could wherever it led him; so we recognize that far from being some project, vocation is about providence, about trust amidst uncertainty, even hardship. “Behold, the Lamb of God”, John calls out today (Jn 1:35-42), the priest calls out at every Mass. Behold, the sacrificial lamb, whose fidelity to His vocation will ultimately cost Him His life. Behold how He draws all men to Himself and gives them the wisdom of Gandalf, the resolve of dwarves, the grace of elves, and so much more.
Today Jesus calls Simon by name, renames him Cephas, Peter, Rocky. Peter had no idea what this meant: we know it means he must bedrock for the early Church (cf. Mt 16:18). His papacy would be no Hollywood romance, no epic fantasy in which all the good guys survive. God’s call can be surprising, even scary: had I known when I entered the Dominicans as a young man that it would lead me up the steps of this pulpit I might have run a thousand miles! Had Peter known when he entered Jesus’ little troupe that it would lead him up the steps of the Vatican Hill to be crucified upside down (cf Jn 21:18-19), he might have outrun me! Yet every life, every Christian life no less than that of others, includes mystery, the darkness and uncertainty of the quest, a Way of the Cross.
Cardinal Francis George, until recently Archbishop of Chicago, once said he expected to die in bed, but predicted that his successor would die in prison and his successor be martyred. There was a little hyperbole in that no doubt, but in an age of militant secularism and Islamist terrorism, not just in places like Syria and Nigeria but “closer to home” in Paris and Sydney, we Christians must take real risks in holding out the hand of friendship to others. And we must be true to our Gospel that offers a different wisdom to “greed is good and control is contentment”, even if fidelity to that Gospel costs us deeply.
In Tolkien’s stories we notice the indefatigable hope of the hobbit. In this, as in much else, the hobbit is the model Christian. Faith promises us not freedom from tribulation, but courage and grace to face trials when they come. It also promises wonders and joys, in greater number or intensity, and for all eternity, for those who persevere in the quest. And in this respect it is true to say that every Christian has a vocation, not just those joined to a spouse in marriage or a Church in priesthood or religious life. By faith every Christian is called out of the world that honours gold and the sword, consumerism and terrorism, over life and love and ideals. By Baptism every Christian is given a mission to be a temple of the Holy Spirit (1Cor 6:13-20) and to live the adventure of the Gospel wherever it leads, building up the Church’s holiness and contributing to humanity’s quest for happiness. We call this vocation “the priesthood of all the faithful” (cf 1Pet 2:9) and we each express it in different ways – though sadly not always as well as we might.
In this New Year of grace 2015, as our New Year’s resolutions inevitably fall by the wayside, perhaps we might try to hold onto this one holy resolve: to live my Christian vocation a little better. Perhaps we might pray a little more, receive Reconciliation and Holy Communion a little more frequently or devoutly, reverence the people around us a little more deeply, live the Gospel a little more fully. For we Christians must make ourselves part of the solution rather than the problem of the violence and intolerance growing in our world right now. ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening’; tell me what you want me to do and I will do it!