Words on the Word
2. Sunday B
1 Samuel 3:3-10, 19: Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.
1 Corinthians 6:13-15, 17-20: You are not your own. You have been bought at a price.
John 1:35-42: Come and see.
I have vivid memories of myself aged five or six sitting up in bed reading an illustrated children’s bible given me by my devout grandmother. This surprises me. I am someone who usually struggles to recall incidents from childhood; what I do remember is rarely religious; that bible did not play much of a part in my life as a boy. I rather think I had opened it that night because my grandmother was staying and I hoped to make a good impression. But I was wrapped up in it. The page that held my attention told of the call of Samuel. I remember him lying in an Oriental interior as it suggests itself to a Northern imagination, with woven rugs, rough pottery, an oil lamp, stone walls. Through a window, swaying palms under a starlit sky. Through a narrow passage, the flicker of a flame. Thence the call resounded. ‘Samuel!’ Was it some kind of premonition? Did I sense in Samuel a pointer to the call that, later, I myself would numbly wake up to? I doubt it. But I was alert even then to the grandeur of the scene: a young man learning that his life had purpose, that a task was entrusted to him. Samuel rubbing sleep from his eyes stood, perhaps, for what I secretly longed for: a clear summons. My bible suggested that such expectancy was justified. For this episode has, of course, with time, become emblematic. It sets a standard as the classic vocation story, the model for every Story of a Soul. Countless are the clothings, professions, ordinations at which it has been read with emotion.
If we look closely at the text, this development is tinged with paradox. Samuel is not put before us as a type. The point of the story is rather to show how untypical he is. ‘The word of the Lord was rare in those days’, we are told. Dispensations of grace seemed locked in the past. Hannah, his mother, might pray for the advent of a new reign of justice. She might pledge her child to that cause. But was this not pious fancy? Israel was divided and imperilled. Its religion was decadent, administered by reprobates like Hophni and Phineas, Eli’s sons, filling their already fat bellies with choice pickings from the altar at Shiloh. The sanctuary where Samuel heard his call was not a fervent junior seminary. It was a tepid, lurid scene, a place void of conviction, a standing accusation of itself for failing to live up to its objective. The Lord would soon desert it. The Ark would begin its scandalous exile beyond the frontiers of the Land. The call to Samuel is a flash of light in deep darkness. It is an unexpected melodious sound amid grunts of primary appetites. Let us honour the courage it took for a boy to rise from his warm bed, to face the crystal cool of the night, and to say, ‘Here I am!’
‘The word of the Lord was rare.’ Had the Lord then stopped speaking to his people? No. God’s word constituted Israel. If Shiloh was sacred, it was because it housed the Ark. This in turn, contained the Lord’s Ten Words, the pledge of an eternal covenant. ‘What other great people has a God so near to them?’ The rarity must point to something else. If we look up Jerome’s Vulgate, we find the phrase rendered: ‘sermo Domini erat pretiosus’. The word was weighty, choice, of singular value. If it was perceived as rare, it was not that the Lord spoke less, but that Israel had lost the knack for listening The Ark had been reduced to the status of a magic box, a trophy to be carried forth in battle. Psalm 77 vividly describes the Israel of Samuel’s youth. It speaks of disobedience, faithlessness, defiance. The people, we are told, were ‘like a bow on which the archer cannot count’. Though made to design, it had warped. It was prone to backfire. Therefore God ‘forsook his dwelling place in Shiloh’. In our day, much is said about God’s silence. We hear of a ‘vocations crisis’. The word seems scarce. But is it? Let us not forget that God’s way with his elect is normally to speak in ordered, ordinary ways: through commandments, tradition, and efficacious rites. If we have ears to hear, his word surrounds us everywhere.
This universality of God’s call, indicated in the Old Law, is made explicit in the New. St Paul tells us squarely: ‘You are not your own. You have been bought at a price.’ It is astonishing. God has taken on our lives, not in a general way, but severally, particularly. He has set his seal on us. By virtue of our baptism, our incorporation into Christ, we are, each of us, a living sanctuary. We are bearers of God’s Word. The Word forms us anew from within. We can resist it; such is the power of our freedom. We can silence God’s call by rebellion or indifference. But the Word does not forsake us. We are his. His we remain. If we turn to him, he speaks. That is his nature. Once we realise this, we see that the encounter we read of in today’s Gospel is not one of extraordinary apostolic privilege. It is the story of our lives.
Each moment the Lord calls us to ‘come and see’. Ask him with faith: ‘Where do you live?’ He will invite you to abide with him. He will reveal what, of yourself, you can’t discover: your new name. As it was for Cephas, that name will be for you the sign of a mission to fulfil, a mission entrusted uniquely to you. The Lord calls in order to send forth. We are to be his words to our times. If the word of God seems too rare, too precious here and now, we must ask: But do I let it speak? Do I listen and attend? Do I faithfully dig out an open space within where God’s call may resound and be effective? God called us into being. He intends what we are and what we shall be. He never stops calling us. To rise from sleep, there is no need to wait for the audible sound of a mystic, disembodied voice. Just listen inward. God’s word is active and alive. It would use us for its purposes: to comfort the grieving, give hope to the dejected, guide the lost; to be ministers of truth; to bring joy into a world oppressed by sadness. In a moment, at this altar, the Lamb of God will pass. He shows us the way. We have only to follow.