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.
John 1:35-42: Come and see.

I remember myself aged five or six sitting in bed reading an illustrated children’s bible given me by my grandmother. I was not a pious child. But my grandmother was staying. I think I hoped to make a good impression. But I was wrapped up in what I was reading.

The page that held my attention told of the call of Samuel. I remember him lying in an Oriental interior, the way a northern illustrator would imagine it – 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 a 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.

This development is tinged with paradox. Samuel is not put before us as a type. The point of the story is to show how untypical he is. ‘The word of the Lord was rare in those days’, we are told. Dispensations of grace seemed a thing of the past. Hannah, Samuel’s mother, might pray for a new reign of justice and pledge her son to the cause. But was this not pious fancy? Israel was divided, imperilled. Its religion was decadent, administered by reprobates like Hophni and Phineas, who thought only of 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, an accusation against 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 darkness, 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 unknown, 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 Law, the pledge of an eternal covenant. ‘What other great people has a God so near to them?’ The rarity must point to something else.

In Jerome’s Vulgate, the phrase is rendered: sermo Domini erat pretiosus. The word was weighty, choice, of singular value. If it was perceived as rare, it was not that God spoke less, but that Israel had lost its knack for listening. The Ark had been reduced to the status of a magic box. Psalm 77 describes the Israel of Samuel’s youth. It speaks of faithlessness and defiance. The people were ‘like a bow on which the archer cannot count’. Though made to design, it had warped, was prone to backfire. So 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 in fact? Or is it just that we are no longer on the right frequency to pick up its signal?

This universality of God’s call, implicit in the Old Law, is made explicit in the New. St Paul tells us: ‘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, we are a living sanctuary, bearers of God’s Word. The Word forms us from within. We can resist it; such is our freedom. We can silence God’s call by rebellion or indifference. But the Word does not forsake us. We are his. If we turn to him, he speaks.

Once we see this, we see that the encounter we read of in today’s Gospel is not one of extraordinary 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 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? To rise from sleep, there is no need to wait for the audible sound of a mystic, disembodied voice. Just listen within. 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.

John told Andrew and his companion: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ In a moment, at this altar, the Lamb of God will pass. He shows us the way. Will we follow?