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SYR – Seeing Your Roommate

Father Lou DelFra | Wednesday, January 23, 2008

“You’re becoming a priest?!”

I still remember dropping the phone as my college roommate told me he was entering the priesthood. He was a poli-sci major. I was PLS. I was supposed to be the one with all the vocation. Plus, he was a varsity tennis player, and took Regis Philbin’s daughter to an SYR – neither of which, granted, eliminates anyone from the priesthood. It just didn’t seem to fit. But what contributed to my surprise more than anything was the certain fact that we hadn’t ever – ever – had we? – no, absolutely not, in four years in Alumni Hall, talked about a vocation to the priesthood. What, in God’s name, was happening? He told me later. He had been reading the Gospels.

The Gospels are not about keeping the status quo. We acknowledge this frequently enough. But perhaps we fail to acknowledge how difficult a reality this is. Most of us reasonably crave stability and predictability, including and especially in our relationships.

But the first pages of the Gospels serve as fair disclosure that all bets about predictable outcomes are off. In them we hear the story of the baptism of Jesus, during which John hesitantly pours water from the Jordan River upon Jesus, only to have the skies open, the Spirit descend upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and a voice thunder from the heavens, “This is my Beloved Son.” And the Church calls this the beginning of “Ordinary Time?” (Yeah, and my walk outside this morning felt a lot like “Spring Semester.”) John enjoyed upsetting the norm as much as anyone. Yet even he seems, well, stunned, as the fullness of the Gospel breaks into the world in the person of Jesus.

If we read these early Gospels carefully, we might detect a hint of startle in this rebel’s voice – as if John is beginning to glimpse the full reality of who Jesus is, but can’t quite absorb it all at once. In fact, we catch John saying about Jesus: “I did not know him.” “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove upon him. And I did not know him.”

What is John talking about? How can he possibly say he does not know Jesus? Of course John knew him. In fact, outside of Mary and Joseph, maybe nobody knew Jesus, and all that Jesus was to become, better than his cousin, John the Baptist. For this reason John was born: to prepare the way of the Lord. It was John who jumped in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary arrived pregnant with Jesus. (So John knew Jesus before Jesus knew Jesus!) It was John who pointed to his disciples, while Jesus was but a silhouette in the morning horizon, “There is the one we have been waiting for!” Yet, still, the eruption of the awesome power of the Gospel into John’s life leaves even John occasionally overcome: “I did not really know him.”

Think about any significant relationship you are in, or have been in. The deeper the relationship, the better. Think about how the relationship first began. The other person was interesting to you in some way. And so you began to spend time together – all the while coming to know the other person more fully. If it is your best friend, you perhaps come close to being able to say: “I know you. I’ve come to know who you are.” You come to know their family. Their most deeply held convictions. What they think about God. Where their wounds and sorrows are. It’s one of the most beautiful things we experience as humans – to come to know another person like this.

And then, one day – it happens. The person you know, almost inexplicably, does something, says something, implies something, and you stop dead in your tracks, and say, “Where did that come from?” Sometimes, it’s a good change the person surprises us with. Sometimes, it’s a hurtful change. Sometimes, it’s a sudden change. Sometimes, the change has been developing for months or even years, and finally one day, it becomes manifest. And sometimes, the person you are watching all this happen to is – you.

Such moments, we must admit, are often threatening, for we prefer security and comfort and the familiar. And when a person changes, our security and comfort are often threatened, especially if that person is our self or a close friend. The problem is the Gospel often evokes just such changes in those it reaches. There is hardly a Gospel story in which the person who encounters Jesus does not change in some remarkable way.

So, here is one great lesson from these first days of “Ordinary” time. Once John recognizes the work of grace in his friend’s life – even though the grace was revealing in Jesus realities beyond even John’s untamed imagination – John does not hinder this new reality, but chooses to spend his life empowering Jesus to become who he is called to be.

I suppose the point is this. When people in our life – including ourselves – begin to grow in unanticipated ways, this can stir up all kinds of things in us – fear, insecurity, jealousy, over-protectiveness. All of these feelings are normal, and even sometimes justified. But John challenges us, as people of faith, to realize that grace is constantly transforming each one of us – including our best friends, our roommates, the people we encounter so frequently that it becomes hard to see them anew – into new creations.

Each one of us lives under a sky that is continually opening above us, trying to persuade us of our deepest identity: “You are my beloved child.” This is no small calling: It has the power to carry us down paths of freedom and challenge that we have not imagined. So be generous – with yourself and others. Who knows where Jesus is leading you and them?

Father Lou DelFra is the director of Campus Ministry Bible Studies, which meets Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m. in the ACE Office. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.