First, Last, and Only

When I was a parochial vicar, my weekly duties included communion calls at the local nursing home. The challenge of regularly visiting a group of shut-ins, or those confined to bed, is that each expects you to arrive at the same time each week, and yet each also pleads that you stay a little longer than you did the week before.

At the beginning of the assignment, the pastor informed me that one of the people whom I would be visiting was a retired priest. Looking into my own future, I resolved that I would give him a little more time than the others. Who else would an old priest have, coming to visit him regularly?

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The pastor added a detail, "When you first knock on the door, he’ll have a blanket on his head."

"He’ll have a blanket on his head?

"He’s become extremely xenophobic. He will gladly visit with you when he gets to know you, but, at least initially, he’ll cover his head with a blanket."

That Friday, I knocked, a little sheepishly, on a nursing room door. A voice from within asked who was there. I identified myself and was told to come in.

A small man in a blanket offered me a chair, and, as I sat down, he removed it.

"I’m sorry for the blanket," he said. "I’ve become afraid of strangers. You’re the new associate?"

"Yes, I am."

Despite what I, or anyone else might have expected, we had a lovely visit, and did so on a weekly basis. After all, no one understands a priest quite as well as another priest. In the corner of his room was a card table, set up with the accouterments needed for Mass. Over the table, he had affixed a piece of paper, torn from a brown bag. On it, he had written: "Celebrate this Mass, priest of God, as though it were your first, as though it were your last, as though it were the only Mass you ever celebrate."

I wonder, when Jesus stood up in the synagogue and unrolled his scroll, how many of his listeners, weren’t listening. Unlike the returned exiles gathered around Ezra, no new text was being read (Neh 8). Like ourselves, hadn’t the people of Nazareth heard them all before? And, no doubt, if that synagogue had a weekly bulletin, distributed before the service, a few in the congregation would have been more concerned with rummage sells than revelation.

There’s the rub. The same scriptures are read, week after week, year after year, but that doesn’t make revelation repetitive. Why not? Because, for revelation to exist, a communication must occur, a message must be sent and received. A bible in a drawer is not revelation. Scripture read aloud, when no one is listening, is not revelation. Revelation "happens" when words meet hearts, and that’s why revelation is an on-going reality, because the same person never hears the same scripture. The words don’t change, but we do.

We’ve grown since last we heard these words. We’ve been to Babylon and back. We’ve suffered set-backs, had our little triumphs, gained and lost friends, solved some problems, picked up a few others, and, through all of it, hopefully, learned something about ourselves.

The greatest threat to the Gospel isn’t atheistic philosophers or coercive governments. It’s not unreformed churches or the decline of contemporary culture. It’s simply souls who have grown lethargic, who, because they expect no grace, no surprise, never attend within their hearts, with all their hearts, to what is being said.  Souls covered in blankets.

My friend, the old priest, was sadly scared of strangers, but he could still open himself to them, once they weren’t so strange. Happily, he feared the familiar even more, worried that he would take for granted what should never become commonplace, fretting lest familiarity weaken his fervor. How right he was!

Maybe each of us should write a note, carry it in our pockets to Mass. "Listen, dear soul, to the Gospel, as though it were the first time you heard it, the last time you will hear it, the only time you hear it."

Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10 1 Corinthians 12: 12-30 Luke 1: 1-4, 4: 14-21

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