WALKING BEFORE THE LORD IN THE LAND OF THE LIVING!
Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
September 13, 2009
The first reading taken from Isaiah almost sounds strange during ordinary time. The last time we heard it was Good Friday, when every word and every line seems to fit the focus of our liturgical memorial.
But liturgy being what it is, a memorial indeed that makes present and alive what we hold as true in mind, at heart, and in our common history and destiny, this reading is never out of time, out of place, and out of kilter.
The confidence with which Isaiah recounts the suffering servant’s woes and throes, ending as he does with an avowed statement: “See, the Lord God is my help,” is confirmed by our own conviction as we now state: “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living!”
It does not say “walking with,” but “walking before” the Lord. It denotes nothing of what we might call a paternalistic, patronizing presence, but a gentle, loving presence of one who lets us be, and lets us go the way of personal freedom, whilst keeping us ever in His sight. It is a walking, despite finding oneself in the valley of death, “in the land of the living.”
I am sure we all could think of times and occasions in our life when walking our various responsibilities might be described more as what the psalmist in Psalm 23 refers to as the “valley of death.” I am sure we all could identify ourselves with one who, in his or her desire to “walk the talk” in God’s name, feels like one is going into the uncharted territory of indifference, rejection, if not downright hatred for what he or she does, with good intentions and all. I am certain that despite our resolve to do good, that very resolved might at times, be taken for a twisted desire to push one’s personal agenda forward.
I speak about being misunderstood, being second-guessed by people who know nothing better than to think ill of others and impute on them the vilest of motives for whatever they set out to do.
Isaiah knows whereof he speaks. Isaiah, speaking on behalf of the “suffering servant” figure, pours out as much his sorrow as his joyful conviction: “See, the Lord God is my help; who will prove me wrong?”
Isaiah knows whereof he speaks … as one who walked barefoot three years (Is 20), as one who uttered oracles to a “people walking in darkness,” as one who “walked” for God and His cause, all through his prophetic mission, Isaiah is one credible “hiker” who walked the walk and walked the talk.
Walking before, and not simply walking with, might just mean a number of things for us now. God lets us be. God leaves us free. He created us with two irrevocable gifts attached to our personhood: intelligence and freedom. He does not take our hand to tell us what to do. He does not force Himself in on us although He calls us to the ways that lead to greater freedom, the ways that lead to peace and everlasting life, but He leaves us to decide and choose – to choose life instead of death.
He reminds us today to walk before Him … to use our freedom for Him and His cause. St. James’ reminder comes in handy here: “What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” Walking before the Lord then would mean taking up responsibility for ourselves and on behalf of God. It means walking the walk and walking the talk in God’s name.
But all this has to begin somewhere. According to Isaiah, it begins with a confession … “See, the Lord God is my help!” But that “talk” has to be turned into a “walk” – a walking before, a walking FOR God! “Faith without works is dead!”
Times there are, as exactly like the present moment, when I feel I am walking in the valley of darkness. The new assignment I have is not exactly rosy. I feel I have walked into a lion’s den, trying to run a school with its own tradition of more than 5 decades, in a world where there is a whole lot of “hidden players” who have each their own little petty agenda that stands in the way of a common platform. We have the responsibility without the corresponding authority, and on top of all this, we cannot disregard the high expectations of all the major stakeholders, hidden or out in plain view.
But I do have to walk the walk and walk the talk. I am still being asked the question asked of Peter and the rest of the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” This is a question I cannot dodge, deflect, and desist. “Who do I say Jesus is … for me … for now … for posterity … and forever?
We started this walk many decades ago. We were more than a hundred thirty at some point in the minor seminary then. We were wide-eyed with idealism and carefree youthfulness. Decades hence, a big number has fallen in the way … Some at some point, just refused to walk on, despite the many times we sang that beautiful stirring Broadway song “Walk with faith in your heart!” A few others have fallen in the battle, steadfast and strong, like good old friend, Fr. Gerardo Macapinlac, SDB, (Fr Macky to many of us). A number of them, my former students (who should bury me instead of me burying them!), have been plucked as best flowers early on by God who knows better.
This Sunday is very existential and real for me. Isaiah, who knew well what it meant to walk for God, now reminds us to go on walking “with faith in our heart.” For basically what reason? Walking before the Lord, for one, really means, that whilst it is true He does not take us by the hand and forcibly leads us to go where He wants us to go, it is also true, as the old song goes, that “you’ll never walk alone.” You’ll never walk alone! And we have no less than the words of Christ to hang on to: “He who loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
For at bottom, what else matters in the end? When one cannot have the strength to tread, trod, and trudge with one’s brute strength … when one sees nothing but darkness in the way, when one does not seem to see the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, despite the fine poetry and prose of our plebeian, earthly, and finite existence in this valley of tears, we have this promise to hold on, from Him whose privilege is for us to walk before Him: “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living!”
Chalan Pago, Guam
September 7, 2009