Abiding with and in the Lord, January 4, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Retreat for the Seminarians of Cathedral Seminary House of Formation, Douglaston, NY
At Immaculate Conception Seminary, Huntington, NY
Mass for January 4 (Saturday before the Epiphany)
Memorial of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
January 4, 2014
1 Jn 3:7-10, Ps 98, Jn 1:35-42

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click here: 

The following was the written text that guided the homily: 

Preaching on today’s Gospel among priests and seminarians, I’m tempted, as anyone would be, to ponder the clear vocational significance revealed in this scene, to help us thank God for all of those who have served as John the Baptists and Andrews in our life and to ask God’s grace that we, too, might become John the Baptists and Andrews for other. Today, for the second day in a row, John the Baptist points out Jesus as the Lamb of God, humbly seeking to rouse the faith and curiosity of his own disciples to leave him behind and become sheep of that Lamb. Today, we see Andrew share the evangelii gaudium, the joy of the Gospel, with his brother Simon — “We have found the Messiah!” — and bring him to Jesus, having no idea that Simon would eventually become the rock on whom Jesus would build his Church, but just wanting his brother to share his joy.

All of us have had many people who have humbly pointed out Jesus to us, family members and friends who have shared the joy of the faith with us and brought us to meet Jesus, brought us to prayer, brought us to baptism, to adoration, to confession, to encounters with the Lord in the sacraments, in the Word, in charity. I would encourage all of us today to take this aspect of the Gospel to our personal prayer, asking the Lord to reward the many Johns and Andrews he has given us up until now and is still giving us each day.

But I’d like to spend most of our time pondering another aspect of this Gospel. As soon as Andrew and the “other disciple” — who seems from textual evidence to be John the Baptist, his friend from the Capernaum fishing docks — began their short-lived careers as bad private investigators tailing Jesus, the Suspect turned around and asked them a question that on the surface seems ordinary and perfunctory, but is actually quite extraordinary and profound. “What are you looking for?” What do you seek and desire? What do you want?

Their answer might at first seem like a lame rejoinder from those caught off guard — Rabbi, where, ah, ah, ah, are you staying? — but it is something that is likewise quite far-reaching. First, it’s the vocative “Rabbi.” This Hebrew term meaning “My great one,” pointed to someone they considered a teacher, someone who had much to teach them. To use the term at all showed a ready willingness to be a disciple, the Greek word for student. Then the question: “Where are you staying?” They were not interested in a passing conversation on a path, a quick change of business cards or an autograph. They wanted to stay with Jesus for a while, to get to know him, to enter into his space and life.

Jesus understood what their lips and hearts were saying and so didn’t respond by giving an address or a verbal description of where the Son of Man who had no place to lay his lead would be spending the night. He invited them into a relationship. “Come and you will see.” And they came, and they saw, and they were conquered. They stayed with him that day until the following dawn when first thing in the morning Andrew ran to find his brother. Over the course of their conversation they were able to discover that this Lamb pointed out by John was indeed the long-awaited Messiah. The whole encounter changed their lives forever, with St. John recording for posterity the exact time when they met Jesus for the first time. “It was about four in the afternoon,” because that was the time, when dusk was beginning its descent, that the Sun rose in their life forever.

The saints have found it exceedingly curious, however, that even though the exact time was noted, almost no other details were given. There was no description of where Jesus was staying and how far their journey was. There was no mention of what they talked about, no reference to the questions they asked Jesus and the responses he gave, or the questions Jesus asked and Jesus’ first two disciples and two future apostles gave. All of these details are passed over in silence. Why? I think the fundamental reason is because St. John wanted to focus on the essential of that encounter rather than the incidentals. The essential was precisely this: they went to be with Jesus, to abide with him, to remain with him, to stay where he is, to live with him. That, likewise, is the essence of discipleship, the core of the Christian life. It begins with “being with Jesus.”

In St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus described the calling of the first seminarians. After a night in prayer, he summoned those he wanted, and he appointed them “so that they might be with him and he might send them forth” (Mk 3:14). He called them first to be with him, to abide with him, to enter with him into his own world, the “real, real world.” He grafted them onto him the Vine so that, remaining him, they might bear great fruit. Likewise the fundamental call Jesus has made to each of us is to abide with him, to leave our own comfort zones and make an exodus to where he is.

The journey of faith is precisely this, to come and see where the Lord dwells and where he wants us to dwell with him. We remember very well the calling of our father in faith, Abraham. God called him to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and go to a land God would show him. He didn’t give him an address. He didn’t say, “Go to a beautiful beachfront mansion in the Hamptons.” He didn’t tell him at all where he was leading him geographically or existentially. He didn’t tell him that, instead of remaining in his familial land safe, secure and rich, he would have to fight for the occupied land in which he would dwell, that he would have to wait 25 years to have the promise of a Son fulfilled, that he would be asked 13 years later to sacrifice that Son with faith. But Abraham journeyed with the Lord. He traveled to be with the Lord. That’s because he sought the Lord, he wanted to be wherever the Lord wanted him to be. Likewise each of us is called to examine ourselves to see if we, too, seek to be wherever the Lord is, wherever he awaits us.

Many Christians prefer to “host” the Lord rather than travel to be with him. They’ve got a nice, comfortable guest room where the Lord can come to stay. They’ll prepare a nice meal, they’ll invite over some of their best friends who would be good and respectful company. But they’re not particularly excited to come and see where Jesus is staying, because they fear he might be staying with the homeless people who, like him, have no place to lay his head, with prostitutes and drug addicts under the bridge, with the handicapped, crippled, blind and lame, with the unwanted refuse of society, sharing their life, their meals, their friendship, sacrificing himself to lift them up. Today Jesus asks us, “What you really seeking?,” wanting to invite us into a lifetime adventure of coming and seeing where he is staying, knowing that Jesus has no fixed earthly abode, but at every moment is “moving,” calling us to follow him and move with him, as he goes to find and save his lost sheep wherever they are to be found and bring them back to the fold.

To abide with Jesus is the essence and secret of the Christian life. Today in the first reading, St. John, who sought to dwell with the Lord from 4 pm on that fateful day throughout the whole rest of his life into eternity, tells us, in the verse right before the beginning of today’s first reading that helps us to understand it, “You know that he appeared to take away our sins and there is no sin in him. Anyone who abides in him does not know sin. Anyone who sins has not seen him and does not know him.” Then he tells us today, “Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever sins belongs to the devil. … No one who is begotten by God commits sins, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot sin because he is begotten by God. In this way, the children of God and the children of the Devil are made plain.”

These are very challenging words — and potentially discouraging ones if we misunderstand them. St. John tells us that if we abide in God, we don’t sin — in fact, we can’t — and that whoever sins belongs to the devil. It would seem, therefore, that insofar as none of us is the Immaculate Virgin, that each of us sins, then none of us actually abide in the Lord, because none of us really lives up to what seems to be a practically impossible standard. But this is to misread what St. John is saying. Earlier in this first epistle, he tells us “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” and “If we say that we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar,” before telling us, “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:8,10; 2:1). So what can he possibly mean that, on the one hand, whoever abides in God doesn’t and can’t sin, but that if we say we’re not sinners, we make God a liar?

It’s the central truth that we only partially abide in the Lord. Part of us is with the Lord, and part of us is not. St. John Chrysostom once said about the seeming contradiction of Jesus’ statements, “Whoever is not with me is against me and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Mt 12:30) and “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40) that there are parts of us that are with the Lord and parts of us that are not with him. Likewise with abiding and sin. The parts of us that abide with the Lord don’t choose to crucify him. But the parts of us that are under the persuasion of the evil one are the ones that do sin. The key to spiritual growth, the key to the Christian life, is to stoke up our desire to be with the Lord in all parts of our life so that we will be children of God full-time not partially. It’s a choice to abide with the Lord in chaste love, rather than in hedonistic concupiscence of the flesh. It’s a choice to abide with the Lord in poverty, rather than in the materialistic lust of the eyes. It’s a choice to abide with the Lord in obedience until death of the Cross rather than to abide in the independent, autonomous pride of life.

Today we celebrate a saint — the first native-born American saint — who did seek to abide with the Lord. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton always sought him, even as a young girl, through prayer and charity. She sought him in prosperity and poverty. She sought him enough to leave her Episcopalian roots — even though her grandfather was a famous Episcopalian priest — in order to be with him in the Eucharist, even though it meant great hardship for her. Her favorite prayer was Psalm 23, proclaiming that with the Lord as her shepherd, she always had it all, even if she were in the valley of darkness, because she knew even then that the Lord was with her with his rod and staff. She spent her life seeking the Lord in order to find and abide with him. We prayed in the opening prayer that that same holy yearning would be ours: “O God, who crowned with the gift of true faith St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s burning zeal to find you, grant by her intercession that we may always seek you with diligent love and find you in daily service with sincere faith.”

She spent her life trying to pass on that holy zeal to find where the Lord was staying to her five children, to her fellow Sisters of Charity, to the children entrusted to her community’s care in the parochial school system that she and her order founded. She wanted them to be able to learn how to come to abide with the Lord. She once wrote in a letter to her spiritual daughters, “I will tell you what is my own great help. I once read or heard that an interior life means but the continuation of our Savior’s life in us; that the great object of all his mysteries is to merit for us the grace of his interior life and communicate it to us, it being the end of his mission to lead us into the sweet land of promise, a life of constant union with his will.” Her great help was to allow the Savior’s life to live in her, this great mutual abiding, a union that is meant to last forever.

And we know, as she did and taught her fellow sisters, natural children and spiritual children, that that union is consummated each day here at this altar.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
1 JN 3:7-10

Children, let no one deceive you.
The person who acts in righteousness is righteous,
just as he is righteous.
Whoever sins belongs to the Devil,
because the Devil has sinned from the beginning.
Indeed, the Son of God was revealed to destroy the works of the Devil.
No one who is begotten by God commits sin,
because God’s seed remains in him;
he cannot sin because he is begotten by God.
In this way,
the children of God and the children of the Devil are made plain;
no one who fails to act in righteousness belongs to God,
nor anyone who does not love his brother.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 98:1, 7-8, 9

R. (3cd) All the ends of the earth have seen the saving power of God.
Sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done wondrous deeds;
His right hand has won victory for him,
his holy arm.
R. All the ends of the earth have seen the saving power of God.
Let the sea and what fills it resound,
the world and those who dwell in it;
Let the rivers clap their hands,
the mountains shout with them for joy before the LORD.
R. All the ends of the earth have seen the saving power of God.
The LORD comes;
he comes to rule the earth;
He will rule the world with justice
and the peoples with equity.
R. All the ends of the earth have seen the saving power of God.

Gospel
JN 1:35-42

John was standing with two of his disciples,
and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God.”
The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus.
Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them,
“What are you looking for?”
They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher),
“where are you staying?”
He said to them, “Come, and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying,
and they stayed with him that day.
It was about four in the afternoon.
Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter,
was one of the two who heard John and followed Jesus.
He first found his own brother Simon and told him,
“We have found the Messiah,” which is translated Christ.
Then he brought him to Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said,
“You are Simon the son of John;
you will be called Cephas,” which is translated Peter.