Over the past two weeks, as we celebrated the feasts of Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus, we have been reflecting on the theme of “theophany”, that is, God’s self-revelation. We recalled the stories that revealed God’s purpose for the Incarnation to the world, and to Jesus himself. Now, over the season that bridges Christmastide and Lent, we continue to ponder how God reveals the sense of purpose and the meaning of life to various people, including ourselves.
Today, we begin in the Old Testament, with the story of the calling of one of Israel’s greatest prophets; and next week, we will look at the Gospel account of Jesus calling his first Disciples. The stories of God’s invitations fill our scriptures, and as homework, I encourage you to find examples of other biblical character’s first encounters with God that set them on the path of fulfilling their mission in life.
The calling of Samuel: the 12th century BC story of corrupted old ways, and child-like new beginnings; a mystical encounter, followed by a life of devotion and purpose. The story is of course about Samuel’s ability to hear God’s call and to respond. But at the very start of this story is the moment when God heard and responded to the call of a person; that is, of Samuel’s mother-to-be, Hannah -- a wife of a priest, who desperately wishes for a child. It is interesting to note that this story is later echoed in the Gospels, when it comes to the conception of Israel’s last prophet, John the Baptist, also by a previously barren couple who came from a priestly line.
Now, out of sheer gratitude for Samuel’s conception, Hannah dedicates him to a life of serving God in a shrine, under the protection of Eli, the High Priest. I empathize with the mother and child in this situation, and find it touching that the scriptures would mention the detail of Hannah sewing and sending to the shrine a series of tunics in incrementally larger sizes to clothe her boy, year by year.
A few years later, we arrive at the night of our today’s story. By then, Eli’s sight has grown dim, and so has his governance and judgement. His own sons were lawless and mocked worship, yet he did nothing to address this. One night, Samuel heard the voice of God calling his name; three times he heard this and ran over to Eli thinking he was being summoned. After a couple of times, Eli instructed Samuel to respond and say, “Speak, for your servant is listening", which the boy does, and in turn receives what you might call an epiphany - a revelation regarding the impending changes in the relationship between the Israelites and God, and a warning to Eli about where his house was headed unless he repented.
Eli never heeded Samuel’s warning, and through various misfortunes, his priestly dynasty came to an end. Eventually, whether because of his negligence or blindness, or both, Eli allowed the lamp representing God’s presence in the temple to become extinguished, which symbolized the withdrawal of God’s support of his ways of worship and governance. Samuel, on the other hand, who as a child in this story symbolized the purity of faith, is said to have lived almost 100 years. From this childhood incident and onwards, he served as a prophet of God, interceded for and protected his nation, served as their last Judge, and did so with such righteousness that his people wanted him for a king (though he knew that it wasn’t his vocation, and anointed Saul and subsequently David instead). He is said to have written the books of Ruth, Judges, and 1st Samuel.
Much like God could see this future great prophet in a young boy, he also saw the capacity for faith and purpose of countless other men and women. In today’s gospel, for example, he “saw” Nathaneal. It is this sense of being seen, being truly known, that drew Nathanael to follow Jesus. And Psalm 139 speaks of how well God knows each one of us, “O LORD, you have searched me and known me”. This infinitely comforting thought draws us to God in much the same way as Jesus invited Nathaneal.
But what would it take for us to really “see” another human being? To see them not only for who he or she is, gifts and shortcomings, and personal history, and all circumstances and experiences that formed them, but also as a person made in the image of God in his or her own right, and the one in whom and through whom Christ is revealed moment by moment. What would it take for us to truly see God through the people we meet?
Today’s readings remind us that in each instance of our own epiphanies, big and small, God offers us both the self-knowledge and the affirmation of the perfect knowledge s/he has of us. God gives us the freedom to grow into the best version of ourselves through a life-time series of calls and responses; that is, opportunities to see ourselves through God’s eyes, and him - through our own. I conclude with the brilliant words, which I ponder quite often. The quote comes from the 13-14th century German philosopher, mystic, and theologian Meister Eckhart, and reads as follows,
“The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God's eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.”