I remember being a kid in the early 1970s and collecting hockey cards much like this Tim Horton card. I also remember playing with them until the corners were damaged and trading with them in the school yard. (Card aficionados now seal them in plastic, keep them in pristine condition, and pray they become rare and valuable). At recess you would look at another kid’s bundle of cards as he rifled through them hoping to find one you could trade for. You were always willing–after having spent 10 cents for five cards and a stick of gum—to trade one of your four Guy Lafleur cards for a Phil Esposito card which you did not have and desperately wanted. As the other kids showed you the wad of cards in their hand, you would say, “Got it, got it, got it, got it…don’t got! Stop!” And then the negotiations would start.
That routine in the school yard back in 1972 reminds me of how some of us still approach spirituality. We may not be wearing bell-bottomed trousers and afros anymore, but lots of Catholics are still checking off boxes in their relationship with God. Two weeks ago, two of the Scripture readings dealt with what we traditionally call “The Ten Commandments.” That was the old covenant and is still relevant for our lives today. Unfortunately, it quickly turned into a check list where we inwardly said to ourselves, “Got it, got it, got it…boy, I’m a really good Catholic…got it…got it, done it, got the tee-shirt…yes, I really am a good Christian.” Occasionally, we would stop at a commandment and say, “Don’t got it, yet” and realize this was something we needed to work on. And, of course, we would feel duly guilty until we acquired that elusive commandment that was out there like a rare hockey card.
This reminds me of another story in the gospels where a young man approaches Jesus and proudly boasts that he has followed all of God’s commandments. Then he asks, “What else must I do to obtain eternal life?” You see, for him, the spiritual life is something you obtain, something you acquire. He has all the Commandments sealed in plastic and in pristine shape displayed for all the world to see and admire. He’s got the 10 Commandments (and the free stick of gum in his back pocket) and now he wants to show the world how he bagged, like a game hunter, the biggest prize of all–eternal life. He has it all except the only thing that matters–a living relationship with God. He has check off all the boxes, acquired everything, but, unfortunately, he is bankrupt. Worst of all, he doesn’t know it. Why? Because we can never see our own game; neither could he. He, like many people today, opted for fire insurance for the afterlife instead of a love affair with God in this life.
The Prophet Jeremiah, who lived some 650 years before the birth of Jesus, invited those people then, as we are invited now, to hear these words of God, and I totally paraphrase: “I give you a new covenant…not like the covenant I made with your ancestors when I freed them from slavery in Egypt. Instead of writing this new covenant on stone tablets, I will write them on your hearts. You will not have to teach them to others as rules coming down upon you from Mount Sinai or even from heaven. No, this covenant will already be in their hearts. You will not have to figure out how to get your heads into it but simply to open your hearts to it. I have already planted it there. You cannot obtain this covenant through more effort on your part; you can only receive it through God’s grace.”
The author of Hebrews, that second reading, writes concerning Jesus, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered…” Obedience is one of those words no longer in vogue, and maybe it is because “obedience” conjures up the notion of “blind obedience” which is always one step short of authoritarianism. However, there is a good side to obedience. Let’s start by saying obedience to God’s law is nothing like trading for hockey cards. It’s nothing like a trophy on a mantle or a certificate of achievement proudly hung on a wall. As St. Paul says, “We have nothing to boast in, except the Cross of Christ.” Obedience comes from a Latin word (audire=audio) which means “listening.” Jesus is the obedient one, the listening one. He tunes his ears to God’s will and not his own— “not my will, but Yours”… not as in today’s gospel, “Father, save me from this hour” but “let this hour bring you glory.”
This is the true meaning of obedience; it’s about listening. When the prophet Elijah was at the lowest point in his life and really could have used God’s clear voice giving him direction, it didn’t quite happen that way. When God’s voice could not be heard in an earthquake, or a hurricane, or a roaring fire, Elijah became as still as he could. God’s voice was in the silence forcing Elijah to really listen. Elijah heard that silent voice and obeyed it.
In the today’s gospel, some Greeks, who have heard about Jesus, come to Jerusalem for a festival. They want to see Jesus, so they go to Philip, probably because he has a Greek name, and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” We could stop the story there. Robert Wicks, a wonderful psychologist and spiritual writer, who a number of years ago gave a workshop in our diocese, says this in one of his books: “When people approach us for help, no matter what they are seeking, they are also really—to some degree—saying, ‘Please, we would like to see Jesus.’”
I believe that underneath everybody’s verbalized request is a non-verbal wish to have an experience of Jesus. Telling people about Jesus is not nearly as gratifying as inviting them into a relationship with Jesus. Obedience (listening) will always be part of our relationship with God as it should be in any other human relationship. 99.9% of all prayer is not saying things to God (who already knows ahead of time what’s on our minds), but listening to what God has to say to us.
Jeremiah says that God wants to put a new covenant into our hearts. Yes, a new covenant. The only other place in the entire Bible that mentions a “new covenant” is at the Last Supper when Jesus gives the cup to his disciples with these words, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood poured out for you.” Just like in Jeremiah, he is going to put it in us. The way in is through the mouth and not the mind. Why? The mind has too many objections like “I’m not worthy.” And the ego is too proud to accept anything given to it; it wants to boast about its own accomplishments and trophies. The only other way in, is through our mouths. Jesus is not stupid. He knows that the only way to the human hearts is through our mouths. If one way is blocked, the new covenant will still find a way in.
Fr. Phil Mulligan