NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: 1 Samuel 3: 3b-10, 19
SECOND SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
USCCB Link to all three readings
Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD
where the ark of God was.
The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, "Here I am."
Samuel ran to Eli and said, "Here I am. You called me."
"I did not call you, " Eli said. "Go back to sleep."
So he went back to sleep.
Again the LORD called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli.
"Here I am, " he said. "You called me."
But Eli answered, "I did not call you, my son. Go back to sleep."
At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD,
because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet.
The LORD called Samuel again, for the third time.
Getting up and going to Eli, he said, "Here I am. You called me."
Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth.
So he said to Samuel, "Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply,
Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening."
When Samuel went to sleep in his place,
the LORD came and revealed his presence,
calling out as before, "Samuel, Samuel!"
Samuel answered, "Speak, for your servant is listening."
Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him,
not permitting any word of his to be without effect.
Now that we are settled into Ordinary Time, and I have had several weeks now to post on the first readings of the Sunday liturgy, it is a fair question to ask: why does the liturgy include a weekly [, daily] text from the Hebrew Scripture? The stock answer is “for our pious edification,” but next Sunday’s text raises more questions than answers. A better answer might be the revealed nature of the text itself; the Hebrew Scripture is considered inspired by both Jews and Christians, and therefore has something to say to the reader in its own right. In this text we have description of a mysterious call from God that is not initially understood by the hearer or his mentor. When the divine origin is finally recognized, Samuel utters the now-famous prayer, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” [In the process, one of the worst of our present-day hymns was born, “Here I Am, Lord,” often referred to quietly as the hymn to the obvious.]
But the truth of the text itself does not entirely answer the question of its use at Mass; the gathering of Christ’s people establishes a unique context for listening, so the question needs to be reset to (1) why any Old Testament texts are celebrated in the Eucharist, and (2) why is this text chosen in tandem with the Gospel of Sunday, John 1: 35-42?
The answer to the first question rests in the very nature of Christ, the one whom we gather to worship. The pairing of Hebrew Revelation with the person of Christ is the Church’s earliest exercise in Christology or the understanding of the Savior. Having just completed the Christmas cycle of feasts, it is possible to see how the arrival of Christ is portrayed in the Gospels in the setting of Jewish history and expectations. From the divine announcing of births (both Jesus and John the Baptist) to the flight into Egypt to escape Herod in the fashion of the infant Moses, the Christmas event takes its heart from Hebrew history. When the prophet Simeon, within the Temple confines, beholds the child Jesus and exclaims, “Now, Lord, you may dismiss your servant, for my eyes have seen your salvation,” we have the last word on the nature of Jesus as the son of his religious history as well as its fulfillment.
It would be poor theology indeed if Hebrew Revelation was not part and parcel of memorializing the Christ, who himself stated that “I have come not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to bring them to fulfillment.” When the lector steps forward to proclaim the Old Testament, our family history album is being opened again and we are reintroduced to the culture of faith from which Christ has stepped forth and continues. It is critical here bring up the role of Vatican II in its emphasis upon the importance of the Old Testament, in theory and in fact. Specifically, the renewal of the rite of Mass begun in 1963 introduced the reading of the Old Testament as the first of three texts. Prior to the Mass of Paul VI in 1970, there were two readings at Sunday Mass, a text from one of the Letters of St. Paul, and a Gospel text.
The dignified place of Hebrew Scripture at Mass is also a statement of the holiness of the Jewish people before God. I do not need to catalogue the atrocities perpetuated against Jews to our present day; the Neo-Nazi and skinhead demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA, last year are evidence enough that a sizeable portion of our population propagate dangerous attitudes and emotions toward Jews. The Catholic history in this regard is less than noble; aside from the curse of persistent anti-Semitism, Catholic theology until recent centuries has plundered the Old Testament for concrete predictions of Christ and cherry-picked texts to buttress moral Church teachings, as in the famous quote about Onan’s practice of coitus interruptus [Genesis 38:9] as an argument against artificial contraception. Students today examine the Hebrew texts through the intent of their sacred authors, as should we.
The second question references the relationship of a Sunday’s chosen Old Testament text to the Gospel of the day. The editors of the Lectionary have tried to pair texts with similar themes. In our case here, the Gospel of John describes the call of the first disciples of Jesus. There are several parallels to the Hebrew text, the most obvious being the specificity of God’s call. In 1 Samuel, God badgers young Samuel to the edge of distraction. In John’s Gospel, it is the Baptist ironically who recruits for Jesus. The new disciples switch allegiances and become recruiters for Jesus themselves, bringing Simon Peter himself into the new community.
If Jesus is becoming the epicenter of a major change, so is Samuel in his own time. He is the last of the Judges, and the first of the Prophets. It is he who must face the vociferous mood of his people, who believed that “judges” were no longer adequate to lead and protect an Israel that was growing in strength and ambition, not to say attracting enemies such as the Philistines. Samuel believed that a kingship was a bad idea, with too much power entrusted to one man, but after discussion with God—who is equally frustrated about the calls for a king—they agree to grant the peoples’ wishes, letting them discover over time how “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 1 Samuel 8 covers their deliberations in detail. Samuel eventually anoints Saul as Israel’s first king, and the 500-year monarchy of Israel is set in place.
Just as Samuel had anointed Saul, John the Baptist poured the water of the Jordan over Jesus, during which he [the Baptist] “saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain with him.” Jesus, then, is anointed, like Saul, and the very next paragraph is Sunday’s text where the kingdom of the New Israel is now being gathered. The original kingship of Israel would ultimately disintegrate, but as Jesus would say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”