(See the readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Feb. 6)
“It’s not a job, it’s a vocation.” We often hear this expression when someone is passionate about their work. They see it as more than a paycheck or a means to fill time. They are motivated and driven by something higher. The outcomes they seek are not primarily for themselves but for others.
The term “vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare which means “to call.” The term for a number of years was chiefly associated with a religious vocation – meaning the call to life in a female or male religious community (priests, nuns, sisters, brothers) or to ordination.
Over the years the term has developed more widely to be applied to a way of life (married or single) or a career. Regardless of the application, the term implies that someone greater than ourselves is doing the calling. From the perspective of faith, God is the one who calls.
We encounter three stories of vocations in the readings from Mass today. The first comes from the prophet Isaiah. In his case God makes the call through a fantastic vision. Isaiah sees God sitting on a magnificent throne, the angels surround him singing: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is full of his glory!”
At this point the door through which Isaiah is looking shakes and the entire room is full of smoke. Isaiah, realizing he is in the presence of the divine, is filled with holy fear. He immediately recognizes his unworthiness to stand before the Lord. He cries out “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.”
Immediately, one of the angels flies to him with an ember in hand, touches his mouth and frees him from his sin. At this point the Lord speaks. He poses an invitation in the form of a question: “Whom shall I send?” He is speaking of a mission. He is inviting Isaiah to go for him, to carry out his mission. Isaiah responds: “Here I am, send me!”
God has a plan for each one of us in life. We have a role to play in his mission. We have a place in his vision of creation. Everyone has a part, and all parts are important. Isaiah’s account can help us identify some things to consider when thinking about our particular vocations. Isaiah’s call came in a vision; for the vast majority of us this will not be the case.
However, the awareness of God’s presence and call may come, like Isaiah, when we don’t expect it. We may feel unworthy or humbled by God’s invitation. We may feel we are not up to the task. Yet God is the one to determine our ability and role. He is also the one who heals that which might hinder us. Isaiah’s humility opens him to acceptance. So when he hears the call, he replies “Here I am, send me!”
The second vocation story comes with the call of St. Peter in the Gospel according to St. Luke, which presents the call and response in dramatic fashion. Unlike the Isaian account, no vision is involved. Jesus is the one who calls Peter.
The context of the call helps provide some insights. Peter has already encountered Jesus earlier in the Gospel when Jesus had cured his mother-in-law (4:38-39). Now Jesus meets Peter and his crew after they have been out all night fishing. They had a bad night for they had caught nothing. Jesus asks him to go out again. Peter hesitates but agrees to go. When the nets are cast as Jesus asked, they pull in a huge catch. The size is emphasized when we are told that the boats were so full they nearly sank.
Peter is filled with astonishment (an expression in the original that implies an encounter with the divine) and falls at his knees saying: “Depart from me, Lord, for a I am a sinful man.” It is at this point that Jesus says: “Do not be afraid: from now on you will be catching men.”
The call of Peter can likewise give us some insights into our vocations. Peter already has some kind of relationship with Jesus prior to his being called. The relationship helps him to hear the call and to respond. Jesus’ requests first to go out to see and then to cast the nets indicates a step-by-step process. The first request is less demanding and requires less of a jump but is necessary nonetheless.
The second required much more of a response from Peter and his crew. They had to face head on the doubts they were having. They did all the work the first time and had a zero result. So they naturally would have had some serious doubts about expecting different results.
The difference here is that Jesus is now involved. It is his work that they are doing. The results then speak for themselves. Such is the case in our lives when we sense God is asking us to do something we might not expect or perhaps we think it is senseless. Peter trusted even though he was unsure. Perhaps his trust is a sign for us. Peter and the others now recognize the divine presence in Jesus. God is directing the action of their lives.
Peter’s humility, like Isaiah’s, drives him to his knees. Jesus lifts him up with those words “do not be afraid” and invites him to be a fisher of men. Humility helps open our eyes to God’s presence and activity in our lives. He is regularly inviting us to participate in his plan. When we are unsure, anxious or feel unworthy, Jesus says to us: “Do not be afraid.”
The third story is from the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians. Perhaps “story” is not the right word but rather a “reference.” Paul is recalling his mission and the preaching he is doing. He proclaims Jesus’ death and resurrection which is the saving event that changed everything for Paul. He refers to his call through an encounter with the risen Jesus. He says: “Last of all, as to one abnormally born, he appeared to me.” By “last of all” he is saying that Jesus first appeared to the Twelve and other disciples before appearing to Paul.
It is good to recall that Paul never met Jesus prior to his death and resurrection. In fact, he was persecuting those who followed Jesus. All that changed through the encounter on the road to Damascus. God had a plan for Paul, a plan that prior to his encounter with Christ, Paul would have considered absurd. He was forced to confront his doubts and his own conception of Jesus of Nazareth. All that follows after the encounter is a life of call and response. He placed his life in the hands of the Lord. Fueled by God’s unqualified love and mercy, Paul was able to say “yes” over and over and day by day.
We all have a part in the wonderful plan of God which Jesus calls the Kingdom. Through Jesus God offers us an invitation to participate and to assist. The roles are varied and wide but they are all valuable. Today we have the opportunity to listen to that call and to respond: “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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