“Familiarity breeds contempt.” Yes, it may. In the realm of the spirit, familiarity can more likely breed dullness or staleness, an unwillingness to question or to think, a belief that if one just “believes” what is said, that suffices, and then one can be left “free” to live as one wishes.Then “religious belief” becomes a comfortable way to keep distant from God: perhaps useful as “fire insurance,” but of little or no effect in one’s daily life.That is comfortable for those who want spiritual “comfort” above all else. And it is safe indeed for those who want “blessed assurance,” and “home security.”
For all of us, the Gospel stories about Jesus have become so familiar, that we do not hear them as fresh and alive. We may not even try to listen, but indulge in comforting daydreaming when the Gospels are read, or the homily is preached. Part of the problem for clergy in preparing to preach on this Sunday’s passage from the Gospel of John, and for lay folks who hear it, is that much of this Gospel has been simplified and incorporated into diverse teachings of the Church, and these teachings in turn serve to keep one from hearing the Word sounding within. Jesus’ words to “Receive the Holy Spirit” becomes a formula to the Apostles, who in turn become a means to guarantee the security and longevity of the institutional church, “founded on the Apostles.”
On the other hand, to listen with faith requires that one’s mind is open, that one is searching, asking questions, with an ongoing awareness that one really does not know well the truth of God. “If you think you know, you do not know as you ought to know,” as the Apostle Paul wrote in words that sound genuinely Socratic—and wise. With an attentive, engaged mind, one actually listens to what is being said here and now, not primarily to what one thinks was said years ago to saintly men and women entombed in a book. In other words, you are the one being addressed. The living word of God is always personal, always from the mind of God to the mind of an attentive human being. In the recurring words of Orthodox liturgy: “Be attentive; holy things for the holy.”
Let’s take next Sunday’s gospel, the famous Emmaus Road story, to show how to listen to what the Gospel says to you. One needs to listen to the story in all of its details, and then, in effect, activate the same fundamental experience embodied in the story in one’s own soul or consciousness. Not to let the story engage one spiritually or existentially is not to hear it as it was intended to be heard: to bring one into living contact, right now, with the God of Jesus Christ.
We discuss matters, but rarely about God or Christ or how to live well, but probably about food, politics, sports, ranching, weather, grand-children, sports. Not often do I hear two parishioners speak about God’s actions in the world, although occasionally one remarks on the beauties of creation unfolding before our eyes. God in nature seems to speak even to those who have not yet discovered God breaking into consciousness. Now, how would Christ encounter those whose eyes are cast down, and whose minds are not attending to the things of God at this moment? How could that which we call “Christ” press in? Where is the opening in the discussion to be encountered by the Risen One—especially when there is no rational discussion which the Lord may be moving guiding? If one is not attending to the divine in some form, how does God break in?
Later on, perhaps many years later, someone may realize that God was actually at work, but it was unseen, perhaps unwanted at the time—as dark and as unnoticed as mint roots growing under earth in winter. And then perhaps someone will remember and bring into consciousness that of which one had been barely conscious at all. “There was something about that experience that I have not felt since. What was it? Somehow it was there, and I missed it. Why? What was I thinking? Or was I thinking at all?” In a moment, walking along a wooded path, a glint of light stretches out of the sky, and strikes the rock. Something happens. One then becomes aware of the reality of what had not seemed real, of the presence of that which had felt utterly absent.
If that does not arrest you, consider this week’s Gospel. When did you last turn and recognize the presence of God as Christ breaking into consciousness?