I have been talking with Rosa. Rosa is the lady who helps to keep the school clean. You have probably seen her around during the day. Rosa is deaf and she is helping me to re-learn sign language. A while back I was chaplain to the deaf community in our diocese. The ministry was always small – centering around a few Catholic students at Tennessee School of the Deaf and a few deaf adults. Well, the students graduated, some of the adults passed away, others moved out of the diocese. The ministry has been kind of shuttered for a few years now and I have not signed for a while.
As I am re-learning my signs I have been reminded of my first few months signing and the mistakes I made along the way. To begin learning sign I went to Camp Mark 7, a sign language learning camp in the Adirondack Mountains begun by the first deaf priest in the U.S. I first learned how to sign the Mass. I remember it was about six months into signing the Mass back in the diocese that a member of the deaf community came to me with a concern. She signed, “Father, you keep making this sign (hands tightly clasped together) for ‘peace’ like when you say, ‘The peace of Christ.’ This is not correct. This is the sign for peace (she held her hands together but then she moved them apart as if they were flowing out). The sign which you keep making is the sign for ‘hamburger’.” So … for close to about six months I, throughout the Mass, kept wishing people the “hamburger of Christ!”
It seems to me that a couple of dynamics in learning a language are the rules and structure of the language (those things that must be memorized) as well as the willingness to just take a risk and, frankly, being okay with the fact that mistakes will be made and sometimes one will make a fool of himself or herself. But, you know what – the world doesn’t end. I can honestly say that I have learned enough now to make a fool of myself in multiple languages … not just in English!
In today’s first reading (1stLetter of John 4:19-5:4) we are given a bit of John’s wonderful reflection on what it means that God is love and that we have been loved by God. (I really encourage all people to take some time to truly read and reflect upon John’s first letter.)
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God, and everyone who loves the Father loves also the one begotten by him. In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
The word “commandments” here seems quite heavy and (at least in the tenor of our day and age) not very thrilling. But I think it helpful to hold this word together with an awareness of the role of rules and structure in language. The rules and structure of language are means to an end. We learn the rules that we might communicate, have relationship and friendship with another person, that we might be able to speak their language. The “commandments” that John makes mention of are not just a set of arbitrary rules we are forced to follow just because; rather they are the specific means to an end. Christianity, at its heart, is a way to live and to encounter God and one another. Christianity is not so much rules as it is relationship. In living our faith, in obeying God’s commandments, we begin to learn the language of God and enter into true relationship with him!
And like any language, to learn it we have to be willing to take a risk, to step out and possibly even make a fool of oneself. In today’s gospel reading (Lk. 4:14-22) Jesus took a risk. This was his first act of public ministry. “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” I think he must have been nervous when he said that. We need to be sincere when we profess that Jesus is fully human just as he is fully divine. Part of the wonder of being human is sometimes being nervous, part of the wonder of being human is taking a risk. Jesus is risking reaching out to us and to all of humanity in the language of God – a new way to communicate with God and one another, a new way to have relationship and friendship and a new and full way to live and experience life.
The rules and structure of language and the commandments of God which are not burdensome but give life and the willingness to take a risk, step out and live an ever-new relationship with God.