Ever Widening Circles – Mark Aloysius, SJ

John 1:29-34, Second Sunday in Ordinary Time


When I was a young child, there was an animation called The Spiral Zone which I used to faithfully follow. In this animation, the bad guys would set up a generator from which an ever widening hemisphere enveloped the entire land, called the spiral zone. Within this spiral zone, everyone would be transformed into zombie-like creatures, unable to think or feel for themselves and completely under the influence of the bad guys. All that the good guys had to do each week was to infiltrate that spiral zone, protected by some sort of force field, evade the attacks from the bad guys and destroy the generator. Once that happened, the spiral zone vanished and all those who were zombies were transformed into free human beings again.

These days, it is tempting to interpret the world we live in through the optic of The Spiral Zone. As demagogues come into power and wield an ever widening sphere of influence, it seems like more and more people repeat the same hate, the same intolerance towards migrants and refugees, the same unthinking and unfeeling callousness towards the vulnerable, the unceasing manufacture of lies.

Our scriptural readings today offer us a counter-movement to the spiral zone in at least three ways. In our first reading from the Servant Songs of Isaiah, we hear this remarkable universalist prophecy, ‘It is not enough for you to be my servant … and bring back the survivors of Israel, I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth’. The call that the Lord makes upon the servant is the first movement and it is for an ever widening scope of mission, not just to one’s own tribe, but to the entire world. As the Lord is God for all, so the ministry of the servant of the Lord is to all human beings.

This same call of ever widening concern for the entire human race is made to each one of us today. We choose to answer this call in many ways: through the ways in which we care for more of our family members and friends; by standing up for the strangers—migrants and refugees—in our midst; through our commitment to justice particularly for the vulnerable; by electing leaders who serve the truth. No matter whom we come in contact with, wherever they might be in the world, we greet them as Paul did the people in Corinth: he calls them the holy people of Jesus Christ and wishes them grace and peace from God.

The second movement described in our readings is described in our Psalm today, as a deepening movement of prayer.

You do not ask for sacrifice and offerings,
 but an open ear.
You do not ask for holocaust and victim.
 Instead, here am I.

In these verses the Psalmist articulates the insight that God is not so much concerned with external sacrifice, but with the offering of our own selves. What an important corrective this insight must have been for the people of God then and it has lost none of its potency today! Even now, we need to learn to deepen our ways of praying from merely appeasing God with our sacrifices, and to learn that what God really wants is for us to listen as best as we can to God, and to offer ourselves entirely over to God.

Finally, the third movement that is described in our Gospel is a heightening of identification with Christ. As John the Baptist points out the Lamb of God, he reminds us that with Jesus we move from a baptism of water to a baptism of the Holy Spirit. While the baptism of water signifies our purification from sin, the baptism of the Spirit reminds us of our call to deeper union in the life of the Trinity. We are invited into this life of greater intimacy where the Father gives all to the Son in the love of the Spirit.

Our readings today speak so much about the call of the Servant of God. How wonderful it is to remember that at the start of this year, we are called to an ever widening, deepening and heightening experience of faith, hope and love. It is as if God is challenging us to think bigger and to trust that God will indeed give us more than we can ever imagine or hope for. Indeed, as Paul says: ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor 2:9).

How is the Lord inviting you to widen your gaze, deepen your hearts and to heighten your spirit?

Though I ended my homily with the following question, here on Facebook, I would like to leave you with this poem by Rilke which expresses all that has been said, and more, in two dense verses.

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

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