The inconvenient Gospel

It’s Sunday morning, and we’re at Mass.  My little boys turn the pages of their picture books, surprisingly well-behaved.  As the priest gets up to read the Gospel, the thought of his homily fills me with pleasant anticipation.  Father Xavier possesses equal parts knowledge and wisdom and honesty in the face of what he doesn’t know, and the combination translates into homiletic gold.  My spirits are high as I wait to be inspired.

Suddenly, Matthew tugs at my sleeve.  “Mommy,” he says urgently, “I need to go to the bathroom.”

My spirits thud to earth.    “Do you have to?”

“Yes,” he says, looking up at me appealingly.

I fight the urge to say, “Ask Daddy to take you.”  I fight the equally strong urge to heave an obnoxious, graceless sigh.  “Come on then,” I tell him, leading the way past the people at the end of our pew, who obligingly swing their legs sideways to let us pass.  The words of the Gospel recede as we hurry to the bathroom and I perform the ritual papering of the seat that moms do when faced with a toilet of dubious cleanliness.   Maybe, if it’s a long reading, I can still hear the end of it.  Maybe, if Matthew is quick, I’ll be able to catch the start of the homily.

“Hurry up Matthew,” I say briskly.  “I’m missing the Gospel.”

And then, standing there in the stinky cold restroom, the irony of my words clubs me right over the head.  Missing the Gospel?  No, I’m living the Gospel.

If there’s one thing that Jesus showed us, it’s how to sacrifice ourselves for others.  I believe in the importance of that, and I try to do it in my daily life.  But if I’m really honest, I’ll admit that I only want to help others when it’s convenient for me.

I know that this response is human, and understandable.  As a teacher and a mom, my moments of quiet me-time are rare; I guard them jealously.  But the urgent needs of others don’t accommodate themselves to my schedule.  My son has a nightmare, a student wants to talk about a personal problem: these needs show up whenever they show up, even during my well-earned silent time.  It’s easy to regard them as intrusions upon my contemplation, that quiet period when I’d planned to grow deeper in my spiritual life.  Maybe I need to realize that these moments of sacrificial service are not distractions from the main event … they are the main event.  They are the primary business of my spiritual life.  They are what this faith is all about.

True as that is, it’s still a devilishly hard kind of surrender.  That’s why I find it comforting  to remember that Jesus also had to deal with constant interruption.  In the Gospels he is repeatedly swamped by the crowds, throngs of people who urgently need to be heard and acknowledged.  Maybe Jesus also felt a little thud inside at the thought that his silent prayer time was about to be given up to others.  But in the end, he treated those encounters as chances for grace.  He sacrificed and served, over and over, and that response invites me to do the same.

Yes, I find God through meditation and silence and Gospel readings.  But he is not just in the prayers or in the homily.  He is also in the small boy who tugs urgently at my sleeve, challenging me to live the Gospel at all times, even when all I wanted to do was listen.

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