FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR C
Last Sunday, my brother and sister-in-law and I went to Lincoln Center to see the revival of the marvelous musical show, My Fair Lady. It tells the charming story of Liza Doolittle, the cockney flower seller who meets up with speech therapist Professor Henry Higgins. As a wager, Higgins undertakes the challenge of improving Liza’s pronunciation to the point that she can pass for a society lady. At first, Liza laughs off the thought that she could ever shed her cockney accent; but, by the end of the show, she finds herself mistaken for a princess. And it is all due to Henry Higgin’s vision of what Liza could become with proper help and his persistence in staying with the task until a new Liza emerges.
If we could give a title to the liturgy for this Sunday in Ordinary Time, it might well be My Fair Man, because the Scriptures introduce us to a number of men who discover – to their great surprise -that God’s grace has made them far better, holier and effective people than they ever dreamed possible.
Let’s begin with Isaiah – not yet the great prophet he would become – who fears that an unexpected vision of the All Holy God in the Temple at Jerusalem has doomed him. “Woe is me, I am doomed,” he cries out in terror. “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.” A symbolic gesture on the part of a seraph does for Isaiah what Henry Higgin’s marbles in the mouth did for Eliza. He is ready to speak the most beautiful and important words anyone has ever heard. We read them over and over again every Advent and Christmas and Lent and Holy Week.
Now we come to St. Paul who describes himself as “the least of the apostles, not fit to be an apostle.” Why? Because before his meeting with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus he persecuted the church of God. If Henry Higgins thought that Liza and people who spoke the way she did should be arrested for the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue, Paul knows that he deserves a far worse fate at the hands of God for his treatment of Jesus’ disciples such as St. Stephen, the first martyr.
Yet down deep, through it all, Paul knows that his transformation has been far more profound than that of a flower vendor to a princess. He has been transformed from a persecutor to an apostle – so great an apostle, in fact, that later generations have come to call him The Apostle. And how did all this come about? “By the grace of God, I am what I am; and his grace to me has not been ineffective.”
Finally, we come to Simon Peter, the rough, crude, impetuous fisherman who protests to Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus brushes off Peter’s bad mothing of himself. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And Jesus is convincing enough that the two pairs of brothers leave everything and follow him.
The liturgy today cautions us against selling ourselves short. Sure, we all have our limitations, our sins, things that cause us to feel ashamed or unworthy or – God forbid – incapable of becoming heroes and heroines or saints or outstanding in any way. When we cannot, for one reason or another, feel our potential, God steps in to reveal what he is determined to help us become. Sometimes he makes his power felt immediately and directly, as he did with the men in the Scriptures today. Sometimes God uses the services of other people, the way Henry Higgins painstakingly brought out the princess in the flower vendor, Liza Doolittle.
Today on Scout Sunday, we salute the dedicated leaders who work generously to help our youngsters appreciate their worth, recognize and develop their talents, give them an experience of teamwork and cooperation, and fill them with a more profound awe of the beauty of God’s creation. Likewise, we salute our Scouts who have pledge themselves to do their duty to God and country, to obey the Scout Law, and to keep themselves physically strong, mentally alert, and morally straight. May the Lord keep them true to their Scout Oath, and all of us true to our baptismal vows.