For me it wasn’t a happy return from my recent holiday. I pulled a muscle in my back as I laid foot on my doorstep while shifting my suitcase. Then I learned that during my absence a number of parishioners had suddenly become seriously ill, and that one had passed away… So, you see, it really wasn’t a happy return. On the other hand, after having suffered soaring, even roasting temperatures abroad, it was so good to be back, welcomed home as I was by a chilly wind and night temperatures dipping to single-digits – essentially, what we call the Scottish summer! So, my return was a mixed bag overall. And that’s the everyday experience of most of us, with regular ups-and-downs and unexpected moments of either happiness or despair. Nobody likes the latter, and we do as much as we can to avoid it. But every now and again, unpleasant things that happen are simply unavoidable and we have to find ways of dealing with them.
Today’s first reading can come as a useful reference point for us. The main character grumbles at his fate: ‘I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing.’ He experiences a moment of despair, caused by a difficult situation. However, the main character in fact recalls that moment of dejection in the context of having found consolation: ‘all the while my cause was with the Lord, my reward with my God. […] My God was my strength.’ This is his recognition that he has never been abandoned by God, and never been left to his own devices in dealing with adversity. The first reading is actually a specific and rather moving hymn of praise, sung by the character who has recognised God’s work throughout his life, since he was born: ‘The Lord called me before I was born, from my mother’s womb He pronounced my name. […] He formed me in the womb to be his servant.’
As I mentioned earlier, today’s first reading can act as a useful reference point. Firstly, it is there to help you realise that you are in this world because God wanted you, and He wanted you for a purpose. The Lord called you before you were born, from your mother’s womb He pronounced your name. In God’s eyes you’re not an anonymous figure in a numberless mass of people. In His eyes you’re as special an individual as if you were the only person in the whole universe.
Secondly, whatever has happened in your life to date, you have never ever been abandoned by God. All the experiences you have been through, whether nice or nasty, have shaped and formed you. Who and what you are now is the result of innumerable interactions within yourself and external to yourself. The overused phrase: ‘What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger’ is based on experience – and most often turns out to be true.
And finally, whatever you have to deal with right now simply involves taking another step forward. It’s another challenge that can give you a better insight into who and what you are, in order to take you to even greater heights of human achievement, or of what we call in the Church – sainthood.
That struggle never ends as long as we live on God’s earth. We can see that truth at the end of the first reading. When the main character praises God for what He’s done to him, a new goal is set: ‘It’s not enough for you to be my servant. […] I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’ With this new goal, or new challenge, God deliberately changes the perspective of the main character, redirecting his attention outwards towards others. That’s typical of God who wants you too to change your perspective and turn your attention away from yourself and towards other people. Because, paradoxically, the less you focus on yourself, the less unhappy you feel. The more you give out, the more you get back.