Acts 17:15, 22 – 18:1; John 16:12-15
Music has been an important part of my life for many decades. I grew up with the sounds of music in the house; Mom loved the Irish songs of her childhood and Dad the classical and big band music of his. As I grew up and learned how to play the guitar I began to compose and sing my own music, which reflected my own passions and influences. I devoted more and more time to learning how to compose and gradually became daring enough to share my songs with others.
When I was 20, I met a young woman about my age who wanted to hear my music. I invited her over and, with my heart beating almost into my throat, sang a couple of my songs. When I finished she asked, “Have you written anything without God in it?” I hadn’t. Clearly uninterested but very polite, she excused herself and that was the last I ever saw of her.
Over the ensuing years I sent my music to every Catholic music publisher I could find. Every one of them replied with similar notes: “Thank you for sending us your songs. They are very pretty but do not fit in with our plans.” Once, one of my songs made it into a “second review” process, having passed the first level of reviewers, but eventually it too was rejected; although very lovely, it “didn’t fit in with their plans.” I gave up on publishers and instead played my songs for music directors at their parishes. As you might guess by now, more polite rejection. It became clear to me that no matter how inspired I thought my music was, no matter how badly I wanted it to move people or give them a deeper love for Christ, I was in the vast minority.
Paul was in the minority when he came to Athens. Though a shadow of its former self, Athens was still the center of learning and the place to go for the pursuit of philosophical truth. Philosophers are lovers of wisdom, that’s what the word means, but Paul had something more to give them for Christ is no mere lover of wisdom; Christ is Wisdom. So Paul went into Athens and, in the face of a pagan public, preached the truth he had received directly from the Truth Himself.
As we heard, Paul was rejected, rebuffed; told no matter how politely that his message “didn’t fit in with their plans.” We could focus on the pain or discouragement that we might feel for being rejected – and I have done that many times – but if we do, we miss the larger lesson. Those who are called to proclaim the gospel are to do so in the pattern of Christ: To call, to invite, even to challenge, but never to force people. This is exactly what Paul did; whether in Athens or elsewhere, everyone who heard him was free to accept or reject the gospel.
Paul certainly felt the pain of rejection; his letters speak of it at times. Yet those same letters have been read for literally thousands of years; untold billions of people have found their hearts moved to the point of conversion by words he wrote with no such purpose in mind. The purpose was not his, it was Christ’s. That much Paul did understand. He knew that the message belonged to Christ who called him to bring the gospel to the world and who had a plan that far exceeded anything he or any of the Apostles could have ever imagined. It was this understanding that drove all of them onward, not the blessings of security and success.
Little has changed since then. On the one hand, the modern world is at heart no different from ancient Athens; it still tends to go its own way, to call “truth” whatever is convenient to it and reject however politely whatever doesn’t fit into its plans, including the reality of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. On the other hand, God is also no different and His is the only plan that matters: the plan of the Father, the Eternal Word Jesus Christ, and the power and working of the Holy Spirit. And even though the fear of rejection by the world also remains the same, so does the fact that every one of us who call ourselves His followers have by virtue of our baptism and confirmation received the infinite power of grace to overcome all fear.
Leaving Mass, the priest or deacon will say, “Go and announce the gospel of the Lord,” or “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” This is our mandate, our call. We have each been given our own unique gifts, not meant only for ourselves. However we do it, our lives are to be a love song to Christ for the world. That our song may be rejected isn’t important. What matters to God is that we sang it for everyone to hear.