Ah, work it out, baby.
We’ve got a sign outside the Church of the Epiphany in Manhattan. It’s one of those glass-enclosed signs you see in front of many churches, announcing in white letters on a black background coming Church events, dates and times, the title of an upcoming sermon, that kind of thing. The sign at Epiphany had gotten so old that it wasn’t used for a while, and when I arrived, I asked if I could fix it up and use it. Fr Austin gave me his favorite phrase of approval: “Sure, knock your socks off.” So I knocked my socks off, refurbished the sign, and began posting somewhat humorous or challenging weekly messages to get people’s attention and which might hopefully to draw them into joining us at Mass.
OK, no big deal, right? Tons of churches have been doing that for decades and decades.
So last week I arranged the letters to say: “In 2018, what are you looking for? Come and see!”. I’ve discovered that people in New York are not reluctant to express their opinion about almost anything, and when I had just finished the arranging the letters of the sign and had closed its glass door, a person came up to me and said “I’m looking for the Mass times in big bold letters on that sign, not some cute messages”. Without looking for my reaction, he walked away.
I was a little stunned, and wasn’t sure if he was being funny or just expressing irritation about me. The sign does list the Mass times, but in smaller letters at the top of the board. I wondered what that man, my brother, was really looking for when he went to Mass--assuming of course that he does go to Mass.
I stood beside the sign for a while, just watching people walk by on the busy sidewalk. It was morning, most people were on their way to work. Some looked a little stressed, perhaps worrying what the day was about to bring them. A few children went by, holding the hands of their parents. They were clearly on their way to school, and they already seemed full of energy, maybe excited to see their friends and teachers. Others who passed by seemed hardly awake, sleepwalking their way to buy the milk or the eggs they were out of at home. Young faces, old faces, black, brown, white faces; some people very stylishly dressed, others simply bundled up in protective layers against the cold: What were they looking for today, I wondered, and where would they go looking for it?
To be honest, it is the question that has guided my biggest life decisions since I was in college. I’ve been a little like the three wise guys of Epiphany, looking for THE ANSWER to the deepest questions of life. Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life? What is the meaning of the universe? Where did I come from and what happens after I die? Why is there such pain in the world? Why do bad people seem to win and good people seem to lose?
When I joined the Jesuits it wasn’t because I wanted to be a priest. It was because I wanted to be with others who seemed to be seeking the answers to those questions. When I chose to become a filmmaker, I hoped to use that creative tool to explore the foundations of our lives. When I became a teacher, I wanted to share the questions with my students, and join with them in the search for the answers. And in my priesthood, I wanted to serve others who are hungering for the truth about who they are and what is beneath every part of the universe in which we live.
In some ways I feel as though I have been plagued with these questions, haunted by them, even in my dreams.
Not long ago I was inching along in my car in a huge traffic jam in Manhattan. I was late for an appointment, as usual, and I was getting pretty anxious because it looked like I was never going to get there. I got to an intersection where the light changed very fast, and just when my turn came to get through it, a big truck came from a street on my right and cut me off.
The driver was a big burly guy, kind of tough looking, and he never signaled or waved at me asking for permission to jump into my line, which would, of course, have been the polite thing to do, but hey, it was New York! As the truck eased in front of me, I saw in its open back this statue of Jesus. It was kind of an old-fashioned statue, and his arms were up like this, and he eyes were looking up like this, and of course he was all tied down to the side of the truck so he wouldn’t fall over. It almost looked like someone had kidnapped Jesus while he was in the middle of praying or something. Anyway, it was a very strange sight to have Jesus in the back of the truck right there in front of me. I wondered where Jesus was going.
As we inched along down the street, the truck driver saw a couple of pretty girls go by and he yelled something at them. Some kids passed between us, waving and giggling at the statue. I found a song on Spotify--"Do You Love Me" by the old Motown group, The Contours--and I joined in: "Watch me now...Ah, work it out, baby..do you lovvvveeee me...", Jesus knocking it out with a chorus behind him.
The truck driver was more aggressive than I was, and he found little holes in the traffic, and so eventually he was several car lengths away from me when I finally turned away from that street in search of a faster way to my destination.
I made it to my meeting, a few minutes late. When the meeting was over, I walked down a few streets on my way to a store, and saw a small crowd collected on the sidewalk just ahead of me. Everyone was looking up. There was a crane hoisting the statue of Jesus from the back of the truck that had cut me off. Jesus was in midair, swinging slightly, his hands up, and his eyes looking heavenward. There was man high up on the roof of the church, getting ready to position the statue for a spot right on the top. It was a scene right out of the famous Fellini film, La Dolce Vita. I looked at the people on the sidewalk, their eyes cast skyward, following the statue’s flight. No one was very close: statues falling from the sky can kill.
At the side door of the church people were going inside, and I followed. I was suddenly curious to see the church and to see what was going on. It was dark inside, but light enough to see a bunch of people sitting there, praying the rosary together, asking Jesus, God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Mary the Mother of God to help them. I sat down in the pew and said a few prayers myself. There was an image of Jesus at the front of the church that was very similar to the one like the statue going up outside on the church. Jesus with his arms up, his eyes looking up too.
I found myself asking him, What are you looking for, Jesus? What’s up there anyway, those eyes cast heavenward? Me asking Jesus the question he asked those first disciples: what are you looking for?
The people on the sidewalk outside with the statue in midair, the truck driver with his eyes on the pretty girls, my sign critic telling me he wants Mass times in big bold letters, the children on their way to school, stressed out pedestrians on their way to work. What are you looking for? What, indeed, are we all looking for?
I believe that human beings were created with an inborn desire to know. From the littlest baby to the oldest senior citizen, we are driven to know about the world around us, about our selves, body and soul. And we are driven to know about one another, maybe excitedly about the one to whom we are immediately attracted when we see him or her for the first time across the room.
It’s what love is all about, isn’t it? When you fall in love with someone, you want to know everything about them—I mean everything—and like the universe, like the being we call God, we can never fully know the love of our life. Peel off a layer of a person and you’ll find an endless and ever growing pile of layers underneath. And that’s what makes love so endless and so exciting because there is always more to know about someone.
Ultimately, what is driving our hunger to know about anything and anyone and everything, is our deepest desire to be one with it all. To be one, essentially, with the Creator of it all. To know God in the most complete way possible. And of course the only way to know anything or anyone that well means you have to let go of your very self.
That’s what Jesus did up on that cross, didn’t he? He let his very self go into God, from which he came in the first place. It doesn’t go easily. Knowing anything always involves self-sacrifice, loss of comfort and security, risking everything.
Those disciples that Jesus met, the ones who followed him--they were drawn to him because in some intuitive way, they knew he had THE ANSWER. It radiated out of him, and like the voice of God calling to Samuel in the night, they felt it in their bones, the answer to the questions that had haunted their simple lives. The felt it in the love that was emanating from him. They couldn’t explain it, but he excited them, he gave them hope, he promised to be the one they had been looking for since they were born.
“Why are you following me,” he asked them. Uhhh, well, because…. They stumbled because they couldn’t get this deep desire into words, like a boy trying to explain his attraction to the girl he is instantly ga ga over.
Uh, where are you staying, an awkward question, which was not really about motels or bed and breakfasts but which really meant “where can I find peace?” “where is the answer I've been searching for all my life?”, “where is God found?”, “where am I going to find the love that I need?”. The same question we all of us ask every day of our lives whether we know it or not. Hearts burning to know where Jesus’ heart lives.
All our lives, in peace and in war we want to know where God lives so we can join him there, in peace. Jesus raises his arms to the sky, his eyes go up up up, and he says—to you and to me—‘come and see’. Come and see, and you will find what you are looking for.
Come and see, and the moment you take that first step, you become a real disciple.
Follow him to find what you are looking for…all the way to a hill called Calvary. Come and see where his heart lives, in peace…on a cross.
What are you looking for? Behold, the lamb of God!