Some priests of my era insightfully employed a quote from Dag Hammarskjold on their ordination cards: "I don't know who -- or what -- put the question. I don't know when it was put. I don't ever remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone -- or Something -- and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life in self-surrender had a goal.

Hammarskjold, a U.N. Secretary General, was killed in a 1961 plane crash while on a Congo peace mission. His words hit a resonant chord in the hearts not only of those newly ordained men, but also of all people of faith.

We should have the words playing in the background of our minds as we listen to Sunday's three readings.

Changed by call

I always remind my students that our sacred authors create "biblical call narratives" with their readers in mind. Because the writers aren't certain about the actual historical details of the calls they describe, they arrange their narratives in a way that will enable readers to better understand the implications of our own calls.

For instance, when the author of the second reading (II Timothy 1:8b-10) mentions, "God saved us and called us to a holy life," he doesn't detail how such calls actually happen. But he does presume, as does Hammarskjold, that everyone who is called is drastically changed by that call.

The author hits the faith-nail on the head when he reminds us that it's a call to a "holy life," a call to be different from those around us.

We see this holiness dimension front and center in Abraham's call (Genesis 12:1-4a). Though he and his wife Sarah -- the first Jews -- will eventually be so blessed that people will employ their names when they bless others, divine calls always contain elements of the unknown: "Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from our father's house to a land I will show you."

Responding to "Someone or Something" always demands that we give up whatever provides us security. We're constantly walking down a road whose destination is known only to God.

In the Gospel for Sunday (Matthew 17:1-9), Matthew tells us that, even before Jesus' resurrection, His followers glimpsed a future for which they and all people of faith long: a transformed world.

As I mentioned above, scholars take for granted that Sunday's Gospel didn't happen exactly as the evangelist describes it. This mountaintop transfiguration depicts an insight we presume all Jesus' followers receive at one time or another, or else they wouldn't follow Him.

Carrying on

For them, Jesus is the epitome of biblical faith -- represented by Moses and Elijah. He embodies our hopes for a better word -- symbolized by the tents in which people will live when Yahweh arrives to transform the lives of the Chosen People.

There's just one problem: No matter how convincing such insights are, they normally last only a few seconds. As the Gospel notes, "When the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone." Nonetheless, we're still expected to carry out our call long after the insight that accompanied that call is past.

That seems to be why Matthew's Jesus ends with the command, "Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." Only after we experience the death our call demands will we experience the life our call offers.

Years before his fatal crash, the called Hammarskjold put this dying/rising concept into more modern terms: "It is when we all play safe that we create a world of utmost insecurity."

If everyone ignores God's call, our world will never change for the better.

(02/14/08)