The readings for this Sunday may be found on the USCCB website:

After my wife’s grandmother died, my father-in-law passed on some of her belongings to our family, among which was a little white prayerbook that was given to her on first Communion, presumably sometime during the 1930s. At the time, my young children were fascinated by its intricate illustrations and the old, formal language of its prayers, and they used it whenever they “played church” in the living room. In the course of their play, some pages became dog-eared and the covers began to wear, and then one day a rip somehow “appeared” in the paper lining of the inside cover, where my wife’s grandmother had signed her name so long ago. Our frustration was mixed with surprise, however, when we discovered that a beautiful metal crucifix had been affixed inside the cover, underneath the paper lining. What had begun as wanton defacement had become for the kids something like an archaeological discovery akin to St. Helena’s unearthing of the true cross. The kids were delighted and enchanted to find the cross hidden in the cover, and I must admit I shared their sense of enchantment, as there was no indication whatsoever that there was anything hidden underneath that paper lining. In all likelihood, a good Catholic child (or at least one with less destructive tendencies than my own children) would use and keep this little prayerbook for years and have no idea that the crucifix was there. “Why would they do that?” I wondered. Why would a publisher go to the trouble of setting a beautiful metal crucifix into the hollow of a book cover, only to cover it up with an opaque, unmarked paper lining? For whoever made this book, it was apparently enough that the crucifix was there, hidden, as the user of the book said their prayers. Something about that gratuitous hiddenness still moves me; it speaks to the importance and power of hidden things, of what lies unseen underneath surface appearances.

In today’s moral discourse, we talk frequently about the importance of “being seen,” and that is as it should be. Yet it is also important to remember that such recognition can never be total. Underneath the external manifestations of our identity, there will always remain hidden depths that cannot be seen, sometimes not even to ourselves. What is more, the Bible seems to consistently prioritize this hidden, unseen, internal dimension over the external. What occurs and develops in these inner depths forms the wellspring of who we are, and of who we become. Thus when it comes to human beings, there can be no direct or easy correspondence between appearance and reality; there will always be more that is hidden away than could ever be seen. Keeping this “remainder” or “excess” in mind is vital to remaining open to what God is trying to reveal to us through one another.

As the readings for this Sunday remind us, we often fail to respond properly to the divine communication unfolding in our midst, and we do so in great part because of lack of openness to the “moreness” of those to whom we have already assigned a familiar label, and categorized within the existing framework of our ordinary lives. The Lord sets Ezekiel on his feet and tells him that he is being sent to a rebellious people who have become “hard of face and obstinate of heart.” He is given no promise of success, but still he is given the assurance that “whether they heed or resist… they shall know that a prophet has been among them.” This assurance is not nothing! It is far from saying “well, we’ll have to see how it goes.” To recognize that prophet has been in one’s midst, especially one with an unwelcome message, requires some openness to the possibility of disruption. In today’s world, we have many more ways to dismiss those who present us with unwelcome messages. They are “mentally unstable,” or “extremist,” or “sectarian,” or agents of disinformation. We think we know the credibility of their message, because we think we already know who they are, and to what extent God could possibly speak through them.

“I have a dogmatic certainty,” Pope Francis once remarked, “God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of the person has been a disaster… God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life.” In context, the Pope is primarily exhorting us never to give up hope that God’s grace can reach and transform any human life. Yet we can also take his words to be an expression of openness to the prophetic potential that might lie hidden in anyone around us, even and perhaps especially in those we least suspect.

The Psalm and the second reading from St. Paul likewise draw our attention to the fact that underneath the façade others present to us in our everyday interactions, there is an inner life going on, and almost certainly an array of interior struggles. We can readily acknowledge that “everyone is always dealing with something,” and perhaps that reminder can help us be a bit more empathic and understanding of others. Yet it is all too easy to forget this fact when we’re stuck in traffic or in the grocery store line or dealing with a difficult friend or relative. That we can never really know what others may be going through at any particular time should at least inspire in us greater forbearance and patience.

One wonders how many people knew about St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” before he mentioned it in his second letter to the Corinthian church. He certainly doesn’t go into great detail about it (and so will leave the rest of us guessing down through the ages), but surely he’s not simply complaining about how hard he has it, nor boasting about his own perseverance. Rather he wants to convey the message that was given to him about it, and which he must have regarded as worth prophetic utterance to others: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Humble dependence amidst weakness is the key that unlocks the power of God in our lives. We should not only apply this truth to our own lives, but we can and must recall it when dealing with the weaknesses of others. Perhaps part of the point of Paul’s mentioning his own inner struggles is to remind us that we all – even the most admired – struggle with some or other “thorn in the flesh,” that there is an interior drama going on behind the scenes in all our lives, even if it remains hidden most of the time.

As for Jesus himself, simply recalling the timeline of his life in relation to what the gospels tell us about Him reveals how much of his identity remains hidden from us. Jesus comes to his “native place,” and teaches those whom he knew and who knew him during all those hidden years of his upbringing and early adulthood. Mark’s gospel says they were “astonished” by what they heard. Yet their astonishment does not open out into vulnerable receptivity and faith, but rather leads them to scramble for answers – ordinary explanations they can handle – as to how the boy they knew could have been given such wisdom and power to perform such mighty deeds. “Is he not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?” they ask. Notice the labels. They are desperately try to square their prior categorization of this “local kid” with what they now see and hear. Unable to fit the current manifestation of Jesus’ words and actions into the familiar and comfortable boxes that allowed them to presume to know who he was, they take offense at him. And so Jesus says to them that “a prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” Many often rightly invoke the adage “familiarity breeds contempt” to explain Jesus’ words here, but it is also important to add that this sort of familiarity-bred contempt also closes one off to the prophetic capacity that lies within all of us, even those we see every day, and so closes us off to what God might be trying to say to us and do for us.

Each of has a hidden life that lies beyond the sight of even our most intimate friends and companions. Behind every face you see and voice you hear during the course of the day, there is an interior drama playing out, a dialogue with God, a struggle with the “thorns” that remind us of our weakness and need for grace. A greater awareness of this hidden dimension will allow us to be more open not only to the fuller reality of those around us, but also to what God might be trying to communicate to us out of the depths of those hidden wellsprings.