Ecce venio, Domine

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Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini's painting from the early 1700s shows anguish and distress on the face of Jephte, the victorious warrior come home from battle. His daughter is the very image of innocence and purity.

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Thursday of the Twentieth Week of the Year I

Judges 11:29-39a
Psalm 39: 4, 6-7a, 7b-8, 9
Matthew 22:1-14

The Spirit Breatheth Where He Will

Today’s First Lesson relates the astonishing and tragic story of the judge Jephte, son of Gilead. The judges were not self-appointed. One became a judge in Israel by virtue of a mysterious action of the Spirit of the Lord. Suddenly and powerfully the Spirit of the Lord would fall upon the least likely candidates, inspiring them to heroic deeds that filled the people with awe. “The Spirit,” says the Lord Jesus, “breatheth where he will; and thou hearest his voice, but thou knowest not whence he cometh, and whither he goeth” (Jn 3:8).

Jephtee

Jephte did not seem to be made of the stuff of judges. He was a thug, and the son of a harlot (Judg 11:1). His half-brothers threw him out of his father’s house. He joined a gang and became a marauding raider (Judg 11:2-3), a kind of gangster in Canaan. When the Ammonites starting causing trouble, the elders of Gilead turned to Jephte for help. Apparently he had made a reputation for himself as a rather formidable fighter. Jephte took a perverse delight in letting them hang for a bit. “Are not you the men who hated me, and cast me out of my father’s house, and now you are come to me constrained by necessity?” (Judg 11:7). Sheepishly, the delegation promises that Jephte will be reinstated with honour among his own if he accepts to lead the sally against the Ammonites.

A Reckless Vow

A lot is at stake for Jephte. He makes an imprudent and reckless vow to the Lord. “If thou wilt deliver the children of the Ammonites into my hands, whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house, and shall meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same will I offer a holocaust to the Lord” (Judg 11:31). Jephte does slaughter the Ammonites. Returning in triumph, who should come out to greet him first but his daughter, his only child?

Human sacrifice was not unknown in Canaan. Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, his only son comes immediately to mind. The all-important difference is that Jephte’s sacrifice of his daughter was in fulfillment of a vow that the Lord had neither inspired nor required, whereas God himself had called to Abraham and commanded him to offer his son, his only Isaac whom he loved, to test Abraham’s obedience and faith (Gen 22:2).

The Blessing of Obedience

The lesson here was not lost to the monks of old. Read the Rule of Saint Benedict on the observance of Lent. “Anything done without the permission of the spiritual father will be put down to presumption and vainglory, and deserving no reward” (RB XLIX: 9). Sacrifices undertaken as a personal initiative without the blessing of obedience are not pleasing to the Lord. The monks of old had a salutary fear of doing anything without the blessing of the abbot, lest an intemperate zeal cause them to fall into reckless and imprudent things. The Responsorial Psalm has us pray, “Sacrifice and offering thou dost not desire; but thou hast given me an open ear” (Ps 40:6).

According to Thy Word

In spite of the tragedy of the story and the wanton wasting of a precious human life, there is something profoundly moving in the response of Jephte’s daughter. “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth” (Judg 11:36). We reminded of another virgin daughter and of her response to the message of the angel, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word” (Lk 1:37).

Love’s Invitation

The Holy Gospel makes it clear that the kingdom of heaven is not about our own projects, initiatives and deeds, but rather about the initiative of God freely determined in his infinite wisdom, and freely offered in his infinite love. Only those who fail to respond to his invitation are deemed unworthy of the marriage feast. Those who respond to the call of grace are clothed in grace, while those who steal into the wedding hall on their own initiative are cast into the outer darkness. The holy and life-giving Mysteries are never taken, as if by personal initiative; they are always received in response to the invitation of Love freely given. The poet George Herbert said just this:

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin . . . .
You must sit down, says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.

The Banquet of the Lamb

In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Love bids us welcome. Every proclamation of the Word of God is an invitation to the marriage feast; all who hear the Word of God and treasure it are clothed in grace, made ready for the banquet by the free gift of the King himself. As the royal nuptial psalm puts it, “All glorious is the princess within, gold embroidery is her clothing; in many coloured robes she is led to the king” (Ps 45:13-14). So too, are we led to the King. The banquet of the Eucharist points to another banquet, a heavenly one and, already here and now, fills our mouths with the taste of it. Blessed are those called to the banquet of the Lamb.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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