NEITHER TOO LOW NOR TOO HIGH

Author: Father Michael Byron
February 10, 2019

Mythology is a wonderful way to examine the deep truths of our human existence—and the mystery of it all—through the telling of dramatic stories.  When I was in high school I didn’t believe that life was very mysterious at all, so when I was made to take a semester course in Greek Mythology one year I thought it was little more than an extremely boring sequence of reading fairy tales.  It was in that class that I first was introduced to a man named Icarus.

If you know your Greek tales then you may recall that Icarus was the son of Daedalus, who was a master craftsman for the king.  They both found themselves imprisoned on the Isle of Crete and desperate to escape.  Icarus’ father fashioned a pair of wings for the two of them which would allow them to fly away to freedom.  The wings were made of feathers and wax.  Before they began their flight the wise father told his son to fly neither too close to the sea, where the water could clog his wings, nor too close to the sun, where the heat would melt the wax.  Neither too low nor too high.

It was, of course, a story about being neither too self-deprecating nor too grandiose in thinking about just who you are in this world.  I didn’t get that then.  Once Icarus got airborne he became so intoxicated with the thrill of flying that he soared too close to the sun, which did indeed melt the wax that held the wings together, and Icarus fell into the sea and drowned.  

Did this story actually ever happen?  Of course not.    
Is this story true?  Absolutely!  That’s how mythology works.

But there are other stories that both did actually happen and that are just as true, and in the case of today’s Sacred Scripture they bear the same wisdom of Daedalus and Icarus.  All of us who have been initiated into the life of Jesus Christ in baptism are invited into this delicate dance that teaches us to think neither too little of ourselves nor too much, when it comes to living out our mission here and now.  Each of the readings is a reflection on how to get that balance right.

Our first reading tells of the call of the Prophet Isaiah, whose encounter with God was terrifying and dramatic: “I saw the Lord!  Holy, Holy, Holy!  The earth shook and smoke filled the throne room and I said, ‘I am doomed because of my unworthiness.’”

And then something else happened.  The angel came to Isaiah to assure him that he had been chosen by God and that he could accomplish things that he had never imagined that he could do, because of his having been summoned by the Lord.  The request was fly higher, in the light of grace.  Use those wings.  Those God-given wings.  And so it was only a verse or two later that, when God asked, “Whom shall I send?”  This was not the voice of a proud man, but of one who was willing to get beyond is own instincts of inadequacy in order to follow his destiny.  He was learning to fly, neither too low nor too high.

And in our second reading today, Paul is coming to terms with his own past.  He who had once been so arrogant in his religious behavior as to persecute Jesus and his community—so full of himself, before being humbled by God, blinded and being made vulnerable to the very people he was trying to inflict violence upon.  He had been soaring too close to the sun, and now the risk was just the opposite—that he would think of himself as being unworthy of being an apostle.  So this wise, chastened servant of God is meditating on his own self-importance, learning how to fly.  He is neither a failed human being (too low) nor is he the source of his own successes (too high).  “I am what I am, by the grace of God” is what he confesses.  Left to his own powers and intelligence he may indeed have been an inadequate servant of God, but he now knows that his own skill set is not what matters any more.  “I am the least of the apostles,” he says, “not worthy to be called an apostle,” he says, “but I most certainly am an apostle,” he says.  He is flying well.

And in today’s gospel, Simon Pete’s first reaction to the encounter with Jesus’ miraculous catch of fish was to fall to the ground and beg Jesus to leave because Peter realized himself to be unworthy.  And strictly speaking, that was true—as it is for all of us.  But Jesus didn’t mind that.  He not only didn’t leave but he entrusted Peter with a supreme mission, to be the center of the new church that would be catching innumberable men and women for the work of the mission.  His importance wasn’t of his own making.

Peter is actually a fascinating character when it comes to flying alongside Icarus.  Sometimes he is obviously afraid and very well aware of his human frailties, as in today’s reading, and as his crying out when he’s sinking into the sea while trying to walk toward Jesus.  He flies low.  And at other times he’s a tremendous braggart and judge of other people and overly-confident of his own virtue and faithfulness, as at the Last Supper.  He flies high.  

Icarus is not a historical person, as all the rest of these biblical people were, but he can still be our excellent teacher.  We all have to confront the question of why we are important, of what we are really capable, and where is our place in the mission of Jesus Christ.  We have all been given wings to fly, as the result of our baptism.  Which means that we have no excuse for not using them, or of flying too low.  At the same time, baptism reminds us that we are not God, and we are not the engineers of our own worth or destiny.  We are servants, no matter how amply we have been gifted with the blessings of this world.  We dare not fly too high…or we risk our own demise in trying to.

May our Sacred Scripture today, together with our friends Icarus and Daedalus, teach us to be prudent disciples, thinking neither too little nor too much of ourselves, powerfully aware of what we are not, but just as aware of who, because of Jesus’ call, we are.

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