What is the greatest gift or talent a priest can possess? Is it to exhibit compassion, be a good listener, teacher or speaker? Is the answer to be a person of service in outreach to the poor and marginalized in our society? Is the greatest gift to possess significant faith?
Certainly all of these answers at different times would be more than satisfactory, but the one gift that is essential and lies at the base of all of the aforementioned, and many others, is the gift of availability. If we are not available, then any gift we possess cannot be utilized. In fact, any great talent without availability becomes, in essence, a liability.
God’s availability to all of us has been demonstrated throughout salvation history and continues to be manifested each day. The question is: how available are we to God and to His people? It is an uncomfortable yet absolutely necessary issue that must be addressed.
God’s availability stands at the heart of Scripture. He is present to lead and direct, to guide and protect, to teach and, when necessary, to correct. His magnificent gifts, shared with humanity in every conceivable way, are, however, beneficial only because the Lord is available to us. God never hides from us; He is never absent. Rather, He is available, as contemporary parlance says, 24/7.
When the Hebrew people cried out to the Lord, He responded, sending great leaders and prophets to rescue the people from distress or to guide them back to the correct path. When the Israelites in bondage in Egypt cried out, the Lord responded by sending the great deliverer, Moses, who led the people to the door of the Promised Land. When rival forces plagued the people with oppressing armies, God sent judges, such as Gideon, Deborah, and Samson, to restore order and bring victory to Israel.
When the Hebrews needed good leadership to solidify their nation, God raised up David and then his son, Solomon, making Israel a light to the nations. Even when the Kings of Israel and Judah continually disobeyed God, even to the point of idol worship and oppression of the poor, He was available and sent prophets who proclaimed His word of both righteous anger and correct direction.
Even after the infamous Babylonian Exile, God remained available by softening the heart of King Cyrus of Persia, who mandated the return of the Hebrews to their homeland.
God’s availability, manifested through Jesus Christ, is equally apparent. Jesus was present to all, reaching out to the poor and marginalized, challenging the rich and the famous. When lepers, a hemorrhaging woman or a man possessed with many evil spirits sought healing, Jesus was available.
When the Samaritan woman needed someone with whom to discuss her life, Jesus was there. When justice needed to be served in the confrontation between the woman caught in adultery and Jewish religious leaders, once again Jesus was available to correct an injustice.
When Jairus, the Roman centurion, Martha and Mary, or the widow of Naim needed a physical cure, Jesus was available to grant their requests. He was equally available to provide spiritual healing, granting Peter the opportunity to express three times his love for the Lord as a way to atone for his three denials.
God’s availability to humanity is compassionate, constant and always positive, even when correction is necessary. God is available to show us our mistakes and to place us on the proper path; he is equally present to soothe our pain and to pick us up from our failures and, thereby, helping us to overcome adversity. We recall Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28-30).
God’s availability to us cannot be questioned, but the reverse scenario provides a great challenge for us. How available are we to God and to His people? The Acts of the Apostles provide one of the most famous and significant examples of complete transformation to a total availability to God. Saul of Tarsus was a great persecutor of Christians; he was zealous in his desire and action to destroy the New Way followed by Jesus’ disciples. Yet, when knocked to the ground and temporarily blinded by a great light from the sky, Saul (later Paul) heeded the challenge and completely transformed his life.
It was a complete volte-face, a 360-degree shift in attitude and action. Paul instantly became totally available to God, leading eventually to his three great missionary journeys, to his establishment of nascent Christian communities, and to the composition of his famous letters, which stand at the base of Christian theology.
The Gospels also provide other important examples of people who were available to God. The Evangelists report that, when Jesus called the apostles, they “immediately” left their past lives as fishermen or tax collectors, as well as their families (certainly in the case of Peter). They were available to the Lord. The woman with the hemorrhage, Bartimaeus the blind beggar and even the man possessed by many evil spirits made themselves available to Christ through faith.
Each placed great faith in Jesus; each believed His words and in His power. It was their availability, their openness to Jesus, that brought the cure they desired. Stories abound of the sick and the marginalized who were made themselves available to Jesus. Even the curious, such as Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling Sanhedrin, engaged Jesus in a conversation, an encounter that would have been impossible had the former not been open, that is, available, to Jesus.
God’s availability to us and the clear evidence of how so many people during the time of Jesus were available to Him challenge us to ask how available are we to God? Our busy lives, which only grow more complex and diverse with time, present a major obstacle to our availability. We are so caught up with personal accomplishment or working for the “company” that we are not sufficiently available to our Lord. What part of our day can God claim? Do we give Him five minutes, or do we give Him a full hour? Are we available to family members, friends, colleagues at work or neighbors down the street?
We can become so consumed by our own agenda, one that is often driven by the competitive world in which we live, that availability to others, including God, is something difficult to fit into our schedule. Yet, if the gifts we possess are liabilities if not available to others, then what benefit have we brought to ourselves or to the world? We must set our priorities correctly; availability must be at the top of our list. If we are not available and open, we will never be able to properly utilize the gifts God bestows upon each of us daily.
It might seem odd, but clearly the most important gift we possess is availability. And one thing totally unique about this gift is that all possess equal an amount of it. Surely our specific apostolate, personality, time, and a host of other factors influence our availability. However, availability begins as an attitude, and then is manifested in our words and actions. We all have the common opportunity to be available to others; some because of their situation have more actual time or opportunities to manifest their availability.
God is available to any of us at any moment; we are asked in reply to be open to Him and to His people. If we are courageous enough to take up the challenge and thereby demonstrate our availability, most assuredly our ministry will be enhanced and, more importantly, our reward in heaven will be great.
Father Gribble, C.S.C., a member of Holy Cross Congregation, is a professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College, Easton, Mass. He has written more than 20 books on American Church history and spirituality.