Young Samuel was an apprentice of the priest Eli. In those days personal revelations from God rarely occurred. But then one night Samuel was sleeping in the temple near the Ark of the Covenant when the Lord called him by name. “Samuel, Samuel.”
Samuel ran to Eli and woke up the old man and said, “Here I am. You called me.”
Eli, who was blind, replied, “I did not call you. Go back to sleep.”
Then it happened again. “Samuel, Samuel,” the Lord called. The youth ran to Eli. “You called me again. Here I am.”
“Go back to sleep,” the old man replied.
Neither the priest nor his student knew what was happening because God rarely broke into human history. Samuel, who was very young, was not familiar with the living God but the Lord knew him and called him by name.
The story of Samuel and Eli is a theophany narrative: the revelation of God to a boy who is called to be somebody special and important, a great leader of the people of Israel. When Samuel grew up he became his nation’s first prophet. More than a prophet: he was a seer. And he was a kingmaker. He anointed Saul as king of Israel and when Saul went crazy Samuel sought out David and anointed him king.
Israel under the reign of King David became the most powerful nation in the world. Jesus was of the House of David. There is nothing coincidental or arbitrary in the Bible. Like bricks in a wall each word written by the finger of God is meaningful and necessary for God’s plan.
In the Bible, as in our lives, God initiates contact with us because he has a mission and a message specifically for every individual. His is a personal invitation and, like Samuel, Abraham, Moses, Mary Magdalene, and the Apostle, we are on a first-name basis.
In our Church we receive our mission from God when we are baptized. Through the first sacrament we are joined to the body of Christ, Christ, who calls us to be disciples. He asks, “What are you looking for?” though he knows the dreams and thoughts and desires of the heart. Christ looks into our souls the way one looks through a window.
God doesn’t force himself on us. Our assent to his plan for our lives is our decision and ours alone. Yet we look to family, friends, priests, and the Church to help us live our vocation.
When I was a boy, about Samuel’s age, I thought I wanted to become a priest. I visited a seminary and when I returned home on Sunday I told my mother that I wanted to become a priest. I attended our parochial school but my family was not religious so I was left on my own to decide whether to become a priest. It took me more than twenty years to make up my mind. During those years I had different careers and experiences that helped me to be the priest that God called me to be today.
The call to priesthood was always with me, given to me by God at baptism. Only gradually did I hear God calling me by name.
Eli was an experienced priest, which is why Samuel’s family left him with Eli in the temple. It was only when Samuel approached him the third time that the priest realized that the Lord was calling the youth.
“Speak, Lord; your servant is listening,” he instructed Samuel to pray. Thus did Samuel discover and initiate his divine vocation.
In the Old Testament the Sacred Writer displays a rare and important moment, not only in the lives of the priest and his student, but for their nation. The Israelites had waited a long time—two hundred years—for another miracle from God. They wanted to see the Red Sea parted again. They begged God to save them from their enemies. Rather, God planted a seed in Samuel and it grew and blossomed into a dynamic kingdom.
Samuel’s birth was miraculous. His mother Hannah thought so. Although she was healthy and young she had no children until God answered her prayer. Soon she bore a son and named him Samuel, which means “the name of God,” and when he was old enough she sent him to study with the priest.
We receive our calling from God at baptism. It is up to the family, what John Paul the Great called “the domestic church,” to nurture the vocation to live God’s plan. Samuel really had no say in the matter but he accepted his vocation and carried out God’s will. The results of one boy’s acceptance changed an entire nation and helped to bring the Messiah into the world.
Thus it is written: “Samuel grew up, and the Lord was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.”
Samuel changed the world because he did not change his mind. He simply said, “Here I am, Lord. I come to do your will.”
May it be that way with us.