By Michelle Marvin
I have no memory of the details of my baptism, because it took place at infancy. Yet through the preservation and continuation of Catholic tradition, I know what was said during those transformative moments. As the minister anointed my head with the chrism of salvation, he spoke the words, “As Christ was anointed priest, prophet, and king, so may you also live always as a member of his body.” Through this anointing, I was called to lead a prophetic life. As Christians, we have all been called to this line of duty.
Yet the term “prophecy” has been tainted by associations with fortune telling, astrological readings, and the infamous sixteenth-century Les Propheties of Nostradamus. We need to discard these notions in order to understand our prophetic calling. As Christians, we are not asked to tell the future, but rather to speak the Good News of Jesus Christ on behalf of God and God’s Word.
In the Bible, there are fifteen books ascribed to specific prophets who lived from the 8th to the 5th centuries B.C.E. These books are commonly labeled in a two-part division as the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) and the Minor Prophets (Amos, Hosea, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). The descriptors ‘major’ and ‘minor’ refer entirely to the respective books’ lengths, and have nothing to do with greater or lesser importance.
The ancient prophets, who spoke on behalf of the Lord hundreds of years before Christ, pleaded with Israel for a return to authentic existence in covenant with the Lord. Often their speeches were desperately critical, harshly condemning the behavior and practices of God’s chosen people. But their purpose was redemptive; they aspired to make right the relationship between an imperfect people and a merciful God.
“Being prophets may sometimes imply making waves,” Pope Francis said in an interview with America Magazine, conducted at the start of his papacy. “Prophecy makes noise, uproar, some say a ‘mess’. But in reality . . . prophecy announces the spirit of the Gospel.” The ‘noise’ made by ancient prophets, warning the people to repent or face God’s justice, led to their being scorned and ignored. God warned Jeremiah, “When you tell them all this, they will not listen to you; when you call to them, they will not answer” (Jer 7:27), and Jeremiah was later beaten and put in the stocks (Jer 20). When Ezekiel preached to the people, the Lord shared with him the bad news that “to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice” (Ezek 32). Infamously, Jonah knew the difficulty of the prophetic call and attempted to run away from the Lord (Jonah 1:1-3). No one said the role of prophet was easy or glorious.
The prophetic cries for repentance were not merely foreboding pictures of doomsday wrath, but reminders that our God is merciful and always waiting to take us back. “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” the prophet Joel proclaimed (Joel 2:13). Temporary fixes or superficial acts of repentance do not constitute real effort toward recommitting our hearts and minds to God. “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool,” Isaiah promises (Isaiah 1:16-18).
This assurance of God’s abounding mercy is good news! More significantly, the invitation to God’s mercy is offered to anyone who thirsts for a life of grace. “Come all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! … Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:1, 6-7). The good news of God’s mercy extends not only to the perfect, the just, and the meek, but to those who abandon their sinful ways and return their hearts to the One who has given them life.
Like Isaiah, Jesus announced the life-giving waters of God, but his announcement came from the living embodiment of its source. “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst,” he told the Samaritan woman at the well. “Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Through the teachings of Christ, we draw freely from the fount of living water. We are baptized by water and the Holy Spirit, and joined to the Christ body as part of the eternal stream of new life. By our dedication, we have been anointed with the great commission to bring the good news to all the world by living out the prophetic call.
Pope Francis, speaking about men and women in religious vocations, urged that they “never give up prophecy.” One of the most influentially prophetic voices in our recent history is that of Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk who penned many of his writings at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky. In his 1959 letter to Czeslaw Miosz, the Polish poet, writer, and Nobel Laureate, Merton wrote: “To be a sinner, to want to be pure, to remain in patient expectation of the divine mercy and above all to forgive and love others, as best we can, this is what makes us Christians.” As Christians, we draw strength from the promise of God’s divine mercy. As people called to prophetic witness, we would be wise to heed the words of the prophet Micah (6:8), who said:
“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Michelle Marvin is a Ph.D. Student in Theology and Science at the University of Notre Dame. Her research interests focus on the intersection of neurodegenerative memory loss and spiritual self-identity.
Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters, eds. William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen (New York: Harper One, 2008), 128.