A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Words and God’s Word

By Fr Tom Ryan SM

‘If you please’

As the old adage goes, courtesy costs nothing. 

‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ are the lubricants that help life run more smoothly and, even, graciously.

‘Please’; ‘would you mind…’. We hear and use these words often. We know how important they are. We appreciate it when they are directed towards us. 

It can, at times, be hard to say ‘no’, when someone really does need our help. And, as we know, there are occasions when it may be beyond us, or beyond our abilities or resources. We may try to suggest someone else.

But when we think about it, these short words or phrases capture our need of others. Even on a city street, we can detect it at work. When we ask for directions, people are spontaneous in their desire to help. The kindness of strangers…

Of course, we are not averse to a bit of arm-twisting at times: ‘pretty please?’ – whispered with a smile. 

We can also ask for help in ‘reverse mode’, as when we might say: ‘I would be so grateful if you could….’. Perhaps this puts the spotlight on how we depend on others (and they on us). 

In this, we find reinforced what we discussed last month; that life is, in many ways, a collaborative journey.

‘Please’ is in company with those words that are life-giving and reassuring, as too are greetings. Holding a hand or a handshake, eye contact and a smile are the icing on the cake on meeting someone after a long time: ‘lovely to see you again.’ 

But even if the meeting is part of our everyday life, before we say something or make a request, we greet them first. It is a sign of respect. ‘Good morning’. ‘Hi, how are things?’ 

We don’t usually start a conversation with another person without first greeting them—an assurance of good faith. Often, there may be an offer of refreshment ‘can I get you a coffee or something?’ 

At the end of a conversation or meeting, we conclude with something like ‘See you later’, or, in our Covid world, ‘stay safe’. These aren’t meant to be words of good-bye. Rather, we wish the other person well until we see each other again. 

The liturgy reflects the same pattern. It begins with a greeting: ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you’. It ends with a blessing and a farewell: ‘go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life’. 

We begin and end our common worship on a note of courtesy and graciousness. 

Does God’s word throw any light on all this? Our next concern:

God’s Word, Courtesy and Respect.

The basic courtesies we have noted above are reflected in the Gospels.

Jesus asks questions, offers invitations. We see this, for instance, when Jesus meets the rich young man in Mark’s gospel (10:17-22). We are told that Jesus “looked at him steadily and loved him”. 

But when the young man walks away “sad”—what Jesus asked was too much for him—Jesus does not chase after him, try to strong-arm him into saying “yes”. God respects our freedom, and courtesy is part of that. 

We get glimpses of how Jesus himself was sensitive in such matters. Consider Jesus’ meeting with Simon and the unnamed woman in Luke’s gospel (7:36-50). 

Jesus is not offered the basic gestures of courtesy when he arrives as a guest in Simon’s house (perhaps, to put Jesus in his place?). As the story evolves, Jesus is able to quietly point that out without making a scene. He does not deliberately try to humiliate Simon. 

But the incident does indicate how Jesus was human; he was sensitive when he was treated rudely; normal courtesies were not extended to him by Simon, his host. 

Cortona Annunciation by Fra Angelico, in the Cortona Diocesan Museum, Tuscany

Let’s consider a second story in Luke, namely, the Annunciation to Mary (1:26-38). If we look at the pattern of what happens, it is a dialogue. Mary is put at ease and reassured by the angel. Mary asks questions and responses are given. She is left free in coming to a final decision, in her “yes” to God’s call. 

In many ways, it is God, through the angel, saying to Mary ‘if you please’. ‘I would be so grateful if you could…’ The tone and pattern of this scene suggest divine courtesy engaging a young woman, but one who is intelligent and free. She is far from being passive, silent and mindlessly submissive. 

The Annunciation scene can be read as a process of discernment. It is an instance of divine freedom engaging human freedom through the pattern of call and response—of Mary’s conscience interacting with divine grace. We see divine courtesy and grace in action. 

Next month: the two most important words— ‘thank you’. 

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