My Dear brothers and sisters in Christ
Grace and Peace in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ through the glory of the Holy Spirit be with you and your families as we enter this Christmas season. I hope that you all your families are able to gather for this Christmas celebration despite the terrible weather. Let’s keep each other in prayer as we journey these next few days.
On June 19th, on the 150th anniversary of the death of Saint John Vianney, Pope Benedict inaugurated the Year for Priests. I think most priests haven’t preached about to because we don’t know how to do it without sounding egotistical. During the year of St. Paul, we could always just preach about the second reading. But, it feels a little self-serving to preach about priests considering the preacher is usually the only one who has been ordained a priest. Yet, I couldn’t help but think about how this celebration of Christmas is connected to the year of the priest as I was preparing my homily. As a priest, one of the most formative experiences I have is gathering the people together for the Eucharist. In the letter the Pope sent to priests when he inaugurated this year of the priest, he said the following
In his time (St. John Vianney) was able to transform the hearts and the lives of so many people because he enabled them to experience the Lord’s merciful love. Our own time urgently needs a similar proclamation and witness to the truth of Love. Thanks to the word and the sacraments of Jesus, John Vianney built up his flock, although he often trembled from a conviction of his personal inadequacy, and desired more than once to withdraw from the responsibilities of parish ministry out of a sense of his unworthiness. Nonetheless, with exemplary obedience he never abandoned his post, consumed as he was by apostolic zeal for the salvation of souls. He sought to remain completely faithful to his own vocation and mission through the practice of an austere asceticism: “The great misfortune for us parish priests – he lamented – is that our souls grow tepid…”
Tonight/today we heard in the gospel the story of the birth of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke provides some very interesting details. First, we hear that there is an exercise of power being done by the leader, Caesar Augustus, to enroll the whole world. This meant that people had to travel to the town of their ancestors in order to be counted. This is in direct contrast to what happens to the Shepherds later in the story. They are out doing what needs to be done, taking care of their flocks. The angelic visitor, in some ways, entices them to go see the newborn child in a manger. I was recently watching a show in which a character pointed out how miraculous this act alone was! She said, “Have you ever gone to a baby shower before? There are no men at baby showers! What makes you think these common shepherds would leave their work and go see a baby?” And, she has a point. It would have taken Angelic intervention to get these guys to take their eyes off the edges of their flocks to go in town to see a baby. But, of course, this wasn’t just any baby. This was the savior who is both human messiah and Lord, both fully human and fully divine, God made flesh. To quote another saint, St. Athanasius of Alexadria, “God became man so that we might become children of God”
The newborn king doesn’t waste any time in gathering his people around him in this first mass. Yet, what I find truly instructive as a priest is how Jesus gathered the shepherds. He didn’t go out personally and invite each one. He had angels to do it. That’s why the Pope said in the letter I referenced earlier.
“In his gifts the Spirit is multifaceted…He breathes where he wills. He does so unexpectedly, in unexpected places, and in ways previously unheard of…but he also shows us that he works with a view to the one body and in the unity of the one body”. In this regard, the statement of the Decree on priests from Vatican II continues to be timely: “While testing the spirits to discover if they be of God, priests must discover with faith, recognize with joy and foster diligently the many and varied charismatic gifts of the laity, whether these be of a humble or more exalted kind”. These gifts, which awaken in many people the desire for a deeper spiritual life, can benefit not only the lay faithful but the clergy as well. The communion between ordained and charismatic ministries can provide “a helpful impulse to a renewed commitment by the Church in proclaiming and bearing witness to the Gospel of hope and charity in every corner of the world”.
Christ didn’t just come into this world to be ogled and put back into a box. He came to inaugurate a Holy Ordering to the world. As a priest I need to rely on your gifts in order to build up the body of Christ. One of the greatest spiritual gifts you can share with the church is to be like the Angels from the gospel and announce the birth of the savior. You can do this best, not by directing them back to Bethlehem but by inviting those lost sheep back to church with you. One of the frustrations voiced by those who come every week to church is that they hate Christmas and Easter because those who rarely (if ever) come to church decide to show up. Rather than complain that they don’t come, need to welcome them back and invite them back next week and the week after that. We need you angels to help guide the lost shepherds back to the church. I hope to inaugurate a process during Lent to solicit names of people who are distanced from the church in order to invite them back and help them to feel a part. During this year of the priest, let us exercise our common baptismal priest to help make the incarnation of Christ even more explicit in the lives of all the faithful.