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The Fourth Sunday of Advent
50th Anniversary of Ordination

December 18, 2016

Click here to listen to this homily (.mp4 file)
Click here for an album of today's events
     Would you believe me if I told you that I’m lost for words this morning?  Well, I am.  There are some words on the paper in front of me but I’m still lost for words. Fifty years ago when I was ordained to the priesthood, in my youthful innocence (or was it arrogance?), I had a certain confidence about words. I had studied my share of theology (with the Jesuits, no less!) and I was ready to let loose with the words I had learned. And I guess you could say I’ve been doing that for all these many years. Fifty years of preaching – nearly 30 of them here at St. James – that’s a lot of words! Pity the poor people! Pity all of you! No wonder I feel at a loss for words today!  There can’t be many words left that I haven’t already spoken. But maybe I’ll find a few if I let this be more about God’s word than mine!

     In today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul waxed eloquently about his call from God, but notice that he did so while talking about the call that God gives to all the baptized. “We have received the grace of apostleship,” Paul says.  We, not I.  And we are “called to be holy,” Paul says.  Again, we, not I. The point he makes is not a small one and I want to underline it today.  We are all called, my friends, not just people like me. And whatever you do today to celebrate my call, I hope it prompts you to celebrate and give thanks for yours.

     I was blessed to be able to study for the priesthood during the Second Vatican Council, and one of the foundational teachings of the Council is the call to holiness of each of the baptized. That teaching made sense to me when I was ordained and I embraced it but, to be honest, at the time it was all pretty much in the realm of theory.  Only after ministering to and with God’s holy people over the years have I come to really grasp the meaning, to understand that any holiness I may have achieved (and I do mean “may”) is a gift God has given me through and with the people I have been privileged to serve over the years – all of the people: the obviously holy ones and the maybe not-so-obviously-holy ones (or maybe I should say the ones who thought holiness wasn’t for them when it really was. And is!).

     Thanks to our baptism, we are all God’s holy people, and even though people too often give priests and religious a corner on holiness, we don’t have one. No, we are on this journey to God - this journey to glory – together, and whatever holiness we have is a shared thing: yours spills over into mine and mine into yours.  And you know what? I think I may often get the better end of the deal.  I do!

     In the gospel reading, we met Joseph, the righteous man of God who listened to God even when God’s message had to have been baffling and bewildering.  Joseph was deeply rooted in the faith of the chosen people but that didn’t mean he was backward-looking, frozen, or fixed in the past. Far from it. When God confronted Joseph with something entirely new and unheard-of - that the child his wife Mary was carrying was the work of the Holy Spirit – Joseph opened himself to God’s mysterious designs without hesitation. It couldn’t have been easy for him but he did and, because of that, Joseph will forever speak to us of quiet fidelity, unwavering faith, humble acceptance, and openness to the God of surprises. 

     Over fifty years of ministry, I have met Joseph – and I continue to meet him - in more people than I could ever count. I have met him in young couples head-over-heels in love; in parents overcome with joy at the birth of a child and in parents drowning in grief at the loss of a child. I have met him in wide-eyed young First Communicants on a first-name basis with Jesus, whose visions and dreams could rival Joseph’s!  I have met him in young people struggling with their faith but holding onto it even when not so many of their friends do; and I’ve met him, too, in sick people who fight their illness bravely, if resignedly, and try not to ask ‘why me?”  I have met him in empty nesters looking for new reasons to believe, new reasons to get up each morning, and in elderly people who refuse to let the storms of life douse their light or dampen their spirits. I’ve met, Joseph, too, in people whose lives take difficult, unexpected turns but who keep going anyway, and I’ve met him in poor people who in sometimes shocking, often gentle, and always unexpected ways show me the face of Christ.  In these and so many others, I have witnessed and continue to witness the faithfulness of Joseph, his idealism, his resilience, his quiet acceptance, his courage, his love.

     Joseph is one of the great Advent saints, along with Mary and John the Baptist. John the Baptist who pointed to the Christ, never to himself, and who didn’t consider himself worthy to untie his sandals. Mary who opened her whole being to God’s tender mercies and mysterious designs, and in so doing gave the world its Savior. Joseph, John the Baptist, and Mary - three Advent saints greater than us by far – more humble, more heroic, more generous – but part of our family, companions along our journey of faith! We should be grateful for their company. How lost we would be without them, how lonely we would be without them!

     And if I may speak for myself and my journey of faith over these fifty years, to the company of those three great Advent saints I would add your company because I can’t imagine making this journey without you. I really can’t! You have challenged me and changed me, taught me and learned from me, prodded me and put up with me, loved me and forgiven me, prayed with me and prayed for me. In so many ways I am what I am because of you. So I’ll say it again: I can’t imagine making this journey without you.

     And aren’t I blessed – and aren’t we all blessed – to have moments like this one – ‘Transfiguration moments’ I call them – when we get to leave the low and level plain and climb the mountain for a little glimpse of where we’ve been and where we’re going, a little glimpse of glory. It doesn’t last, of course, but it’s great for as long as it does. And, of course, the Eucharist we are celebrating together this morning brings us as close as we will ever get – on this side of heaven - to a glimpse of the glory that is Christ: the Christ we will soon welcome at Christmas, small and helpless, but also strong and powerful. The Christ who is one of us but so much more than us, the Christ whose love for us knows no bounds, the Christ who calls us to follow, calls us to serve, the Christ who is now and will always be in our midst as one who serves!

     So I’ll say it again, my friends. Today is not about me. It’s not. It’s about God, it’s about the Church, it’s about us, and it’s about all the ways that, together, we get to be the Church: the hands, the feet, the heart, the face of Christ.

     What a great calling!  How blessed we are!

Father Michael G. Ryan 



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