Sunday, February 10, 2013

Homily 5th Sun O.T. Year C: The Universal Call to Worthiness

As I’ve been a priest for almost two years now, and a deacon a year before that, I have seen how the pursuit of holiness in parish life tends to be a two-edged sword. As we pursue holiness, its light shines on our weaknesses and makes them stand out in our eyes all the more. But then as we step into the light, we are encouraged to be a light to our brothers and sisters.

Before I entered seminary at St. Mary’s in Baltimore, where I went for 6 years, I remember thinking that all the guys there were going to be ten times holier than I was. I thought I would be fumbling around with guys who were way above my head. I was startled to find out how really normal and down-to-earth most of the guys were – we were all together trying to increase in holiness, trying to be formed into priests of Jesus Christ, after the pattern of his own Heart. There were a few guys who stood out though, who truly were advanced in holiness, who made me feel like I was in a strange paradox of, on one hand, feeling discouraged because I wasn’t that far along yet, and on the other hand, feeling encouraged by their example to keep going. I finally found that a I let their example embolden me and give me hope for my own progress, then I was able to be an encouragement to others in return.

That feeling of being called to something greater, being called toward a certain light that attracts us and motivates us yet at the same time reveals how not-there-yet we really are is indeed a strange two-edged sword. Many vocations and ministries become stilted, I believe, when we focus our attention too much on the not-there-yet aspect of ourselves rather than on the hopes that lie ahead of us. I hear many discerners of the priesthood tie themselves in knots about how unworthy they are of seminary or the priesthood, an unworthiness revealed to them as they step into the light of that vocation. They tend to let their unworthiness become an obstacle to seminary rather than let the light of priesthood spurn them forward to new heights.

Recently I went to a training session for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion and I was impressed with the sincerity of the group. But, as the theology of the Eucharist and the importance of this ministry was explained, they felt more and more intimidated by it. They felt more and more unable to go through with it. These types of feelings are common in parish life as people with great humility and sincerity are called to participate in great things. I am glad they stuck with it.

The three main figures in our readings today, the prophet Isaiah, St. Paul, and St. Peter, help us to sort through this type of dilemma. The prophet Isaiah was given a vision of the Lord on his heavenly throne, surrounded by angels who forever sing a chorus that we join into at every Mass, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” Faced with such holiness, his own sinfulness stood out all the more. So Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips… yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” But then an angel touched his lips with an ember from the burning incense, removing his wickedness, purging his sinfulness, and empowering him to go and proclaim the word of the Lord. If Isaiah had turned away, if he had let the light of God’s holiness drive him away, then he would have remained in his unworthiness. Instead, he let God approach him and make him worthy. This whole scenario plays out at every Mass before the priest proclaims the Gospel. He bows low to the altar before picking up the Gospel book and whispers a prayer to God, “Cleanse my heart and my lips almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your Holy Gospel.” Then the very Word of God that streams from his lips makes them more and more worthy to proclaim Him. After the Gospel he prays, as he kisses the text, “By the words of the Gospel, may our sins be wiped away.”

The Second Vatican Council’s document on the Church, called in Latin Lumen Gentium, has a paragraph that is very comforting to me. It says, “The shepherds of Christ’s flock must in a holy way and eagerly, humbly, and courageously carry out their ministry, in imitation of the eternal high priest, the shepherd and guardian of our souls. They ought to fulfill this duty in such a way that it will be the principle means also of their own sanctification.” I thank god every day that this dynamic is possible. If I only shuddered at the thought of my unworthiness before the light of the priesthood, I’d never get out of bed each morning. Rather it is that same light, the Light of Christ, that not only exposes sinfulness but also heals it, bandages it, and binds it up. The Light of Christ converts the soul, strengthens it, and expands its view, calling it forward to progressively become the light so that the Light of Christ can shine before all men, not just those by the Lake of Gennesaret, but even in Elizabethtown, and St. James parish too.

This is the light that caused St. Peter to cry out, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man” after Jesus performed the miracle of the huge catch of fish. But Peter didn’t let that stop him there. He let that call him forward to the primary place among the apostles who together, as fishermen, caught men and women into the saving net of Jesus Christ and the Church. This is the light that caused St. Paul to call himself, “the least of the apostles” and “not fit to be called an apostle.” Yet it is the same light that turned “one who persecuted the Church” into an apostle indeed, the greatest missionary the Church has ever known, one who “toiled harder” than all of the rest.

Finally, to laypeople, the Council’s document on the Church also gives a very encouraging word. As you pursue the call of God in your lives, do not think that it is in addition to one’s tasks in life that one is sanctified; rather one’s sanctification occurs in the very accomplishment of these tasks. All states in life must be lived in such a way that charity permeates all its aspects. All are called by their holiness to cooperate with Christ in the salvation of our brethren. Don’t let your sinfulness or unworthiness convince you that all you can be is a sinner. Let the Light of Christ progressively call you forward with courage and hope to what you were created to be: a saint.

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