for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Cycle C
December 17, 2006
Recently, in a publication for the clergy entitled Touchstone, I came across an article which had to do with a group of priests come together for a retreat - priests, all of whom were well into their winter season. This cross section of senior clergy were asked to distill their accumulated years of priestly service and say what they consider to be the essential element which has given meaning and motive in their lives and ministry.
At the very top of their personal inventory, the one indispensable for which there can be no substitute, they put "a personal relationship with Our Lord" - "a relationship in love with the Person of Jesus Christ", "a Christ-centeredness fostered by prayer and daily presence", "an everlasting gift of oneís self to God in Christ". - All different ways of expressing one unifying truth!
Their choice, it seems to me, is an authentic echo of the apostle, St. Paul. In his letter to the Colossians, he speaks of Our Lord as "the secret center of our lives" and a little further on in the same letter, he tells us: "Christ is all that matters." (J.B. Phillipsí translation)
But, of course, this is true, not just for priests but for everyone who claims the name of Christian. We, all of us, are constantly called to just such an ardent relationship with Our Lord - a transforming awareness of Christ so that He enters into our lives at their deepest level and influences all our actions and our attitudes. To be a Christian means to be defined by Christ.
But such a defining relationship is not something that just happens. Rather, like any meaningful relationship, this is something that must be consciously and constantly nurtured. What we are talking about here is really Christian Conversion - conversion not as an isolated episode, however personal and even sacramental, but conversion as a life-long process of deeper discovery and ever more eager openness to Christ in our lives. To be converted means more than being able to say: "I have my baptismal certificate, signed and sealed." -or even: "I am a registered member and active presence in such and such a parish." Or even: "I believe in Jesus as my Lord and Savior."
It means that our faith in Our Blessed Lord has so grabbed our hearts and so fuels our prayer-life that He becomes more and more the basis of our total outlook. It means that we are so captivated by Godís love for us, made visible and believable in Jesus that we feel within us a constant compulsion to love Him in return. The Christian life in its full flowering is a Holy Reciprocity - an acceptance and a response - a life-long Love-story which we are called upon to make Our Story. That surely must have been what Archbishop Fulton Sheen had in mind when he titled one of his finest books: The Divine Romance.
Returning to that gathering of senior priests and their "one essential element, giving meaning and motive to life and ministry", Iím sure they meant it to be understood, not just as their personal goal in life but also as a goal to be shared in every aspect and exercise of their priesthood. If they had been asked a follow-up question: "What do you see as the Great Task of your priestly ministry?" I am sure they would have found their answer right here, gathering together all the sacraments and Masses, all the sermons and homilies, all the pastoral visits and spiritual guidance - all unified by the one ultimate purpose - to foster in the souls entrusted to them a total response to Godís compelling love.
That, of course, is the very reason for being of the Church, and more particularly of this parish as The Church Localized and Brought to life in this particular time and place. You come here to be Vitalized in Christ. And that, too, is the reason why we celebrate together all the great feasts and seasons of our liturgy. They invite us to enter deeply into all the mysteries of Jesus, not merely as historical reminiscences but as opportunities of grace and spiritual growth. Each successive season - each particular feast we celebrate has its own spiritual enrichment.
What special grace - what deeper entry into the mystery of Jesus - does this Advent-Christmas Season hold out to us? I think we can look for our answer in the old Latin Liturgy for the Feast of the Nativity. We find there an expression which really captures the deep meaning of this holy time. The Latin Words - "O Admirabile Commercium" ó "O Wonder-filled Exchange" - Godís Gift of Himself to us in the Person of His Son Who is also Maryís Son - and Our Gift of Ourselves to God - in and through Jesus.
By way of conclusion, I would like to share with you something I received from one of my "old country" connections. It is found in a little prayer-book which the Bishop of Down and Connor sent to every family in his diocese to help them prepare for Christmas. It has many lovely prayers but there is one which struck me as especially appropriate for this season when we are so taken up with gift-giving and receiving - this time when as people of living faith, we celebrate Godís Gift to us in Jesus, Our Lord. It is titled: My Daily Offering - but I prefer to re-title it My Christmas Gift. It goes like this:
I give you my hands to do Your Work.
I give you my feet to walk Your Way.
I give you my eyes to see as You See.
I give you my tongue to speak Your Words.
I give you my mind that You may think in me
I give you my spirit that You may pray in me.
Above all, I give you my heart that You may love in me.
Lord, Make me and Everlasting Gift to You.