2nd Sunday of Lent
St. Joseph, Cockeysville
February 26-27, 2021
I am happy to return to St. Joseph’s Parish this morning for Holy Mass and glad for an opportunity to express my thanks and yours for the dedicated and effective service of Msgr. Hilgartner and his team, especially during these extraordinarily trying times. I also want to thank you, the members of this parish, for your patience and fidelity as this pandemic lingers on, longer than any of us thought it would. With God’s grace, we will begin to see ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ …
This morning, we are joined (virtually, for the most part) by 22 young men taking part in a special retreat for those discerning a vocation to the priesthood. They are considering joining the 54 seminarians currently studying for Baltimore and I am praying hard that many will decide to make application to the seminary. I ask that all of you taking part in this Mass will join me in that prayer.
And with your kind permission, I would like to address my remarks to these young men, to these discerners, who are considering a priestly vocation. I hope that, in God’s grace, my reflections will be of help to you, who are discerning, and to all of you who are taking part in this Mass, whether at church or at home.
Abraham’s Difficult Decision
Dear brothers, a decision to enter the seminary is not made lightly. Yesterday, many of you spoke to me about the various ways God has spoken and acted in your life, prompting you to seek his will. For some of you, the thought of being a priest almost seems a no brainer, but for many of you it requires a lot of reflection and prayer, and difficult decisions. Happily, the Scriptures for the 2nd Sunday of Lent shed light on your discernment.
I think you’d agree with me no one faced a more difficult decision than Abraham, whom we met in our first reading from the Book of Genesis. As you recall, God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, but Abraham had to wait for many years to have his first-born son, Isaac, and naturally, Abraham saw Isaac as the one in whom God would fulfill his promise. We can well imagine, then, how shocked Abraham must have been when God asked him to sacrifice his son, Isaac – and for a couple of reasons. First, God had never demanded anything remotely like human sacrifice. Second, Abraham knew that if he killed Isaac, it was the end of the line for his family. God put Abraham to test, severely so, but Abraham passed with “flying colors”. The reason? Abraham had complete faith in God, even when nothing made sense.
So, lesson number one for discerners is this: the need for faith and trust in God. Thankfully, God will not ask you to do anything as radical as he asked of Abraham, yet, if you are called, he will be asking you to commit your life to him in a new way. Discerning a priestly vocation and deciding to enter a seminary isn’t just a career choice. Yes, you look for all the signs of a priestly vocation but for discernment to succeed, we need to have faith, not unlike that of Abraham.
God Has a Plan for Our Lives
To be sure, anyone whom God tests may have trouble making sense of it all. Abraham truly could not fathom why God would ask him to sacrifice Isaac, until, perhaps, God stayed Abraham’s hand and pointed out a ram in the nearby bushes which he could sacrifice. At that point, Abraham must have realized not only that God was testing him, but also that God himself provided the sacrifice he was to offer. For Christian writers in the early history of the Church, the ram symbolized Christ, the unblemished sacrifice that God himself would provide for salvation of the world. God foreknew what St. Paul proclaimed in today’s 2nd reading from Romans, viz., that he would “not spare his only Son but gave him up for us all” (8:31). Just as Isaac carried to Mt. Moriah the wood, on which he was to be sacrificed, so too one day his only Son would carry the cross to Mt. Calvary where he would lay down his life for the redemption of the world. What this shows us is that God has a plan, a plan for the world’s salvation. Thus, in Ephesians, Paul speaks of ‘the plan that God was pleased to decree in Christ.’
What is the upshot for those of you who are discerners? What if you have a deep desire to get married and have a career, yet you just can’t shake the persistent idea that God is calling you to be a priest? . . . a predicament which many if not most priests also experienced as discerners. Perhaps Abraham’s experience as clarified by St. Paul teaches us this lesson: just as God has a plan for the salvation of the world, so too, we can and should believe that the Lord has a plan for our lives. Like Abraham, we may not understand that plan in its fullness. For now, we may understand it only partially. Yet, the Lord who sees the whole of our lives from start to finish understands better than we do what is the divine plan for our lives, what God, in his loving Providence, wills for our lives.
Vocational discernment hinges on a deep-seated belief that God does indeed have a plan for our lives; a role he wants us to play in salvation history, a mission he entrusted to no one else. And if we pay close attention to the teaching St. Paul offers us today, we will see that God’s plan for the world and for our life is not necessarily one of ease. A priestly vocation demands all the love we can give to our people, a sacrificial love, a love we express by consecrating our lives to the Lord in chaste celibacy, in loving obedience, and in simplicity of life. As with any vocation, including marriage, we can expect to share in the Cross in ways we cannot yet foresee, yet Paul assures us, “If God is with us, who can be against us?”
A Glimpse of the Divine
If, however, even at the end of a weekend such as you have experienced, you nonetheless feel that you need a sign that you’re on the right track, look no further than today’s Gospel, St. Mark’s account of the Transfiguration. After all, this was the very sign that Jesus gave to Peter, James, and John, so that when he was crucified on Mt. Calvary, their faith in him would not falter.
What the Apostles witnessed atop Mt. Tabor was the glory of Jesus’ divinity. Beneath his humanity, beneath Jesus’ ordinary human appearance was his identity and his glory as God’s eternal and only-begotten Son. On Mt. Tabor, the Apostles experienced what’s known as a theophany, a revelation of God’s glory, a confirmation of Jesus as the Son of God, and the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, symbolized by Moses and Elijah. As the cloud enveloped Jesus and Apostles, the cloud that is the Holy Spirit, the Father’s voice was heard, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him!”
The Apostles were overwhelmed and mystified by the glory of Jesus, and so too our hearts should be, as the Book of Revelation says, “all lost in wonder”. Yet, this episode, recounted in three of the Gospels and in the 1st Letter of Peter, should serve to deepen and strengthen our faith in Christ Jesus and bring us to the point of loving him to such a degree that we willing to undertake any work and to bear any cross he may ask of us.
What lessons, then, do today’s Scripture readings teach us about discernment? Three lessons: first, the need for strong and active faith in God; second, hope in God’s Providential plan for the world and for our lives; and third, is love, love for the Lord Jesus whose divine beauty is beyond compare. Thank you for being discerners, and thanks to all of you for listening, and may God bless us and keep us always in his love!