Monday, 3rd Week of Advent
Seminarians’ Advent/Christmas Gathering
Saint Mary’s Seminary and University
Dec. 16, 2019
It is a sign of God’s favor to us that this event had to be moved from the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen to Saint Mary’s Seminary. It’s not that the Cathedral itself is too small – the problem is that the Cathedral Rectory could not accommodate our numbers. So, here we are in a new location and perhaps we should pray that someday we’ll outgrow this location as well!
And it is a joy to gather with you, our seminarians and your families in these days leading up to the celebration of Christmas. Thankfully, your exams and term papers are behind you, you’ve had what I hope was a wonderful day of prayer and reflection, and now you are ready to celebrate the mystery of the Lord’s Birth. Perhaps you also will be commandeered to help your families in these days before Christmas that are so very busy. That’s what happened to me way back when I was a seminarian!
And dear parents and family members, I’m sure you are happy to spend more time with your sons in these happy days, and hopefully to see the progress they are making as they prepare for the priesthood. In a sense, their time in the seminary is like Advent, that time when we remember how God formed the people of Israel and prepared them for the coming of the Messiah. So too the seminary is a time of formation and preparation for priestly ordination, a time rich in God’s grace, a time of hope and expectation, but also a time of patience, hard work – personally, intellectually, and spiritually, a time of widening their horizons and enlarging their hearts. And perhaps your sons’ “Advent” seminary experience leads us to consider what tonight’s Scripture readings have to say about the profit all of us should be deriving from the season of Advent.
The Promise of a Savior
This evening, we read from the Book of Numbers, one of the first five books of the Old Testament. As your well-informed seminarians will tell you, the Book of Numbers recounts, among other things, the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert – that period of time when many among God’s chosen people must have wondered whether or not God would indeed deliver them into the promised land.
In these wilderness years, the Israelites endured many hardships, not the least of which was the drudgery of surviving an unhospitable environment. But there were other challenges as well – the perennial temptation to idolatry and infidelities of all sorts, and the battles that had to be waged against their enemies. It might be said that that the struggles of the people of Israel epitomize the struggles we are undergoing – sometimes in the wilderness of minds and hearts – and, in these days, in the life of the Church itself. But amid Israel’s struggles, comes a word of prophecy from Balaam, son of Beor, the promise of one who would come to deliver Israel from its afflictions: “I see him, [said the prophet] though not now; I behold him, though not near; A star shall advance from Jacob and a staff shall rise from Israel.”
Balaam did not live to see this prophecy fulfilled but, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, he “greeted it from afar”. We live in the age after his prophecy was fulfilled, for the Lord has long since come into the world to save us from our sins. In Advent we do not pretend that the Lord has not yet come but rather we seek to be prepared to welcome him anew – the Lord who remains with us, who knocks at the door of our hearts, the Lord who will come again, as we profess, to judge the living and dead. In the midst of our wilderness experience we have only to look and see ‘the star that advanced from Jacob, the staff that arose from Israel’: Christ the Lord.
Recognizing Jesus’ Authority
Moving to the Gospel, the question before us this Advent is this: If we believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises, are we ready to welcome him anew into our lives? Welcoming Jesus into our lives is more than an occasional prayer or pious thought. Rather, we welcome Jesus when we acknowledge his authority over each and every facet and dimension of our lives. The chief priests and elders in the Gospel had abundant evidence of Jesus’ authority: Jesus cured the sick, raised the dead, and, indeed, taught with authority. Yes, the chief priests and elders saw these things but viewed them not as a sign of God’s favor but rather as a threat to their power. And so, these leaders challenged Jesus’ authority to preach and perform miracles, but, as we saw in the Gospel, Jesus easily refuted them.
The point here is not to condemn the chief priests and elders but rather to ask ourselves if we ourselves recognize Jesus’ authority over anything and everything in our lives that might be at odds not only with right reason but indeed with the moral demands of the Gospel. This is how we prepare and form our hearts to receive the Lord anew at Christmas, this is how we might a straight path in our souls for the coming of the Lord. – This is also why we should make use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in Advent, remembering as we do so, that the Lord exercises his dominion of our weakness not as the world exercises power but rather as a gentle shepherd, the one whose love is stronger than sin and more powerful than death.
Finally, I might note that the priesthood is a share in Jesus’ authority – his authority to preach the truth that saves and sets free, his authority over sin and even death. That your sons are preparing to exercise such a ministry should fill our hearts with wonder and awe but also with praise and thanksgiving. As Christmas approaches, may the Lord bless us and keep us in his love!