If you’ve known me for any length of time, you’re probably, let’s say, curious about what sort of priest I’ll be. Like everyone, I have my sturm und drang, and enjoy curating an overall zeitgeist of eccentricity… My flaws, let’s not rehearse them now, that’s for me and my confessor. I will apologize in advance, though, for any difficulty I have getting through this mass… it has been over 5 years since I last celebrated communion at the altar and for a long time I didn’t know if I ever would again. Faith takes us to dangerous, unsettled places, which is why the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard describes it as floating on 20,000 fathoms of water without a lifejacket.
To this day, after hundreds of homilies, although I love the feeling of everyone sitting in rapt attention and hanging on every, wisdom laden word that drops from my lips, I still feel inadequate to stand here and speak to the people of God. As the priest-poet George Herbert said of his own difficulties with faith and vocation, “I Struck the board, and cry’d, No more.” Each of you has within the very lifeblood the crucified and risen Lord, the indwelling of the Spirit that merges your very selves with the inner fire of the Trinity that has both created and redeemed us. How can I speak before so great a mystery? And yet, here we are.
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Juan Diego, another man who felt inadequate before the mighty call of God. Juan Diego was a poor, uneducated peasant living in Mexico in the 16th century, a Catholic at a time when the Church was unpopular (although…when is she ever popular?). On his way to Mass, the Blessed Virgin appeared and asked him to carry a message to the Bishop to have a chapel built on that very spot so her Son might be adored there. Juan’s solution to this desire of Our Lady is to take the long way around and avoid meeting her again.
In history there is a long line of those who notice that the goodness of God is actually pretty dangerous, that his holiness burns with more heat than a human being made of mere dust can endure. The Roman centurion with the sick child says, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” St. Peter exclaims, “Go away from me, for I am a sinner!” St. Juan Diego opines that he is but a beast of burden and begs Mary to choose someone else. I would like to join that parade of unworthies. How can a mere man step to an altar as a sacrificial victim and icon of Our Lord? How can a sinful person possibly be a good priest? You may have similar feelings in your own lives, how can God love me? Especially since I am not all that great at loving him in return? Does he know what I am really like? It almost seems crazy that we are entrusted with these tasks such as parenting children, and yet that’s the way God wants it.
If it weren’t such a source of anxiety, the irony would be delicious; the very God we think we are unworthy to approach isn’t concerned at all about our taxonomy of goodness and badness, who deserves to be here and who doesn’t – he only wants to be with us. The divine gaze is that of a lover staring into the eyes of the beloved and seeing only perfection. A lover gives a rose – God gives the whole world and more.
And thus the priesthood. St. John Vianney says the priesthood is a gift directly from the heart of God. This sacrament is God’s offering of his very self, to ensure that he is always present with us, that we will never be blotted out or cut off from his love. He does so by meeting us here in the Mass, confected by the anointed hands of the priest, the mediator who joins Our Lord in a special way as a victim. How can any human being dare? Only by the grace of the sacrament of Holy Orders. How can any of us be so bold as to receive our Lord’s Body and Blood and so taste heaven itself? Only by the grace of the Sacrament.
It is good that we would feel unworthy. Because as Our Lord says, we are “like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another.” But our humility is accompanied by the knowledge that God is doing a remarkable work in the hearts of those who love him. Our humility reminds us that this is all grace, that we have not earned anything, that seeking to be good as God is good and to imitate Christ can be a dangerous journey, it leads to the Cross. It leads to priesthood, or marriage and parenthood, or true friendship, and all manner of sacrificial love. And this is as it ought to be, for Our Lord himself is wounded by love, staggered by it, immolated for it.
God would not have us in a permanent state of fear by so daunting a destiny. Here are the words of the Blessed Virgin in response to Juan Diego as he hesitates, “Let not your heart be disturbed, Am I not here, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your health? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms?”
God’s grace is sufficient. It is enough, neither more nor less, but enough. He is peacefully unaware of our flaws and insecurities. Remember, Our Lord is a mighty judge, but he also comes to us as a child, as a confidant and friend. Like a lover he sings “come hither to me,” and is blind to any reason why he should not marry his Immaculate Church right now.
Juan Diego met the Blessed Virgin in the context of a society that had blood on its hands, the ritual murder of children, the oppression of countless human beings, a dark cult of power and greed. That may sound familiar. But this is where she gives a miraculous sign – Juan is sent to the top of a desert hilltop in winter and finds an abundance of flowers there. He gathers them in his shirt and when he later allows them to fall to the floor a miraculous image is imprinted there and the course of history is changed forever. Flowers will bloom even in an arid desert. God’s grace can redeem a society of 10 million that seemed beyond hope: It can certainly overcome our sins. The question is, will we allow him to come under our roof and heal us?
None of us is worthy. Not Juan Diego to be the prophet of an entire continent; Not a priest to House and Unhouse Our Lord; Not us to come to this heavenly wedding feast… but over the whole, darkening world the Holy Spirit broods with bright wing. And so, in a moment I will step to the altar and chant like a wounded little songbird, and hold our precious Lord in my unworthy hands, and we will receive him in his very Body and Blood. For this we prepare though being united with the Church, confession of our sins, prayer, and in meditating on the Scriptures. In so receiving Him, know that you are changed, you are not what you once were, and that you are loved by a mysterious, prodigal Love never counts the cost.