I think it was September of 1997… I had been praying, discerning and studying for the priesthood in the seminary for over 2 years – and as part of our preparations, we were expected to help out at our parishes on the weekend. My pastor, Fr. Marcone who I had known since high school said to me one Sunday afternoon “what are you doing this afternoon?” In typical fashion, before I even answered he said “whatever you’re doing this afternoon, cancel it. You have to take a ride with me to a convent in North Plainfield.” As a seminarian I knew the only response was “Yes Father.”
Hi everyone! This is my homily for December 22, 2019 – THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT The readings for today’s Mass can be found HERE Thanks as always for reading; particularly grateful for sharing this blog on your social media sites; and your feedback and comments. I appreciate it! Have a great week – God Bless – Fr Jim. AUDIO . Also you can get the audios of the homilies from iTunes as a Podcast: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/fr-jim-cherns-homilies/id1440618142?mt=2
It wasn’t until we were driving there that he finally decided to explain – “we’re going to meet Mother Teresa.” Wait – What??? It turned out that Fr Marcone had been going to Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity on a weekly basis as an instructor in Church History. Mother Teresa would make it a point – even then at her advanced age and with increasing fragility – to visit her sisters all around the world on a regular basis. The sisters would for the most part keep the visit quiet and on Mother Teresa’s last day at whichever convent she was at, the local sisters would invite some people that had been friends of their community to come and spend a few minutes with her.
It was one of those things that felt completely surreal. Fr Marcone was known to be a prankster so I wasn’t completely convinced I wasn’t being set up. But when we got to the convent, one of the sisters answered the door with a huge smile and greeted Fr. Marcone and very quickly led us into the chapel, fear of a prank turned to fear of meeting this incredibly holy woman. Walking in, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament was exposed on the altar for Eucharistic Adoration – so everyone in the chapel was in silence and prayer, including this little, frail woman in the very last pew in the back corner – immersed in prayer. Mother Teresa wasn’t distracted when we walked in – she was in complete communion with the Lord.
On my part, I knew that’s what I should’ve been aspiring to do as well, but completely overwhelmed, and with my ADD in full effect, I found myself fidgeting in my kneeler looking at Jesus and then finidng myself doing the half turn over my shoulder trying not to be obvious looking at Mother Teresa. Well I did it a few times till Fr. Marcone leaned over and told me to stop in his charitable way “if there’s something wrong with your neck I’ll fix it so you don’t have to keep turning.”
In any event, when Adoration came to a close, we were all going to have an opportunity to meet her and speak to her one on one. When we got up, the Sisters introduced Fr. Marcne as coming to teach there every week and she grabbed his hands and thanked him and told him how much she appreciated him helping to take care of the sisters. Thats when he introduced me and said “Mother – this is Jim Chern, he’s a vocation from our parish that God willing will be a priest in less than two years.”
She had this warm smile, she grabbed my hand with both of her hands and said how happy she was to meet me… how wonderful it was that I was listening to God’s call to the priesthood. I was pretty much just in awe and (incredibly rare for me, speechless) being in the presence of this future Saint. And I just found myself half tearing up, half shaking my head just saying “thank you Mother.” That’s when she dropped this line on me: “You must come to Calcutta.”
Fr. Marcone got this somewhat surprised, shocked, almost ready to laugh look on his face as he looked at me – like now what are you going to do. Without missing a beat I said “You must speak to my Archbishop.” I don’t think I had ever before or since to be painfully honest been more thankful for the promise of obedience then I was at that moment. There was no way I was going to Calcutta.
She laughed and clapped her hands on my hand and gave me a hug. So we were all good. But I remember getting in the car and Fr. Marcone just not letting it go “Wow – you couldn’t get out of that fast enough, huh – you didn’t even consider it – there was no way she was going to get you to Calcutta… boy oh boy, saying No to a Saint…” I remember one friend upon hearing the story saying “Dude, enjoy hell… how do you say no to a saint?” When I pointed out that was a bit harsh they watered it down “well you know you’re in for some serious purgatory…”
Good natured ribbing aside, there’s a part of me that believed that this was a Holy Spirit moment. I doubt very highly that my first intelligible words to Mother Teresa were meant to be dismissive of her suggestion. But the reality is there had never been an inking of going to a foreign country to serve as a missionary in that very particular vocation. I mean, I had never left the United States (for my first trip to Italy) only 6 years ago… I’m sure that for another individual, this type of encounter where Mother Teresa said that could have been a “burning bush” AHA God moment when the scales fell from their eyes and they recognized something the Lord had been saying to them for some time. Because this would have confirmed something deep within their heart.
For me though, in a lot of ways, this was a moment of clarity. Seminary is a unique time and experience. You’re discerning, you’re contemplating, you’re talking about becoming a priest “God willing.” As a 23 year old I was still kind of moving along going back and forth wondering was I discerning the priesthood or preparing for the priesthood. That day being in the presence of such a holy woman, being in absolute awe of her, was a moment of clarity. I knew what God had placed on my heart and where that was leading: to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Newark. I had a new found confidence that afternoon in what God’s call was in my life.
(I know some of you are thinking ‘sure sure whatever helps you sleep at night at dissing Mother Teresa.’)
This bizarre, all too real story came to mind as I read today’s Gospel and considered St. Joseph… and what God had placed on his heart and where that lead. This Gospel passage is one of the few where Joseph figures in. We hear the familiar introductory passages to the Nativity of Jesus Christ. St. Matthew shares this story of St. Joseph learning of Mary’s being chosen by God to bear Jesus – conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit without loss of her virginity. Often times I had imagined Joseph’s reaction to the news and his decision to divorce her quietly as an understandable reaction to a man who was confused by this news or skeptical… that he needed the angel’s convincing to verify Mary’s story, allay his fears and questions.
But recently I’ve been praying with a new book of Advent meditations on St. Joseph which made me think of this whole scene in a different way than I had never considered before. [Rejoice – Advent Meditations with Joseph by Fr. Mark Toups – published by Ascension Press] That perhaps it wasn’t suspicion or confusion at all, that Joseph had but rather reverence and awe of what God was doing with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Which makes sense… St. Joseph had an unique love, an incredible reverence for God and for Mary. That he knew that he was in the presence of incredible holiness when he first met Mary. That’s probably one reason he fell in love with her. She was the woman of his dreams. He couldn’t believe he was this fortunate to have met her. In his heart of hearts he believed she was too good for him – and he was right. When he learns that Mary was carrying Jesus in her womb, that she had been chosen to bear Emmanuel, the Messiah… the one that his ancestors had been waiting for and longed for, Joseph the devout Jew knew what that meant. In utter love and reverence Joseph wanted to protect this divine mystery… that he felt himself unworthy to even be in the presence of. He wasn’t barring Mary from his home out of hurt or anger, but feeling unworthy. Thats why he was identified as a “just” as a “righteous” man. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what was going on but rather that he did and knew that this mission, this vocation for Mary was of singular, historic importance. Yes He wanted to marry Mary – but He knew what was more important – He wanted the Messiah even more.
Which is why the angelic meeting in his dream makes even more sense. Because he was a man of faith. Because he was a man of humility. Because he was a man who knew the word of God, the angel’s encounter with him wasn’t confusing either. Scripture tells us that “when Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him…” There was an immediacy, there was a clarity that resonated deep within Joseph. The Holy Spirit confirmed in Joseph’s heart what He had placed there and where that would lead: – to take his wife into his home on God’s terms – and in doing so, the story of salvation now incorporates him. Taking him on a journey beyond his wildest dreams of what married life with the woman of his dreams could have ever been.
What has God placed on your heart? Where is that leading? The good news is that Joseph’s story is our story as well. If we allow the truth of the Eucharist to penetrate our hearts and souls – that the Jesus who was as real and present in Mary’s womb, in Joseph’s arms that first Christmas night is as real and present in the host that we receive – a sense of awe and reverence and humility rises up – I’m not worthy… (which is why we say those beautiful words right before we dare to come forward – Lord I am not worthy… but only say the word and my soul shall be healed) – We’re not worthy to receive Jesus’s body and blood. I’m most definitely not worthy to consecrate the bread and wine.
God makes us worthy. By His word we are invited in. By His word we are included. By His word He uses and utilizes each of us in the continuing story of Jesus coming to the people of this time, and place. He isn’t calling you to the vocation that Joseph was. He might not be calling you to be a missionary in Calcutta or a priest (although he might) But He is calling all of us not to be passive observers and simply beneficiaries of His goodness and blessings. He is calling each and everyone of us into His mission. He is calling each and everyone of us to share His good news that Jesus Christ has come into the world to save all humanity. He is calling each and everyone of us into His very life, death and resurrection.
For some, receiving this news might mean a 180 degree turn – that involves massive life changes, career changes – acknowledging a dream that was planted deep within your heart and soul that is just waiting to break forth. For others it might be a renewal to go deeper where you are right now – being an even better husband or wife, mother or father, son or daughter… But the Lord wants to use each of us to share this profound mystery that we celebrate: that the creator of the universe doesn’t look at us as insignificant creatures that roam His creation. He has a profound, unique, intimate love for each and everyone of us. He continues to be Emmanuel – God with us. May we follow Joseph’s example – listening to those words of the angel that are repeated over and over again throughout scripture – do not be afraid – and welcoming, receiving the greatest of Christmas gifts in Jesus … and listening to how God wants to utilize us in our own unique ways to share this tremendous gift, sharing Him.