Bishop: Unmuted Mystery
by Diocese of Des Moines | December 17, 2019
When the priest Zechariah, husband of Elizabeth and eventual father of John the Baptist, first encounters the angel in the sanctuary and hears that his aging wife is to become pregnant, he is at first reluctant to believe this good news. And so the archangel Gabriel tells him he will remain speechless for his lack of good faith until his son is born (see Luke 1:18-20). In effect, the priest has himself muted the mysterious workings of God, squelching the proclamation of good news.
There are at least a couple reasons why a contemporary “muting of the mystery” has taken place. One, in the wake of the disclosures of clergy abuse of minors and other acts of failed oversight by the Church’s pastors, some persons in society and even in the Church think that priests and bishops have compromised their authority to preach and teach in matters of faith and morals—or even forfeited their authority outright. How can a priest speak credibly to issues of social justice—such as respect for the dignity of persons, including women and children, the option for the poor and most vulnerable, the bonds of solidarity rooted in families where life is generated through the love of husband and wife, and the pursuit of a common good dependent on mutual respect—when some of the brethren have undermined trust and muddied the appeal of these values by their wayward example?
Second, those to whom the Church’s pastors preach—even when priests and bishops live upright lives—may be distracted or disinterested on account of the default static introduced by their ambivalent faith, their willed unbelief. Pope Francis acknowledges that for many young people, “God, religion and the Church seem empty words,” and hence “do not ask the Church for anything. . . “ except “to be left alone, as they find the presence of the Church a nuisance, even an irritant” (Christ is Alive, n. 39).
Yet to dismiss the preaching of the Gospel, including the message of Christmas that “today has been born for you a savior who is both Messiah and Lord,” based on flawed witness or annoyance at being engaged, is to miss the inherent power of the word of God. The Word made flesh is the essence of the Gospel; the Incarnation of God’s Son means that our humanity, weak and wounded, is both the medium and message by which God speaks to us all the time. We don’t need to get the latest phone or device at Christmas to be able to grasp and interpret what our ears and hearts are already “programmed to receive.” The Word of God inscribed in real human lives—both those who preach and in those who may wonder at times but choose to live by faith—presses on to fulfillment as God sees fit. The Lord’s work may be delayed by human failing or inconsistency, but will not ultimately be frustrated, for it bears an energy and potential communicated by the living God, who knows us better than we know ourselves.
In a certain sense, the Church can’t help herself! The Word who is born is the very cause of the Church’s own coming-to-be; as a result, we have been baptized and appointed stewards of a mystery that despite being drowned in the sea of words around us, rings with a clear bell tone that resonates deep within the soul of anyone who takes it to heart, whatever the season.
Priests and bishops, every time they stand before their people, are keenly aware of their own imperfections and how their lives are measured by the very words they proclaim. As Cardinal Avery Dulles observed: “Every preacher preaches to himself.” I find St. Symeon to be a soul companion when he declares: “I wish to be silent—if only I had been able to—but the tremendous marvel causes my heart to beat faster, and opens my mouth, my tainted mouth, and makes me speak in spite of myself.”
When it comes to our young people looking for words worth hanging their lives upon, how much more do we rely upon baptized lay persons, parents and peers alike, who exercise their own priestly vocation when they translate God’s word in scripture sharing, in personal conversations held in trust, in witnessing to faith by lives where what they say and do hang together? If an unexpected pregnancy occurs, as it did for Zechariah and Elizabeth, how can we doubt that God who has allowed this miracle to happen will not also unlock the resources of love and material support in communities who take the mystery of Christmas to be more than a feeling, more than the chance to get and give stuff?
More than ever, we Catholic Christians need to be bolder than going to church on Christmas and calling it a day; we need to unmute the words from the Word who is Jesus. We need to let the mystery of his coming among us as a human like us in all things but sin be the good news we can’t keep to ourselves: “Come, let us adore him!”