Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Natural (ACL Pilgrimage, Day 2, Florence)

(Fourth Week of Advent; This homily was given on 23 December, 2008 at the Duomo in Florence, Italy; I am accompanying the Seminarians of the American College of the Immaculate Conception on our annual pilgrimage to Italy. See Luke 1:57-66)

One of the best baseball movies ever made is a film called The Natural, starring Robert Redford. It’s a beautiful story about a talented baseball player named Roy Hobbs. He has a gift, a “natural” ability, as the title suggests, and could possibly be the best to ever play the game.

Towards the beginning of the movie he strikes out “the Whammer,” considered to be the best hitter in the major leagues, on three pitches. He is well on his way to the top. But soon things take a tragic turn for the worse. Roy is shot by a deranged woman, his career suddenly cut short. He survives, but that natural gift and his desire to play the game seem all but finished.

But if you have seen the movie then you know that, after sixteen years, Roy Hobbs eventually makes a comeback. His natural talent and love for baseball draw him back once again, and the end of his career is nothing short of breathtaking.

I believe that, deep down inside, we all long for a natural talent or ability like that. And truth be told, every single one of us has such an ability, and one even greater than Roy Hobbs. It is something so natural and common that we often take it for granted. It is the ability to communicate. We are given a gift for expressing ourselves—our feelings, desires, fears, hopes—with others.

Especially for those who are called to the priesthood, it is a gift and ability that allows us to communicate the gospel message of Jesus Christ, to tell the story of His mercy and compassion to a world longing for that consolation and communion with the living God.

Our ability to communicate goes beyond the mere “natural.” As we have heard in these gospel passages in the days leading up to the birth of Christ, the saints (Joseph, the Blessed Virgin Mary) communicate with angels and ultimately we are all called to communicate even with God himself. We are able to respond to God in words freely chosen, creatively expressing our desire for the One who first desired us. Our “natural” gift extends into the supernatural realm.

And a great example for us when it comes to the use and misuse of this gift is Zechariah, whom we hear from in the gospel this afternoon. We heard last week about the visit he received from the angel announcing the birth of John the Baptist. To that extraordinary announcement Zechariah responds with doubt and fear. Unlike Mary, whose, “How can this be,” is followed immediately by her “Let it be,” (see Luke 1:26-38) Zechariah expresses his inability to trust in either the message or the messenger.

The angel’s reaction to that unbelief is automatic and somewhat startling. Without consulting anyone, and with complete authority, he reduces Zechariah to silence. Since he has expressed doubt and disbelief at so great a message, now he will no longer express himself at all!

But in the gospel this afternoon he receives that gift back once again. Immediately after expressing his faith and trust in God's plan through the naming of his child according to the instructions of the angel, everything changes. Like Roy Hobbs, his natural gift cannot be suppressed and he now uses it for the supernatural praise and worship of God. St. Luke tells us:

Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God.
—Luke 1:64

St. Luke goes on to tell of the glorious canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:67-79), a prayer that we recite each day at Morning Prayer. It is a joyful song of praise, expressing the hope of Israel and all the world, and exalting the God for whom all things are possible.

Zechariah gives us all an opportunity, in these final days before Christmas, to consider how we are using our natural gift of communication. Especially as men called to the priesthood and to be messengers of the gospel, how are we communicating with those around us?

Do we sometimes express doubts or unbelief in God’s plan for our lives or our future? Are the words and language we use uniting the Body of Christ and bringing God’s people closer together? Are we able to use that natural gift to communicate with God in that supernatural conversation called prayer?

May we use well this gift of communication and, Like Zechariah, might these days of anticipation and celebration of Christ’s coming among us free our tongues to bless God and to come before Him in praise and adoration.