What joy to be able to celebrate this Holy Mass here in the Basilica of St. Paul, and in the Year of St. Paul! This morning I would like to begin with something rather un-Pauline, and offer some word associations. We are all familiar with how word associations work. As soon as we hear a word—because of past experiences or the various contexts in which that word has been used—we immediately have certain feelings or emotions.
For instance: Gelato. What is your first impression when you hear that word? Perhaps it is one of great happiness, mixed with memories of these last few days.
What about the word: Pilgrimage?
Hopefully, for years to come, when you hear that word you will think about all the Churches we have prayed in and the grace-filled experiences of Rome, Florence, and Assisi.
But there is one more word I would like to mention this morning, and it is one which is essential to the life of the Church. It is also one that is of particular importance to me, and for you who are preparing for the priesthood, as well.
And yet, it is a word that does not receive a very favorable response in the world we live in. One is likely to illicit a negative response when the word is used. The word, of course, is obedience.
What comes to mind when you hear that word? What if I were to say: “You should obey those in authority in the Church,” or “We are called to be obedient to the laws of God."
I think many people today would be offended by statements like that. Obedience is often viewed as a threat to autonomy. Some might think, “I am no longer free to be who I want to be, or to do what I want to do, because obedience forces me to do otherwise.” Obedience is seen as the enemy of free choice.
In popular culture we find many different expressions of this mistaken view of obedience. As I am sure you know, one of my favorite television shows is the series 24, featuring action hero Jack Bauer. Jack is a man of tremendous courage and self sacrifice. Time and again he is willing to risk his own life while trying to save others. Yet nearly every episode finds him breaking the law, stretching the ethical code of his profession, and many times deliberately disobeying his superiors. Undoubtedly he saves the day every time! It is awfully exciting to watch, but offers a very unhealthy perspective when it comes to obedience.
Thankfully we have someone close to each of us who offers a stellar vision of what it means to obey: The Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary’s obedience to God brings Jesus Christ into this world. There is a remarkably short distance between Mary’s fiat voluntas tua and the unfathomable mystery of verbum caro factum est. She obeys God’s will and the Light of the World begins to shine in the darkness! Now that is a positive perspective on obedience!
Our gospel this morning gets even more specific. We hear no less than four times that Mary and Joseph have brought the Child Jesus to Jerusalem because that was what they were required to do by the law of the Lord.
Mary would have gladly complied with this law. It would have given her great joy to bring her little Child to the city and participate in the sacred rituals of her faith. But it is not only Mary, Joseph and the Child who are affected here. We soon discover that there is an old man in Jerusalem to whom God has made a promise!
God told this man that he would see the Messiah. He would see the Christ with his own eyes. God is that kind, that he would offer a grace and consolation to a devout soul simply because He wanted to. Yet then He steps back and makes that promise completely dependent upon a young girl’s desire to be obedient!
If Mary chooses that she, who is without sin, and her Child, who is the eternal Son of God, do not need to fulfill the Mosaic law, then Simeon will not see the Christ. Yet Mary’s loving obedience is the very thing that brings great joy to that holy man. He takes the Child into his arms, blesses almighty God, and says:
Lord, now let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled: my own eyes have seen the salvation which you prepared in the sight of every people, a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.
Obedience brings joy into the world we live in; obedience has the power even to bring Christ to those who wait for Him. And so I would ask each of us to consider one simple question today: Who is Simeon in our lives right now? Who are the ones that God has made promises to, or offered hope to, but is depending upon us to fulfill those promises and bring that hope?
Who are the people to whom God has said “I will never leave you,” and who are now waiting for us to make due on that promise? Who are the people waiting for the consolation intimated by God, a consolation dependent now only upon our words or the attentiveness of our will in obedience to Him?
Or perhaps to go a little deeper with the question for you who are preparing for the priesthood: Who will be Simeon in your life in the days to come? Who are the men and women that will benefit from your promise of obedience to your bishop and his successors on the day of your ordination? Who are the lives that will be touched by your willingness to obey God and the teachings of our faith? Who will receive the sacraments of the Church through your obedience today and in the days ahead?