Archbishop Peter Sartain’s Homily for Sunday, December 22, 2019

Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 22, 2019

Archbishop Peter Sartain



None of us would ever drive our car by looking only behind through the rear-view mirror, and we’d never drive only by looking ahead through binoculars.  In either case we would miss what is right before our eyes.  We’d never drive a car that way – but perhaps at times we live our lives that way.

“All our life is a preparation for the present moment,” writes Fr. Massimo Camisasca.  A powerful and startling statement.  Camisasca is suggesting that the present moment – each present moment – is full of powerful, life-changing possibilities for which God has prepared us through what has come before.  Yesterday was preparation for today, today for tomorrow, tomorrow for the next tomorrow.  Most of our days are not dramatic, because most of them are filled with the daily stuff of living out our vocations.  But does that mean that most of our days are of no consequence?  To the contrary, every day, all our life, is preparation for the present moment, full of promise, full of the presence of God.

Advent reminds us that God comes to us in the present moment, when we least expect.  That’s certainly something St. Joseph learned, and more than once.  Today’s gospel tells of the angel’s startling message in Joseph’s first dream that changed his life forever.  How could he ever have expected that such a thing would happen, that he would be a key player in God’s plan for our salvation?  He couldn’t have known – but still, everything in his life up to that night was preparation for that night.

The gospels don’t tell us much about Joseph, but they paint the portrait of a compassionate, just, and generous man who placed his life squarely in the hands of God. None of it could have been easy, and yet we think of Joseph as a man at peace. Faithfully, courageously, throughout his life, he tried his best to be good and just.  And all of it, humdrum as it might have been in his carpenter’s shop, was preparation for the night of that first dream.

Jesus reminds us to “stay awake,” and St. Paul reminds us that “the coming of the Lord is at hand.”  We don’t know when or how – or do we?

The unpredictability of the Lord’s coming is no reason for anxiety, as if the Lord would surprise us in an underhanded, scheming sort of way. Precisely because the present moment is that time in which the Lord could come, it contains a precious treasure, and all our life has prepared us for it.  Staying awake, being prepared, means that we allow the hope springing from the promises of God to inspire and enliven the present moment with peace.  Anxiety agitates and distracts us from the present moment and doesn’t prepare us for anything.

Another tendency could be to consider God and the fulfillment of his promises as something “out there,” far into the future.  We might say to ourselves, “I am busy today. I can prepare tomorrow, for no one knows when the Lord will come.  I see no signs of his coming today.”

We will not always understand immediately how life up till now has prepared us for now – after all, “God writes straight with crooked lines,” as the old Portuguese proverb says.  God does not waste a moment of our lives, and he finds a way to make profitable use even of those times we waste or stray.

Twenty years ago today, I celebrated the school Mass here in church.  You know better than I that the last day of school before Christmas is chaotic.  It’s not really a day of school but a day of parties and anticipation.  I feel sorry for parents and teachers on the last day of school before Christmas!  It’s a crazy day for pastors, too.  I awoke that day exhausted, wondering if I had the energy to make it through Christmas.  When I arrived at church and saw the kids crowding into the pews in a frenzy and the teachers trying to control that frenzy, I realized we were all in the same boat.  So it struck me – “Don’t preach a homily today.  Just invite the kids to pray silently with you.”  And so, after reading the gospel, I walked down to the center aisle and said, “Today, I’m not going to preach.  Instead, we’re going to pray silently.  Repeat silently, in your hearts, after me:  ‘Come to me, Jesus….  Come to me, Jesus…. Come to me, Jesus… Jesus…. Jesus… Jesus.”  We did that for a couple of minutes, and you could hear a pin drop in this church.  From fidgety kindergartners to bored 8th graders, there was complete quiet.  We continued Mass in peace, and when I stood by that door greeting the kids as they went back to school, several teachers asked me, “How did you do that?”

I’m embarrassed to tell you that it wasn’t until a year later that I made a very important connection between those silent prayers and what happened to me next that same morning.  After Mass, I went to my office in the Clunan Center and began the day’s tasks – but with a renewed sense of energy and peace.  About 30 minutes later, 20 years ago today, I received a call from the Papal Nuncio that Pope John Paul II had appointed me Bishop of Little Rock.  All of my life, and particularly, that Mass with those kids, had prepared me for that phone call.  Honestly, even after 20 years, I still shake my head trying to figure it out!

St. Joseph was content to care for Mary and Jesus, abiding in a mystery he did not understand but accepted as God’s gift and his vocation. In God’s plan it was enough simply that he was there, in all his ordinariness. He was a good father and protector who had to trust that God knew what he was doing through these strange events, and I think it is his peaceful acceptance that draws us to him. We have the instinctive sense that he was “in on the mystery,” which means that he was wrapped in it and had surrendered to it. That’s why he was at peace.  More than we can possibly know, every one of us in church this morning is thoroughly and safely and lovingly wrapped in the mystery of God.

Advent invites us neither to lament the past nor be anxious about the future, but to give today to God.  Knowing that he has not wasted our past and that the future is securely in his hands, we can assume that we arrived at the present moment by his providence and that because Jesus is Emmanuel – “God-with-us” – it is now that he comes to us.  To be ready, to be prepared, is to know that God in his love has readied us and prepared us to receive him in the present moment.  With quiet, peace-filled attention we will notice him.  It is now, in the present moment, that we follow him.  Come to us, Jesus!