Fourth Sunday of Advent 2014, Year B

Published: December 23, 2014

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor preached the following homily during a Mass for Diocese of Little Rock seminarians at the House of Formation in Little Rock on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014.

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Bishop Taylor

The infancy narrative with which Luke begins his Gospel describes a series of events by means of which God reveals who John the Baptist is, who Jesus is, and what they have come to do. Today's Gospel contains the annunciation to Mary that she will conceive Jesus. It was preceded by the annunciation to Zechariah of the conception of John the Baptist and followed by the Visitation, the encounter of the two mothers, Mary and Elizabeth.

In both cases the child's name was not chosen by the parents, but rather imposed by an angel from heaven to indicate the mission that God had assigned to that child. "John" means "the Lord is merciful" and his mission was to announce God's mercy in sending the long-awaited Messiah.

"Jesus" means "the Lord saves" and refers to his far greater mission as Messiah whom the Father sent to save us, set us free from the power of sin and death. Notice that the parallels between these two accounts are unequal — indeed everything about Jesus far exceeds it parallel in the life of John!

Mary doesn't doubt, but being a virgin she does ask how this humanly impossible conception will take place.

So while John's parents Elizabeth and Zechariah are called "just" because they fulfill the law, Mary is "full of grace" which points to a kind of holiness far greater than that of merely fulfilling the law. For that reason, this phrase was later understood to refer implicitly to the Immaculate Conception. And notice the contrasts.  Zechariah doubts what was announced — elderly, barren Elizabeth could conceive — and so was punished.

Mary doesn't doubt, but being a virgin she does ask how this humanly impossible conception will take place. Then upon receiving the angel's answer: "the Holy Spirit will come upon you ..." she demonstrates her total abandonment to the will of God: "May it be done to me according to your word."

Every person mentioned in these stories has a role in God's plan. They are not given a series of options and invited to choose which one they like best. God has made the choice for them and they are invited to embrace that choice. The Father's choice regarding John the Baptist and Jesus is revealed right from the beginning of their life: even their names point to their role in God's plan. But since they were not even born yet, they will in fact learn of what this means as they grow up.

Mary was a teenager when God revealed her role to her, though unbeknownst to her, he had actually been preparing her for this role right from the moment of her Immaculate Conception. And then Zechariah and Elizabeth had one role early in life and then received a new God-given role later. But in every one of these cases they still have to embrace that role freely, abandoning themselves totally to the will of God. When they don't, there are problems — as in the case of Zechariah, though he too eventually came around.

And isn't that our story too? Each of us has a role in God's plan, which in your case is to be a priest of the Diocese of Little Rock. You may have discovered that while there are a lot of options out there for what you might do with your life, only one of these is the correct answer to the question: "What does God want me to do with my life?" To cling to other options is to do what Zechariah did: to doubt that God's promises to you will be fulfilled. Such doubt left him mute until he finally abandoned himself to God's will.

The same happens to us when we refuse to let loose of options that are not God's will for us: we end up immobilized by doubt. That is why Mary is our model, not Zechariah. Seminary is a time of discernment not about what option to choose, but rather about how to respond fully and faithfully to your humanly impossible God-given call and thereby embrace freely your role in God's plan ... whether the fact that your call to the priesthood was already revealed to you (at least some level) early in life, or like Mary revealed to you as a teenager (perhaps in High School or maybe on a Search retreat), or later — like Jack Sidler who had one role as husband and father early in life, and now a new role as priest much later. But in all cases, it is a matter of embracing God's will freely like Mary did, abandoning ourselves totally to the will of God: "May it be done to me according to your word!"