Consecrated Life, the Incarnation of our Deepest and Most HumanHopes and Expectations
Homily for the World Day for Consecrated Life
February 2, 2014 (Feast of the Presentation)
By the Most Rev. Salvatore Cordileone, Archbishop of San Francisco
As we have done every year for some years now, we celebrate the World Day for Consecrated Life here in our Archdiocese on this first Sunday of February, as it is the Sunday closest to the actual day which Blessed (soon to be Saint) John Paul II designated for this celebration when he established it, the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple. By a happy coincidence, this year the first Sunday in February occurs on the very feast day itself.
Notice how the mystery we celebrate today is filled with a sense of great expectation. We see this in the figure of Simeon, about whom today’s gospel says “was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel”; notice, too, his expectation of seeing the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah: “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.” We also see this reflected in the other revered elderly figure in this gospel passage, the prophetess Anna, who “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.” We also see a sense of expectation, of anticipation of something great about to happen, in the prophecy of Simeon to the Blessed Virgin Mary: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel.”
This is a pivotal moment in the whole history of salvation, a point of transition. Look at the juxtaposition: the elderly Simeon and Anna on the one hand, and the youthfulness of the baby, young mother and young family on the other. The elderly fade into the background and the young ones take front stage in the narrative now; something old is being closed, and something new being ushered in. It is the passage from the Old Covenant to its fulfillment in the New.
It is this sense of expectation that gave Pope John Paul II reason for connecting the celebration of Consecrated Life to this feast day. He commented on this in his homily to consecrated persons on the occasion of the Jubilee for Consecrated Life in the Great Jubilee Year 2000. He said to them:
Jesus’ presentation in the temple sheds particular light on the choice you have made, dear brothers and sisters. Do you too not live the mystery of the expectation of Christ’s coming, expressed and as it were personified by Simeon and Anna? Do not your vows express with particular intensity that expectation of meeting the Messiah which these elderly Israelites cherished in their hearts? Old Testament figures standing on the threshold of the New, they reveal an inner attitude that is never out-of-date. You have made it your own, as you look with expectation for the second coming of the Bridegroom.
Yes, consecrated life requires a great renunciation, but it is not a renunciation in the sense of a self-inflicted injury, as the world might see it. No, far from it; rather, it is in order to make room for something greater, for what we are all destined for: the new life of heaven. Consecrated persons are a sign to the world of this ultimate destiny of the human person in all its newness. And this, really, is the deepest longing and expectation of every one of us.
This feast day, though, marks a transition not only historically – seen from the broad perspective of salvation history – but also liturgically. In the Church’s rhythm of liturgical time, the themes of the Christmas cycle end here – the mystery of the Incarnation and of all of those mysterious, saving events that surround it (e.g., the visit of the Magi, the slaughter of the innocents, the Baptism of our Lord, and – today’s feast – the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple). Now the Church begins to focus our attention more on the upcoming season of Lent, and the whole liturgical cycle of Lord’s Passion, death and glorious Resurrection.
It is an ancient custom in the Church to begin Mass on this feast with the blessing of candles and the procession into the church with those candles lit, as we did this morning. This blessing is connected, liturgically, with the other blessings coming up in the Lent and Easter cycle: ashes, palms, and the Easter fire.
The light of those lighted candles, of course, represent Christ, the light of the world. He is our light because of his divinity. But an ancient insight has also seen the wax of the candle as representing his flesh, his humanity. And this, really, is the whole point of the Incarnation: God – the second person of the Most Holy Trinity – had to take on human flesh, had to assume a body, so that he could die for us and so reconcile us to himself. As we heard from the Letter to the Hebrews in our second reading: “Since the children share in blood and flesh, Jesus likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the Devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.”
For thirty-three years, Jesus’ divinity was hidden within his humanity; while he did show little glimpses of it along the way, it was not revealed until his Resurrection. As a burning candle consumes its wax, so Jesus’ divine mission consumed his flesh. He suffered for us, in his human flesh, to the very end.
Likewise, those who profess the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience live their consecration to their Lord in their flesh. Their consecration is not an abstraction, something part-time added onto their identity; no, they consume themselves for him in order to be his light for the world. And likewise, the glory of their life in him is hidden, hidden in those simple, little but ever-so-important everyday things: coming to the aid of a discouraged child in the classroom; offering comfort and hope to families struck by tragedy, or separated by death, incarceration or deportation; giving tender loving care to the impatient patient (not to mention the patience required for harmonious community life).
But all the while, they, too – just like the prophetess Anna – “never [leave] the temple, but [worship] night and day with fasting and prayer.” And while this is only completely true in the physical sense for those religious called to a contemplative vocation, it is true spiritually for all consecrated persons: no matter where they are or who they are with, their heart is always with their Lord. That is why they do what they do, and are who they are, and when they are with others, it is to bring our Lord to them.
Sign of Contradiction
The gospel for today’s feast day offers one more note of expectation, considering the complete prophecy of Simeon to Marry: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Mary here is a symbol of Israel. The sword that pierces her is the sword that will divide the people of Israel over the controversy her Son will present to them: is this one the Messiah or not? As Mary was for Israel, so consecrated persons are for the world. This is the unavoidable question. There is no getting around it. We will regulate our whole life around how we answer this question – not just in theory, but also and most especially in practical terms: does God really exist, and He is really true to His word? Is Jesus the one? Is this the truth?
By their very lives, even in their very flesh, consecrated persons manifest this question, they manifest it along with the answer they have given: an emphatic and irrevocable “yes!”
The world often does not like to be reminded of this, but it cannot be avoided. There is no hiding from God. The radicalness of the decision of consecrated persons is a stimulus for all of us to seek greater perfection in Jesus Christ through our own proper vocation.
In another homily Pope John Paul II gave on this feast day, two years before the great Jubilee, he spoke of this contradictory witness of the consecrated life. He said that this day “is meant to arouse renewed concern in the Church for the gift of vocations to the consecrated life.” And then, addressing consecrated persons themselves, he said:
… the Lord has called you to follow him in a closer and more exceptional way! In our times, dominated by secularism and materialism, by your total and definitive gift of self to Christ you are a sign of an alternative life to the logic of the world, because it is radically inspired by the Gospel and oriented to future eschatological realities. Always remain faithful to this special vocation!
To those of you in consecrated life, I wish to take this occasion, on behalf of the entire Archdiocese of San Francisco, to say: thank you! Thank you for your consecration, thank you for your witness, thank you for the reminder to us of all we are called to be and all that God wants for us. Thank you, not only for what you do, but for who you are and for the spiritual gifts of your consecration, gifts which so enrich our local church.
And to all young people I say: be open, be courageous, and pray! Be open to God’s call to this radical and unique vocation, ever so necessary for the flourishing of the Church and the sanctification of the world. Pray, and have the courage to say “yes” to God, in all of the circumstances of your life. “Yes,” because, yes, God is true to His word. Yes, because Jesus Christ is that Word, the definitive word of forgiveness and salvation that God speaks to us. Yes, because he, and he alone, fulfills our deepest and most human hopes and expectations, and never disappoints those who consume themselves for him.