May It Be Done

4th Sunday of Advent (B)

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While students at Western were taking their exams, I was away from campus participating in a different sort of examination. I was on a five day (mostly silent) retreat, examining my conscience, my vocation, and my relationship with God. It was a wonderful time of a renewal for me; one that afforded me ample opportunity to pray for all of my students (so I hope you all got A’s on your exams)!

This retreat was for the diaconal candidates of the Diocese of Charlotte in preparation for our ordination this spring. Naturally, much of the retreat focused on the ministry of the deacon. Most often in the Church, when we hear talk of ministerial vocations, the priesthood is the focus; and rightly so. But you may be less familiar with what diaconal ministry is about. This Sunday’s gospel reading gives us an icon of diaconal ministry in the angel Gabriel.

The passage is from Luke’s gospel, telling of St. Gabriel announcing to Mary that she will bear a Son by the Holy Spirit, who will be the Son of God. Gabriel’s role in this exchange is essentially to deliver a message and receive a response. In fact, the word angel itself simply means “messenger.” These spiritual beings deliver messages from God to man — they also carry our prayers up to heaven for us (see Rev 8:4).

Gabriel is the quintessential messenger. He receives a word from God in heaven. Then he comes down from heaven, greets Mary, and delivers the word he was given. He receives Mary’s response, and then departs from her, returning to the Father’s side.

Now consider what a deacon does at Mass. When it comes time to proclaim the gospel, the deacon is blessed by the priest, and then departs from the priest’s side to approach the ambo, where he greets the people. Then he delivers the word to them — the gospel of Christ. After the gospel has been proclaimed, the deacon receives the response of the people: “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” Finally, he returns to father’s side. The deacon is essentially a messenger; his is an angelic ministry. (This is why in sacred art, angels are often depicted wearing diaconal vestments). What he does in the liturgy reflects what he is to do in the world; to be a bearer of God’s word to the people.

A Rousing Cry

Communication is a two-part action. The message needs to be delivered. But it also needs to be received. Throughout Advent, we’ve been reminded of the need to stay awake. “Be watchful! Be alert!” (Mk 13:33). “Awake, o sleeper, rise from death” (Eph 5:14). “Arise! Shine, for your light has come, the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you” (Is 60:1). “It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep… the night is advanced, the day is at hand” (Rom 13:11-12). We’ve read of John the Baptist (also a diaconal figure) crying our from the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord, announcing the coming of the Messiah. The birth of the Christ was foretold by Isaiah, which is why the Old Testament readings during Advent are almost always from that book. What Isaiah, John the Baptist, and all the other prophets are doing is trying to wake us up. “Wake up!” they cry out. “The Lord is coming! He’s near! Get ready!”

I had two retreat masters on my retreat last week. One was Fr. Matthew Kauth, a priest of the diocese of Charlotte and rector of St. Joseph Minor Seminary. The other was St. Ephraim the Syrian, deacon and doctor of the Church who died in 373 AD. Fr. Kauth spoke a bit more audibly to us, but St. Ephraim also managed to get his point across during my silent times of spiritual reading.

One of Fr. Kauth’s major themes, this being an Advent retreat, was on the need to stay awake — awake to the realities of God. The world, he told us, has a way of lulling us to sleep. We tend to think of the world as full of noise and distraction. We go on retreat to get away from all that and find some rest. But paradoxically, all that noise and buzzing about doesn’t just prevent us from finding rest; it also causes us to fall asleep. Think of it as “spiritual white noise.” By distracting us from the reality of God, the world can lull us into a stupor.

We need to be woken up from time to time. We need to go to Mass, at a minimum every Sunday, to hear the scriptures proclaimed and the word of God preached to us. We need to engage in spiritual reading, to study the faith and develop our spiritual lives. We need to pray daily, to carry on that conversation with God so that our relationship with Him might continue to grow. We need to go to Confession when we fall, and never grow weary of seeking God’s mercy.

But we get lazy about these things, which is why from time to time we need to go on a retreat and celebrate a holiday (holy day). My spiritual reading on this retreat was St. Ephraim’s Hymns on the Nativity of Christ. In one hymn, he specifically talks about the power of holy days, such as Christmas, to wake us up.

Because the Good One saw that the race of man was poor and humbled, He made feasts as a treasure-house, and opened them to the slothful, that the feast might stir up the slothful one to rise and be rich.

Ephraim waxes poetically about the whole of creation waking up on that blessed night when the Son of God was born. “The whole creation became mouths to Him, and cried concerning Him,” he writes. Then, in the very last verse of the hymn, his canticle of praise takes a dark turn.

These voices above and below proclaim Him and cry aloud.  The slumber of Zion was not dispersed by the voice of the thunders, but she was offended, stood up, and slew Him because He aroused her.

Not everyone likes being woken up. Sometimes we prefer to stay asleep.

How Will You Respond?

God’s angel is calling your name, rousing you from your slumber. Maybe it comes in the form of a minister proclaiming God’s word to you. Maybe it comes during prayer or devotional reading. Maybe it comes as something said to you by a parent, friend, or a kind stranger. Maybe it is comes as that still, small voice tugging at your conscience. But you are being roused. It’s time to wake up.

How will you respond? Will you hit the snooze button and roll over, preferring to sleep through life lulled by the world’s distractions? Will you attack the messenger and hate the one who roused you?

Or will you be like Mary, our model and our mother? Will you be awake and alert, ready to reply with your heart and soul, “May it be done to me according to your word?”

If you say, with Mary, may it be done to me — if you consent to being woken up to divine realities — then the Word of God will be conceived within your heart, and the Son of God, Jesus Christ, will be born into your life anew this Christmas. May it be done.