Priestly Life: Between Anguish and Awe

Cardinal James Francis Stafford

The homily of Cardinal James Francis Stafford, Pontifical Council for the Laity

The liturgical readings in recent days have come from the Book of Genesis. They speak of God the Creator who is recognised above all as the One who called the world into life. Today, God is described as He who issued another calling, one in which he pronounced his redemptive word. This calling was directed to two distinct people – to Abraham and to Sarah who was sterile. Through Abraham’s vocation a new people is formed, the chosen people of Israel.

Abraham was chosen by God in order to be father of this people and from this calling onwards his life was completely changed. Being called to leave Ur of the Chaldaeans did not mean, however, that Abraham had to live on his own resources, but rather he would have to live where God dwells.

This is how it all started: “Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the land I will show you”. And Abraham overcame this test. Then he was told: “It is to your descendents that I shall give this land”. All that Abraham acquired in that land as a first settlement was a grave.

The first reading today underlines once again Abraham’s absolute, blind obedience. It is about the establishment of the covenant. God passed over in silence the anguished and diffident question raised by the childless Abraham concerning the fulfilment of the promise: “how am I to know that I shall inherit it?”. In fact, after his unilateral action in the sacrificial pact, God makes drowsiness come over Abraham who falls into a deep sleep.

We find the same scheme of things elsewhere – in the first story about Hagar, in the case of Sarah who was sterile and in the context of Isaac’s sacrifice. In each of these episodes total obedience to the God of Abraham is really put to the test. In particular, the sacrifice of Isaac seems to destroy the entire promise of the Lord instead of its fulfilment that in fact is beginning.

The choice God makes of his own people through Abraham’s calling and his obedient response is repeated in two successive events – firstly with Moses and then with the return of the Jews from Assyria and Babylonia. The decisive feature in all three of these events is that Israel was never allowed to dwell in its land nor was it ever possible. Whether in the land or abroad, Abraham, and the people established by him, lived as a stranger in relationship to himself. Together with its father founder, Israel always existed in a state of being expropriated, of being torn away from itself. So Israel was a stranger vis-à-vis God and a resident stranger of God.

It is in the even deeper experience of the expulsion of Israel that we can find the strange act of transcendence that Paul describes as the transcendence of faith. In the letter to the Hebrews this is how he praises Abraham’s great spiritual leap: “By faith Abraham obeyed when called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance” (Heb 11:8). Israel lived in the context of a pact offered and initiated by God. During the establishment of this ancient pact, God passed alongside Abraham in total silence.

We are all spiritual descendents of Abraham and his pact. Our life as baptised Christians in the death of Jesus Christ is marked by the inexplicable presence of the Absent One. With the resurrection of Christ an hiatus between the past and future has been created. We proclaim the past and future of Jesus. When we proclaim this mystery his glory fills the present. Here is the source of the typical tension of those who are baptised because their interior form is the paschal mystery, the original form of the Church.

Just like Abraham, our father in faith, all of us baptised are torn away definitively from what was ours. And this is true for each one of us. Our glory is not ourselves, but in the paschal mystery we share in as baptised in Christ Jesus. And this mystery is humanly inexplicable and paradoxical. In proclaiming a past event and a future hope we recognise that the present is the work and self-attestation of the One whom Jesus called the Consoler. This is how Peter describes our joy at the presence of the Absent One: “Without having seen him you love him; though you do now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy” (1 Pet 1:8).

In the obedience of baptismal faith, we respond to the Spirit who is calling us. The death of Jesus, the Absent One to whom we bear witness, appears precisely in the obedience of our faith, a faith that is a self-emptying in imitation of Christ and lasts all our life. Our model is Jesus. Through baptism we are “always carrying in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor 4:10). Our daily obedience in faith manifests and reveals again the death of Jesus.

The glory of God becomes accessible in the surrounding darkness only in the “light of the knowledge of the divine glory”. This glory is made manifest to others “in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:11). Obedience to our baptismal promises reflects the glory of the Father shining in the face of Christ. True, we are no more than earthenware vases. But through our obedience we bear the glory of God. The identity and mission of the Word of God made flesh are revealed in Jesus’ obedience. He said: “My will is to do the will of him who sent me” (Jn 4:34). Whatever is discovered in the face of the One who “was crucified in weakness” is hidden once more in our obedience in order to be revealed through our weakness.

Our weakness is not ours – it’s the weakness of Christ. With St. Paul each of us – whether we be married or observing virginity – can say to others in the family or community: “So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor 4:12). God does not put our strength to the test but rather our weakness. Our weakness in obedience to the love of Christ means that we discover all our poverty and uselessness.

Discomfort is not an experience unknown to those who are baptised. Restlessness and suffering are not outside our experience because we have been baptised so that in the Eucharistic sacrifice all our works are “most fittingly offered to the Father along with the body of the Lord” (
Lumen Gentium, 34).

The Eucharist is the break between past and future. We incarnate the death of Christ above all so that we can profess the mystery of faith. “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory”. Through the power of the Spirit, the Eucharistic proclamation is our deepest prayer.

Today’s Gospel about the trees that bear much fruit reminds me of another parable that indicates well what I have just said – the parable of the grain of wheat (Jn 12:24). The seed gives life through its death out of which comes the flower that gives life and the fruit that nourishes it.

From the beginning Christians have seen the creation of the seed of wheat and the ear of grain as an extraordinary sign that points to the full, definitive, unique and universal salvific mystery of Jesus Christ. His life in which he made himself obedient through a total self-abandonment is the Trinitarian seal stamped upon all of creation. It is not too daring to believe that the seed of grain exists only because the Son of God from all eternity wanted it to be a sign of the death of the Son of Man. Through Jesus, the parable of the grain of wheat has been destined for us who have been baptised into his death.

In summary, being baptised means being thrown outside, deprived of all protection. It’s a radical and unexpected experience or at least so it was for me. My experience of faith as a bishop has been a mixture of miracle and anguish. The anguish comes from the fact that a bishop knows he’s part of the shame of the whole universe that has sinned. He too is marked by darkness. In the hope of redemption a bishop lives hidden in Christ for the good of sinners and in their place. And what about the miracle? The miracle comes about for the bishop by always keeping his hands uplifted, knowing that his anguish has become one with the anguish of the Crucified One. The life of a bishop and priest is destined to do nothing other than live the paschal mystery for the good of humanity.