Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Holy Trinity, Danville)—John 19:25-27; Genesis 3:8-15, 20; Romans 8:18-30, Psalm 131
What a complete joy it is for us to be together this evening, in this place, doing what we’re doing. It’s been a long time coming. St Paul wrote to the infant Christian community in Rome, in a passage we heard read from this very spot just a few minutes ago, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” While this is not quite the event Paul had in mind when he wrote those words, perhaps, it’s certainly true that Holy Trinity Parish, and Richard Lewis, have been doing their fair share of “eager longing” for this occasion ever since Father Scanlon moved fully into his well-earned retirement. But Richard’s journey began some good bit even before that. So, tonight is the culmination of an extended process of reflection, discernment, education, formation, preparation, and on-the-job training. As your bishop, I take special joy in the knowledge that, beginning tonight, the people of Holy Trinity will once again have access to the full sacramental ministrations of Holy Mother Church, for which I know you have been hungering and thirsting. You will once again have the Mass on the Lord’s Day and on Holy Days. You will once again have someone to hear your confessions, to baptize your children, to bless your homes, to be for you the iconic presence of Jesus the Good Shepherd, calling you into holiness and missionary faithfulness.
We came together a little more than six months ago to make Richard a deacon, on the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and here we are now, on another great Marian feast day, which is only a little bit contrived, in deference to the historic piety of this parish, but not very much; the calendar just kind of worked out that way. One of the ways St Paul, in his correspondence with the Corinthian church, speaks of Christ is as a “new Adam,” recapitulating in himself the first Adam, laboriously, in his passion and death, undoing the damage done by Adam’s sin. Developing that theme, then, one of the ways that the Christian tradition speaks of Our Lady is as a “New Eve.” Eve, of course, is complicit in the “original sin” of Adam, and the Church has seen Mary as also complicit with her Divine Son by means of her cooperation in bearing him and becoming the model disciple, capitulating in herself the entire Church. And there is a strong tradition, not yet formally received in Anglicanism, but not formally denied either, that Mary was the beneficiary of God’s prevenient grace in sanctifying her, as it were, in advance, from the moment of her own conception; hence, this feast of the “Immaculate Conception.” As Eve is the mother of all who live, and the mother of all who sin by putting themselves in the place of God, so Our Lady is the mother of the Church, the body of those who have vowed to forsake sin and return to the worship of the true and living God. There’s a delightful hymn—and we even have it in our hymnal—where this is illustrated by a play on words: the Latin version of “Eve” is “Eva,” and if you swap out the vowels on either side of the V, you get “Ave,” as in “Ave Maria.” We rightly speak of Mary, then, as Mother of the Church. In herself, she personifies the Church; she is an icon of the Church.
Now, a Christian priest, of course, is a priest of God, in a generic sense. Jesus is our Great High Priest, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, a generic priest “after the order of Melchizedek,” a mysterious Old Testament figure who came from nowhere in particular and departed to nowhere in particular, who just was. The priesthood to which we are ordaining Richard is, among other things, derivative of this generic priesthood. A priest, generically, is one who stands in the breach between a sinful humanity and a holy God. More specifically, however, a Christian priest is a priest of Christ, a recapitulation of Jesus our Great High Priest. As we anoint Richard’s hands later in this liturgy, we will recognize that he is being authorized to “offer sacrifice for the living and dead,” which is the fundamental work of a priest, and the way he will do so, as a Christian priest, is to presides at celebrations of the Mass, standing at the altar in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ,” as alter Christus, “another Christ,” standing in the position of the host at the sacred meal.
But it’s vital that we always remember—Richard, and all of us—it’s vital that we always remember that a priest of Christ never exercises ministry apart from the context of being a priest of the Church, the Church of which the Blessed Virgin Mary is the personification, the iconic recapitulation. In the gospel reading appointed for this occasion, Jesus, hanging on the cross, commends his own mother into the care of John, the Beloved Disciple. He says to John, “Behold your mother.” A Christian priest, as a priest of Christ, can do no less. Richard’s job, and the job of everyone ordained to the priesthood, is to point men and women and children toward the Church and say, “Behold your mother.” Embrace with your mind what the Church teaches and has always taught. Embrace with your heart the inheritance—the traditions, the lore, the collective story of the people of God; embrace it all as your own story. Embrace with your will and your actions the mission and ministry of the Church, to call all people everywhere to reconciliation with God and one another in Christ. In short, embrace your Mother!
I realize, of course, that I am calling you in this into some very “high church” territory, and what I mean by that is that such an understanding of priesthood is rooted in a very “high” ecclesiology, a high view of the nature and identity of the Church. It presumes that the Church is not merely a human voluntary society, but, rather, a complex divinely-created and sustained organism. Richard, certainly in his doing, but more importantly in his being, will proclaim to the baptized faithful of Holy Trinity Church, and, through them, to all of Danville and Vermillion County—Richard will say, with the authority that is being sacramentally conferred on him tonight, “Behold your mother.” Behold the Church. That will happen in the context of proclaiming and fostering the sort of Catholic faith and practice that has long been the hallmark of this parish.
But, it’s a two-way conversation, because the baptized faithful at Holy Trinity, along with his clergy colleagues in the Diocese of Springfield, will also always continuously incarnate “mother” back to Richard, getting in his face, as it were, being Holy Mother Church back to him, and reminding him whose priest he is, and for whom both his being and doing are wondrously configured. That process of configuration has been going on intensely for the last six months, but it’s been ramping up and rolling out gradually over a period of years. It will come to a culmination about ten minutes from now, but the process will not end until Richard can look in a mirror and see a saint, when he can look in a mirror and see Jesus, because now Richard’s very salvation and sanctification is of a piece with his priesthood. We’re not messing around here, my friends. This is serious stuff.
Richard, my brother, please stand.
This whole sermon, as I hope you’ve surmised, has been a “charge” to you, and, when we continue with the liturgical formalities in about a minute, I will give you another one right out of the Prayer Book. So, by way of a homiletical charge, I can’t resist just deploying some of the language of the appointed Psalm for this feast day, Psalm 131. It’s one of my personal favorites, and I commend it to you as a mantra for your life and ministry going forward:
O Lord, I am not proud;
I have no haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters,
or with things that are too hard for me.
But I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother’s breast;
[and here I will interpolate, remember who your mother is!]
like a child upon its mother’s breast;
my soul is quieted within me.
I suspect that, in this moment, your soul is anything but quiet within you! But that’s OK. Grace is about to abound in a big way, and, with grace, comes peace. Amen.