Today is the feast of St. John of the Cross, a mystic, spiritual doctor, and great lover of God. In looking into his works, I happened across this excerpt of a book on one of his poems. It is a poem about Christmas where the tears of the infant Jesus become jewels and a source of joy for Mary and human kind. St. John has a great many beautiful expressions of joy, but this linking of God’s humility, his tears, and human joy got me thinking. This past Sunday was a triple occasion of Joy for me. It was Gaudete Sunday, a time of joyful anticipation of the imminent arrival of Christ – Christmas. That evening was the eve of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who has long been a favorite devotion of mine, especially since joining the Knights of Columbus in college. The date marked 6 months from the date of my ordination on June 11. Since Joy is meant to be shared, I;d like to share some of tears of joy (and sorrow) that I’ve shed since God, in his humility, deigned to make me into one of his priests just six months ago.
Do I even need to say what my first joy as a priest was and is?
The ability and responsibility to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is mysterious gift, to be sure. Once, while I was still in seminary, a recently ordained priest came to speak to us about his first years after ordination. He said something that really struck me then. He mentioned that one of his early struggles as a priest was actually one of faith. I don’t mean that he questioned God’s existence or the teachings of the Church. It was a struggle with his own ability to consecrate the Eucharist. For most Catholics, the Eucharist comes from someone else and for some reason it has always been easier for people to believe that God works more through “someone else” than through themselves; when someone else is “up there” in the sanctuary speaking the hallowed words of the Church’s greatest prayer, it’s not so crazy to say “yeah, God is doing something through his words and hands.” The same is true for a seminarian through his diaconate and all the way until the day he is ordained.
Brother Priests have told me that they were not even slightly nervous about their first mass: the archpriest, the MC, the servers, all the practice… just let it carry you away and it all works out. Easy.
And then, perhaps the next day or a few days later, the priest is there, by himself, to celebrate a mass. If he messes up, there is no Jesus. Indeed, as some priests might tell you, that was more nerve-wracking than all the pomp and circumstance of the first mass. And here was the little crisis of faith for that one priest. Is it really true? Can I do this? Did that bread just change? From a distance, it’s easier to accept. But when you’re there, touching the bread, seeing the particles up close, smelling the sweetness of the wine… when it’s just you, the words, the gestures, and the ordinary food items… your personal faith has to do a double take. Especially when all of your senses tell you that nothing changed: texture, smell, look, taste… Do I really believe that I have that power? It’s still hits me sometimes during mass. What I believe I can do is, well, kind of crazy. But I do believe it… and it brings me to my knees, sometimes with joy, sometimes with guilt, and sometimes in tears… Oh, how many words have been written about the gift of the Eucharist, the joys of the mass! And how they all fall short! But what else? What else can I relate?!
My first few funerals I celebrated without shedding a single tear. Perhaps that sounds terrible, but I don’t think it is.
It is of course easier when I have no relation and no acquaintance to the family and the deceased prior to the funeral, but there is a real sense of hope and meaning in celebrating a funeral: searching the scriptures for the meaning of such grim realities, praying for inspiration to bring hope, consolation, and peace. It’s a quiet joy to speak words of peace – not new words, not even original words, but still loving words – and to see the family and friends look up with a glimmer of hope, a spark of understanding that death is no the end. How, how can I relate to you the gift that is witnessing the faith of those who look me in the eye through their tears to say “thank you” all because I read some words out of a book and preached the same homily I used just the week before? I am an unworthy instrument… but God is good.
My brother’s wedding:
I’ll spare you the details, but I’m pretty sure it would seem strange for the celebrant to cry when the bride comes down the aisle, but that’s what I did. I saw my new sister and… joy. And it was celebrated in the very church where my brother and I first received the gift of our faith, the church of our baptism! Joy!
Confessions: I’ll admit I was nervous about hearing confessions from the very beginning of my time as a seminarian. But, when the time finally came, it kind of just… happened. No big deal: some sins, a few words of advice, say three ‘Hail Mary’s… I absolve you, rinse, repeat. It was like it came naturally… or supernaturally I guess, but it seemed kind of… plain. Oh, there have been plenty of awkward moments since and I am sure there will be more. Did I cry? I won’t tell you when or how often, but I have cried more than once in the confessional over the past six months. Sometimes in awe or joy at the healing I’ve just witnessed and helped cause, sometimes in the pain I feel for the burdens they bring to me. But even that is a joy, because it is a share in the cross. As St. John will tell you, the greatest joys on this earth are to be found there, on the cross and under its shadow.
And all of that in just six months! I could be doing this for decades?! And then what? Then the Lord comes for me, either in my death or the world’s end. And then? Then the real joy begins, and never ends. Christ is coming and will soon be here. Weep with joy, weep for your sins, weep and rejoice!