Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Rite of Candidacy for Eric Flores and Benjamin Grothouse

December 18, 2022
St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church
Arlington, TX

Isaiah 7:10-14
Psalm 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-24

Today as we celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent we formally receive as candidates for ordination, Benjamin Grothouse and Eric Flores. These two men have been in discernment and seminary formation for over eight years having answered the call from Christ to follow Him on this path to priestly ordination and ministry.

The rite for the reception of candidacy is very simple. There are two short and direct questions that respectively focus upon call and service on the part of the seminarians. Each question requires a concise response of each seminarian with the word: “yes.” Then the rite concludes with a brief declarative statement of reception with a pledge of prayers made by me as the bishop in the name of the Church. There are not a lot of words and there are not a lot of ritual gestures. The rite is truly marked by the simplicity of faith; it is the faith required to hear the call and to complete the hearing with the “yes” of obedience. The rite is steeped in simplicity and silence because our human condition encounters so many temptations to complicate the nature of our call, even to the point that a man can forget that he is here because he answered a call at Christ’s initiative, not because a man has made a career decision.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, the liturgy offers us two examples of two distinct men who experienced a call from God that required a decision to serve. These men are Ahaz and Saint Joseph, the just and righteous man.

King Ahaz was cunning. He had been invited by two other hostile but larger Gentile kingdoms to enter an alliance against the Assyrian superpower. The Assyrians had crushed all other smaller and neighboring kingdoms. Ahaz refused the entrance into an alliance with these Gentile kingdoms against the Assyrians not out of fidelity to the Lord but out of a strategic recognition that such an alliance could not overcome the power of the Assyrians. These two smaller Gentile kingdoms then decided to march against Ahaz and his kingdom of Judah. So, Ahaz decides to outdo his enemies in cunning and negotiated a truce with the Assyrians that also betrayed the Northern Kingdom of Israel but guaranteed the protection of Judah by the Assyrians against these enemies. The one condition was that Judah worship of the false gods of the Assyrians with the desecration of the Temple.

Ahaz is unwilling to ask God for a sign in the face of an attacking enemy. Ahaz thinks that it would take too much time to listen and to be available to God in a loving relationship. He wants to treat God like an app — Divine Power on demand. Ahaz has made up his mind and he is unwilling to seek recourse with God. Ahaz is unwilling to listen to the prophet Isaiah who continually tells Ahaz not to fear the two smaller kingdoms but to remain faithful to the true and only God.  Isaiah challenges Ahaz to ask the Lord for a sign; Ahaz refuses to do so with pious language but not out of authentic piety — he refuses out of his unwillingness to trust in anything but his own political bargaining.

Yet, Isaiah prophesies the sign of contradiction as the mystery of the Lord, “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel, God is with us.” Because of his unwillingness, Ahaz sees the prophesy of Isaiah as a riddle and not as a mystery; Ahaz has no time for mystery. Ahaz dies as a defeated king, the result of his own compromise with idolatry.

You know very well that seminary life and the priestly vocation have within them temptations to idolatry and the reduction of true religion to magic. They involve the temptations to tell superiors only what they want to hear, to reduce discernment to assessing career options, and to mask everything in a false and saccharine piety. So, the Lord has given you Saint Joseph as an example of a righteous and obedient man and as an intercessor for your perseverance.

Seminarians Eric Flores (left) and Benjamin Grothouse (right) smile during the Rite of Candidacy at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church on Dec. 18, 2022. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Saint Joseph is a descendant in the line of Ahaz and of David. Joseph is a just man. He is rich in faithfulness to the Law, not simply compliant, and with filial fear, loves the Lord, the God of Israel. Joseph is righteous and possesses the richness of fidelity that manifests confidence in the Lord’s faithfulness to Israel revealed in the Law of the Covenant. The richness of justice in the old covenant included a sense of authentic piety in the face of mystery.

Joseph is confused by Mary’s situation precisely because he is a just man and not passively compliant. Joseph knows Mary. Joseph knows Mary to be truly who Mary is — pure and undefiled — even if he does not fully understand the cause of the purity of Mary. Joseph encounters a mystery with humility and obedient listening. He is not baffled by a riddle, so he decides on the measured course of the Law so as not to presume upon God, but to rely upon God. He proposes to himself a quiet divorce because he is unwilling to expose Mary to the treatment of the Law which Joseph knows Mary does not justly deserve, though he does not know why she doesn’t deserve such treatment.

God speaks to Joseph the just man, filled with righteousness, in a dream. He is told in his dream by God through an angel not to be afraid to take Mary into his home as his wife because it is through the Holy Spirit that Mary has conceived her child, whom Joseph is entrusted with. As a righteous and just man, faithful to God and not cunning, Joseph is able to recognize what Ahaz was unwilling to do. Joseph recognizes the sign of Emmanuel, the sign promised by Isaiah the prophet — a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call His name Emmanuel. There is no chance for bargaining with a false god in the disposition of Joseph, who becomes the husband of Mary, and through the chaste marriage with Mary becomes the foster father of Jesus and the guardian of Jesus and Mary. The fear of the Lord prompts Joseph to trust God and to enter the mystery of redemption. 

The entrance into this mystery involves a willingness to trust God and not simply a mistaken course of self-reliance or magic — the course that Ahaz chose out of pride though expressed deceptively in pious language.

The questions that you will be asked require you to enter into the mystery and to recognize the signs that God has given you and not to demand the signs that you would prefer God to have given you. God is simple, not grandiose. You have the examples of Ahaz and Saint Joseph. Ahaz is wordy, cunning, and avaricious for power. Saint Joseph is silent, attentive, and responsive in action to what the Angel of the Lord commanded him to do. Prepare to do the same.

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