I was nine days ordained. And already I knew I needed a new map for my priesthood. (“That didn’t take long!” a voice in my head said with a kind of sigh.) It was Christmas eve, after the 5 pm mass at St. Joseph’s parish in Manchester. And I was angry. The cause of my anger was, to my newly ordained mind, a righteous one. It seemed like all the people that I had come to know just a bit during my 5 months there arrived at mass at their usual time. And they were the ones who were standing, not the Chreaster’s. The people who only darkened the doors of the church on Christmas and Easter – they must have gotten there an hour ahead of time – they were all seated in the pews. And all the people who were there week after week – they were in the back, standing. It wasn’t right. “They should pass out seating tickets the week before” I grumbled at dinner that night. That plea fell on deaf ears.
Maybe because it was my first Christmas as a priest – but something had gotten into my craw when I saw “my faithful peeps” standing. And my anger would not go away. So, with a sigh from my guts and anger in my heart, I went over the church around 9:30 to see if I could pray myself to a different, more redeemed place. I needed a new map, a new way of thinking about this, a new way of putting all this in perspective. And despite the best intentions of my brother priests at the rectory, nothing they suggested was helpful. It had to be ‘my map.’
So I sat there in a restless silence, in the now empty church, for what seemed like a long time. (I have no idea how long.) My eyes were drawn to the crèche. I’d turn away and look at those empty pews in my memory, filled with faces I did not know, but I’d be drawn back to the crèche. More stranger faces in my mind’s eye, and my friends standing. And I was drawn back to the crèche. Hmm! Something is there for me. Finally, and suddenly, one thought, nearly a voice, came to my attention. Like prayer before an icon, the voice came from the heavenly side of the infant Jesus – looking out at me/and those pews that had been filled with those unknown faces.
“I came for them, too.” Bingo. “I came for them, too.”
And this nine day old priest had a new map. A new way of looking at those crazy crowds.
John the Baptist needed a new map. There, in the lonely dark of the prison cell, he wondered – “Did I have it right? This Jesus, he is nothing like I thought. No fire, no brimstone! Where’s the winnowing fan? Where is the chaff flying everywhere in the face of the divine wrath? He’s nothing like I thought.” And John, not newly ordained but near the end of his life, needed a new map in the worst way.
Jesus, speaking, not from the image of a crèche, but through the two disciples that John had sent, gives him the same message, doesn’t he, that I heard that Christmas eve 29 years ago. “I came for them too. Tell John – the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news preached to them. All those who needed a new vision and a new way of looking out at this weary world – I came for them too.”
I like to think that was enough for him. Like that transformative night so early in my priesthood, I like to think John now had a different map, a different way of looking at the Chreasters of his day – the scribes and Pharisees and self righteous folks who came to him for ‘baptism’ or ‘spectacle’ or ‘something’ out in the wilderness. And that, somehow, he knew that Jesus knew he had done his part in pointing the way to him, even if he misunderstood till then what Jesus was really about.
How about you? Do you find yourself needing a new map this Advent/Christmas season? Does the craziness of the malls or the pressure of finding that perfect gift make you go “Bah Humbug?” Does a habit of sin keep you trapped in a cycle that you can’t seem to escape from? Maybe this is the first Christmas without a parent or spouse – and it is hard to imagine how you’ll ever get through it all, much less recapture some of the joy and hope of this season. Do you need a new map in situations both large and small this year?
The good news – There is a map, a way, a path through whatever struggle or difficulty grips your world. The same Jesus who replied to John, who replied to that priest nine days into his priesthood, wants to speak a word to our own hearts and our own dreams. Jesus wants to transfigure our disillusionments and broken hopes into something that mirrors the kind of life and love and ministry he lived.
May that be our prayer this third week of Advent – to let our dreams of how this Christmas should be, even how this world should be – be transformed by the dream that Jesus asks us to live into… .