My first evening in the seminary as I began my journey to the priesthood, was September 14, 1966. I had entered St. John’s Seminary College in Camarillo that was referred to by Time magazine as, the “Jewel in the Miter of Cardinal McIntyre,” the only Cardinal at that time West of the Mississippi and great post-war builder of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He was also known for being one of the arch-conservative bishops who had attended the recently completed Second Vatican Council and, frankly, resisted its reforms. Several months before I entered the beautiful Seminary College, Cardinal McIntyre had solemnly dedicated the heart of this seminary, the St. James Chapel. With all the panoply that only the Catholic Church can display on these important moments, St. John’s would be the academic home of thousands of seminarians until the College section of the seminary was closed in 2002.
On one of his frequent visits, the Cardinal once gave a ‘pep-talk’ to the seminarians that has stayed with me all these many years. To the hushed silence of the student body, he told us in his distinctive New York accent (a cross between Michael Bloomberg and Elmer Fudd), that we were not ‘ordinary men’ but rather, ‘extraordinary men’ because of the vocation that we were responding to. Such talk not only fed a nascent clericalism that not so subtly instilled in us a sense that somehow, we were the ‘elite’ of the Church, but it also betrayed a foundational theological principal that lies at the heart of the Christian Church and her beliefs.
As we mark what the Church somewhat prosaically refers to as the ‘Second Sunday in Ordinary Time,’ that word, ‘ordinary,’ reflects how God, so often in Salvation’s history, has come to stir a revolution in our world and in our hearts.
At the core of the Mystery of the Incarnation whose festival of remembrance we have just completed with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord this past Monday, we gloried in a God whose extraordinary and unmerited love and mercy for us, was revealed in the utter ordinariness of a new born child, cradled in the arms of his mother, Mary, with her husband, Joseph the carpenter, at her side. Scripture and history tell us that, if I might be frank, these were ‘nobodies’ compared to the luminaries of the first century. Scripture narrates, somewhat mockingly, the thoughts of Jesus’ contemporaries who would quote a saying, no doubt popular in first century Palestine, ‘could anything good come from Nazareth?’ the home town of this ‘nobody’ family and child. With a thousand apologies for anyone who might be offended in my quoting President Trump, Nazareth was the quintessential ‘s***hole’ of this out of the way province of the great Roman Empire! Yet, from this utterly ordinary place and time would emerge the Savior of the world.
This ‘incarnational principal,’ that God, who lives in unapproachable light, would embrace our world and our lives in one, like us in all things but sin, continues to be repeated within the sacramental life of the Church that the Savior founded.
Through the utter ordinariness of water, wine, bread, oil, the simplicity of a human touch, words spoken and silence revered, God breaks into time and space to, once again, lavish us with his goodness, love and unfailing mercy. The ordinary, then, becomes the astounding vehicle of the extraordinariness of God’s grace-filled presence in the messiness of the world in which we ‘live and move and have our being.’
This ‘sacramental’ perspective and ethic, touches most profoundly the holiness of the human person, created in the very image of God. Our Catholic ‘pro-life’ ethic is profoundly rooted in this theological vision. From the first moment of conception through to natural death, we hold to the intrinsic value of all persons, since they are indeed a reflection of their Divine Creator.
It is for this reason that one of my famous quotes from the 20th Century Anglican apologist, C.S. Lewis, has always been a source of inspiration and challenge in my walk of faith:
Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, the holiest object presented to our Christian senses is our brother or sister, for in him or her, God, the glorifier and the glorified, is truly present.
Friends, this ‘ordinary’ time now beckons us to reverence what the world might dismiss as all too unimportant, pedestrian, simple and unworthy of our time and attention. We do that at our own peril, for within the ordinary, we can invariably find the extraordinary goodness of God’s grace-filled presence.