During Vocation Awareness Week this year, I visited the 5th graders at our school and spoke to them about the vocation to the priesthood and vocations in general. They had many questions about the being a priest. “Can you be a priest and be a famous singer?” “Well, as a matter of fact, you can if God calls you to the priesthood and gives you the talent to be a singer. One of my classmates who is a very talented musician and singer recorded an album a few years ago and plays and sings a festivals and events. A few years ago, several priests recorded an album of sacred music simply called “The Priests” and it became very popular and they went on tour giving concerts.” “Can you be a priest or a sister and be a doctor?” “Sure. I know some religious orders that focus on health care and have sisters that are doctors.” “Can you be a priest travel around the world?” “Yes. Many priests are missionaries and are sent around the world. One of my classmates is a chaplain in the Army and has been stationed and sent to some amazing places. He gets to fly in helicopters as part of his job, and I think he’s even jumped out of airplanes as part of his training.” I’m sure some of the students were genuinely interested in the priesthood, but what was clear by their questions was that they want a life without limits – they want everything out of life – and they are not afraid to ask for it. They are open to the possibility that anything is possible. My 12-year-old niece really wants a dog. So when she is asked by any relative what she wants for Christmas, she says right away, “a Goldendoodle”. I’ve never heard of a Goldendoodle. It is a cross between a Golden Retriever and a Poodle. And as my niece is quick to point out, “it is hypoallergenic and doesn’t shed”. We never grew up with a dog, and my sister’s house does not have a yard. So the chances of Camille getting a dog for Christmas are pretty slim, but that doesn’t stop my niece from asking. She’s not counting the cost or calculating probabilities of success. Rather, she simply is in touch with her desire and asks for what she wants. This is part of the humility and simplicity of a child – the spiritual childhood we are all called to live as sons and daughters of God. It is one of the characteristics of being “poor in spirit” – someone who recognizes his or her dependence on God but focuses not on one’s limitations but on God’s goodness. Poverty of spirit is the disposition that allows one to receive the gift of God. The one who asks, asks because he or she has hope that what they want is possible. The one who doesn’t ask, doesn’t believe that it is possible to receive what they want. It is true that the one who doesn’t ask will never be disappointed – they will never get a “no”. But the one who doesn’t ask, will also never get a “yes” – their desire will never be fulfilled. If we don’t ask or seek – if we are not in touch with the question – “what are you looking for?” – “what is it that we really want?”, we will not recognize the answer even if it is right before our eyes.
This is why the Lord tells Ahaz to ask for a sign from the Lord and “let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!” He is asking him to be in touch with his limitless desire, the desire that can only be filled with God. The answer to our desire for the infinite – something that is beyond what we can conceive is possible – is that God comes to dwell with us – that God is Emmanuel. This is the sign that God will give. But Ahaz is afraid to ask. He is not willing to trust in the Lord – he is not open to the possibility of salvation apart from political or military power. He doesn’t think the Lord’s way is a possibility, so he doesn’t even ask. The other reason God wants us to ask is that he never forces our will. He wants us to freely let him in. He will not compromise our freedom. If we don’t open the door, the Lord will not enter.
The desire of the human heart finds its fulfillment in the Incarnation – the Word made flesh. What we see in the Gospel on the part of St. Joseph is the human response of the humble heart when confronted with the impossible made possible – the answer that was unforeseen and unforeseeable but has suddenly appeared. How do we make sense of Joseph being a “righteous” man yet unwilling to expose Mary to shame and wanting to divorce her quietly. To be “righteous” is to be faithful to the law. If he suspected Mary of adultery, it would not be a righteous thing to do to ignore the infidelity and not expose her sin – to skirt what the law requires. Joseph is not a man who feels betrayed or confused. Rather, the only way to make sense of Joseph’s reaction is that he has come into contact with the mystery of God and is struck with holy fear. It is the same reaction as when Peter recognizes the divinity of Christ after the miraculous catch of fish and explains, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” He sees in Jesus what his heart is made for, but knows he is unworthy of the gift. He hesitates. He is afraid, because to say yes is to place your life totally in God’s hands. It is the same as when Peter says to Jesus, “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” At that point, he has recognized the presence of the mystery and has a choice. I can stay or go. God does not force. The awareness has to become a personal responsibility. The rich young man recognized the same presence in Jesus but did not stay. God comes to Joseph in a dream because he wants to confirm Joseph in his conviction that Mary’s child is, indeed, “of the Holy Spirit”, and he wants Joseph’s “yes”. He wants him to know that he is wanted and chosen by God – that his vocation is to marry Mary and to adopt this child as his son. It is God’s preference that matters, not our own sense of worthiness. All we have to do is say “yes” to his preference.
The Annunciation to Joseph is his vocation story – how God calls him to serve the mystery of salvation. And Joseph’s reaction is the normal reaction when one is called to the priesthood. At one point, I was certain that God had made himself known to me and that he was proposing the answer to what I was looking for, but I was still free to say yes or no. I could call the vocation’s office or not. I could fill out the application or not. The invitation is always the same, “Come and see”. There is a great risk to say “yes”, and it takes a great poverty of spirit to say yes and to be open to what is greater than our plan. Only after the “yes” will we see. May we have the poverty of spirit to ask for what we really want and to be open to the answer that is beyond what we think is possible. We have a desire that is as deep as the netherworld and as high as the sky. Let’s be like those 5th graders who ask for it all. May we be awakened by the Lord’s presence, like Joseph, and not be afraid to let the Lord enter.