John and Jesus – Brendan and Joshua: an odd pairing, you say. But consider: both John and Jesus were born against the odds. Elizabeth was too old and Mary was too young or at least unqualified. Yet in the Gospel we’ve heard that John and Jesus lie – or leap – in the womb of their unlikely mothers. Soon they will be born and begin a journey on which their paths to death and beyond will interweave in strange and wonderful ways.
In Baptism, Brendan and Joshua were born from the womb of Mother Church – born from a womb which, like Elizabeth’s, may seem beyond child-bearing. They were born against the odds. And the journey that began in their Baptism has led them in unexpected ways to this moment where they are born again from the womb of Mother Church as priests in whom the grace and call of Baptism is sealed in the grace and call of Ordination. Like John and Jesus, their whole life will be given to calling the Church into being for the sake of the Kingdom of God; and this will mean for them, no less than it did for John and Jesus, both death and resurrection.
Elizabeth and Mary – Brendan and Joshua: an even odder pairing, you say. Well, yes it is – but it’s what God puts before us this evening as we seek to understand what God is doing here. God took two women who weren’t properly qualified or equipped for what God had in mind, and so too here he takes two men who aren’t properly qualified or equipped for what God has in mind. In some ways they are too old; in other ways they are too young; in every way they are, for all their preparation, under-equipped for what God plans to do. Grace builds on nature, it’s true; but it’s no less true that grace makes good what nature lacks and does what nature cannot do. Grace surrounds Brendan and Joshua just as it did Elizabeth and Mary; and it will continue to surround them through the years as it did Elizabeth and Mary.
Against all the odds the women conceived, and so too have these two men – their seminary training being a time of gestation which reaches full term this evening. They are now to give birth, so that Jesus may live in the world through their ministry. Because that’s what the priestly ministry is and why we call it a sacrament. The priest doesn’t just speak about Jesus or remind us of him who lived and taught a long time ago and showed us how to live. The priest may be weak and wounded, ill-equipped and under-qualified, but he is to give Jesus to the Church and the world, even to be Jesus in the Church and the world in the way St Paul means when he says that God revealed his Son “in me” (Gal 1:16) – not “through me” but “in me”. Paul actually becomes the revelation; and that’s the mystery at the heart of the sacramental priesthood. That’s what it means to say that Brendan and Joshua have to give birth to Jesus: they have to be the revelation.
The prophet Zephaniah proclaims that “the Lord your God is in your midst”, and he did so at a time of crisis in Jerusalem when leaders and people were looking to military and political solutions when in fact, according to the prophet, their only hope was the God who had made his home among them. Priests are ordained to be a living sign of God-with-us, a sacrament of the God who is in our midst, exulting with joy over us and renewing us by his love.
But they will be this only if they believe. Once I would have taken for granted that a man ordained would be a believer, but I no longer do. Faith can never be taken for granted. It was largely taken for granted in earlier times when you were born into the Catholic tribe and imbibed its culture through family, school and parish. But those days are gone and faith is no longer imbibed as it was and cannot therefore be taken for granted. These days it usually takes an experience of encounter with Christ and a decision for him more than it did in the past.
Mary is praised by a Spirit-filled Elizabeth not primarily because she bears in her womb the Messiah but because “she believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled”. Mary conceived in her heart before she conceived in her womb; and she conceived in her heart when she spoke the word of faith, “Let it be done to me”. So too Brendan and Joshua must conceive in their heart through faith, time and again speaking her fiat. They must show themselves sons of the woman who is first among the faithful.
But they will do that only if, in their life as priests, they embody the vision of the great hymn we have heard on the lips of Mary, the Magnificat. It’s a vision of God overturning all the seemingly non-negotiable status quos of this world. This is the God who chooses the young woman who’s a nobody from nowhere to be the mother of his Son. It’s the God who casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly, the God who fills the starving with good things and sends the rich away empty – and this in a world where, it seems, the lowly are forever losers and the starving shrivel up and die. To embody this vision will mean that Brendan and Joshua line up with the lowly and the starving, not with the mighty and the over-fed. In the words of St Paul, they will “make friends with the poor” and lead their people to do the same. For them to do anything else would be to choose the path of clericalism, which is the path of slow but certain death for them and their people.
Here tonight we place their priestly service under the protection of the lowly virgin of Nazareth who reigns now as Queen of heaven. When Mary arrives, Elizabeth cries out, “Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord?” The title “mother of my Lord” was reserved to the mother of the king, and she – the Queen Mother – was the most powerful woman in the realm where the king had many wives but only one mother. Elizabeth acclaims Mary as the Queen Mother, the most powerful woman in the Kingdom of her Son. To her, then, we entrust the priestly service of these two men, Brendan and Joshua. By the power of Mary’s intercession, may they never be afraid to go in haste, like her, into the hill-country that awaits them and there sing the song that magnifies the God of Easter whose mercy is from age to age. Amen.