“Behold the Lamb of God!”
The person and mission of St. John the Baptist has been foundational to the Norbertine Order from its inception. In the lonely valley of Prémontré, where St. Norbert spent the night in prayer prior to deciding on that deserted place, there was a tiny chapel dedicated to St. John the Baptist. But moreover, St. John the Baptist was a man of extraordinary penance, eating only locusts and wild honey and clothing himself with camel hair; just so, our Order has always identified itself as one of penance, in fasting and vigils—the first completed just last night!—wearing penitential wool and seeking God in the wilderness. Even more than penance, St. John the Baptist was a prophet, a man who spoke first with God and then on God’s behalf. So, too, the canonical hours cycle endlessly in our monastery, and men are always about the business of prayer.
But perhaps most visible is our mission to preach as St. John did. St. Norbert was an itinerant preacher. He loved to preach of heaven and God’s peace, but he did not shrink from fearlessly correcting people’s faults. He admonished even the pope, and thus prevented dire ecclesiastical abuse. St. John before him had indeed harrowed the souls of sinners, and reproved Herod for his adultery, but this one moment stood out as his greatest—in fact what made him the greatest of the prophets. With his finger outstretched, he raised his voice and cried, “Behold the Lamb of God!” What others had foreseen, John saw. What others foretold in riddle, John told in plain truth.
What is implied, of course, in John’s witness, is that what Christ Jesus is, no one else is. Jesus is the Lamb of God, the sacrifice for sin, Light from Light, the very Christ. John is not, everyone else is not. His condemnation of the Pharisees, his encouragement to soldiers, his counsel to publicans were an extension of the same. Christ is in true marriages; in false marriages He is not. In humility, in justice, in generosity, Christ is there; in hypocrisy, in injustice, in greed, He is not.
This is what you have come to expect of us Norbertines of St. Michael’s Abbey. You have heard it too many times to forgive its absence. We lift our voices to decry deviations from God’s law and to shepherd you to His truth and love. Those are the ways of error, those are the ways of vice, of misery; Christ Jesus is not there. This is the way of truth, of virtue, of happiness; Christ Jesus is here. This is the way. It is a noble vocation, dramatic, and heroic.
But it is nonetheless a terrifying one. In the first reading, Samuel, the mere boy, began to receive revelations from the Lord. It took some experience, some trial and error, and direction from his superior, the elderly priest Eli, before Samuel was able to listen to God aright. And then the last line says simply, “Samuel grew up, and the Lord was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.” You get the impression that he was a child prodigy, simply amazing and successful with effortless perfection.
The most painful part of the passage is missing. God had instructed the child to reprove and condemn that very superior, Eli, whose unpardoned and unpardonable sin was not correcting his two very wicked sons. For this no sacrifice would be accepted. The sons were killed in battle, and Eli himself fell over and snapped his neck. Imagine so raw a youth on his first prophetic mission, having to foretell to his face the high priest’s doom. He wasn’t going to do it, until Eli threatened Samuel with suffering the same fate if he held anything back.
Yes, we will suffer the same fate if we hold anything back. And that makes blood run cold. God says to us through the prophet Ezekiel, “You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear Me say anything, you shall warn them for Me. If I tell the wicked man that he shall surely die, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, he (the wicked man) shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.”
Why is it so important to warn people to flee from the wrath to come? Because we are destined for no less a greatness than everlasting glory in heaven. We are called to welcome God Himself as the Divine Guest of our bodies and our souls. We yearn to become one with Him. This is what St. Paul tells us in the second reading today: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, Whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.”
We can avoid sin because it’s wrong, it leads to anguish of heart, it destroys our lives. But these motivations will never be enough if we don’t also love our true homeland, where Christ Jesus is our King, where angels watch over us with sleepless eye, where the saints beckon us to join them. The happiness promised us does not wait; it breaks through to the current moment, right now. Our preaching is incomplete if we do not constantly draw your hearts back to this pervading reality.
This new abbey isn’t just a larger house for more Norbertines. It’s an edifice that itself witnesses to the Christian calling to be the temple of the Holy Spirit. It’s a concrete, visual testament in this world of God’s temple in heaven, which is the Church. It’s our pledge that what you’ve come to expect from us in the past, will but continue and deepen and expand for centuries to come. We embrace this common life as witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We separate ourselves from the world to clear the eye of our souls, to see God’s reality with purity of heart. We embrace penance to show both ourselves and the world the lie of sin. We immerse ourselves in ceaseless prayer to help you do the same. And we will preach to you only the Gospel of Christ, so long as God gives us breath to do so, so that all who are weary may be refreshed, all who are lost may be found, and all who long for salvation may find peace, hope, and unending love in Jesus Christ, Who is merciful and a lover of mankind.
Given 1/17/21 at the new St. Michael’s Abbey!