“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’ (Matthew 3:1-3)
December 8, 2013
Second Sunday of Advent
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
“An old man in Miami calls up his son in New York and says, ‘Listen, your mother and I are getting divorced. Forty-five years of misery is enough.’
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“‘Dad, what are you talking about?’ the son screams.
“‘We can't stand the sight of each other any longer,’ the old man says. ‘I'm sick of her face, and I'm sick of talking about this, so call your sister in Chicago and tell her the news.’ Then he hangs up.
“Now, really worried, he calls up his sister. She says, ‘Like heck they’re getting divorced!’ and calls her father immediately. ‘You’re not getting divorced! Don't do another thing! The two of us are flying home tomorrow to talk about this. Until then, don't call a lawyer, don't file a paper. DO YOU HEAR ME?’ and she hangs up.
“The old man turns to his wife and says ‘Okay, they’re coming for Christmas and paying their own airfares.’” (Original source unknown)
We are well into that special time of year when events are cloaked in extremes. Both happiness and sadness feel doubled during this month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. What is good is very good; what is bad, very bad. Consider the heightened poignancy of media reporting during this singular month. And whether the news be good or bad, likely there’ll be a glittering Christmas tree and bundled carolers in the background to tug at our heartstrings. Hollywood capitalized on this long ago when it made millions on hanky-drenching films about coming home for Christmas.
The gospel passage we hear today takes us beyond all the hyped emotion that characterizes this season. St. Matthew writes, “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’ (Matthew 3:1-3)
Come home!—that’s the message John the Baptist preached to those who heard his voice once he’d emerged from the Judean desert. And it’s the timeless message that’s echoed through the centuries. John preached to a spiritually wandering congregation, a people hungering for more than this world could ever provide, thirsting for someone who would free them from earthly captivity. And it was just such a one John proclaimed as he pointed to Jesus, the Christ, the Anointed One of God.
The echo of John’s voice strikes us loudly today—Come home! Come to Christ! Yet I can hear another voice announcing the same message. I can still hear the husky voice of Daughter of Charity Sister Gertrude McCormack as she visits newly-admitted hospital patients. Diminutive in stature but large in presence with that deep voice, this elderly woman wearing rimless spectacles and the warmest smile delivered a message as insistent as John the Baptist’s—Come home!
Summer 1990 brought me to St. Vincent’s Medical Center, Bridgeport, Connecticut, where I became a colleague of Sr. Gertrude. As guardian of the chapel and sacristy, as well as a veteran chaplain, I knew my place from the start—and when I forgot it, that deep voice reminded me quickly.
While I fumbled to establish a daily working routine in the busy hospital, I watched Sister Gertrude glide through her days. Each morning after readying the chapel for the noontime Mass, she’d begin her patient rounds. Together with Sisters Zoe and Mary Margaret, these elderly Daughters of Charity (called the “Holy Trinity” by some, the “Holy Terrors” by others) visited every hospital patient nearly daily.
Curious about how these three women went about their work, I asked Sr. Gertrude one day if I might join her as she visited a few patients. Grudgingly acceding to my request, I tagged along and watched as, in each room her pleasant exchange with the patient always included her request to tie onto the hospital wristband a small Miraculous Medal. No one ever objected, not even the several Jewish patients who got one. Later I learned that Sisters Zoe and Mary Margaret were doing the same thing. Kindly visits always included the tying of Miraculous Medals to the patients’ wristbands.
When, several days later, I asked the three of them about their unique provision of pastoral care, they readily shared the century-long history of the Daughters of Charity at St. Vincent’s and also the history of the Miraculous Medal itself, called such because its design was delivered to Daughter of Charity St. Catherine Laboure by the Blessed Virgin herself. As the Sisters told me, “This medal came to earth by the hand of the Mother of God. It holds something of heaven, and now we pass it on to our patients.”
“Well,” I asked, “what do the patients make of all these medals tied to their wristbands, especially those who aren’t Catholic?” The simple conviction of their reply left me silent as Sr. Gertrude spoke for the three, “For almost a hundred years we’ve been visiting Bridgeport families in the hospital and in their homes. Generations of our families have received the Miraculous Medals as a sign that the Sisters are praying for them and that God is watching over them.”
Indeed, in this season when the voice of John the Baptist echoes still across the centuries, inviting all within earshot to come home to God, it’s a different voice I hear. Surprisingly husky for such a diminutive women, it serves her message well as, tying a Miraculous Medal to a patient wristband, Sister Gertrude McCormack promises the Sisters’ prayers, asking that this time of illness might be an opportunity to walk more closely with God.