“Oak in Winter” | 1st Sunday of Advent 2022

There’s a lot of whiplash in the priesthood.

The time surrounding my ordination to the priesthood in May 2018 was so joyful. We were ordained in late May and didn’t start in our parishes until almost July, so we had about a month for trips, and a “victory tour” of the diocese – celebrating Mass at the various parishes where we’d grown up, or served as deacons, or lived during our pastoral internships.

These were days filled with cards and well-wishes, visits from friends, and a sense of optimism about the future. 

When we moved in to our parishes, all 7 of us had the same letter waiting for us…

FROM: Diocese of Joliet CHANCELLOR
PERSONAL & CONFIDENTIAL (in red ink, of course)

“Dear Father, Congratulations on your ordination and welcome to parish ministry. Please find the enclosed funeral planning forms which the Diocese will keep on record for the event of your death. Every effort will be made to honor your wishes.”

It makes sense, of course, and I’m glad they did it sooner rather than later. But the whiplash from life to death was almost laughable. I picked everything including where I want the funeral Mass celebrated, where I want to be buried, what readings and music I’d like, who I want to preach the homily, even who I’d like the pallbearers to be. (We’re allowed to update these whenever we want)

For my pallbearers, I asked them to track down every person I worked on a group project with in high school so those people could let me down, one more time. (That’s a joke)

It got me thinking about my own death, and for some reason I have always had this desire to die in the late autumn. I realize that the whens & wheres of my death are not up to me, but if I had my druthers I think I would like it to be late November, sometime around Christ the King and the 1st Sunday of Advent.

Part of this is logistical – if I die in winter, they’ll stick me in a fridge or something until the ground thaws; if I die in summer, well…I’ve done too many graveside services that are hot and sticky, and everyone who attends those is sad because it’s hot and stick and not because the person is dead.

But the real meaning/reasoning is much deeper, and I have trouble putting it into words. So, this week I just used someone else’s words. One of my favorite authors is Michael D. O’Brien, who wrote Island of the World, Theophilos, Father Elijah, and Sophia House to name only a few. He has a marvelous essay on Christian culture, the dying of the year, and Advent. I used it in my homily this weekend, and I think you’ll find it extremely edifying.

Here’s an excerpt:
“In late autumn, everything is stripped to its essential form…

Within that pungent aroma was the smell of acorns, containing messages about death and rebirth. Along with it came the underlying sense that written into creation are “words” from our Creator, for God has designed all living things, even the simplest, to bear a kind of witness to larger truths. An acorn, a maple key, pips in a pine cone, even the lowly mustard seed—tiny, deceptively simple—contain a vast library of meaning. A seed is so much more than just a code for replicating itself, more than an investment in a distant Spring. More than just a statement of faith on the part of a tree, a biological equivalent to the virtue of hope. A seed is a kingdom, a world really. It has the future wrapped tightly in every cell, waiting to unfold; entire forests lie buried in each small kernel.”

Advent, placed so strategically at the dying of the year, is good training for this. We must not be like the ancient pagans who watched the coming of winter with a kind of terror-stricken obsession, mesmerized by the specter of death, enslaved to death, sacrificing their children to the insatiable appetite of death. During Advent, we learn to gaze into the growing dark with Spring in our eyes. Impossible? Yes, it is. But Christians must always keep an icon of the impossible in their hearts as a model of the true shape of reality, so much bigger than our terrors.”

You can find the entire essay here.

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