3rd Sunday of Advent (A) – December 11, 2022
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; Psalm 146:6-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
From Ephesus to Rice County
I want to begin today by sharing an intricately woven story, one that has really opened my eyes to something beautiful that is happening here.
The story starts back in the first century. As tradition tells us, in the earliest days of the Christians, the Gospel writer Luke spent time with Mary in order to write his Gospel account. But not only to write a Gospel! Luke was also an artist. And as the tradition goes, he carved a statue of Mary during that time. This statue was then passed down through the centuries until, eventually, it was given by the pope to the archbishop of Seville, in Spain.
In the 8th century, when the Moors, the Muslims were invading Spain, a group of priests took the statue and buried it by a little river in Extremadura, in the Castile region of Spain. And as Spain was overtaken by the Moors, the statue was forgotten, lost.
Until six hundred years later, in the 14th century, a poor farmer by the name of Gil Cordero—he claimed to be seeing apparitions of Mary. And in these apparitions, Mary asked him to go to the Bishop and to have him dig in the spot of her appearance. She told him that the bishop would find her image buried there, and that he should then build a shrine, a church at that spot. And while the Bishop was skeptical at first, he sent priests to the site. And when they dug in the place that Gil showed them, they found the statue carved by St. Luke—the same statue that had been lost for over six hundred years. And it was at that spot they built a church. There, next to that little river. And Mary was venerated as Our Lady of that river.
And this image of Mary and this church became incredibly important in Spain. So for instance, in the 15th century, the king and queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella—they even built a residence next to it, so that they could spend more time there. Christopher Columbus, who was sent by Ferdinand and Isabella on his great exploration to discover the New World—Columbus himself had a great devotion to this lady, to Mary of this river. He even named one of his ships, the Santa Maria, in her honor. And when he returned from his discovery of the New World, he gave thanks to Mary there at that church. And the natives he brought back were baptized there at that church.
A few decades later, the territory we know as Mexico was conquered by Spain in 1521. That’s when twelve Spanish priests arrived: twelve priests, Spanish Franciscan missionaries, known as the Twelve Apostles of Mexico. But in their first ten years they had hardly any success in spreading the gospel. They fasted and prayed, and worked and preached, but they had very little to show for all that they had been doing.
Until one day, in 1531. In 1531, a poor old man, a native who had become Christian, a poor farmer by the name of Juan Diego—Juan Diego claimed to be seeing apparitions of a woman. And in these apparitions, the woman asked him to go to the bishop, to Bishop Zumárraga, who himself was born in Spain—the woman asked him to go to the bishop and to have the bishop build a church at the spot of her appearance. But the bishop was skeptical, and asked for a sign. So the woman told Juan to collect flowers that he would find growing around the site of her appearance. And Juan discovered a bunch of Castilian roses—which don’t grow in Mexico, but are actually indigenous to the Castile region of Spain. And then the woman took these roses, and arranged them in the cloak, the tilma of Juan Diego, and had him go present this to the Bishop.
When Juan visited Bishop Zumárraga, he opened his tilma and let the roses fall. And when he did, the Bishop and the priests with him fell to their knees. And as Juan Diego looked, he saw an image left on his tilma: the image of this woman.
This woman then appeared to Juan’s uncle and told him to go and tell the Bishop that she was to be known under the title of Guadalupe. And when he heard this, the Bishop collapsed again. Why? Because the statue of Mary in Spain, the miraculous statue and apparition Bishop Zumárraga is familiar with in Spain, the Church next to the river in Spain, Mary of the river in Spain … that river is called “Guadalupe.” The apparition so influential to the king and queen, to Columbus, and even to the Bishop himself? Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In the decade following her appearance, ten million natives converted to Catholicism. And remember what was going on in the world at the time! At the same time in Europe, the Protestant Reformation begun by Martin Luther in 1517 raged—dividing, fracturing, splintering the Church and causing millions to turn to Protestantism. At the moment that millions in Europe were being torn from the Catholic Church, the one Church founded by Christ, the only Church until that fateful year—in the midst of that upheaval, God was arranging for twice as many in the New World to be brought into the Catholic Church.
But the story goes on. There was a young priest by the name of Juan who was set on fire by all of this: by the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, by the millions of people joining the Catholic Church. And filled with that missionary enthusiasm, Fr. Juan set off with the explorer Coronado who went searching for the Seven Cities of Gold. They arrived here in what’s now Kansas in 1541. And although they returned to Mexico, Fr. Juan returned to Kansas the next year to continue to spread the gospel to the Quivira Indians—right here in Rice County. And when he decided to continue on to another tribe, he was martyred—they killed him. Almost five hundred years ago, Fr. Juan de Padilla was martyred, not more than a few miles from here.
One of the most important Fathers of the Church, a man named Tertullian, who lived in the second century—Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.”
The Missionary Impulse
When I first arrived here in Lyons, I was given a little book with the history of the church. It talked about how the church arrived in Lyons in 1923. But that’s not true. The Church arrived here in 1541. This ground was consecrated with the blood of the martyrs in 1542. And the Church didn’t arrive here because people immigrated here from Germany or something. The Church arrived here because one day, something happened, something was stirred in the heart of a young man, and he set off into the world to share this good news, to spread the gospel! And what was it that happened? Our Mother appeared, Mary appeared, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared—and millions began to join the Church. Juan de Padilla saw Jesus Christ at work! He saw Jesus Christ present, real and actively at work!
Us here in Rice County are not some autonomous, independent, lonesome, isolated little church in the middle of Kansas, no! We are the foundation. Here, right here, right in our backyard … the Church—capital C—the Church was planted and begun to take root. We didn’t appear here accidentally one day! No, in a simple and easily traceable line, we find our roots stretching back to Juan de Padilla, Juan Diego, Gil Cordero, Luke himself.
Patiently Awaiting the One Who Is to Come
But stop and think. Think of the Twelve Apostles of Mexico: for almost ten years, they saw barely any growth, hardly any baptisms, essentially no “progress” in their missionary efforts. Until? Until God intervened, Jesus Christ intervened by sending his Mother; ten million baptized in the first ten years. Fr. Juan himself set out in great confidence and enthusiasm, but saw barely any growth, hardly any baptisms, essentially no “progress” in his missionary efforts. He gave his life for this. And his blood was the seed—and here we stand today, the fruit.
I’ve become incredibly convicted. For many years now, but in a whole new way this past year, and even in just these past few weeks—I’ve become incredibly convicted: something beautiful is happening here. Jesus Christ is present and real, actively at work here. Something is stirring that has been hidden beneath the ground for some time, hidden and yet growing, setting down roots like a seed. Jesus Christ is at work. I’ve already begun to see many ways that he is stirring hearts, moving amongst us.
So what’s our job? What are we supposed to do? Clearly, it does’t depend on us. I mean, the Twelve Apostles of Mexico were working their butts off and nothing seemed to change. Fr. Juan de Padilla, same thing. So what’s our job? Our job is to be faithful and to continue to announce the gospel.By the way we live, by the daily relationship we live with Christ—announce the gospel, faithfully live in this relationship with Christ. We announce the gospel, live the gospel … then we wait for the Lord to do the rest.
Our job is to be faithful. John the Baptist ended up with his head cut off, but he was faithful, announcing the coming of the Lord. Gil Cordero was just a poor farmer: who would take him seriously? But he was faithful, announcing the arrival of this woman. Juan Diego was just a poor farmer, scared to speak on behalf of this woman—but he was faithful, announcing the arrival of this woman. Fr. Juan de Padilla was filled with wonder at the sight of Our Lady of Guadalupe, energized by her apparition, and so he faithfully announced the gospel (even when it cost him his life).
And in every case—it was the Lord who began to stir up their hearts, especially through Mary, and it was the Lord who then brought millions, millions into his Church. It is Christ who comes to save us, it is Christ who draws us together. Our job—our job is fidelity. Christ will do the rest. Christ is still active and at work, he will do the rest. That’s what we celebrate all Advent: our God will come, Jesus Christ will come, he will save us, he will do the work.
Here in the parish, we have begun to make plans for some very exciting opportunities in the coming year, opportunities to engage our role as the next generation of missionaries here in Rice County, opportunities to empower us to live the faith in our daily life and empower us to announce that to the community. And I can’t wait to share those with you soon.
But for now, I simply want you to continue to pay attention to your heart. Pay attention to the ways that Christ is at work in your heart right now. Jesus is active—he is real and present and active, working already, working inside of you, stirring inside of you. Like we talked last week, begin to focus your attention in a brand new way on your relationship with him. Because he is at work, especially in your heart. And just like John the Baptist, John Diego, and John de Padilla…the Lord simply wants our faith, our fidelity; he wants us to announce the good news, to prepare the way—so that he can come and act in a powerful way here, in our time, just as he did in theirs.
Listen again to the words we heard in the second reading, from St. James: “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.”