St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral, Wollongong - Wednesday 4 April 2012
Our First Reading and the Gospel tonight are about good news for the poor, about freedom for those captured by all sorts of traps, about new sight for the blind – (we all have our blind spots), and about setting free those who are trodden down.
In the Gospel, Jesus says he is the Good News being fulfilled today in your hearing. St Paul, later writing to Timothy, calls “Jesus Christ our hope”. (I Tim 1:1)
Elsewhere, Paul tells the Colossians (1:23) “not to let yourselves drift away from the hope promised by the Good News.” So Good News – Jesus – hope are all identified as synonymous. These are important connections as we contemplate the face of Christ and try to start afresh from Christ for our forthcoming Year of Grace.
Paul thanks the Thessalonians because they have shown their faith in action, they have worked for love, and they have persevered through hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Thess 1:3)
The well-known Dominican author and preacher, Fr Timothy Radcliff, spoke to clergy a few years back in Atlanta about “Priests and the Crisis of Hope within the Church.” He spoke of the need “to recover a genuinely Christian hope.” He reminded his listeners that the Church “was founded at just the very moment it was breaking up.” At the Last Supper, the anniversary of which we celebrate today and tomorrow, there was little reason to hope. Judas was about to sell Jesus, Peter was about to betray him, Jesus was about to be executed, and the rest of the disciples were about to run away.
Years later, the Gospels, too, were written during a second major crisis in the Church, when the early Christians were being persecuted, imprisoned, and put to death. Says Fr Radcliffe, “As Christians, we have no need to fear this present crisis of hope. Crises are the ‘specialty of the house for us’! The Church was born in crisis.” You and I, priests and people, nourish our hope by celebrating here tonight that “first” Last Supper, that moment when everything was “breaking up”.
We committed Catholic Christians continue to make our Sunday Eucharist a priority in our life even if the time at which it is celebrated maybe inconvenient, even if the singing is poor, or the priest celebrant is uninspiring. Because it is precisely when we gather as a worshiping community and we stand, we sit, we pray, or kneel side by side with other believers – who are as flawed and as noble as we are – that is when hope continues to be born in us.
Hope is not something that just happens. It is something we deliberately choose to do. Hope is not the same as mere optimism either. We can’t help our genetic make-up, but we can be responsible for our basic attitude. We cannot excuse ourselves from hoping by saying, “I was born with pessimistic genes.” No, we have to ask God for hope. We have to choose to hope. And once we choose, we have to seek ways to nourish hope.
How can we nourish hope? Can I tell you one very simple way? Hang around other hopeful people. Isn’t this the underlying wisdom of Christian community: to rub shoulders with others who believe, pray with others who believe, walk beside others who believe, others who pray, who love, who suffer, who weep, who laugh, who doubt, who hope – just as we do? We rub off on each other. We also nourish hope by reflecting prayerfully each day on the Word of God, in Scripture. The psalms and canticles we pray every day in the Liturgy of the Hours, for example, those psalms and canticles are filled with hope. Keep praying them over and over again – as we clergy and Religious do and increasing numbers of lay people also now are taking to the Prayer of the Church. One of my favourite expressions of hope is in Friday Morning Prayer, Week II where it says:
"Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
Though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food;
Though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation."
Talk about a bleak situation! No figs, no grapes, no olives, no flocks, no herd! And yet the psalmist can still “exult in my saving God”. Now, that is what you call hope!
We also nourish hope by catching glimpses of God’s action and God’s grace in our daily lives. Isn’t this also what our daily examination of conscience is all about? It is not just a time to record our faults or failings. It is also a time to “rummage” for God in the “stuff” of our daily lives. It is a prayer of hindsight – where was Jesus in what happened to me today! Not simply only in my personal life, but the lives of our families, our colleagues at work, our parishioners, the nation, the Church, and in the sweep of human history itself.
You know, nothing gives us a better perspective from which to view our current situation than a good sense of history. Nothing nourishes hope in God in the present, more than to recall God’s saving actions in the past. The sin is to forget what God has done for us – in the big picture of sending his Son, Jesus, made vulnerable so as to be able to be our Saviour, and in the smaller pictures of the signs of God’s love in the goodness and generosity of those around us.
Hope believes in God’s persistent love. As someone has said, “God has made the eternal commitment never to switch off love.” Hope demands that you and I make a similar commitment. Is your love and mine persistent? Is it all inclusive? Is it forgiving? Hope demands revolutionary patience and perseverance. When we hope, we believe in what is not yet seen. We believe, as Blessed Pope John Paul II has said, that “good is greater than all that is evil in the world” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope). St Paul said to the Romans, “Don’t be overcome by evil, but rather overcome evil by doing good.” (Rom 12:21)
As Easter People, we deal in hope! To believe that Jesus rose from the dead and that, because of Easter, you and I will rise again on the last day is central to our faith. (Read chapter 15 of I Corinthians)
But the Paschal Mystery, which we are about to celebrate over the next 3 days, is not just about the Resurrection. The Paschal Mystery includes the suffering and death of Jesus as well. In the Creed, we affirm that Jesus suffered, died and was buried. Then he rose again and ascended into heaven. That’s the Paschal Mystery. To bypass the suffering, death and burial of Jesus is not authentic Christianity. We cannot “fast forward” to Easter Sunday without pausing at Good Friday and by the tomb. The Cross on all our buildings and the crucifix in all our Churches and schools and Church agencies and homes reminds us of that!
Just as we cannot gloss over suffering and pain in the world at large, that is constantly in our daily news, so too, we cannot gloss over the suffering and pain in our own lives. An old Carly Simon song says, “I haven’t got time for the pain.” Well, our belief in the Paschal Mystery suggests just the very opposite. The Paschal Mystery urges us, “Make time for our pain. Name it, trace its source, and work with it, knowing that God is truly present in all our struggles and in our vulnerability. Continue to believe that embracing our pain can, with God’s help, eventually lead to glory and resurrection.” St Paul says, “If we share in Christ’s sufferings, we will share in his glory”.
What struggles do I face in my personal life, in my family, in my parish, in the diocese and in the wider church? Am I facing these struggles, or do I tend to ignore or avoid them? Are we able to sit with others in their pain, or are we too quick to give shallow answers and superficial remedies?
Being vulnerable, like Jesus was by becoming one of us, means we are open to love, but it also means we are hideously open to the possibility of more suffering. Yet as Rabbi Brasch said, “Sometimes, God puts us on our back (through adversity and suffering) to make us look up.
When it became clear that Jesus’ enemies were out to silence him once and for all, Jesus did not retract his words, he didn’t curb his behaviour, nor did he slink into hiding. Rather Jesus boldly turned his face toward Jerusalem and met his executioners with amazing courage and calm. Perhaps there is no greater evidence of Jesus’ vulnerability than when he hung naked and dying on the cross.
The heart of Jesus’ vulnerability, however, was not his courage. It was the extent of his unselfish love. Jesus’ life and teachings are diametrically opposed to Satan’s, the father of lies. Satan says to us, “You will find happiness by focussing on yourself, by dominating others, by controlling your future, by accumulating material goods.” What a contrast to these lies are the words and example of Jesus” “You will find happiness by focussing on others, by spending efforts in unselfish service of others, enlightening those who are blind to the presence of God, freeing up those captive to this material world. Only by entrusting our future to God, by sharing and giving away some of what we have we can become good news to the poor! That’s what Jesus recommends.
Succumbing to a crisis of hope can make us vulnerable these days, because of what I might call our diminishment – fewer Catholics at Mass, the issue of abuse, the lack of vocations, the anti-Christian attitudes in the community.
As we experience such diminishment, we may become fearful, angry or even be tempted to lose hope. That’s exactly when we have to resist the temptation to place our hope only in power and numbers.
As we experience diminishment on so many levels, it is good to remind ourselves that, throughout human history, God seems to work best through the few and the weak, not necessarily through the many and the strong.
As regards our life and our future, while we need to plan and provide for our needs, how open can we really be to the God of surprises who seldom does anything exactly as we expect? How sad it would be if we found ourselves saying, “My life has turned out exactly as I planned.” How much better is it if we find ourselves saying, “My life took some drastic turns! I found myself doing things I never thought I could do, going places I never intended to go, befriending people I never thought I would. And who knows where God might lead me in the future!”
As difficult as being vulnerable is, would you believe it is crucial for our spiritual growth? The experience of our own vulnerability enables us to appreciate and respond to the vulnerability of others, especially to their pain.
For some reason, we human beings seem to learn best how to love and give hope to others when we’re a bit broken ourselves, when our plans fall apart, when our myths of how self-sufficient we think we are, are shattered. The Lord said to St Paul in his vulnerability, “My grace is enough for you, my power is at its best in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9) Vulnerability can lead us to greater compassion especially for the poor.
Vulnerability can also lead us toward greater appreciation of community. When we experience our own incompleteness, we realize how little we can do on our own. We need both the challenge and the support of one another to grow in love. And finally, vulnerability can lead us to greater trust in God. Vulnerability can be the midwife, who helps bring to birth, a deepened growth of the grace of faith and hope in us.
The practical efforts we all put in to carry out the work of the Church as clergy, Religious and lay people can sometimes obscure the love of Jesus Christ which ultimately motivates us. Beginning with ourselves, we, Australian Bishops, are inviting every Catholic, the ordained, the consecrated Religious and the lay person to stop and ask ourselves in the Year of Grace, “What does what I am doing have to do with Jesus? Contemplate the face of Christ – start afresh from Christ!
May our hope in Jesus Christ and our vulnerability before God be the grace quietly to enable what is best in us to rise. Ironically, how often are we more successful in discovering God when we are deprived of all the material props that keep blinding us to God’s presence?
May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the Communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all now and forever. Amen.