Bicentenary of St. Mary’s Church,
Sunday, 26 August 2012
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The readings of today’s Mass are those of the twenty-first Sunday of the Year. The theme is choice, a decision we have to face. Abraham and Moses were major figures in the life of the people of Israel. This was when they were nomads, living with their flocks and moving on when they needed new pastures. Later they became settlers. They gave up their tents. They built houses and became property owners. It was at this point that Joshua succeeded Moses as leader of the people of Israel. It was Moses who led the people out of slavery inEgypt. It was Joshua who led the people across the river Jordan and into the land of Canaan.
When Joshua reached old age, he called all the tribes of Israel to the ancient sanctuary at Shechem. All the elders, leaders, judges and scribes were called to listen to a last farewell from their distinguished leader. Instead of wasting time boasting of past victories, he asked them to choose whom they wished to serve : the God of their ancestors or the false gods of the land they now inhabited? Joshua knew that all choices have to be renewed, that people don’t stay dedicated to a cause just by continuing to exist. He declared before them his own choice and they went along with it “We too will serve the Lord, for he is our God. He rescued us from slavery in Egypt and brought us safely here.”
This choice is echoed in today’s Gospel, when Jesus offered his own followers the choice to stay with him or join the unbelievers. Many of them found what he had to say intolerable; they could not understand his teaching, and chose to leave him. But when Jesus challenged the Twelve about their choice, in typical fashion, Peter asked how could they turn to anyone else for the message of eternal life. He had listened to the teaching of Jesus on the bread of life and he believed that Jesus had the words of eternal life. He believed that Jesus was the Holy One of God. Where else can we go? Jesus was not just a teacher or healer or prophet. He was the Holy One of God; he was in fact the Son of God. Even if we don’t fully understand what he teaches we still have many good reasons to follow him.
Jesus had explained to his listeners that the words he had spoken to them were of the spirit and of life. He contrasts the spirit and the flesh, and affirms that whereas the flesh has little to offer, the spirit gives life. He had already told them not to cling to food that perishes but rather to seek and work for something that endures both here and into eternity. To work for justice for all, to be merciful, to forgive, to be faithful, compassionate and loving – these are the values that give deep joy to us on earth, and are part of the travel documentation required for the journey into eternal life.
Jesus who has seen God and been with God, is the only one who can bring God’s gift into the world. This gift he has called eternal life, also the bread of life, the bread that comes down from heaven; and he has even described it as “the flesh of Jesus offered for the life of the world.” We enter into the eternal life of God the Father as we are fed by his Son who gives us his own self. It is here we find ourselves at the heart of the mystery of our salvation and at the heart of our Eucharistic belief. The Christ who feeds us is the Christ who died for us and, it is in his act of dying that he feeds us. We are invited to nourish our hearts and minds at the table of the Lord. We are promised that if we do we will be enabled through God’s grace to follow Jesus in his act of sacrifice, loving others as he has loved us and, in a sense giving up our lives as an offering and sacrifice to God. Parents, at their best, do this every day in the sacrifices they make for their children and in trying to make their lives a worthy example they can offer to them.
“I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever.” We react in different ways to what we find difficult to understand and believe. Nasri lived in the East. He was a clever young man who rose to the top and became prime minister to the king. As he wandered through the palace he came across a royal falcon. He had never seen this kind of pigeon before so he got a pair of scissors and trimmed the claws, the wings and the beak of the falcon. “Now you look like a decent bird”, he said, “your keeper had obviously been neglecting you.” That’s one way of dealing – cut it down to size and be pleased with the damage we have done.
An elephant was enjoying a leisurely dip in a jungle pool when a mouse came up and insisted that he got out. “I won’t,” said the elephant. “I insist that you get out this minute,” said the mouse. “Why?” said the elephant. “I will tell you later,” said the mouse. The elephant eventually lumbered out of the pool and stood in front of the mouse. “Now then, why did you want me to get out of the pool?” said the elephant. The mouse replied, “I lost them and I wanted to check if you were wearing my swimming trunks.” Another way of dealing – we act as if God might have borrowed our swimming trunks and think we should be at the same level as him in understanding the mysteries of life and maybe even giving him the benefit of a bit of advice now and again as to how he might run the show better.
Let me give you just one more sample. The people became alarmed when they saw the Mullah astride his donkey, charging through the streets of the village at great speed. “Where are you off to, Mullah,” they asked. “I’m searching for my donkey”, said the Mullah, as he whizzed by. We search in the most extraordinary places and often disregard the obvious. “We will serve the Lord”, said the people of Israel to Joshua, “for he is our God.”
My dear people of Lisdoonan, you have produced a fine little booklet to commemorate the bicentenary of St. Mary’s Church. In the foreword, Fr. Michael Daly reminds us that there was a time when our people did not have freedom of worship. When they emerged into the pale light of dawn, after the penal law days, they made their choice very clear as to what God they wished to serve. They may have had little political power as yet, their downtrodden way of life did not leave them with sufficient money to built big and beautiful. But they wanted to provide a place where they could gather and worship, a place where men and women and children could gather in a special place of God’s presence, where they could be nourished by the word of God and the memorial of the sacrifice of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is to their credit that they succeeded, that they faithfully used and maintained that building, adding and decorating, and offering their dead a place of rest outside, over the past two centuries. Your booklet acknowledges and gives thanks and credit to the many faithful and generous priests and people who have left us a worthy legacy.
The readings of today’s Mass leave us a challenge particularly appropriate to the occasion. We have very good reasons to gather to celebrate. We have a lot to be grateful for and many, alive and gone before us, to whom we owe our gratitude. As we said at the beginning of our reflection, and as we face the present and future, we have a choice to make which has enormous consequences for our children. Do we continue to follow Jesus Christ and go to him for an example and for direction? Do we raise up leaders among our young and even among our old to lead us in his Way? Do we nourish our young on the bread he brought us? Are we willing to take his Word and act on his teaching that the most enduring Kingdom we can build is one which has a foundation of spiritual values?
I know that today’s Mass is the closing of a Triduum of prayer and reflection, in which you have posed and sought answers to these questions. Thomas Merton, the American monk and writer expressed it in a way that may be worth recording : “faith is the opening of an inward eye, the eye of the heart, to be filled with the presence of Divine light. Ultimately faith is the only key to the universe. The final meaning of human existence, and the answer to questions on which all our happiness depends cannot be reached in any other way.”
May God, through the care and protection of Mary the patron of this Church, continue to bless the people of Lisdoonan in their gathering in this church. May he draw us to him and nourish us in mind and in heart. May he keep us faithful to the heritage which has been passed on to us. “We know Lord that you have the message of eternal life, even if we find it difficult to understand, and we believe, because we know, like Peter, that you are the Holy One of God.”
+Liam S. MacDaid