Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
‘Let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection: for the sake of the joy which was still in the future, he endured the cross, disregarding the shamefulness of it, and from now on has taken his place at the right of God’s throne’ (Heb 12:3).
These are helpful words in our present troubles.
First, there were the sad and complex events surrounding the resignation of the Cardinal. Now we’re in the midst of distressing disclosures about the former school attached to Fort Augustus Abbey. This is not the place to comment directly on either of these events, or on the media coverage, or on how those immediately responsible have been and are trying to handle them. I addressed some of this at Fort Augustus recently.
It is a further aspect I want to talk about here. It’s one that concerned people have brought to me. It has to do with us as the Catholic community in this place. It has to do with direction and hope. We need this. We want to find the way forward. Here our Catholic spiritual tradition may be able to help. Deep within it is the conviction that everything life delivers can serve, however mysteriously, our relationship with God. It can, by some divine alchemy, make Christ more radiant within us. It can help bring to full flower those theological virtues of faith, hope and charity sown in us when we were baptised. This perspective is a hopeful one. It can make sense of our present troubles. In the end, these are a call to personal and corporate renewal. However disconcertingly, they are a powerful echo of Vatican II’s teaching on the universal call to holiness. They say to us, the Catholics of Scotland in the Year of the Lord, 2013: Become saints! I am sure this is the word God is addressing us now.
We don’t know who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, nor exactly who these ‘Hebrews’ were. But we know they were Christians, and losing heart. They were collectively discouraged. They were inclined, in the face of various disappointments, to give up their Christianity. Their hearts were failing. And so, perhaps, are ours. We all have our own personal struggles, be they difficulties of health or in work or in relationships or family life. And it is hard when the place of consolation we call the Church becomes a cause of sufferings itself. As Flannery O’Connor said, ‘We don’t just suffer for the Church, we suffer from her too.’
And it is to such a condition that this Letter responds. It’s to such people that this Letter says, Don’t give up, ‘keep running’. Let me just extract three messages from today’s passage.
First of all, a reminder we are not alone. We are ‘surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses’ (Heb 12:1). These ‘witnesses’ are the suffering but faithful believers of other times and places, whose unseen companionship we have. To put it another way, we belong to a body. And this body is the body of Christ. It has to go through in history what Christ went through in his own life. It has to endure the cross, including the cross and the ‘shamefulness’ laid on it by the sins of Christians. Every generation of believers has to carry its own burden, go through baffling experiences that test and purify its faith, and bring it to rest on the one and only lasting rock, which is the unshakeable Truth and Love of God. It would be a shame were recent experiences to end in pitting clergy and laity against each other. Rather, it’s a time ‘to continue to love each other’ (Heb 13:1), to grow closer, to say what’s in our hearts and support each other in our different vocations within the one Body, ‘to meet together…[and] encourage one another (Heb 10:25).
Secondly, the Letter bids us ‘throw off everything that hinders us, especially the sin that clings so easily’ (Heb 12:1). Even if objective judgments have to be made and measures taken, endless anger leads nowhere. If we are going to be ‘shocked’, let’s be shocked in the end into holiness. We can no longer just live off our Christian or Catholic status. What’s inside must correspond to what’s outside, and vice versa. What has happened has happened not because people have followed the teaching of the Church, but because they have not. So this is a time to examine our own consciences and lives in that light. It’s a time to rediscover our own need for mercy, forgiveness and inner freedom, and the door to them that opens to us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Thirdly, there’s the magnificent line: ‘Let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection’ (Heb 12:2). Here is the essential. Where do we have sight of Jesus? Surely in prayer, first of all. ‘Your face, O Lord, it is your face that I seek.’ Prayer is searching for the face of Christ. It’s waiting in the dark for him to show us his face. This requires a turning away from other ‘sights’, a closing-down of other screens, a dimming of the false lights. Let’s resolve to pray more, alone and together, with friends, in the family, in church, both at Mass and at other times. Where do we have sight of Christ? In Mary, in the Gospels, on the Cross, in the Eucharist, in the saints, in the bosom of the Father. And if we do not lose sight of him there, we will see him more and more in each other, in everyone, in the poor to whom Pope Francis is always pointing. Christ, by his resurrection, ‘has taken his place at the right of God’s throne’. His other rightful place is in our hearts and minds. The more we pray, the more he will fill that place. And as he does, he doesn’t turn us into religious fanatics or a ‘holy huddle’. He gives us back our humanity and opens the doors of our hearts to others.
So here, I think, is something of what the Letter to Hebrews offers us. It says, don’t lose heart. It says, let us run together. Let us not allow sin, our own or others, to slow us down. Above all let us never lose sight of the goal, who is Jesus.
We are still in the Year of Faith. It has not gone the way we expected. But the Lord has his own ways. There has in fact been much to lift our hearts: the advent of Pope Francis, the World Youth Day in Rio, and closer at home the coming this week of Dominican Sisters to Elgin. In everything, be it bitter or sweet, Christ is leading us in our faith and bringing it to perfection.
Dear brothers and sisters, I hope there is truth in what I am saying, and that it is of help. ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth’, says Jesus. It’s all around us. Let me end with some words of Pope Benedict: ‘Whoever comes close to him must be prepared to be burned. This is a fire that makes things bright and pure and free and grand. Being a Christian, then, is daring to entrust oneself to this burning fire.’
And one last word of heartfelt thanks: to all those teachers in our Catholic schools who persevere so loyally and serve Christ in our children with such dedication.