An image! Of a Lamb, surrounded by angels!
One August evening in the year 1879, 15 people in the village of Knock, Ireland, saw a remarkable sight. On the east wall of their local chapel, appeared an image of the Lamb of God standing on an altar, accompanied by St Joseph, Our Lady, and St John. In due course, the church authorities interrogated the 15 witnesses and decided their testimony was credible – Knock remains the only vision to have been authenticated by church authorities in the Celtic nations.
Not a word was spoken by any of the figures who appeared in this vision. If we would understand the message of Knock, we must understand the meaning of the scene presented to us.
On an altar, stands the Lamb of God. Jesus appears as a Lamb because he is meek, and allows himself to be led to the Cross like a lamb to the slaughter. Jesus appears as a Lamb because he is a sacrifice who protects us from the power of death, just as the Jewish people of old sacrificed a lamb and marked their homes with its blood so the Angel of Death would pass over their homes without doing harm. Jesus appears as a Lamb because he was declared by John the Baptist to be the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
Each of the figures accompanying the Lamb of God has something to teach us.
As we read from left to right, we first see St Joseph with his head bowed in prayer. He reminds us that when we enter God’s House, when we enter this church of St John Lloyd, or any Catholic church where the Blessed Sacrament is kept, we come into a holy place, a place which it is right and proper that we should treat with respect. From time to time we should ask ourselves if we are always respectful of our church as a holy place. We may wish to speak a word of welcome or an urgent message to a friend we see within these four walls – but if doing so disturbs the prayer of even one person who is silently honouring the Lamb of God, we do better to take our conversation outside.
Our next instruction comes from Our Blessed Lady, who has her hands raised in prayer – an image which complements the vision we have just heard described in the pages of the Bible. In today’s Second Reading, the angels and saints attending the Lamb’s throne cry out that the Lamb is worthy of “praise, honour, glory and power, for ever and ever”, and then they bow down in worship. Our Lady of Knock stands in God’s presence with her hands raised in praise.
And we – we also give honour to the Lamb as we stand and kneel for the different movements of the Mass. We sing the Gloria and the Holy Holy at our Sunday Mass because we are joining, on Earth, what is constantly happening in heaven – the angels are singing praise to Jesus, the Lamb who was slain for us. The very words of the Gloria and the Holy Holy are taken from the songs of angels as recorded in the pages of the Bible. We sing these songs on earth as a preparation for Heaven – because in heaven, we will sing an endless song of praise to Jesus and to His Father, the One who sits upon the Throne.
Before Mass, we gather in silent honour of the Lamb. During Mass we lift up our hands, our hearts and our voices to sing God’s praises. At the end of Mass, we are sent out with a message. We are to go and proclaim the Good News of Jesus to the world around us, and this is the lesson of St John with his open book.
Over the centuries, many thousands of Christians have risked life and limb for the privilege of speaking about Jesus to others. In today’s first reading, we have heard how the Apostles were flogged – that is, they were whipped – by the Jewish leaders who did not welcome the message of Jesus. In more recent centuries, St Paul Miki of Japan, St Andrew Kim Tae-gon of Korea, and St Augustine Zhao Rong of China, head the lists of dozens of martyrs who were executed for preaching the message of Jesus in the Far East. In the Muslim world, scholars debate whether the Qu’ran requires the death penalty for those who turn away from Islam to follow the Christian faith, and some Islamic states have persecuted former Muslims who turn to Christianity.
What about us? We are free to practice our faith and to encourage others to consider the message of Jesus. In our nation-state, this is our right. As followers of Jesus, this is our duty. And therefore I wish to remind you of two very easy ways to speak about the message of Jesus which I mentioned to you before Easter.
In two weeks’ time, there is a weekend retreat in Cardiff designed especially for young people aged 16 to 25. I know that many of us here, today, have children or grandchildren who have stopped attending Mass. How can we encourage them to re-connect with God? At events like this weekend run by Youth 2000, the music and talks are led by young people; it’s far easier for a young person looking for faith to identify with another young person who has already found it, than with someone of an older generation. It’s very difficult to communicate faith to a teenager or young adult, but it is very easy to ask them whether they are willing to spend a weekend with other young people – an adventure, no less, staying up half the night if they wish, camping out indoors.
So I invite you to pause for a moment, and ponder:
- Do you know any young person aged between 16 and 25?
- Have you yet invited them to come to this retreat?
- If not, what is stopping you?
If the problem is money, have a quiet word with me after Mass and there may be funds to allow you to offer a young person a sponsored place.
The Bible tells us that on the Day of Judgment, the martyrs will be first in the queue, and Jesus will be beaming at each one of them and congratulating them for laying down their lives for Him. I think that not far behind will be those, from our culture, who plucked up the courage to speak to a young person and invite them to this retreat. It doesn’t matter whether or not they accept this invitation – Jesus will be delighted that we made the effort to offer it. But at the very end of the queue will be those to be greeted by the sorrowful face of Jesus. I would not like to see the look in His eyes which says: “You did not love me enough even to pass on an invitation leaflet to one of my children.” It will be similar to the look which greeted the Apostles the first time they saw Jesus after running away from the Cross. But the Apostles were given another opportunity to speak about Jesus and give their lives for him. They were given another chance – and you, you still have two weeks to pass on the invitation – it’s in the parish newsletter – to any young people you know.
In three weeks’ time, there is another Catholic event in Cardiff, and it’s one open to all of us – you can take your children and grandchildren, too! It’s an opportunity to hear the message of Jesus in a way we don’t normally get the chance to experience. It’s one I strongly recommend to you. We can make lots of good excuses for not attending a God-centred weekend. If we have to work that weekend, we can’t go. But if we have children, we can take them, and if we can’t afford it, then again, have a word with me after Mass. If we, the Catholic community, don’t support these events, they will stop running – and it would be a great shame not to have a resource like this available anywhere in Wales.
Jesus once said to his listeners: “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’” It’s easy to make excuses – but the message of Knock invites us, the Celtic people, to put the Lamb of God at the centre of our lives. Let us not be the generation of whom Jesus says: “I put on two weekends for you, but you did not come and you did not invite your children.” Let us be the generation who receive what is on offer, and pass on the invitation to our children. Yes, it’s something different to what we are used to. But perhaps the Lord is asking us to let down our nets on the other side, to see what we can catch!