Faith in the Future

A gateway looking through the wall of Scarborough Castle onto the seaHomily at St John Lloyd, for The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 1 of 4 in our new series, The Challenges of Following Jesus.

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

When I was a pupil at comprehensive school in Llanelli, our Deputy Head often read those words, at Christmastime or at the end of the school year. And in a primary school where I used to work, the last day of term was often marked by a rousing song with the refrain “I can do anything I choose!” These are stirring words, and the poem and the song both bring us a feel-good factor for an uncertain time in our life. It’s good to have hope.

Our Christian hope is based on more than mere sentiment or optimism. We do not read cheerful words to create hope where none is warranted. Rather, in our worship we remind ourselves that our God is a faithful God, a God who has kept His promises, and will keep His promises. Our rather mysterious first reading was referring to the way God kept his promise to make Israel a great nation by liberating the Hebrew people from Egypt on the night when the first born males of the Egyptians died, though the houses which had sacrificed a lamb were spared. Over the last couple of weeks, the readings at weekday Mass have recalled the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert, as they doubted whether God was ever going to bring them to the Promised Land. Indeed, the Bible is full of many journeys into the unknown, from the calling of Abraham to St Paul’s journey, as a prisoner, to Rome. These stories are to strengthen each one of us as God leads us on our personal journey from the unchangeable past into the unknown future.

It is not easy, being a friend of Jesus. He allows his friends to be tested, and tested sorely. The apostles had to pass through the pain of Good Friday and the agonising loneliness of Holy Saturday before they could experience the unending joy of the Resurrection. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we recall both the triumph and the tragedy of the Easter story.

There was a time, in the history of this parish, when St John Lloyd was without a Parish Priest for several months. It must have been a difficult time, because the anguish is clear in the voices of those among you who have told me about it. I wonder what would happen if this parish again found itself without a resident parish priest? The temptation would be to throw a pity-party, to despair, to doubt that God or the Church cares about this part of Cardiff. But that would be a tragic mistake! To be sure, when there is no Parish Priest, something significant is missing. But why focus on the one gift which is absent, rather than the many gifts which are present?

Imagine there were no parish priest here. But God has not changed! He is, and always will be, the God who allows his friends to be tested and brings them out of darkness and into light. If you have faith in God – the God who has always rescued his people from dark times – then you will not be alone. Did you know that in the year 1587, priests were expelled from Japan, but lay leaders kept the Catholic Church alive, underground, for nearly 250 years? Without priests, they could have baptisms and marriages, but no other sacraments. In 1865, a French priest was permitted to build a church near Nagasaki; suddenly, a group of visitors approached and asked if it was true that he was single, sent from a place called Rome, and that the church contained a statue of the Virgin Mary. In this way, the hidden Catholics were reunited with the wider Church; Pope Pius IX called this a miracle! For those hidden Christians, who had been keeping watch for several generations, the Master had returned!

Imagine there were no parish priest here. But the official presence of the Church would still be close at hand, in the form of our local deacon, and of the priests in nearby parishes, who would still lend assistance. And indeed the Church is present wherever Christians meet together to pray and to do God’s work. When two members of the SVP visit a person at home, the Church is present. When members of the congregation pray Morning Prayer together, even if neither Deacon Rigo not myself are here, the Church is present. When our First Communion Catechists gather with our children, the Church is present. If you have faith in one another, you will keep the community together and continue to make the Church present.

Imagine that, for a time, there were no parish priest here. When one was appointed, what would he find? A community dejected and mournful, or a confident community ready to present the works they have been preparing for him? I have known of priests who have been disappointed to arrive in their new parish to discover no food in the cupboard, no furniture in the bedroom, no set of keys for their duties and no Christian work taking place in the community. But I tell you this, if a priest were to arrive and to be presented with a warm welcome, a group of candidates well-prepared for the sacraments, and all of the material needs on hand, then surely he would put on his apron, wait upon your needs, and become your friend for life. On the day I moved in, the parish turned out in force to help move my boxes, and for that welcome, St John Lloyd is second to none!

Today’s Gospel is first and foremost about the coming of Christ – the Second Coming at the end of time, or the personal Coming when our earthly lives reach their end. It asks us whether the Lord will find us living out our Christian values of faith, hope and love throughout our lives, even when we are tired. Let’s recognise that it’s not easy, being a follower of Jesus. It’s not meant to be. Jesus embraced his Cross and warned us that we would each have to carry our own Cross. Over the next three Sundays, Jesus will be teaching us something about the price we will pay for choosing to follow him.

We will choose the path of humility, or else we will be humbled.

We will set down our baggage, or else find that we cannot carry it with us through the narrow gate of heaven.

We will choose to follow Jesus when this does not make us popular with friends and colleagues who do not share our faith, or else we will please our friends at the expense of God.

Today’s Gospel can also apply to any wilderness experience when being a faithful Catholic seems hard, and the presence of God, in the form of Christian friends or of the institutional church, seems far away. So if in your life now, or in the future, the presence of God feels far away, remember these words:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.