Homily at St Philip Evans on Maundy Thursday 2015
The Seven Word Sermon: Christ exhorts and sustains us through life.
Are we nearly there yet?
For six weeks we have been journeying through Lent. If we have taken our Lent seriously, we have done whatever is within our power to overcome our bad habits and to increase our doing of good deeds. God willing, our new and better habits will stick – but we may not sustain our short-term burst of good deeds in the long haul.
400 years ago, a French priest, St Vincent de Paul, felt inspired to gather a band of men who would travel to the ends of the earth to do the work of God; he called them simply The Congregation of the Mission, and reflected on their work in these words:
What have our Missioners in the Far East undertaken? … A single man takes on the care of a ship crewed by two hundred convicts: religious instruction and confessions to the healthy and to the sick, day and night, for two weeks; and at the end of that time, he gives them a party, going himself to buy a side of beef and have it cooked; it’s their delight; one man alone does all that! Sometimes he goes off to the farms where slaves are placed; he takes them on their free time and helps them to know God; he gets them ready to receive the sacraments, and at the end he gives them a treat and has a little party for them. In Madagascar the Missioners preach, hear confessions, and teach catechism constantly from four in the morning until ten, and from two in the afternoon until nightfall; the rest of the time is spent praying the Office and visiting the sick. Those men are workers, they’re true Missioners!
Are we nearly there yet? Not yet, but we are well on the way. The journey takes a lifetime; but God has provided us with food for the journey.
Faith and feasting have always gone hand in hand. God commanded the Israelites to sacrifice and eat the Passover Lamb each year. Our Lord Jesus celebrated a similar meal at the Last Supper, when he commanded us to feast on his body and blood. The Missioners mentioned by St Vincent completed each of their missions by a celebration meal. Our journey through life is punctuated by feasting and fasting. In giving us the Gift which is the Eucharist, Our Lord has entrusted us with food for the journey. In doing this, he at one and the same time instructed us about what was within our power, and what was his alone. It is within our power to give of ourselves to those in need. It is within God’s power to sustain us on the journey with the Bread from Heaven.
Many of you may have watched the film, The Mission, on television last Sunday. There is one scene in which a missionary priest, trying to protect the natives of a South American tribe, leads them in a procession, carrying the Blessed Sacrament. When he is attacked and falls, a native picks up the monstrance and continues the procession. That priest, though merely the creation of a scriptwriter, represents the many missionaries who have succeeded in giving both material help and a renewed sense of dignity to the poorest people of the world. Among them, we might name the soon-to-be-Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down at Mass for speaking up for the poor, and many of St Vincent de Paul’s missionary martyrs.
When the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul sold their property to build the Deaf Service Hall here at St Philip Evans, we inherited the contents of their chapel. Among them are relics of St Vincent de Paul himself, and two of his priests who were martyred as missionaries in China, St John Gabriel Perboyre and St Francis Regis Clet. Nor was St Vincent only an inspiration to men, for he founded the Daughters of Charity with St Louise de Marillac; perhaps the most famous later member was St Catherine Labouré, to whom the Blessed Mother showed herself to reveal the Miraculous Medal. I have placed all these relics on the table where we will also receive the holy oils, because the oils are for our journey to become saints: in Baptism, we are joined to the body of Christ; in Confirmation, we are promised strength to help us act as saints; in the Sacrament of the Sick, we are anointed to prepare our souls to return the mission on Earth or enter the company of the saints in Heaven.
Lent is but a moment in the cycle of our Christian life, to remind us of the mission we have been given all-year-round, to love one another as Christ has loved us. Tonight we remember how Christ taught us the work of humble service by washing the feet of his disciples, disciples who were commissioned to go out into the world and do likewise. This is our mission as Christians, as Catholics. We who choose to gather on this Thursday night, we are the heart of this parish, and so it falls especially on us to continue this mission.
Loving other people is hard work. It takes a lot of time. The people we try to love never behave the way wish they would. And whatever good we do, it never seems enough, for there’s always more that we could do if only life and its limitations did not get in the way. But God knows this. God himself experienced the limits of human flesh in Jesus Christ. And Jesus constantly called upon us not to be afraid. If we are truly people who love without fear, then the way we vote in next month’s General Election will be shaped by a generous concern for the poorest members of society, not a frightened snatching at our own self-interest.
Are we nearly there yet? None of us knows the day or hour when God will call us to complete our journey. Tragically, we live in an age where religious extremists are making martyrs of Christians in many parts of the world. We are called to the bloodless martyrdom of living our daily lives for Christ. In this, we are not alone. God has provided for us, food for the journey. Let us not be daunted by our calling, for St Vincent spoke as follows: We’ll always have greater strength than is needed, especially when the occasion arises. No one can be excused on the grounds of powerlessness: we have in us the seeds of the omnipotence of Jesus Christ.