Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2019

Homily of Bishop Dermot Farrell in St Canice’s Cathedral 

Marking the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2019

Jesus begins his public ministry as a young couple begin their life together. At the very beginning of his public ministry St John records an event that culminates in an extravagant abundance. John not only states the detailed amounts – about seven hundred litres of water were changed into wine; he adds very deliberately, “They filled the jars up to the brim.”

The gift was lavish. Wine, in the Scriptures, is a symbol of the exuberance and intoxication of the divine life.  The mark of Christian dispensation is joy. Exuberance. Delight. When God is in us, we are lifted up, rendered joyful, transfigured. Here there is no thought of restriction, measuring, limiting, hoarding. The huge stone jars are brim-full. And yet it is not enough that the abundance of wine is made evident. The narrative is just as explicit about the quality of the wine. The steward announces that the wine now being served is an outstanding vintage of the highest quality. The best wine is served last. The Wedding Feast of the Cana brings home to us the “upside down” world of the kingdom.  God’s ways are not our ways.

The miracle at Cana is a lesson in discipleship. This is why the church reads it near the beginning of the season of Ordinary Time. In this narrative, Christians can find a lesson for their own lives as they continue Jesus’ mission, which, according to John, began at this feast.  The miracle points to a new reality. The fullness that comes from Jesus does not remain something super sensory, internal, purely spiritual, transcendent; it is visible and tangible; it can be tasted and enjoyed.

The imagery found in the first reading characterises the love God has for the people of Israel. The city of Jerusalem, destroyed by the Babylonians, is referred to as “Forsaken” and the land as “Desolate”. But something new is about to take place. The city is about to be vindicated by the very God who had forsaken it. “You shall be called ‘My Delight’; as the bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so will your God rejoice in you.” (Is 62:4-5). The wedding metaphor captures both excitement and hope. God is the one who initiates this new relationship; God is the one who will build up this new community. It is God who builds the Church, since the ‘rule’ or ‘kingdom’ is God’s rule or kingdom.

Of course, we have to ask at this point: why did the early Christian community tell such stories?  What did Jesus have to do with feasting, and what does wedding banquet have to do with God or the reign of God? According to biblical theology a great deal. The prophet Isaiah presumes that the reign of God has begun. While for the prophets it is chiefly about the end time, but that time is not just in the future. Furthermore, Jesus definitively announced that the future is already present; it is now. The joy of the end time has begun. God’s banquet with God’s people Israel is the ‘in between time’.

Do we have an experience of Jesus similar to that of those earlier disciples? Similar but not the same. We should. One such experience is clear to me as I stand here this morning. The fact that you are worshipping here at this moment means that Jesus has touched you in some genuine fashion. Unless you were in contact with Jesus, you could not say, “We believe in the one Lord Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.” If your faith is firm and you have a personal relationship with Jesus, then you have experienced the same Christ who joined the young couple at Cana where he let his glory be seen. You have experienced the same Christ who in Jerusalem showed the doubting disciples his hands and his feet, ate a piece of boiled fish in their presence, and told them what the Scriptures had to say about his suffering and dying, about repentance and forgiveness to be proclaimed in his name to all the world.

Your task and mine, our vocation in virtue of our baptism, is not significantly different from that of Jesus’ early disciples. Proclaim the risen Jesus, bear witness to him, tell the world what you have experienced. At times with your lips, more frequently by your lives. But how? 

Get to really know Jesus, experience him as a personal friend. Listen to him, talk to him. Like Mary in today’s Gospel tell him what you see and hear. She didn’t badger him. As I listen, I too turn my attention, my eyes, my heart to God. Prayer is not a transaction, but is about opening our eyes and ears to what can been seen and heard. Listen with your whole attention, with your mind and with your heart, so that Jesus’s words may open a doorway into God who shapes your life.    

In a homily delivered after the death of Archbishop Michael Ramsey in 1988 Rowan Williams said: “It is possible to ‘know all the words and sing all the notes, and never quite know the song’ …. There have been many forms of confident and successful Christianity—the Catholicism of the late Middle Ages, the Protestantism of late nineteenth-century England, modern neo-Fundamentalism, and so on … All have given the impression of vitality and durability; all have, in some measure, come to judgment, and their judgment has something to do with their inability to allow the gospel, God’s open door, to form their whole understanding.” (Rowan Williams, “Homily after the Death of Archbishop Michael Ramsey” in Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses (London: DLT, 1994), 220–25; here 221).   We begin with a response that transcends denominations. Ponder the words of the gospel, God’s open door, in your heart, and you will always, by his gracious giving, “do whatever he tells you.”  When we are immersed in the Scriptures we will ‘live in him’ and we will “pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on us.” (Attributed to St Ignatius of Loyola).

We have been given remarkable gifts, spiritual gifts, divine gifts. In the passage from the I Corinthians, Paul mentions a handful of them: Some Christians are gifted to present a message of wisdom; some have the kind of faith that moves mountains; some expound effectively the truths of Christianity; some bring healing to flesh or spirit; some can tell who is guided by the Spirit and who is not; some speak in tongues and other interpret what the tongues have to say.  There are others as well: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22).  The basic gifts God gives to all his children at Baptism.

Use these gifts, not only with those you like or who like you. Touch it to the child crippled or girl abused, the adolescent addicted or the refugees and migrants who come to our shores, the slow to learn, the swift to hate, the homeless and the hopeless, the lovely and the unloved, yes the racist and the bigot.

Take a personal love for Jesus and for his images and touch it to all God’s creation. In raping nature, in exploiting all earth God meant for all, we are doing violence to our sisters and brothers. When we see earth, sea and sky as our playthings, for our use or our pleasure as we see fit, we are mocking God who looked at His creation and saw that “it was very good”; we are turning God’s gift into an enemy that can destroy us.

In order to unite with one another, we must love one another; in order to love one another, we must know one another; in order to know one another, we must go and meet one another. We can further the cause of Christian unity by having an anti-nostalgia approach to life.  Christianity is not a hankering after an idealised past, but an embrace of God’s faithful promise which permits us to live today to the fullest.

I believe that an ecumenical spirituality which starts with what we have in common, rather than what divides is crucial. Such a spirituality is not simply an affair of the heart devoid of a search for that which is true; rather, a true ecumenical spirituality supports, enables and even compels us to seek the truth.

Urged on by the love of Christ, we will not run away from reality, ignoring past and present controversies, blurring the fundamental difference between legitimate diversity in the expression of one faith, on the one hand, and the tension between contrasting  positions and priorities, on the other. Where ecumenical consensus has been possible, it has always been experienced as a spiritual gift. It is not a case of conversion to another church, but of the conversion of all to the full truth of Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Evangelisation pre-supposes the church’s self-evangelisation, and the unity of the church pre-supposes its own conversion.

Jesus’ disciples today must seek similar opportunities to share the divine love they have received. It is not enough to place one’s faith in the Son and enjoy personal confidence in the Spirit that comes from belief. Though God initiates the transformation, we can be part of changing what has been forsaken into a delight, what has been desolate into something that is espoused. We have been invited to the wedding of the end time, of new life and hope. We have been chosen to make a difference.

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