Homily for the Jubilee Mass and Celebrations for Professed Sisters of the Sisters of St Joseph NSW Region at St Joseph’s Retreat Centre, Baulkham Hills, 23 January 2020
Readings: Isaiah 43:1a- 5; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 15:1-5
Keeping the fire burning
It is a great joy for us to be here, to give thanks to God for the gift of consecrated life and to renew our commitment to be the sign of the Kingdom.
These jubilarians are our companions on the journey and they have given wonderful witness to the Kingdom. We thank you not simply for the work that you do, great or small, seen or unseen, celebrated or uncelebrated, among the mainstream society or on the margins.
We want to thank you, above all, for who you are, for the witness of generous love, unwavering hope and vulnerable trust.
Religious life in Australia is in transition, to put it very mildly. In this time and in this place where we find ourselves, a crisis of relevance stares us in the face. Like the people of God in the exile, we are being led to a place until now untrodden and uncharted. Like them, we can try to relive the glorious past with nostalgia and risk losing our prophetic witness or we can go forward with courage and faith trusting that God will bring about new life out of our barrenness.
In fact, it was the exile that was the catalyst for a new Israel. It formed a new consciousness of who God was and what it truly meant to be his people; it brought about the most transforming experience that rejuvenated a battered Israel. We religious are called to do the same for the people of our time.
For, we are not primarily the workforce for the Church, not the legitimators of its status quo. Rather, we are catalysts for its renewal. We explore new frontiers and possibilities. Our job is to keep alive not necessarily memories of the way we were (like the song by Barbra Streisand) but the dangerous memory of Jesus.
One of my favourite images that speak to religious life today is that of Simeon and Anna holding the child Jesus in the temple. Yes, many of us are just getting old and derelict like Simeon and Anna. But in the words of Paul, we are like earthenware vessels holding the inestimable treasure of Christ.
If like Anna and Simeon, we are faced with decline and demise, we should not fear as long as we can pass on to others the hope, the light and the salvation that we have seen.
One of my childhood memories has to do with learning how to keep the fire alive until the next morning. I remember standing by my mother’s side near the wood fireplace that served as our humble stove. Late into the night, she would choose one strong red amber and bury it deep into the ashes. This amber would then be used to light the fire the following morning. Our life as religious is a bit like that. In a time of diminishment and uncertainty, our task is simply to keep the amber of the Gospel alive and pass it to the next generation.
The readings today speak of the God who calls his people by name, who holds them across deep rivers and scorching flames. Such tender reassurance, however, is tempered by a fierce challenge that they are to walk the road of vulnerable trust and generous commitment. The long arc of God’s story points towards not just Israel’s restoration but the restoration of all things according to the divine design.
Isaiah summons them to a new future after the exile. This new future does not simply consist in the regaining of former status in Palestine. It is not “Make Israel Great Again”. Rather it will be a humble remnant people learning to be a beacon of light and a sign of God’s presence in the world.
The Gospel also encourages us to live a life of radical communion through the metaphor of the vine. Jesus describes himself as the true vine. In contrast to the ravaged and unfruitful vine of Israel, he bears the fruits that God the owner seeks. That is so because Jesus is prepared to walk the imminent journey of self-emptying.
It is by imitating Christ’s self-emptying love that we can be true to our mission of sharing God’s life and love for the world: an oasis for the weary, a hospital for the wounded, a refuge for the oppressed, and a voice for the voiceless.
The Church is like a vessel adrift on the choppy waters of the post-Christian world. Many of us, like the Jews of old, are fearful of the unknown and uncertain future ahead. We yearn for the certainty and security of the past.
Yet, the call of authentic discipleship is the call to walk into the deep rivers, the burning coals and the baptism of fire. Anthony the Hermit went into the wilderness of Egypt not to seek peace and quiet but to live the unfettered spirit of the Gospel against the backdrop of the emerging imperial Christianity. Mary MacKillop ventured into the colonial backwater of Penola to do something about the injustices and sufferings of the people.
We are called to rise to the occasion, to let loose the spirit, to rouse the comfortable, to radically embody the Gospel of justice, love and mercy.
We give thanks for the witness of love and service, of exchanging everything for the advantage of knowing Christ. May what we celebrate today serve to remind us of our commitment to the vision of Jesus. Let us go forward in our mission to make a difference in the world, confident of the victory of Christ and His promise to be with us till the end of time.
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