Cathedral of the Assumption, Tuam, 12 April 2017
Viewing Humanity through the Eyes of Jesus
The Gospel for this year is the Gospel of St. Matthew. It is the Gospel which teaches us to look at humanity through the eyes of Jesus. It acknowledges humanity as afflicted and weighed down with all manner of burdens. Far from adding to humanity’s burden, Jesus comes to share and lift them. Of all the gospels it is Matthew that has contributed most to Christian identity and self-understanding. There is much soul-searching regarding what it means to be Church today, so it is fitting to look at the image of Church emerging from this Gospel. The Church’s relationship to the wider world, steadily becoming more and more complex and pluralistic, remains problematic and unsure. We find ourselves a very burdened community – burdened from within by the weight of our own sinfulness and institutional failure, burdened from outside through sharing the common lot of human kind in a fearful and anxious time.
The Climactic Scene:
The Church Receives Her Mission
For a few moments I would like to share some thoughts with you regarding the climactic scene of the entire gospel where the Church receives from the risen Christ the instructions and assurances that will define its identity and its mission until the end of time. Faith in the resurrection is a matter of worship rather than analysis. It does not exclude doubt. Matthew acknowledges that believers, like ourselves, are caught between adoration and doubt. In this scene at the end of Matthew’s gospel we are told that the disciples fall to the ground in worship. Some, however, hesitated or doubted.
Weakness, Failure and the Central Command
Matthew’s acknowledgement of the persistence of weakness and failure in the community runs right through the gospel. It is to such a community that Jesus approaches and to whom he gives his great commission. Jesus commissions the disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations”. His own personal mission had been to Israel. Now, following the partial success of that mission, the appeal is to be extended through the members of the Church to the nations of the world. In this worldwide mission we as disciples are commanded to do four things: to go out, to make disciples of all the nations, to baptise, and to teach. The central command is that of making disciples; baptising and teaching are means to that end.
The Challenge and the Presence of Christ
These realities help to define and describe our priestly ministry. We are all very conscious of the challenge facing us in this area. However, if we separate the commission to make disciples, to baptise and teach from the promise of assurance that the Lord will always be with us in this work, then we run the risk of either of two temptations, one that we would become arrogant in our ministry or, secondly, that we would be so over-whelmed by the task facing us and the resources which we have in terms of personnel, that we would become despondent. I believe that, keeping the commission and the re-assurance in close relationship we will be enabled to face the challenge courageously and with faith in Christ’s presence accompanying us.
Here the Church is assured that, to the end of time, it is to be the instrument for the realisation of a divine presence in the nations of the world. The account of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry to Israel told in the gospel is no simple record of something accomplished in a special time that is now over. It is a key to the teaching and healing ministry the risen Jesus continues in the Church on a worldwide scale.
The Figure of Peter
Rock and ‘skandalon’
It is within this context that we must locate our ordained ministry. To help us to do so the figure of Peter in the Gospel of Matthew is very informative. He is the one who confessed that Jesus is “The Christ, the Son of the living God, to which Jesus responded with a beatitude “blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah”. Peter, however, wanted a Christ on his own terms and tried to prevent Jesus from going to Jerusalem, a reaction which gained him the stern rebuke of Jesus – “get behind me, Satan”. So the rock that was Peter was at that point blocking the road that Jesus knew he had to take whether he or Peter or anybody else wanted it that way or not. We see the irony in it all; Peter the rock had become in Greek the skandalon, which was the little stone which would trip you up as you walk along.
Enthusiastic Disciple: “Feed my Sheep”
Peter was the one who enthusiastically promised to lay down his life and follow Jesus no matter where he would lead. Yet he denied Jesus and his own discipleship when the pressure came on from the servant girl. Peter could have resorted to despair. Yet, because he repented he had a future in Jesus’ plan.
On Ordination Day we too made promises. At times we are embarrassed by the way in which we have failed to fulfil them and yet the Lord persists with us as he did with Peter. He entrusts to us what he entrusted to Peter: “feed my lambs, feed my sheep”.
Faith and Frailty
We witness in Peter what we experience in ourselves, namely a mixture of faith and frailty which characterises Christian life in general and Christian ministry in a particular way. Peter’s weakness and failure in human terms is acknowledged by Jesus and transformed by Him so that Jesus persists with an imperfect human instrument rather than dismisses it and this is something that ought to inspire hope for us priests in our ministry. While we experience dismay and displacement in our ministry yet we have the assurance that God is present with and for us. We find ourselves in a culture that challenges our fundamental beliefs. We can react in either of two ways. In response we can decide to search for God with deeper faith as the exiles did in Babylon or we can lose our courage as happened to Peter when he took the focus off Christ when walking on the waters.
Prophecy and Priesthood
As we proclaim Christ’s gospel, prophecy and priesthood have important roles to play. Prophecy has a critical function challenging us to renew and be renewed. Priesthood on the other hand is about constructing communities where faith is given tangible expression. Without prophecy a society can become corrupt at the top. Without Priesthood, it can erode from below. It can lose its structures of family and community life within which the civic virtues are fostered and encouraged. Prophecy makes headlines, priesthood rarely does. Both are necessary. As ordained ministers we have a responsibility to help people to lift their gaze beyond the pessimism of those who speak today of “new dark ages” and enable them to discern a distant horizon of hope. If we are to undertake that responsibility of guiding others through the wilderness, pessimism would be an abdication of responsibility on our part.
Holy Week: triumph of faith over doubt
What Jesus said and did during these days of Holy Week were said and done in some of the deepest darkness ever known to humanity. They are the most awe-inspiring proof that faith is stronger than any doubt and that God has lit a flame in the human soul that no force on earth can extinguish.