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25th Ordinary Sunday, 20.09.20: Holy Defiance

The information we have been receiving in recent days about the upturn in Covid-19 infections is probably not entirely unexpected. There’s no point in denying though that it is again stirring anxiety and fear among us in different ways and to different degrees. While it would be foolish not to pay heed to this fact, it would be unwise to engage in alarmism. A balanced outlook and approach are, as in everything else, very important for our peace of mind. Acting on the advice we are being given by the Government, obeying its rules and those of the institutions we visit or frequent and keeping an eye out for one another will go a long way to keeping our fear and anxiety within reason. Fear has a habit of becoming irrational. We become afraid of the slightest thing, and that’s not good for our mental health. Fear should be rational, that is, a response to a perceived and present danger to our life or property.

But as believers in Christ, we have been given a great deal more to help us face fear and anxiety. First, our faith that we are quite simply, and reassuringly, and thankfully, in God’s hands – no matter what. He is our Creator; our lives and our world stand under his watchful eye at all times. Unless we let it, nothing can happen to us that will remove us from his care and providence. We are the apple of his eye. He is also our Redeemer. There is no virus more deadly than sin and Christ has knocked that out once and for all by taking all its destructive power upon himself and doing it to death on the Cross. The coronavirus is nothing in comparison to sin, so it can have no final say over our lasting good so long as we stay close to Christ.

Faith does not take suffering or death away from our human experience. But since Christ has defeated them, faith gives us the correct perspective on them. And it is God’s own perspective. From within that divine outlook, we are given the wisdom to relativize the meaning of suffering and death. They are not absolute; they are not the final and catastrophic annihilation of humanity; they are not greater than us because they are not greater than Christ, and it is united to Christ that we Christians do suffer and die. We are therefore also given the strength to relativize the fear and anxiety which suffering and death cause to our purely human nature. In and through Jesus, we have already conquered them. We can look on them with a true and holy defiance for, no matter what harm they may cause us in the eyes of the world, the victory of Christ over them is also our victory.

So, while faith does not magically deliver us from pain or from the natural fear which is part of our survival instinct, it gives us the reason for a sure and certain hope that resurrection, and not obliteration, is our guaranteed outcome. And it is hope, after faith, which is the second grace which gives a Christian a huge advantage over others. Christian hope is not mere wishful thinking or optimism that things will get better. Certainly, like and with everyone else, we must put our heart and soul into doing all we can to defeat the virus. This includes our all-out efforts to relieve suffering. It also implies that we engage with the powers that be to ensure that the correct political and medical decisions are taken to minimize if not eliminate the effects and existence even of the virus.

Real Christian hope, then, is not a refuge for the lazy or the resigned. Instead, it directly challenges and contradicts the fear and anxiety surrounding suffering and death. When Christ walked and stumbled his way from Gethsemane to Calvary, he most certainly had to endure the most atrocious sufferings of multiple kinds ever borne by any one man. When Mary walked by his side, she too suffered out of her compassion as no woman had ever suffered before or has ever suffered since. But Christ still knew, as he had told his apostles several times before the passion, and probably also his Mother, that he would rise again on the third day. That did not make the passion any less difficult. It didn’t ease the suffering any. But because he knew he would rise again, he was able to go through the suffering and despise it because of the joy which lay ahead. It is that kind of certain knowledge of certain victory in, through and beyond death which constitutes the core of Christian hope. Christian hope is not for prosperity and peace in this life although it most certainly demands that we work for them as fully as we can for ourselves and for others. St. Paul tells us plainly, though, that if our hope in Christ is only for this life, i.e., for the sorts of advantages this life gives, then we Christians are the most unfortunate of all people.

Christian hope is for a prize which totally transcends and surpasses the best of the best things of this life. It gives to the one who wants it a confident defiance in the face of the disadvantages of this life, including suffering and death. When I know that my hope is, in the last analysis, the very person of the Risen Jesus, nothing in this life can destroy it and nothing in this life can compare with it. For it is He who died for me, personally. It is He who rose for me personally, for every me, for every person. Dead as I will be, He once was. Risen as He is, I will once and for ever be, too, if my hope and faith in Him remain true.

If I can allude to St. Paul again, over these clothes of faith and hope, there is the seamless garment of love which covers and completes them. This is the third and the greatest of the graces which the Christian has been given to defy, to outwit and roundly to defeat fear, anxiety, suffering and death. Faith and hope direct us irresistibly towards Christ. Love unites us to Him, or better, the grace of His love in us opens us up to accept the amazing truth that Christ has already united himself to us in baptism. Just as hope is not mere optimism, so love is not mere sentiment. There was nothing sentimental about the Crucifixion, but there was no greater love known than that of the Crucified.

We can only love as Christ loved if we let ourselves first be loved by him. I choose the word carefully: “let” ourselves be loved by him. It is not as if He is not already loving us with an everlasting love. That is already a given. That is already a certainty. It is already there. It is like a great ocean which surrounds and wants to penetrate us like a sponge floating in the ocean. But we need to open those pores of our soul to let that love seep into our awareness, to become saturated, overwhelmed by that love. So, our prayer should not be, “Lord, love me.” That’s almost an insult. He died already to prove how much he loves us! Rather our prayer should be, “Lord, open me out to your love. Open the floodgates of my heart and let my fear and anxiety, my sin and my wretchedness, pour forth out of me into the immense ocean of your love as your love rushes in to replace these horrible things in me.”

We talk so easily of love, even of God’s love. Sometimes I think that if we became consciously vulnerable to even one percent of his love for us (if you can have one percent of eternity!) that awareness itself of that one percent would cause us to die, to die of love, to die for love. When you let down the barriers and stop the excuses and simply let Christ, not so much in, but emerge from already being within you into your awareness of his loving presence in you, you will know a fire in your heart and an irresistible attraction to this unique human being called Jesus, who lay so humbly in the manger, sat so lovingly at table with the sinner, conversed so kindly with the woman at the well, comforted so sweetly the dying thief, and hung so meekly as the Lamb without stain upon the wood of the Cross. And as that fire of love grows and even flames up or sparks forth, you will realise that nothing and no-one means anything without him. Put differently, he is the meaning of everyone and everything, including of your very own self. Without Christ, everything is nothing. With Christ, everything is what it is only in relation to him.

It’s this realization of being one in love with Christ which St. Paul so powerfully, so beautifully, so simply expresses in the reading from Philippians which we read at Mass this Sunday. The way Paul talks it’s as if he did not care whether he was alive or dead in this mortal body, as long as he could have Christ, be with Christ. In fact, he almost gives the impression of actually being both dead and alive! The way you and I might say “of course it’s good to do good” or “of course, I will have a glass of wine with my pasta”, St. Paul says, “of course, life to me is Christ”! How many people would answer, “what is life to you?” with the name of Christ? And he doesn’t mean it as some heady definition, or even as if he is repeating Christ’s own words, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Not at all. Rather, he actually means that life as such, his own life, the life that energises and drives and sustains him, is the person of Christ. Amazing! It should make us all envious with a holy jealousy.

And it’s no more evidently so than when he says, “Christ will be glorified in my body, whether by my life or by my death.” In fact, in words which sound like madness to us who are all too protective of our earthly lives, he adds, “death would bring me something more.” What more? “I want to be gone and be with Christ, which would be very much the better.” Now there’s someone who has been saturated with the ocean of Christ’s love! There’s someone on fire with the flame of divine love! St. Paul in these words is not despising the gift of human life, but pointing out that the real meaning and purpose of it is to “be gone and be with Christ.” We were created in our mother’s womb, not to stay on this earth for ever, but “to be gone and be with Christ.” We were educated in faith and in life for this purpose, “to be gone and be with Christ.”

But there’s a condition, and this condition shows us that Paul, for all his passion for Christ, was still subject to Christ’s will for him. And the condition is, precisely, that Paul will only be with Christ in heaven, or with him in another way on earth, if that’s what Christ wants for him. He wants to be gone and be with Christ, but Christ might not want that for him yet. And so, to the Philippians, he has no hesitation in saying, despite his desire to be gone, “but for me to stay alive in this body is a more urgent need for your sake.” Not for his own sake, but for the sake of the Church community of the Philippians. I could say the same to you, my parishioners here and in Millport. I want to be gone and be with Christ. I make no bones about that, even though I doubt I am ready for him – but he might be ready for me! I would go if he called me right now. I’m not necessarily saying that I’m still here because I’m doing you good – that is your judgment call, not mine! But Christ has me for some reason still here, as he has us all still here. And among other things, that reason is to give us the time to work our way towards the stage when we want to be gone and be with him. This utter selflessness in Paul is an eloquent testimony to Christ’s presence in him, to Christ’s victory over his heart and soul. Neither life nor death, nor sickness nor health, nor riches nor poverty mean anything in comparison with Christ.

Now very few in the history of the Church have had anything like St. Paul’s love for Christ, an intelligent, articulate, suffered, supremely sincere and even more supremely passionate love. But all of us, by virtue of our baptismal calling, are still called to open up and reach out to Christ with the fullness of our hearts, however hurting, however sinful, however graceful. Our calling is to be opened up and out to be filled with Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God. Our sacramental union with Christ in baptism is ultimately directed towards the consummate union of the Beatific Vision. We are called to live good lives on this earth, yes, but as a response to Christ, so as to long for and see Christ. We are called to fulfil our family and professional duties faithfully, yes, but as a response to Christ, so as to long for and see Christ. We are called to suffer and to die in faith, hope and love, yes, but in response to Christ, so as to come through these and out the other end to the vision of Christ.

Christ is the sole measuring stick. He is the unique criterion. He is the only law, he is the only motive and purpose and ethos for anyone who is baptised: not the world, not the nonsense it tells us, not our selfishness, not a book you’ve read, not any ideological persuasion you may have. No, the Person of Christ: his Person is the measure of who we are called to be, and if we allow ourselves to be determined by anything less than Christ, we will never fulfil the potential for which He created us.

Our current situation and the fears and anxieties we have for ourselves and our families pose all sorts of questions. Will I die soon? What kind of death will it be? What will happen to me after death? Will I get to heaven? Have I done enough? What about my past sins? What about the broken relationships? Will Christ want me, will Our Lady?

My brothers and sisters, I invite you to shelve these questions, simply, clearly and without question. Catch it, kill it, bin it! Do that with the anxieties and questions which come to you during the night when you can’t sleep. Instead reach down and source and reflect upon the deep and abiding waters and graces of your baptism. They still flow deeply within you, like an underground ocean. Know, review, study, consider what your Catholic faith teaches you, what your Catholic hope promises you and what your Catholic love will secure for you by the mercy of Christ. The evil spirit loves to unsettle us with questions about the future and doubts about the past so that in the present, instead of getting on with the business a good life in the company and for the sake of Christ, we are reduced to shaking and shivering wrecks. That’s what the evil spirit wants. He wants us totally decoyed away from the focus on the mercy, power and love of Christ. And he will turn up the volume on all this stuff the more he smells our fear and anxiety. But, if I can dare say it this way, “I say unto you,” tell him to go to hell where he belongs. Don’t listen to him. Don’t give him a millimetre. Don’t entertain the fatuous claptrap with which he tries to poison your mind, heart, memory and conscience. Don’t engage him in conversation because that means you have already succumbed to him. Follow rather the example of Christ when he said, “Get behind me, Satan.” Shut up! The evil spirit is a coward who fakes being strong to exploit your weaknesses to his advantage. Well, have none of it. Stand up to him strong in faith and he will scarper. Take your stand beside the Cross of Christ, fix your gaze on Christ and don’t move your eyes one millionth of a millimetre to right or to left.

The coronavirus has come. It will also go. Others have come before it and have long since gone. Yet others will come after it and they will go, too. Likewise, your fears and anxieties may well have come, but they will also go, and they will go all the sooner if you don’t give them a hearing but bend both ears firmly towards the Crucified. Listen to him say, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise. Behold your Mother. I thirst.” Whenever your today comes to be gone and be with Christ, as Paul puts it, all you need say is, “Jesus, remember me.” Whenever your today comes to enter into glory, remember that the Mother of Jesus and your Mother stands beside you to lead you forth. And whenever your today comes, remember, too, that Jesus will say to you “I thirst.” Thirst for what? For your presence by his side at the throne of grace, for the radiant joy of seeing your face before him and, above all, for the ocean of divine love that will then sweep through your heart, as it will through the hearts of all others, who have longed to see his Face.

Covid-19, we defy you; we despise you; and we will defeat you!

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