14th Sunday of the Year, 5th July 2020
How many of you have had a hair cut in the last twenty four hours? Been to the pub? Got married? (Well, hopefully I’d have known about that last one anyway). Yes, restrictions have been lifted and a blessed relief too.
How easily have you taken to being told whether you can do certain things or not? Some of us will have found it quite easy and some of us will have struggled against it. Even if we’ve not been furious with each set of restrictions, our struggle with being told what to do may come out in the fact that we simply disobey bits of it. How many of us have been to shops when we shouldn’t, shared cars, invited folk into our home, not kept two metres distance? I suspect most if not all of us have broken or bent the restrictions at some level.
I want therefore to reflect on what we might learn from our experience of lock down and perhaps rebelling against the rules or resenting them in the light of a clear message from our readings at Mass today: humility. The vision of Zechariah we heard as the first reading which might quite properly remind us of Palm Sunday: “See now, your King comes to you He is victorious, He is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey.” The symbolism of Christ riding into the Holy City of Jerusalem just a few days before the great festivities of the Jewish Feast of Passover and being hailed as a king is an image carefully altered by Him riding on a donkey, a lowly ass. Imagine the Queen arriving in Delboy’s three-wheeled Reliant Robin at the State Opening of Parliament!
Jesus says, “I am gentle and humble in heart,” in today’s Gospel. We see this not only on Palm Sunday but in His birth in a stable at Bethlehem, His flight as a refugee into Egypt, His lowly origins in Nazareth - “can anything good come from Nazareth?” St Bartholomew asks cuttingly (John 1:46) - his execution as a criminal. It’s not what you would want for your child. And perhaps we can be tempted to say subconsciously, “Well, it was fine for Jesus to go through all this because He knew He is God, it was only temporary.” Let’s be clear though, this was no publicity stunt, no hard hat on a politician visiting a factory in a deprived area outside London. This was the Incarnation. Jesus didn’t escape at the end of the day and put His feet up in a mansion with all the latest comforts. He dwelt among us. He lived with the poor and the outcast. He ate with the sinner. He healed the leper. All this because God is love and this is what love looks like. He said to them as He says to us, “Come to me.”
And over the last few weeks with churches open every day - St Mary’s being open fifty hours every week - and from tomorrow with the resumption of public Masses we can indeed come to Christ. For the dwelling of God among His people continues in the Tabernacle where the Body of Christ is reserved. Again, He’s not tidied away not to be seen until the next service. God dwells among us and longs to give us rest. We can have once again the yoke placed upon us, the responsibilities and duties of discipleship and worship but know that they are light and easy because His grace is sufficient. Come my friends! If you’re not shielding or self-isolating we’ve made it safe so you can keep two metres distance and come to find the rest for our souls Christ promises. Come to contemplate the humble heart of the Saviour, a Sacred Heart that burns with a deep love for us.
Being humble meant our Lord had to realise He was subject to external forces and be obedient to them. That’s true of our humility too. I suspect when we’ve perhaps been tempted to stretch the rules of the lockdown we’ve said it’s because it won’t matter - you can’t get Corona Virus that way - I haven’t got it - I don’t mind if I get it. However we might have justified it. Or we might have said it’s because we don’t like the Government - “I didn’t vote for them anyway.” Or we might have said that no Government has the right to restrict our movement to that extent. All these arguments have varying degrees of validity. But they miss the point that humility will mean sometimes subjecting ourselves to schemes and authorities which are ones that don’t need to have a hold over us or are far from reliable.
Supremely Christ was obedient to the Father, not because He was subordinate to Him, but because He had emptied Himself to assume the condition of a slave. Jesus goes to the Cross obedient to the Father. His humility takes Him to Calvary, where he’d rather not have gone, had it been possible. But we know that God’s authority is truth, is just, is exactly how we are meant to lead our lives, is exactly how we’re meant to orientate our lives.
We also see in the ministry on earth of our Lord a subordinating of Himself to those authorities that were not higher than Him. At one level we could even say this of the laws of gravity and maturing, which do not bind Jesus as God, but are part of Him having humbled Himself. But we also see this in Christ when He came up against the Roman Empire. There was much evil about the Roman civilisation: there certainly wasn’t much room for humility in the systems they established. When Jesus is presented with a denarius and asked whether they should pax taxes to the foreign invader: those many argued unjustly governed the land, Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” (Mattew 22:21). When hauled before Pilate and the threat of execution dangling before Him, Jesus is content to be silent until He reminds Pilate that He could indeed call down twelve legions of angels should He so wish (Matthew 26:53). But part of His humility and following God’s plan is to be humble before this phoney power.
Humility so often as seen in the lives of the saints involves being content to be treated poorly by those who have no right to. Think of St Thérèse of Liseux being told off for smashing a flower pot she’d discovered broken and had not knocked over. Remember St Maximilian Kolbe being shot because he’d said he’d killed a chicken so another could be spared. This is indeed a challenge to us and especially as we consider in our society today the pressing cause of justice. How does the Christian prizing humility sit alongside the pursuit of justice, the reluctance of individuals to be bullied anymore, the call to speak out against those wrongs we experience or see in others?
The answer to this is surely the Kingdom of God. “Our Father … thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” We as Christians will hear the call each day to deny ourselves and to follow Christ; we will be reminded that to love this life is to lose it (John 12:25); that if someone slaps the right cheek we are to offer them the other one too (Matthew 5:39). But this cannot mean we are to be silent in the face of injustice or oppression. Tomorrow the Church celebrates the Feast of St Maria Gorreti the young girl raped and who was so savaged by her attacker that she died from the wounds sustained a few days later. The man needed to be sentenced to prison and he was. When he’d served his time and was released he had repented of his crime and become a Christian. He ended up at Mass with Maria Goretti’s mother and they knelt next to each other, receiving Holy Communion together. That’s justice in action. He needed to amend his ways so the Kingdom of God could be better realised in his life.
We cannot achieve the Kingdom of God without inviting the person who would abuse us to join in too but that will mean he or she needs to stop his or her abusive ways. St George our national Patron Saint wanted to protect the princess, wanted to rid the community of evil. His slaying of the dragon is not a reason for us to kill those who oppress us, but it is a reminder that we are to have a desire to rid our communities of injustice and the terror that the abusive have over others. It’s important for us to remember that we speak up against injustice not to assert our own value, nor to do down those who offend, but so that our accuser might realise the dignity God has given them and the love He calls us all to live out. This is what Christ’s kingdom looks for. Hence the thief who says sorry on the Cross next to our Lord’s says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” (Luke 23:42). Jesus promised to do so and we need to do that to those who would do us and others down.
My friends, the reconciliation of the human race was so important that God sent His Son, humble in heart to embrace so much that was difficult in life. Our humility will seek justice not so as to exalt ourselves but so that our accusers might also share in the glorious redemption won for us on the Cross, which was meant for all humanity. Amen.