26th Sunday of the Year SMC
Often we hear politicians and news reporters say something like, “The people here have lost everything.” They’re usually standing outside a destroyed building, gutted because of natural disaster or fire or an attack. “They’ve lost everything.” There have been some awful incidents in our country but the people invovled haven’t lost everything; they’ve lost all their material possessions. And I know I’d be devastated in such situations - OI’m not saying it wouldn’t be awful - but let’s be careful about how we use language: we may lose all that we posses including our home but we will still have a lot of what is important in life, supreme above all is our faith in Jesus Christ deep within our heart.
The Parable we’ve just heard in the Gospel is unique in that it names one of the individuals in the story, Lazarus. This isn’t the Lazarus whom Jesus raises from the dead (John 11), the brother of Martha and Mary of Bethany. We don’t know who this Lazarus is but maybe in the local area there was a poor man by this name and he got a starring role in this parable. The rich man in the tradition of the Church is sometimes given the name Dives, which is simply the Latin for ‘rich man.’ We’re told he wears purple and this association between that colour and status is why bishops to this day where purple to show their sharing in the sovereignty of Christ our High Priest.
The poor man Lazarus dies and ends up in the Bosom of Abraham. This ought not to surprise us, after all Jesus teaches us that the poor of this world will be blessed in the world to come: “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). The “Bosom of Abraham” mentioned is a phrase used nowhere else in the Bible but it is adopted by the Church in some of her prayers for the departed. The image of the bosom might come from the way Roman civilisation at the time ate its meals with folk leaning on their left arm reclining on couches - not great for digestion, I fear - but it meant you could easily end up in a circle with folk almost in each other’s lap. We see this in John’s Gospel where he describes himself as “reclining next to Jesus” (John 13:23). The image of being taken to a bosom is perhaps more familiar to us, with the sense of a child being clasped to his or her parent’s bosom for protection and reassurance.
This parental care is claimed by the rich man who from his den in Hades cries out, “Father Abraham, pity me.” The promise made to Abraham, of course, was that he would be a father to many nations (Genesis 17:5) and Paul refers to him as “the father of all who believe,” not very helpfully translated as “ancestor” by some translations of the Scriptures (Romans 4:11). We see in this, the basis of a new relationship based on faith. In similar vein we call priests and bishops ‘father’ and when we baptise children we give them godparents. Godparents are not an insurance policy only to be used in the case of the death of parents, they are to be guardians of the Christian faith and seeking to bring to full fruition the gift of faith given to the newly baptised.
Faith is about recognising there’s a different reality at work in the world: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This does not mean we will see angels at the foot of our bed or start hallucinating. Our celebration of the Holy Guardian angels this coming Wednesday is a great reminder that we each have a celestial guardian who is ultimately to guide us to our Heavenly homeland. It’s not about seeing funny things circling round or anything like that. Read Hebrews 10 and we see that faith is evident by testifying to a different reality in the way we live through the things we can see. St Joan of Arc might pray for us in this endeavour so let me tell you about her.
Somewhat curiously she’s included in our reredos, the statue-filled wall behind the tabernacle. She was just in the process of being made a saint when it was erected in 1908. We might think it odd that here in an English church is commemorated St Joan of Arc who was instrumental in driving the English out of France about six hundred years ago. She was condemned as an heretic and burned at the stake. In all this she needed to take the long view and look beyond the visible realities to the invisible reality. Looking beyond the horrors of war in which she was engaged and looking beyond the condemnation by the bishops of her day, she never lost faith in Christ who calls His Church for whose life Jesus went to the Cross. St Joan teaches us not to wallow in our own problems but to have our horizons expanded by the communion of saints and the eternal promises of God.
Faith is a gift; we do not produce it out of our own strength and we come to the Lord’s table to polish it up. It’s hard to discern the reality of what happens in Church because we call down the Holy Spirit and we do not see Him physically come down. Oh that we were blessed like those apostles on the day of Pentecost and their accompanying crowd who saw tongues of fire! It would also surely help us if we could see the Lord’s Body and Blood come down and be upon the altar. Surely people would flock to come if Jesus could be seen here in Flesh and Blood? But if we could see, would it still be faith for we live under the promise Our Lord makes to St Thomas after His Resurrection: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).
Not seeing makes things frustrating and sometimes makes it easier to be despondent about our faith. I believe somehow it makes it more precious. When Jesus describes our prayer life, He uses the image of a room where you close the door and speak to your Heavenly Father in secret and there be rewarded (Matthew 6:6). He speaks here not of your own bedroom where you can shut the door and keep whoever lives with you out; this is not how first century homes worked. It must surely be the door to our heart that we must close and there in the privacy of our private thoughts offer ourselves intimately to God. Many a good book and film has within it a love which cannot be expressed or is unrequited. That it cannot be expressed makes it intense, waiting to explode and often in literature the plot is that person working up to putting his or her feelings out in the open so everyone can live happily after.
Our faith must not be hidden away but it will testify to things that are not fully evident yet. Come the end of time all will be revealed. I’m afraid this makes much harder the life to which we commit A’rya in her Baptism this morning. I stand before you ultimately because I believe I heard the call of God to be a priest and this has affected so many decisions I have made in my life over the last twenty years. You and I all of us also have this wonderful gift of faith, of being a Christian, which should not be hidden, which guides the decisions and choices we make. Do not be disheartened, my friends, because we testify to things which are not self-evident. Our study of the Scriptures, our praying through Mass, our love shown to others, our speaking about what God does in our life: all this refines the gift of faith, this precious gift we need never lose. Amen.