Sixth Sunday of the Year, 16th Feb ~ GSC
Are you good at riddles: When can someone’s pocket be empty but have something in it? Answer: When it has a hole in it. Do you ever marvel at how empty certain things are? Sometimes we might use words and when we dig a bit beneath them we discover they don’t mean very much at all. People commit to doing things, people saying they care about someone or something, people apologising. So often it can end up being a bit empty. More than that, I often think what the secular world offers to us as alternatives to religion seem empty. It might be fun to go to the gym and we’ll no doubt feel better for it, but many have made their body the only temple they worry about and, well, it’s a bit meaningless to pay so much attention to something destined to corruption and death. You may have attended funerals or weddings in registry offices and they can be beautiful occasions, great send-offs or celebrations of the love of the couple but there is something missing. They miss out God. Emptiness
Jesus says in the Gospel we’ve just heard: “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.” He says the same to us. For it can be easy to misunderstand the consequences of the love of God and the generosity of Jesus. We know the love of God to be immense and we base our life on that love for us sinners. That love means Jesus takes our sins on Himself on the Cross so that the weight of them need not be borne by us alone. But that free and generous love of God does not mean we can do whatever we want; that it doesn’t matter how we live our lives; that some bits of our discipleship are not essential. Things like worship, the Mass, loving His Mother, loving the Church, serving those who have need of our help, being honest and holy - these all matter still. “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.”
The Law and the Prophets are used as an image for the whole Old Testament caboodle. They were fine in leading the people of old towards God. People like the Patriarchs, Moses, Isaac and Jacob kept the law as it was in their day and had faith in the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But it could only take them so far, as Paul says in his letter to the Romans 8:3: “God has done what the Law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.”
It was as if it was empty, it had no real power to it, no substance to it and none at all without Christ. St Paul uses elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 13 the image of a noisy gong. Maybe imagine a beautiful piece of music that you love softly floating over the airwaves, something that would calm you and send to sleep and give you peace. And then bang bang bang bang comes the noisy gong. No sense of harmony, no relationship to the rest of the music or the other instruments just railroading through all else that is happening and giving joy. Paul warns that eloquent speeches and a specific gift within the Church of speaking in tongues were like noisy gongs if they had not love. They were empty, meaningless, even destructive.
Another image used in the Scriptures is that of what we build our lives on. A song we used to sing at Sunday School went: “The wise man built his house upon the rock …” It’s a very simple image we can use to asses why we do what we do in our lives. When we’re getting ready for school tomorrow, when we’re concerned about a hospital appointment, when we’re feeling frazzled or anxious do we place all that on the rock of faith in Christ? Do we come and bring it to the altar? Or do we build our plan and confidence on our own efforts, which are like drifting sands and where ultimately we’ll fall in within ourselves.
The 1662 Prayer Book of the Church of England had a much older prayer contained within it which, like much else there, was from the ancient Catholic faith. It’s a prayer worth using each day. It begins with the word ‘Prevent’ which doesn’t mean stopping us from doing something like we might use the word today, but it here means “Go before:”
Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings, with thy most gracious favour, and further us with thy continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in thee, we may glorify thy holy Name, and finally by thy mercy obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Can we truly say, my friends, that our words and actions are begun, continued and ended in God? Maybe one of the three? Maybe on a really good day two of the three?
The Christingle can serve as a reminder of this same truth: to begin and continue and end our works with God. The orange reminds us that the world was created by God. All things are begun in Him. Having something by our front doors like a water stoop that you have in Church or a Crucifix or a statue of Mary can be a visible remind of that beautiful hope expressed in the Psalm: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in this time on and for ever more” (Psalm 121). Beginning all things with Christ.
The sweets - you might say the best bit of the Christingle - remind us of the fruits of the earth, the seasons. When we’re tilling the earth, working away, doing whatever it is that we must be busy with each day, when we’re doing those things are we doing them in Christ? With His love on our lips, with His gentleness in our hearts, with His courage in our minds? Or do we get on with them and say we’ll say hello to Jesus when we’re finished, when the extension is built, or the funeral arrangements for so-and-so sorted, or when the essay deadline is over. Why not say hello to Jesus, why not be at Mass in the middle of all that, continuing to cope with the stresses and strains with Christ right in the middle of it, where He longs to be, right alongside us, born in Bethlehem for us.
The red ribbon shows the redemption won for us by the Blood of Jesus. Our end therefore is to be in Heaven with the Lord whom we worship today. Our worship this evening shows we know the heavenly destiny to which we are called. When we end our tasks, our meals, our Mass this evening we see there’s a clearer relationship between what we do on earth and what we do in Heaven by ending our works here in thanksgiving and in praise of God. God shows us this same attitude when He created the world, as recorded by the book of Genesis, which tells us at the end of each day that God looked on what He had made, saw that it was very good and found enjoyment in it. May we not simply move from one thing to the next without recognising the beauty of a world destined for redemption.
Actions begun, continued and ended in Jesus. I’ve just been in Lourdes where Our Lady appeared to St Bernadette. One of the things Mary told Bernadette in these appearances was how to make the sign of the Cross. Now, Bernadette would have known, she would have been taught, but she struggled to do it in the presence of the Lady who appeared in dazzling white amid the mud of the grotto. For the rest of her life, people commented how beautifully Bernadette made this sign. This gesture and those other gestures we make here in Church must never be empty or meaningless or just made out of habit. The sign of the Cross is a confident and quiet trust in the power of the Death of Jesus our Saviour.
We’re not called to empty words, or meaningless ceremonies presented to us by the world, we’re called to know the full, weighty truth of all that God has done for the world.