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His Holiness, Pope Francis
The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord 2014 Boarbank Hall
Lumen ad Revelationem Gentium (Lk 2:32)
How did Christianity ever become a universal faith? Firstly because it came from Judaism and Judaism believed and proclaimed that there was only one God, and that he had made the world. There was nothing modest about this creed. It had to be maintained and justified in the face of all other claims wherever they arose. And since the Jews lived everywhere these counter claims came from everywhere. But it is easier to recount a narrative and a history than it is to engage in abstract thought. The Bible recounts a history, the lived experiences of those ethnically identified as Jews. It begins the story in pre-history with the creation of the world and human beings made in God’s own image and likeness. It continues with the historical claims for Abraham the father of all nations, and with Moses the liberator, and with all that happened to the Jews until New Testament times.
What was New brought the parting of the ways. The coming of Jesus and the claims made for his relationship with the God of Israel and how people should relate in the light of this, made Christianity a universal religion. Ethnicity continued to define Judaism; a Jewish mother made a person Jewish. But Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and also historically the son of the Jewish Mary from Nazareth, identifies with and embraces all humanity. He showed how all are loved and cherished by the one Father who created them. And the Church that preaches this must show it forth as true relational experience. The Church is people.
It was of fundamental importance for those who wrote the Gospels to demonstrate the continuity between the old and the new people of God. The evangelist Luke in recounting the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple was doing just that. Jesus is declared in God’s holy place to be a person of universal significance, affecting the lives of everyone and everywhere. He was a true human being with his own people in their main place of worship. He participated in normal life, the way it is experienced everywhere and always. The background of the child Jesus, and Jesus as an adolescent, and in his mature relationships with others, provided a way forward for the biblical narrative. History and geography, and institutions with their ceremonies and customs, anchor this. So for St. Luke the Presentation in the Temple was a launching pad in the unfolding of his narrative. He was explaining how the Church of his own day was on the way to being universal. He chronicled this further with the Acts of the Apostles. But what did this mean for the world?
A Universal Church-Sacramentum Mundi
When the Second Vatican Council took place in Rome (1962-5) a great consciousness already existed among many of those participating that the Church we all grew up in was too turned in on itself. This had been due to persecution on the grand scale in Europe, and to internal problems in the Catholic Church itself, struggling to come to terms with the modern world. One could hate communism and the Nazis, but how could one reach out to those who wanted neither the one nor the other? Why had so many Catholics who had once been so faithful turned against their faith? Why had so much in-tolerance been tolerated, anti-semitism, apartheid, slavery, exploitation and so on? Why had the Church been perceived to be against the modern world and its aspirations for freedom and democracy? The Church in Council had to address these issues if it were to reach out to the whole world. Some people did not want to make such a journey, only wanting to live in peace, unsure about what was being asked of them. Others simply rejected the Council.
But history moves on. The popes initiated and pursued the Council’s commitment. They have preached incessantly that Christ is the light of the nations, and are admired for their fidelity. For some extraordinary reason people today, who might be expected to ignore the papacy, are looking to it for freedom, hope and love. People who take refuge in the catholic faith for exclusive personal comfort, and think only of themselves, are being told every day that this is selfishness, and only leads to egoism. Egoism cannot be the light of the nations. It cannot be the light of anything. So since the Council, there has been more intense study of the cause and effects of the French revolution, of colonialism and of the industrial revolution and the Church’s stance in all of these. The Council and the popes have insisted that freedom and justice and rights in the face of oppression must be vindicated. Open the windows and let the fresh air in, said Pope John XXIII. Justice is another name for peace, said Paul VI. Throw wide open the gates said John Paul II. Do not be afraid. Benedict XVI led the way of humble service by resigning when he had made his magnificent contribution: he illustrated by his action what he wrote in his encyclical: God is love. And then along comes Pope Francis. Mercy is the guide to life. The poor have been exploited for too long. This should be made obvious in the church of the poor. It should be made obvious in politics. Nobody has a divine right to rule and to dominate. Sharing should prevail, made obvious by people meeting people at every level. The present pope like his immediate predecessors meets with the great of the earth, and he mingles with the poorest of the poor- a visit to refugees, a telephone call here and a letter there, and millions flock to his audiences in Rome. They make him man of the year and for the moment a universal model to emulate. How can one not think of today’s gospel: a light to enlighten the gentiles?
Our own tendency might still be to run into own little corners, seeking our own comfort, excluding everybody else. But we are being invited to ask: why am I like that? We may heartily agree that one should reform the Curia, reform the politicians, reform the bankers, reform the teachers- but how can I reform myself? How can the church to which I belong realistically follow Our Lord as a light for the nations?
In our own little way, here in Boarbank, when all the various people come to us and feel at home, and feel loved, then Christ is the light of the gentiles. Those who went before us, and those present who made it so and make it possible still, can re-echo the words of Simeon: Now Master you can dismiss your servant in peace, because my eyes have seen your salvation. What more can be realistically asked of us? Candlemas Day is not just another pretty ceremony but the occasion for reflection and renewed commitment to a world of love and mercy. A happy feast to you all. Amen.
Fr Richard J.Taylor
Spiritual Advisor, MaterCare International
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK