THE MILLENNIUM AND ITS PREPARATION
OUR LADY’S SHRINE, KNOCK
THURSDAY, 14 AUGUST, 1997
SERMON BY THE MOST REVEREND SEAN BRADY
2000 years on from the birth of Christ what in fact are we celebrating? There will be celebrations, have no doubt about that, mighty celebrations. The plans are already being made, it is up to those who believe in Jesus Christ to make sure that Christ is not overlooked in those celebrations. It is up to us to make sure that the message of Jesus finds as much space as possible in these celebrations. In other words, that we keep reminding ourselves and others whose millennium it is and who should be at the centre of it. Yes the Great Jubilee celebrates the 2000th birthday of Christ. It is fitting that we should celebrate that Great Jubilee in a special way here at Knock, the national shrine of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. In this year of preparation we concentrate our attention on the person of Jesus, our faith in him and on Baptism.
The faith of the Christian is founded on Jesus. That faith looks to Christ for an answer to the big issues in life. He and he alone has the answers to the questions that rise up from the human heart in face of the mystery of life and death. Because faced with the mystery of life and death, people act in many different ways. A secretary came home from the funeral of a colleague, and said: “We have lots of questions but no answers”. As a Boeing 737 jet airliner suddenly lurches from 35,000 feet to 10,000 feet, a young nurse begins to pray aloud. An old man grasps her hand and begs: “Say one for me because I cannot pray anymore ” . Several of the people on the recent flight from Manchester to Knock Airport, that developed trouble, said that their first reaction was to begin to pray. Christians look to Jesus for an answer to the big questions. Only from Christ can come answers that do not deceive or disappoint.
So we are celebrating a jubilee then. The jubilee of the birth of Christ. I suppose the most familiar jubilee is a marriage jubilee, a golden jubilee of marriage where a couple who have lived the commitment they made fifty years earlier celebrate how their love has grown and how their lives have been enriched and blessed by God. There is at once a looking to the future asking that God’s blessing may continue; there is also a looking back because they are used to trusting God’s caring and compassionate love for them. They also hope that the blessings that have been manifest in their lives wi11 be manifested in the lives of their children and grandchildren. So in this jubilee of the year 2000 we celebrate God’s love for us. Out of sheer love God wants everyone of us to share His own blessed happiness. For this reason at every possible opportunity God draws close to us. He comes searching for us, to know us and to love us. Yes, we had been scattered and led astray by the evil one and divided by sin. Despite all that, God never ceases to call us all into the unity of His family, the Church. To accomplish all of this God sent His Son to become one of us. Through that Son God invites us to become His children. He calls us to become His heirs, the heirs of His blessed life. That is the basis of Christian faith, that is what this Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 is all about. That is the Good News Jesus brought. It is a cause for real joy.
The desire for God is written deep in the human heart. Faith is our response to God. That response has to be freely given. God has far too much respect for each one of us to try to manipulate us or to buy us. And for a Christian, believing in God cannot be separated from believing in the One He sent. God tells us to listen to His beloved Son. We are free and therefore responsible. One can accept it – believing in God the Father and in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit – or one can reject all of this – writing as John Paul II says in large capitals GOD DOES NOT HAVE A SON.
People often discuss what was the greatest discovery of the last 2000 years. Some say it was the discovery of penicillin, or of the Americas, or of electricity. But for me it is the discovery that only in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, will we find the truth and the happiness that we all desire.
It is the knowledge that God loves us eternally and wants to raise us up to be His special possession. We are God’s special possession because God chose to have it that way. God seeks us, moved by His fatherly heart and His fatherly love.
Of course the desire for God can be forgotten or overlooked or even openly rejected. People can have doubts. Obstacles to faith can have different causes. Some people revolt against the suffering and evils of the world and proceed to blame God, other people are just plainly ignorant and indifferent to their faith. We all have a duty to nourish our faith by prayer and study. Faith is a gift of God, freely given, and freely received. Peter could not accept that Jesus would be scourged and crowned with thorns and finally crucified.
Jesus says in today’s Gospel that he came to bring Good News, Good News is a call to rejoice. He came to bring Good News for everybody. These days exam results bring good news for some, but not to all. He came to tell sinners that they are sinners no more, provided that they repent and ask pardon for their sins. He came to announce liberty to captives. We can be enslaved by the false gods of greed and pride, we can be enslaved by hatred and bitterness.
So today we are celebrating the Good News that death is not the end. Jesus said that he came to bring new sight to the blind. We are celebrating the new insight brought by Jesus to the fundamental questions, the big issues in life, Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going? We are celebrating the fact that Jesus came to bring us life so that we might have life to the full. And life to the full means that it must last forever. We know that our present life doesn’t last forever. So Jesus must have been talking about some other life. Yes, indeed he was, as he himself proved by rising from the dead. So death is not the end; but many are still blind to this truth.
Distraction is the root of sin, I read somewhere recently. People who do not want to face the difficult questions of life love distractions. So we engage in a frenzied search for more and more diversions. ‘Football is our religion’ a television advertisement boldly proclaims pointing to that escapism. Sunday used to be the day when people broke from routine of work and the drudgery of life to stop and stare and think and figure out the answers to these fundamental questions. Now it is more likely to be filled with more and more distractions, which act as substitutes for religion.
I love the wisdom of the author of the Psalms on this point. “What can bring us happiness many say”, the psalmist asks and then prays “let the light of your face shine on us O Lord. You have put into my heart a greater joy than they have from abundance of corn and new wine”. Earlier in that same prayer the question is asked: ‘O men how long will your hearts be closed? Will you love what is futile and seek what is false?’
Yes, the distractions invite us to love what is futile and to seek what is false. But we know in our hearts and souls that there is an emptiness even about the abundance of corn and new wine. The light of God’s face was seen in the face of Jesus Christ. He is absolutely original, absolutely unique. He is not just a wise man or a great prophet, he is the one mediator, the perfect mediator, the perfect go-between, because he is both God and Man. And before he returned to the Father he gave his friends one last command: Go, make disciples of all nations. They were to help people to believe that he, Jesus Christ, is the Son of God, so that believing they might have life in his name. But believing in his name doesn’t mean that we stand looking up to the skies, that our religion is ‘pie in the sky’ when we die. It means discovering the Jesus is living next to us, in the brothers and sisters with whom we share our daily existence. His face is to be seen in the poorest of the poor. Often they are victims of an unjust system. Wherever profit is given first place there the human being becomes a means rather than an end.
Believing in Jesus Christ means drying every tear in his name It means reminding whoever feels lonely that no-one whose hope in placed in him is ever alone.
How can we best prepare to celebrate the Millennium? First of all we begin by clearly identifying what the Millennium is all about. It is about the birth of Christ, the Son of God. It is about seeing that birth as the greatest proof of God’s love for the world. God so loved the world that He sent His Son. There is only one proper response to love: that is love. “If you love me keep my commandments”.
But that happened 2000 years ago some may say. What has that got to do with us? It has everything to do with us. By baptism we are united to Christ. When we were baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit we were united in a hidden, but real way with Christ, in his death and in his resurrection We share his life. We become his brothers and sisters. By virtue of baptism Jesus Christ is present in each Christian. In the early years of the Church they used to say the Christian is another Christ.
So, another way of preparing for the Millennium is to try and grow in an appreciation of the place of baptism in our lives. We try to see more clearly how it unites us, not only to Christ, but to Christians everywhere. Ecumenically this is very important because as we look to Christ, our one Lord, we are called to deepen our commitment to become One in him. Remember his prayer to the Father that they all may be one.
Above all we try to deepen and strengthen our own faith. Recently I heard a comment: “Our faith is never in the bag, sure today but worried tomorrow”. Yes certainly we are celebrating our response in faith to the love of God. In all of this there exists two possibilities: the possibility of the triumph of love which is accepted and the possibility of the tragedy of love which is rejected. God neither bribes us nor manipulates us.
Recently we saw the tragedy of the American relay athletic team who lost the golden opportunity in the World Championships. It is agreed that they have the best sprinters in the world. They were often tipped to win the gold and even get new world records. But the baton was dropped at the change-over and that was the end of that. What happened? Why? A golden opportunity was lost. There was great disappointment. What went wrong? It has been suggested that because they were so superior in sprinting that they took victory for granted and didn’t bother putting in the tedious hours of practice that is necessary to ensure transfer of the baton.
There may be a lesson here for all of us in this. The best way to hand on the baton of faith and to make sure that it is handed on is to practice that faith faithfully and committedly in our own life, day in and day out. The best ways to grow in our knowledge of our faith come through the hard work of reading, listening to sermons, listening to talks, going to courses. No renewal of the Christian life will take place without a renewal of our knowledge of our faith.
Of course Mary plays a central role in all of this. The Fathers of the Church refer to her as the second Eve. They compare Mary with Eve and call her the Mother of the Living. On Calvary she is the woman to whom Christ entrusted not only the beloved disciple John, but the whole human family. Mary is the mother of believers. She was blessed because she believed in the promises which were made to her.
Jesus promises great things to us in today’s Gospel. He promises to bring us Good News, the news that God’s kingdom is close at hand, that if we repent we have our sins forgiven. The joy of every jubilee is above all a joy based on the forgiveness of sins. Jesus came to set the down-trodden free. As long as our sins remain unforgiven we are down-trodden by guilt and shame, by fear and anxiety.
Tomorrow we celebrate one of the great feasts of Mary, her Assumption. We celebrate the fact that after her death she was taken, body and soul, into Heaven. Where Mary has gone, we hope to follow. Mary already enjoys the perfect happiness and perfect fulfilment, that we all hope for as the outcome of our lives. Even now Mary has achieved the state of glorification.
We believe also that just as Jesus rose from the dead, we also will rise. We believe too that the Risen Christ is present with us in his glorified body. In the same way we believe that Mary is even now present with us, also in her glorified body. The hope which that conviction, the conviction that death is not the end, could give our shattered world is immense. Death is not the end. The resurrection of Christ proves that. The Assumption of Mary does likewise. Holy Mary pray for us sinners. Holy Mary, help us to recognise Jesus the blessed fruit of your womb under his many guises in our world, in the Church, in the Scriptures, in the Eucharist, in our neighbour, especially in the poor. That recognition, by us, in our own lives, will be the best possible way of celebrating the Millennium
Pray for us O Holy Mother of God that we may be made worthy to celebrate this Millennium in the way which is most pleasing to your Son.