Sunday 17th January 2010

My sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ,

I am pleased to learn that here in South Belfast for several years, six Churches representing four Christian denominations, have produced an Ecumenical series of talks for Lent.  The initiative has been going so well that this year it is being expanded with this joint worship service being added on the eve of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  I am honoured to have been invited to speak at this joint worship service.

This year the theme of the Week of Prayer is:  You Are Witnesses.  We are all called to be witnesses.  We can only witness to what we have seen or heard.  So, in what sense can we be witnesses? 

The Greek word for witness is MARTYR.  In the New Testament there is a very specific Christian meaning given to the word ‘witness’.  The apostles are the specially commissioned witnesses, appointed by God.  Each of them is a witness of what he has seen or heard.  But the object of their witnessing is concerned with the resurrection of Christ.  But soon the object of what the apostles witnessed was broadened. 

A genuine witness must have lived with Jesus from his baptism in the Jordan until his ascension into Heaven.  The apostles are witnesses for Christ.  They take their stand as witnesses in defence of Christ and his opponents.  For this purpose they were given a special gift by the Holy Spirit. 

In the writings of John, witness is given not specifically to the facts of the history of Jesus, but to the person of Jesus as the eternal Son of God.  So, witness can be given by those who are not eyewitnesses.  It is given by those who confess their faith in what Jesus was, and what he stood for.  During the 2nd century persecutions added a new depth to the concept of witnessing and it became a term reserved for the ‘one who seals the seriousness of his witnessing with death’.  Although the initial period of persecution ended in 313, the call to give witness through physical martyrdom has re-appeared frequently down through the centuries.  And yet, thankfully, the vast majority of past and present Christians have not actually experienced a threat to their survival because of being Christian.

For all Christians, of all ages, the challenge is to bear witness to the joy of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ despite what would appear to be contrary evidence.  And so, for the vast majority of us, that witnessing must take place in the midst of the more ordinary trials of life.  Of course, every now and then, there occur trials which can be quite extraordinary, such as the disaster in Haiti and which raises problems.

The Christian always remains a disciple – a learner.  One of the things we have learned is:  how much we have in common – especially the two great realities – the sacrament of baptism and the Sacred Scriptures. 

To speak of Baptism is to try to understand what it means to be a disciple of THE perfect disciple, Jesus.  The challenge is to retain our faith in His victory over sin and death, despite the disasters and trials and tribulations of this life.

We come together seeking understanding of what it means to be witnesses to Jesus Christ today – here and now.  We are called to bear witness in the light of the Gospel which we share and hold.  Does it mean selling all that we have and giving the proceeds to the poor and then setting off to some country where Christians are being viciously persecuted and getting ourselves put to death?  Perhaps.  At one stage there was a tendency to link intense Christian witness with an austere ascetical life.  This tendency began early and has re-appeared in many different forms down through the centuries.

Of course, the best of this ascetical tradition involves something that has always been present in genuine Christian witness.  That is, the capacity to live a life of compassionate and joyful faith, even in the face of the sufferings and losses of this world.  The great Christian missionaries had that capacity. So, in every generation the missionaries have given up possessions, comforts and even their lives, to preach the Gospel we share to those who have not yet received it.

The model of Christian witness continues to evolve.  In the past – witness to God – was often seen as above and beyond the everyday world.  Today the emphasis is more often on our witnessing to God’s desire to be among us in the sending of His Son.  We realise that we are all called to holiness and therefore to bear witness to Christ.  By Baptism we share in the mission of Jesus to the world.  He now depends on us.  He has no other hands with which to feed the poor, but our hands.  He has no other lips, but our lips, to tell the Good News of God’s love and fidelity. 

So today, witness to God now focuses often on the divine desire to transform human life here and now.  It underlines the need to work to transform the world into the kind of world Jesus envisaged.  So, in the light of this, we see more clearly the witness value of Christian marriage for example.  We see its immense value as a witness to God’s fidelity as well as the witness value of parenthood to the revelation of God’s healing love.  There is also the witness value of secular work in creating a just and more prosperous world.

Today, the struggles to bring about social justice, especially basic human rights, for the poor and the homeless and the foreigners are another developing realm of Christian witness.
The courage to speak out in defence of a fragile peace and to work to consolidate that peace – even at a personal and party-political cost – are definitely places of Christian witness today.

The Gospel of Life makes imperative the efforts to defend the dignity of every human life, at every stage of its existence, as well as the value of marriage as the essential building block of society.  The struggle to protect the environment will involve a willingness to significantly change lifestyle and probably a reduction of privilege and status.

The heart of Christian witness remains putting our trust in the saving truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  This takes us to this evening’s Gospel.  That Gospel tells us of two disciples on a journey, trying to make sense of their experience.  They are trying to understand the death of Jesus and the discovery of his empty tomb. Like so many people in our world today, their faces are ‘downcast’. Their hopes have been dashed. What had seemed like a promising new beginning for them and for Israel has come to a tragic end. They feel let down.

One striking feature of the story is how Our Lord identifies with their search for meaning. He guides the disciples to a new way of seeing.  A new way of understanding what they thought they knew already. He opens up new vistas of imagination and meaning in the Law, the prophets and the psalms. Their ‘hearts burn within them’ as he explains the Scriptures to them.

In the conclusion to the story, which we will hear shortly, the disciples return to Jerusalem.  There we have the assurance of the promise made by the Lord on that and on many other occasions.  It was this: the Risen Lord will not only walk with his followers on the road to Emmaus. He will not only explain the Scriptures to the disciples in Jerusalem but he will continue to walk with his people in every age. He will continue to inspire and illuminate the Scriptures for each of us in our day, in our life and our time.

And how will he do this?  He will send down the Holy Spirit who will continue to teach us and lead us into all truth. This is the Holy Spirit who unites us every day to the power and presence of the Risen Lord. This is the same Holy Spirit who seeks to deepen our union with one another in the love between the Father and the Son. The Spirit will remind us of what Jesus said and did.  He will remind us that the interpretation of the Scriptures, given by Jesus, consisted in his life of love, compassion and healing for all.

I believe that the story of the journey to Emmaus suggests three areas where we could do more together to bear witness to Jesus in our world today.  At the heart of this story is the understanding that comes from hearing and reflecting together on the scriptures in the presence of the Risen Lord.

This was a major area of reflection during the XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Catholic Bishops, in Rome, in October 2008, which I attended with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.  The topic of the Synod was The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.  It was also attended by a wide range of representatives from other denominations.  During the Synod it was warmly acknowledged that the renewed emphasis on access to the Scriptures, promoted by the Reformation, had brought great graces to every denomination. We also heard the very heartening news of all the work which Bible Societies are doing to share the Sacred Scriptures with others. We heard how ongoing co-operation between various Christian Bible Associations has produced a very popular Ecumenical Translation of the Bible.

A particular Bible I cherish myself is one presented to me two years ago by the Bible Societies of Ireland. It is a lovely leather bound edition.  One of its many attractive features is its illustrations.  I often inspired by the illustration of the messenger coming across the mountains, bringing the Good News.  He or she is running flat out, has just reached a summit on the mountain road, is rounding a bend and coming into view. It is all-out action – with flailing arms, pure determination and focussed intent.  I think it is a powerful illustration of the kind of action which we need to carry out together to spread the fantastic news of the peace, joy and hope contained in the victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death.

At the Synod there was also an earnest reflection on the words of St Gregory the Great who said “Frequently, many things in the Sacred Writings, which I was unable to understand on my own, I came to grasp while in the presence of my brothers” (Homiliae in Ezechielem, II,2, I: PL 76, 948-949). Pope Benedict XVI made a similar point when he said “Listening together to the Word of God, practicing together the Lectio Divina of the Bible … constitutes a path to walk for reaching the unity of faith, as a response to hearing the word” (Discourse of Benedict XVI, Jan. 25, 2007).

The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, I believe, challenges us to do more to create opportunities for shared reflection on the Sacred Scriptures. It invites us to listen to the Word together, to practise Lectio Divina of the Bible together.   Lectio Divina is an ancient mode of reading scripture linked to prayer.  The Emmaus story invites us to learn from one another and from our cherished perspectives on the Word, in the company of the Risen Lord. In the words of the final proposition of the Synod, “The Bible is truly a privileged place of encounter among the diverse churches and ecclesial communities.  Listening together to the Scriptures helps us live together in a real communion” (Relatio post disceptationem, 36).

Secondly, we can continue to pray together. It is only a few years ago that the prospect of Christians of different denominations on this island coming together to pray would have been unimaginable. Jesus did not simply call the Christian community to theological dialogue or joint action. He called us first to communion in prayer. It is in prayer that Jesus appeals to the Father: ‘May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me’

This brings me to the final area where I believe the Emmaus story challenges us to offer joint witness to our world today. Ireland today, I believe, is experiencing a crisis of hope. Part of the problem lies in an understandable reaction to dramatic events in the economy and in the Church. But there are also deeper roots to this loss of hope. Recent surveys suggest that faith in God in Ireland remains relatively high, while belief in an afterlife is considerably lower. There is an increasing disconnect between the meaning of this life and the prospect of an eternal future.  A culture of disregard for the dignity and worth of the body in this life may be caused by a lack of interest in the resurrection of the body in the next life. This is turn may be contributing to a culture of listlessness and despair, not least among the young.

Part of the challenge for us as Christians today I believe is to become more effective witnesses to hope. Let us try and work together to bring to others, the joy of knowing Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection? How can we help every person to discover their eternal uniqueness before God and the intensity with which they are loved by their Creator? By our shared witness to the resurrection, we can help others to the knowledge that in Jesus life has a definite direction and an eternal hope?  Our very being together this evening is a witness to that hope. Let us pray that the Lord will continue to deepen our unity and strengthen our hope.

Jesus told his disciples that they were witnesses to three things:
1.    His suffering,
2.    His resurrection, and
3.    The preaching of repentance in his name for the forgiveness of sins.

I believe that if we read the Scriptures together, we too become witnesses to the fact, not only that Christ was destined to suffer, we also see that the body of Christ continues to suffer to this day.

If we pray together for example, the Lectio Divina, we will definitely experience the presence of the Risen Christ.  He will give us peace and turn our sorrows to joy.  He will walk beside us on our journey.  And, if in fact, repentance is preached in His name for the forgiveness of sins to all nations that would be the source of the greatest hope and joy imaginable.  There will be more joy in Heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety nine virtuous men who have no need of repentance.

The message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is both a journey and an invitation to journey.  The journey continues by means of witnesses – primarily witnesses to the Resurrection, but, in reality, any reader of the Gospel who responds with an open mind.  The journey is not under the control of the witness but under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Clothed with power from on high, we can all be those witnesses and may God grant that we may indeed all become faithful witnesses.