Sunday, 5th August, 2007
(Eighteenth Sunday of Year C)

“Take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time”. The words are familiar. They could serve as a good description of a mind-set and a life-style embraced by many in today’s world. Our Lord puts these words in the mouth of a wealthy man in his time, in the parable recounted in today’s gospel. The words are very like what fills pages upon pages of our daily newspapers, Sunday papers, perhaps, even more than weekday papers. Newspapers claim to reflect the views of the people who buy and read them, and they also hope to bring others round to share those same views, because this helps them to sell more newspapers. The contrast between these views and that life-style and today’s gospel is very obvious.

St. Paul, who knew the mind of Our Lord better than any other person – except Mary, his Mother – asks us instead to “look for the things that are in heaven where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand”. This is vastly different from the vista of beautiful bodies on sun-drenched beaches, with cheap airline tickets to take us there, with abundance of good food and fine wines to match, all that makes for “taking it easy, eat and drink, have a good time”. All this, and much more, challenges our faith at this time. All this confronts us with choices: which way of life shall we choose? By whose standards shall we live?

If, in today’s newspapers, there are references to the Catholic Church and to our Christian faith, if there are any at all, these will almost certainly be all negative. The Church will be presented as out-of-date, out-of-touch with modern life and modern thinking, out of touch with modern science and with progressive and tolerant values. Faith is often presented as being a form of superstition, belonging to a time when people were uneducated and backward and poor and ready to believe whatever they were told. Incidentally, people who live in the country, as distinct from their sophisticated fellow-citizens who live in cities or towns, are often presented as being uneducated and backward – and therefore more prone to be religious believers!

The Bible is often presented as being a collection of myths and “fairytales”. The gospels are claimed to have been written a long time after the events they describe, when the so-called events have become legends, with no historical content. The story of Jesus as God made man is later invention, and not divine revelation. The Creeds of the Church are merely human speculations, with no historical credibility.

I wish to take only one example to show that such attacks on our faith are the real mythology of our time, while the truths of faith are solidly based also on historical truths. I refer to the very heart of our Mass, the words of consecration. They are very familiar to you:
“This is my body
which will be given up for you.

This is the cup of my blood,
the  blood of the new and everlasting covenant.
It will be shed for you and for all
so that sins may be forgiven.
Do this in memory of me”.
These words are reported with minor variations in the gospels of Mark and Matthew and Luke. The earliest of these gospels, Mark, was written about 30 years after the death of Jesus Christ. Matthew and Luke were probably about 10 years later. The very same words are found in St. Paul, who wrote some years earlier than any of the Gospels and who wrote what he had been told directly by Jesus himself about three years after the resurrection of Jesus. We must remember, also, that the gospels were spoken before they were written. They represent the preaching by the Apostles of the life-story and the teaching of Jesus, and this preaching began just after the resurrection of Christ and was widely spread before that preaching was written down in the form in which we have it in the gospels.

We in Ireland should be more familiar than most with how memories can be accurately preserved in oral tradition, long before they are put into writing. Our archives of folk tradition have many examples of the same story, repeated with substantially the same content but with minor variations in language, in different parts of Ireland, as widely separated as Kerry and Donegal, or Waterford and Tyrone, and over long periods of time. The stories were told and retold from generation to generation, long before they were written down. The stories remain substantially unchanged from generation to generation and from locality to locality, even though travel between the different areas was very limited. A remarkable feature of oral cultures is the accuracy of memory retention of stories told by story-tellers or ‘shanachies’ in such cultures. This was particularly the case if the words were in verse, like poems, or if they were set to music and sung. The great Glens of Antrim folklorist Seamus O’DeLargy, and the musical genius, Sean O’Riada, saved much of this from extinction.

What I have said about the accuracy of oral recall was particularly true of prayers and religious formulas, which were frequently repeated. I stress the power of oral cultures to record memories with an accuracy at least as great as the written records. Written records, therefore, are not the only records that count where historical facts are concerned. Furthermore, the New Testament writings were not as late in date as is often claimed; eye-witnesses of the life and teaching of Jesus were still alive when they were written; indeed, some of these writers were themselves either witnesses or had contact with eye-witnesses.

I have said that accuracy of recall is particularly true of religious formulas which were regularly and frequently repeated. No words were so regularly and so frequently repeated as the words of consecration at Mass. Since the resurrection of Christ, Mass was celebrated by Christians every day, or at least every Sunday. These words are our earliest record of the life and teaching of Jesus. Research has shown that these words go right back to the living voice of Jesus himself. The striking fact is that these words contain, in a concentrated form, the central doctrines of the teaching of Jesus, which are in fact the central doctrines of our Christian faith.

Only God can make a Covenant with mankind. God made the original covenant with the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, amid great and awesome signs and wonders. Only God could change this into a new covenant with the whole of mankind. Jesus did this at the last supper, saying:
“This cup is the New Covenant in my blood”

Jesus was thereby claiming to be God, and this claim goes right back to Jesus himself.

Only God can forgive sins. Jesus brings about the forgiveness of all the sins of all mankind, saying at the last supper: “This is my blood which is to be poured out for all”. (The Gospel account says “for many”, but “many” is used in Hebrew for “all”). These words go right back to Jesus himself.

Jesus died for our sins. Jesus said at the Last Supper:
“This is my body, given up for you”.

The words go right back to Jesus himself.