Fourth Sunday of Advent – Year B

(Please note.  I was requested to say something on Consecrated Life so I have tried to combine it with the readings of the day).

Back in November, 2013 when Pope Francis met with the Union of Superiors General, he announced that the year 2015 would be dedicated to consecrated life. He spoke about how religious congregations enrich diocesan life. He encouraged members to go out to “frontiers,” working first and foremost with people excluded from society.

One such person who reached out to the excluded was St. John Bosco. As yesterday was his feast day and 2015 is the 200th anniversary of his birth, let me say a little more about this extraordinary saint. John Bosco dedicated his life to the betterment and education of street children, juvenile delinquents and other disadvantaged youth.  He created homes for them and night schools to train them. His approach was based on love and not corporal punishment. In this he anticipated twentieth-century developments in child psychology. Here is a quote that seems to capture his mission statement: “I have promised God until my last breath I shall have lived for my poor young people. I study for you, I work for you I am also ready to give my life for you. Take note that whatever I am, I have been so entirely for you, day and night, morning and evening, at every moment.” Now it that’s not passion what is?

There is a very strong statement in Mark’s Gospel today. “The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.” Mark is telling us that Jesus had authority like no other. Unlike the scribes, who called upon Scripture or upon famed rabbis or knowledgeable scholars, Jesus possessed authority that came from the Holy Spirit.

We usually associate power with authority. Jesus certainly had power, but it wasn’t power over, but rather power with, an enabling power. He didn’t come to exercise coercive power over recalcitrant sinners, to forcibly mould them according to some abstract divine plan of moral perfection. He neither sought nor accepted any office or position of authority or power in his religious community of Israel. Instead he saw himself as a prophet and as a prophet he exerted only the influence of truth and love, the authority of his own integrity in witnessing to the God who sent him. Thus Jesus is the prophet that Moses spoke of in the first reading, the one who will speak in the name of God.

The authority of Jesus lives on in the Christian community, but in a special way it finds concrete expression in the consecrated religious who have given themselves over to Christ with abandon. St. John Paul’s motto comes to mind. Totus Tuus means I am totally yours. For the consecrated woman or man, Jesus is the centre of their lives. There is no meaning to their lives apart from him. The religious feels called in a special way to drop everything and put one’s wholehearted trust in Jesus. This is the undivided heart that Paul is getting at in the second reading. This is the meaning of the vows. Poverty is a way of saying they depend totally on Jesus. Celibacy is belonging totally to him and obedience is listening with the ear of the heart to Jesus in all things. The final rule of Benedict sums it up. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ!

There are two major streams of religious life that have existed down through the centuries. One is apostolic religious life. John Bosco is an example of this form as is Mother Teresa and the many religious who have run schools and hospitals and given the poor back their dignity. Archbishop Brislin paid tribute to these in his recent letter on consecrated life: “Consecrated men and women established the local church in our dioceses and most of our parishes, schools and hospitals, and still today they minister in the local church and outlying communities, serving people of every background in countless ways.”

The other stream is the contemplative religious like the sisters at Carmel here. At first sight their contribution is not as obvious, yet their hidden life of prayer, community and service is essential to the Christian community at large. In today’s hi-tech world we all want that hotspot so as to be connected to wi-fi. Contemplative orders provide that hotspot, that closeness to God, that odour of sanctity that people at large instinctively recognise and yearn for. If you haven’t seen the movie ‘Of Gods and Men’ make it one of your New Year resolutions and witness how these nine Trappist monks in Algeria made such an impression on the local Muslim population. There is one telling scene where the monks relate to the locals that they may have to leave because they are in danger. By way of explanation they added that they are birds of passage to which one woman immediately responds: ‘it is we who are the birds and you are the branch that we rest on. You are our foundation!’ When you think of words like Jihadist, Boko Haram, Isis, Charles Hebdo and senseless conflict between Muslims and Christians today, this statement from a poor Muslim woman is all the more extraordinary. I would like to apply those same words to our Carmelite Sisters here this morning. ‘It is we who are the birds and you are the branch that we rest on. You are our foundation!’

If you are still not convinced of the impact of contemplatives then look to St. Therese of Lisieux. I belong to a missionary society but the patroness of missions is St. Therese who never left the cloister in Lisieux.

Back to ‘Of Gods and Men’ and another memorable scene that captures for me something of the contemplative. It is a little conversation between Brother Luc and a young woman. She wants to know ‘what love is like?’ He replies that it is ‘an attraction, a desire, a quickening of the spirits, an intensification of life itself.’ From his response she realises that she is not in love with Khaled, the man her father wants her to marry. Then the tables are turned. She asks Luc was he ever in love? He confesses that he was in love a number of times before he found his ‘truest love’, which presumably led to his joining the order. Thus again love is the only explanation!

Let’s finish with another quote from Archbishop Brislin. “Consecrated men and women are called to leave everything to follow Jesus. “In their finite humanity, on the margins, in their everyday struggles, consecrated men and women live out their fidelity, giving a reason for the joy that lives in them. So they become splendid witnesses, effective proclaimers, companions and neighbours for the women and men with whom they share a common history and who want to find their Father’s house in the Church.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

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