For 15 Sundays, we have been unable to celebrate Mass with at least some of God’s people. It is wonderful that, even imperfectly, we can today celebrate hope and community. I know from seeing tears in people’s eyes during recent weekday Masses that getting back to sacramental worship rather than just participating in virtual prayer is deeply important for so many. And that brings me right away to Jesus speaking in today’s Gospel.
Firstly, Jesus is not primarily concerned with the learned and the clever – but with the little ones, those who labor and feel overburdened. But Jesus says more than that. He is not merely being paternalistic to the poor and the struggling. He says that those who are weighed down by life are the ones who can best understand God the Father, the Lord of heaven and earth. The Old Testament prophet Zechariah talks about a God who will come on a donkey, bringing peace. We know that Jesus, the face of the Father’s mercy, leaves himself open to criticism for walking with the outcast – and for daring to criticize any form of religion that nourished arrogance and a sense of superiority.
So, the key question that we have to be asking ourselves as parishes is ‘how can we identify and identify with those who are most hurting?’ I know we have to ensure that the virus cannot spread. There are those who will prefer to stay at home for health reasons and others who can be content with a somewhat more intellectualized form of faith practice. But, if we are to hear Jesus today, we have to build what we do as parish around giving priority to those who need to experience sacramental communion with Christ and a sense of concrete belonging in community. These people were never a nuisance for Jesus. The suffering and rejected Jesus knew the Father. Those who can identify with the Christ of the Cross are best able to speak of God. Church renewal will come from the overburdened, not the learned and clever.
Secondly, our reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans follows a passage where he talks about Baptism as going into the tomb with Christ and being raised with him to new life through the Spirit. Many parents have been crying out to have their children baptized – but christenings, along with most other events in Church, were explicitly banned some weeks ago. Furthermore, we have all heard the assertion that infant baptism is a form of infant conscription and a breach of fundamental human rights. But those parents who seek to have their children baptized want to offer their child a way of looking at the world which will support them in negotiating the deluge of alternative, often poisonous worldviews that kill too many of our young people. Saint Paul talks about our bodies being anointed with God’s Holy Spirit to a spiritual way of life. The Spirit of God has made his home in those who have been reborn through water and the Holy Spirit. This Baptism message is important for so many parents. I am grateful to my parents that I was baptized into a way of life, long before I could make a personal decision. In a liberal society, from the very beginning parents make many significant decisions about the lifestyle and education of their child. They should certainly not be prevented from or mocked for making a decision to live a faith-based value system with their children.
This last week, I have been trying to work out whether the NI Executive has now given us permission to baptize. I know that it sounds ridiculous that Churches have to get political clearance to baptize a baby or an adult! Of course, I can understand the thinking behind the earlier temporary baptism ban because, for some, sacramental events seem to refer to the large parties afterward. Now we can have the baptism parties – but I am unclear whether we can actually have the baptism before the party! I am not sure whether the legal restrictions have changed or whether we are still waiting for further clarification. When politicians accuse others of not understanding government messages, that might suggest a lack of clarity in the messaging rather than merely culpable deafness on the part of the listeners.
Thirdly, Jesus calls his disciples not just to do what he did but to have a heart like his. He says that he is gentle and humble in heart. He does not offer a burden that would crush people. He wants his listeners in every generation to know their dignity as children of God and to believe that they have an eternal destiny as children of God so that they will not be crushed by the crosses of life. The Gospel message is not meant to limit or oppress us. The Gospel is focused on liberating us from what cripples us and tells us bad news about ourselves. That is why we are encouraged to pray each day and to gather at least weekly in Church. It is so that we can let our hearts be molded by the grace of God’s Spirit that dwells within us. For much of the week, that divine vision can be drowned out by the constant din of other one-dimensional messages. Christ asks us to come together in whatever way we can to hear his message and to be nourished in body and spirit. I know that we have to find all sorts of new ways to both get this challenging message out and to gather people to support one another. But we are ready for the challenge.
Many people have suffered through the pandemic. Very many people will face very challenging times ahead as key economic decisions have to be made. Jesus’ message today says that our focus should be on those who labor and are overburdened. He presents himself on the Cross as a victim of the strong who wanted to silence him. He is in solidarity with those who social systems crush and condemn. He offers us a share in his Body and Blood, broken and poured out for us. He does not offer a magic wand. But he walks with us and announces by his Resurrection that grace is stronger than evil, that the Father, the Lord of Heaven and earth is wiser and stronger than human power. The possibility of eternal life stares back at the strong who mistakenly think they have the last laugh.
That is a great message from Jesus as we face the future with trust in Him.