March 02, 2003

On the Edge: A Homily for Concentrated Life Day

About three weeks ago I acted on a suggestion given to me by John Taylor some time ago. During a tea break in a class one evening John told me about a beautiful walk he and his family sometimes do and the way he described it really captured my interest. So on a beautifully fine Wellington day I began a climb up to the radar dome on Hawkins Hill. I was with a friend, Margaret Milne who is a Wellington Sister of Mercy back home for a while from Chile. The walk up this track directly above Red Rocks around the coast from Island Bay is fairly steep (actually, very steep for someone as unfit as I am) but once you've huffed and puffed your way it up to the ridge, it's certainly well worth the effort. As John had promised what we could see was absolutely amazing, so thank you John for eight hours of the most stunning views. To the east we could see numerous little bays and then Pencarrow Head, Baring Head, Turakirae Head and whatever is beyond that. (Perhaps it was Cape Palliser?) To the west, the South Island looked as if we could touch it. So there we were sitting in brilliant sunshine, having lunch on top of the world, or so it seemed, on one of the southernmost parts of the North Island. We were facing south and there wasn't a breath of wind! (To have been up there in such an exposed place in the gales of the past few days doesn't even bear thinking about!) After lunch we continued our walk along the ridge taking several hours to get to the dome. Many times we just had to stand and gaze, overwhelmed by the beauty around us.

Now what has all of this got to do with the readings we have just heard? What does it have to do with today's feast of the Presentation and what does it have to do with Consecrated Life Day? What does it have to do with our present situation? It seems to me that they all have something to do with being on the edge.

First of all the present global context locates us all on the edge. The world is on the edge of a war of horrendous magnitude. How are we supposed to behave, to act when we're on the edge of such terrifying madness? What are we supposed to say? Do we just pretend it's not happening? Or do we hope that when we wake up one morning it will all be over? Perhaps this morning's news of the terrible space tragedy in the US will be the one thing that will slow George Bush down in his relentless pursuit. We have already been assured that it was not a terrorist attack so hopefully there will be no talk of revenge but instead time for a nation to pray and mourn. The edge may just have moved a bit further away in the last few hours.

Today's feast of the Presentation is a feast on the edge. It's on the edge of both Christmas and Lent. As the Opening Prayer reminded us it's now forty days since Christmas and although the Christmas season finished officially with the feast of the Epiphany, there are several Christmas themes that we find in today's Gospel. We hear about the child Jesus, about light shining in the darkness and about glory. We're not yet into Lent but we're on the edge of it. The first reading from Malachi has some incredibly harsh words about the need for purification. A messenger will suddenly appear in the Temple with judgement and punishment. The priests will have to undergo a period of purification until they are worthy to offer sacrifice again The second reading from the letter to the Hebrews reminds us about the sacrifice on the cross. Clearly purification and the Jesus' death are Lenten themes. So today's feast of the Presentation situates us on the edge liturgically. With hints of both Christmas and Lent in the readings we find ourselves on the edge of both: leaving Christmas and moving towards Lent.

The people in the readings locate us on the edge. Anna and Simeon and are edge people. They don't belong to the official Temple personnel, they don't have positions of power or privilege, yet they are the ones who recognise the Christ child, they are the ones who recognise the divinity shining through. From their positions on the edge they see what those in position of power don't or won't see. The holiness and fidelity of their lives allows them glimpses of the divine in the tiny baby Simeon holds in his arms. And so these two elderly people praise God and prophesy from the edge and that is what they are remembered for. Perhaps the challenge for us is to recognise glimpses of the divine in our ordinary lives and to praise God for it.

The Gospel scene takes place on the edge, that is, in an outer court of the Temple. Women were not permitted in the inner court and Luke tells us that Simeon actually speaks to Mary. Simeon acknowledges the baby as the glory of Israel and a light for the Gentiles. He reminds Mary that like all disciples it is not going to be easy for her to understand God's word -she does not know what lies ahead. The prophet Anna, the elderly widow, prays and fasts continually and speaks about the child to whoever will listen. So in the lives of these two people on the edge, Simeon and Anna, we are given great models of holiness, of fidelity and of patient waiting in hope. Perhaps their lives challenge us to see the presence of Christ in the most vulnerable, to have open minds and open hearts ready for the unexpected revelation of God.

As well as Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph are edge people. They can only bring the offering of the poor, of those on the edge. The Gospel gives us a picture of family for whom the rituals of their religious tradition are very important. Luke tells us several times that Mary and Joseph by going to the Temple are following the prescriptions of the Law. So we meet Jesus in a family committed to living out the requirements of their faith. But they are a family on the edge. Perhaps they challenge us to be faithful to what we believe, to show up for the important feasts and requirements of Catholicism and to steep our families in our traditions.

Religious life I think is located on the edge at present. On the edge of what I'm not quite sure, perhaps it's the edge of acceptability. While our baptism calls us into the Church, the vows that we publicly profess as Religious women and men move us to the edge in several ways. Certainly we're at the edge numerically. But more telling than that, we're at the edge in terms of relevance. Many Catholic parents regard our way of life as irrelevant so we are on the edge in terms of a desirable career path for their children. For many young adults too, we are on the edge of obsolescence. A life of permanent commitment to consecrated celibacy, poverty and obedience seems to them to border on sheer madness. And the abuse that many people throughout the world have suffered because of some Religious women and men has placed all Religious on the edge of credibility. So for me actually living religious life at the moment feels like being on the edge. But the lives of Anna and Simeon continue to call me to fidelity, to prayer and to hope and I have many years to go before I reach Anna's great age.

So today's readings, today's feast of the Presentation, the fact that it is Consecrated Life Day, and the reality of our present global situation have all highlighted the edge. We are all in edge times. In these perilous and uncertain times then where can we find someone, a prophet like the prophets of old, someone from the edge? Where are the Malachis today, prophets prepared to speak out and call us all to account? Where are the Annas and Simeons today -models of holiness and fidelity, prophets able to recognise the presence of Christ in the poor and vulnerable? They are probably here in our very midst in this parish but many of us may be unwilling to listen. Anna, the elderly woman from the edge, prayed and fasted continually. Perhaps that is all we can do in these edge times.

Elizabeth Julian RSM
St Anne's Parish Newtown

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