January 24, 2005

To Shine With Hope

National Conference for Religious 20-23 January 2005
(Friday, Week 2: Hebrews 8:1-13, Mark 3:13 19)

I’ve stood on the edge. On Sunday at 1.59 pm I found myself on the edge of the North Island, at Cape Palliser Lighthouse. It’s about three hours’ drive from here, over the Rimutakas and around the Wairarapa coast – at the southernmost point of the North Island. The view from the base of the lighthouse – 252 steps up – is spectacular. The coast is rugged and exposed, open to the full force of the Antarctic southerlies. On Sunday the weather at the edge was brilliantly fine, hot and cloudless – welcome conditions for the seals playing on and around the rocks.

Living in this country shapes us as ‘edge people’. Nowhere is very far from the coast. The place where we stand literally and figuratively shapes the way we see the world. And as Religious we are called to be on the edge, called to have an edge perspective.

Liturgically now we’re on the edge: the edge of Christmas and the edge of Lent. We call it Ordinary Time. On Boxing Day, however, it seemed as if we had been swept directly into Good Friday and the shadow of the cross drowned the image of the Christ child. Surely God wept. And the “Ordinary” became the extraordinary.

There is a risk to being on the edge. We can easily lose sight of the centre. That is why today’s Gospel is so appropriate for this conference. Jesus called his disciples first to be with him (and presumably to be with one another). Only then did he send them out to preach and cast out demons. Mark highlights for us what we claim as the two defining characteristics of religious life today: its contemplative dimension and its prophetic dimension – in other words, its “passion for Christ”, and its “passion for humanity”. Its centre and its edge.

We are here as living embodiments of that passion – all 350 of us – pray-ers, educators, poets, artists, prophets, writers, singers, theologians, spiritual directors, preachers, dancers, administrators, musicians, social workers, advocates, activists, chaplains, pastoral assistants, sacramental leaders, counsellors, nurses. Our passion for Christ, our relationship with him, sustains us in these ministries. We were called and we are continually called to be with Jesus as the first disciples were called and we are sent as apostles to preach and to cast out demons.

But will it matter to anyone that all this “passion for Christ” and all this “passion for humanity” is gathered here these three days? What difference will our conference make? Will it be business as usual on Monday? Or will our lives have changed so much that our relatives will come to get us as Jesus’ relatives did, thinking he had gone “over the edge”? Mark puts that particular story directly after today’s passage, which may make us ponder.

And what is the message we are sent to proclaim? What is the message after Boxing Day? The task of the prophets of old was to criticise and energise. We see the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews drawing on the prophet Jeremiah to energise, to give hope. Perhaps that is our task today.

The challenge for the writer was to reinterpret the gospel of Jesus for a new historical moment, to motivate and give hope to Jewish Christians experiencing loss, alienation and despair. After continuing his description of Christ’s priesthood, the writer turns to Jeremiah, a man called from the centre to be on the edge. He puts before his community Jeremiah’s passionate reminder of God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s fidelity, and reinterprets it for his time. Today we may question the writer’s particular spin on the covenant, but what is important for us is his reason for it: to give hope and meaning to a community in despair and despondency.

The edge is a dangerous place. Thousands of people have died on the edge: some who chose the edge because of its beauty and some whose economic reality forced them to live there. We have seen such massive destruction at the edge that we cannot yet comprehend it. How do we preach a word of resurrection hope in the midst of such darkness? How do we preach “THE Story”? What message would the disciples in today’s Gospel have preached?

We know the end of the story, we know that they experienced the Risen Christ precisely when their hopes were shattered, when they allowed the stranger to walk beside them and offer a new perspective on all that had happened. Over and over again the Gospels provide us with evidence that hope begins to unfold and shine when the “I” becomes “We”, when we share our pain, when our friends lift us down through the roof, when someone we thought was the gardener calls our name, when sharing our resources satisfies our hunger, when a friend washes our feet, when we experience forgiveness, when a stranger dresses our wounds, when we are invited down from our tree, when we find someone who has been lost to us, when we put our nets down one more time, when we hear words of peace uttered in moments of terror. It is precisely when the darkness seems greatest and situations seem most hopeless that God always makes a way. And that is what God has been doing on a massive scale these past three weeks.

Day after day the media are full of stories of amazing survival, of communities working together, of incredible generosity and sacrifice, of an almost global solidarity. These are the signs of the presence of God. In the midst of suffering God is never absent. And this is the truth being discovered and lived at the edges today. People are carrying out the spiritual and corporal works of mercy in ways that before Boxing Day we would never have thought possible. The Gospel message is being reinterpreted and preached anew by the actions of so many people.

Over the past few weeks in this country, where most people believe in God, we’ve seen and heard many people struggle to understand where God was on Boxing Day and where God is at the moment. But God is where God always is – in the midst of the suffering, in the global wave of solidarity and compassion, in the outpouring of government and private aid, in the generosity of children donating their pocket money. But it takes the eyes of faith to recognise God in these actions. And in this country it takes the courage of the prophets of old to name and proclaim this presence when a postmodern sensibility is suspicious of any truth claim.

We in this land know only too well about earthquakes and the ocean’s destructive power. The ten earthquakes on Tuesday and the one this morning were yet another reminder of our shaky geographic reality.

Perhaps as Religious, particularly in this country, our task today is to throw off our reluctance to name the presence of God where we see it, and to shine with hope instead. Perhaps our challenge is to be like lighthouses – unmistakable beacons of hope flashing from the edge. There is such energy gathered here in this place on the edge. How best shall we harness it to preach the message of Jesus, to preach “THE Story”?

In this country we have the edge on time, the edge on the new day. We’re often at the cutting edge of inventiveness and creativity. As Religious can we not have the edge on hope? Can we not preach collectively with our lives a word of hope? Can we not be like that Cape Palliser Lighthouse and flash every 20 seconds? There must be hundreds of such lighthouses all around our 15,000 km of coast, the 12th longest in the world. Imagine the view from above on a clear night! Here at the bottom of the world in a vast ocean, a wonderful dance of light taking place every night, the dance of “Our Story” and the dance of “THE Story”!

As the feminist writer Marge Piercy suggests:

...We must shine
with hope, stained glass windows that shape
light into icons, glow like lanterns
borne before a procession. Who can bear hope
back into the world but us...

Elizabeth Julian RSM

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