Given at Mass for the World Day of Celebration for Consecrated Life at Westminster Cathedral on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, 2nd February 2019
It is a real pleasure for me to see so many women and men in Religious and consecrated life here in the cathedral today.
As I thank you for your presence, I thank you too for all that you do in the service of Jesus Christ and his Church. Today’s feast does much to enrich our understanding of both. The infant Jesus, one of so many who would have been presented in the Temple every week, was picked out by Simeon as the Saviour, bringing light and glory both for those who know God, and those to whom the Good News must still be brought. Through your commitment to consecrated life, you too have seen in the infant Jesus a Saviour and you too have been chosen by God to play your part in spreading the message of salvation.
This theme of light is most characteristic of the Feast of the Presentation. The symbolism is rich indeed. And I should like to reflect on this now.
I was recently given a card with a picture of a lighthouse on the front, offered to me as an image of my ministry. My first thought: a lighthouse is no use without the light! There would be no lighthouse without the light at its heart. There would be no Church without Christ. It is through Christ that we can come to see the face of the Father; it is in Christ that we seek to live; it is with Christ that we walk, each day of our lives.
Then a second thought: The effectiveness of a lighthouse depends to a great extent on what surrounds the light: the mirrors and how the mirrors that reflect the light are arranged, where the lighthouse is placed, how well it is looked after.
To see the Church as being like the mirrors in a lighthouse, reflecting the light of Christ, is to recall an image of the Church that dates from the Fathers. The prophet Malachi speaks of the ‘Sun of Righteousness’, a phrase that maintains its familiarity for us through one of our best-loved Christmas carols. Christ is indeed that Sun from which the Church derives a certain ‘borrowed splendour’, just as the moon borrows its light from the sun. This is not just a nice image from an ecclesiology textbook. It is helpful in grounding us in our purpose, in acknowledging our utter dependence on Christ for all we do, as we seek to live out the promises we have made. Without him, without his light we are useless. When our faces are turned towards him, then we may just reflect his light more fully, despite the faults that mark us and distort his light.
A third thought: The placement of a lighthouse is critical. If it is in the wrong place then its effectiveness is compromised, and ships may flounder on unmarked rocks. For people who have consecrated their lives, being in the right place to shine the light of Christ for others is so important. In the Church of today, it is so often Religious sisters and brothers who have the gift of knowing where that is. You often know the rocky places on which you must make your presence visible. There are no lighthouses in the amusement arcades of Great Yarmouth! The outstanding witness and work of Religious in the fight against modern slavery is just one example. The most recent edition of Oremus, the cathedral magazine, contains an article about the unique role of Religious in fighting human trafficking in the UK. It tells how the Religious are involved in direct, front-line ministry to those who have fallen victim to traffickers. How grateful I am to all those who are responding so generously to this need in our diocese today.
Thought number four: A lighthouse can be technically brilliant and perfectly placed, but if it is not maintained then, sooner or later, disaster will strike: the light will go out. All Christian people must take the time to maintain their faith, but it is a special priority for those who are committed to Christ in the ways that you are. That work of maintenance is expressed, certainly, in our commitment to our communities. Charity in a community can sometimes be a raw thing; it often has to be an act of the will; but we cannot do without it as we seek to conform ourselves more closely to Christ, day by day. But above all, our work of maintenance stands or falls in our life of prayer: an essential and indispensable component of our relationship with God. Temptations to cut corners are everywhere: there are so many needs, important ones, that must be met; there are any number of people who need our help, or administrative tasks to be done. But we must never let the good prevent us from seeking the perfect. Today, as we renew our commitment to consecrated life, let us renew, in particular, our commitment to prayer; let us commit ourselves afresh to conform our lives, through prayer, to the ‘compassionate and trustworthy’ Christ of whom the Letter to the Hebrews speaks.
One final thought: When the lighthouse has done its work; when it has guided the ship safely to harbour, what will those who disembark find? Some of you may have visited the tidal island off Newborough on Anglesey: ‘the island of the blessed’, some call it. There the lighthouse is dwarfed, at the highest point of the island, by a towering cross. The island is associated, too, with a patron saint of lovers. Our works of witness and faithfulness cannot be separated from the Cross, for us, or for those we serve. But our work can, and must, be underpinned by love. Love for one another, expressed not least in the charity of community living; love for those to whom we minister; above all, love for Jesus Christ, the light that darkness cannot overcome, whose Presentation we celebrate today.