Introduction to and homily given at the Mass for Consecrated Life at Westminster Cathedral on 1st February 2020
I welcome you all to the Cathedral this morning for the celebration of the World Day for Consecrated Life. Thank you for coming. As you can see, the Cathedral is in a celebratory mood. We are hosting this wonderful roadshow for our year dedicated to the Word of God - 'The God who Speaks'. Please do have a good look round and absorb the riches of these displays.
The presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the account of which we have just heard from St Luke's Gospel, is a rich moment in the tapestry of God's revelation to our world. It is, of course, an event strongly associated with the vows of religious and consecrated life. I am sure that each of us is somewhat more conscious this morning of the moments in which we were 'presented to the Lord' in taking vows and shaping the future of our lives.
For some, of course, this year is a celebration of some special jubilees. According to my list, there are five celebrating silver jubilees; four golden jubilations; nine diamond jubilations and five sisters celebrating their seventieth anniversaries, the platinum sisters: Sister Margaret Foley, Sister Winifride Logan, Sister Irene Sweeney, Sister Columba Cleary and Sister Dolores Meehan. Well! What stories they can tell!
But let’s go back to the story of the Presentation, in the longer version that we heard.
At one level, a key feature of the account given by St Luke is that this is all about fulfilling the obligations of the Law. This is a moment of great devotion and dedication firmly within the faith of the Chosen People, the Jews. Yet it is also something more. These things are done, 'as laid down by the Law of Moses' but they are also done at the direct command of God.
Luke makes this clear by the three appearances of Angels that precede this moment: the Archangel Gabriel coming first to Elizabeth and then to Mary, and the unnamed angel, or angels, announcing the birth of Jesus. Here is something surging beyond the Law.
This is strongly emphasised in the great prayer of Simeon and the praise of Anna who just happens to come by at that moment. These things don’t just happen - as we well know in our own lives! Anna makes this a moment of special praise of God. Simeon makes it clear that in this moment the history of the Chosen People, the purpose of the Law, is opening up like a great flower, slowly revealing its full bloom. He proclaims that here is 'a salvation....for all the nations to see', 'a light to enlighten the pagans', the Gentiles, 'and the glory of your people Israel.' This, we can say, is the flowering of the Kingdom of God.
As consecrated people we are familiar with the phrase 'for the sake of the kingdom'. It is the intention that shapes our lives. We live more explicitly 'for the sake of the kingdom'. It is at the heart of our consecration.
There are two aspects of this witness I would like to emphasise this morning. There are many more, of course, but I have chosen just these two.
The first is our calling to live the virtue of chastity in a celibate way of life. This virtue, which directs and shapes the ways in which a disciple of Jesus expresses love, takes on a particular form in our celibate way of life, embraced 'for the sake of the Kingdom'. It only makes sense if our eyes are set on the fulfilment of life in the Kingdom that is still to come. The call to live a celibate life is so much more a searching out of the Kingdom than a pathway of avoidance. We look for ways of generating new life for heaven, giving ourselves entirely to that calling. Only slowly do we become the ‘pure of Christ', growing into a way of life that is full of love for him and for all we seek to serve in his name. This is a witness that is rich both in tradition and in promise. It is a way of life that draws us closer him and gives us the joy that only he can instil in our hearts.
The second aspect of our witness 'for the sake of the Kingdom' is the way we understand and approach the inescapable reality of bodily death. This is highlighted in the text from the Letter to the Hebrews that we have just heard. It is Jesus, who embraced our 'blood and flesh', so that he can 'set free all those who had been held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death'. What an insightful phrase: 'the fear of death'. This fear makes us focus on this life alone. If this is all there is, then we must grab it with both hands, take everything we can, seek to leave a good impression, for after this it is a dark nothingness.
We are to approach death somewhat differently. We see death as an approaching new life. As Cardinal Hume said: 'It is like sitting in the front seats of a theatre waiting for the curtain to go up!'
I came across this quotation from the life of St Francis by Celano:
'One day, marvelling at the Lord's mercy, he began to lose himself; his feelings were pressed together; and that darkness disappeared which fear of sin had gathered in his heart......Then he was caught up above himself and totally engulfed in light' (Celano, Life 1, xi, quoted in 'Francis, A Life in Song' by Ann Wroe).
We pray for a death filled with light. We accompany others in their moments of dying with this same spirit. We seek to love and pray them into the light. We try to witness to this light in our daily living. This is our joy, the joy we celebrate afresh today.