Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Given at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Edinburgh on the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 18th August 2019

The letter to the Hebrews, as we have just heard, sets out the challenge of those who want to follow Jesus. It tells us to 'keep running steadily in the race we have started ... for the sake of the joy which is still in the future' (Hebrews 12:1-2). This is the shape of our faith: a present effort for the sake of a great promise, a promise which casts a new light on everything we see, everything we do, everything for which we strive.

The Letter to the Hebrews also presents the resolution of our faith: the person of Jesus Christ. In him, the promise is not only made clear but it is also fulfilled. We heard that it is he who ‘leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection', he who 'endured the cross, disregarding the shamefulness of it and from now on has taken his place at the right hand of God's throne.' 

Please note: neither the challenge of our faith nor its resolution is an abstract theory or an ideology. Unlike all ideologies, whether Marxism, Fascism or any other 'ism', our faith does not seek to remove one reality in order to replace it with another, often destroying all that stands in its way. No, our faith seeks not to repudiate a present reality, but rather to bring it to its fulfilment, to that purpose for which it is actually created.           

Faith brings a new light, a new horizon against which we are to see everything that exists in a radically new way. In the horizon of faith, we are given a new way of experiencing our every day, be it a day of comfort and success, or a day of deep pain and distress. From the perspective of this horizon, the horizon of Jesus, we find a different kind of hope and a new summons.

Last Sunday's passage from this same Letter to the Hebrews spelt out what it means to live by this wider, more vast horizon. It said that people of faith 'live by realities which remain unseen', with, I quote, 'a longing for a better homeland, their heavenly homeland'. This means that people of faith, and I quote again, 'live here in tents, while awaiting the City founded, designed and built by God'.

And the prayer of our Mass this morning asks for precisely this quality in the lives of each one of us: 'O God, you have prepared for those who love you good things which no eye can see, fill our hearts with the warmth of your love so that, loving you in all things and above all things, we may attain your promises which surpass every human desire.'

This prompts a crucial question: What is it that calls us out of our everyday comfort to see and feel again that greater desire, that more elevating horizon? What is capable of lifting our eyes to our true homeland?

Many will say that it is none other than the call of beauty in all its forms. Its call is unmistakable whether in art, words or music. Surprised by beauty we are touched deeply. You know what I mean: a glimpse of beauty can leave us standing open-mouthed with wonder, gasping with surprise, amazed at a glimpse of a forgotten truth, moved to joy at an experience of peace and resolution in the midst of our discord and uncertainty.

This is not the time or place for dwelling on the mystery of beauty, other than to say that it is always a glimmer, a fragment of the mystery of God and of the grandeur of love. Thus we can affirm wholeheartedly that Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, is the fullness of all beauty. This we can say even of the moment of his gruesome death, a moment in which the inner secret of love, so often beyond our sight and certainly our practice, is, awesomely, laid bare before us.

Every work of beauty, then, is the work of God, breaking through the encrusted surface of our daily routines and summoning us to something greater. More precisely, beauty, the work of God, is the work of the Holy Spirit, poured out in the constant action of creation and renewed again, as a saving gift, flowing from the wounded side of Jesus.

Last night’s Symphony, with its title 'The Great Unknown', struggled with this mystery of the Holy Spirit, exploring the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity in words and images which gave rise and shape to the music.

Those images include, of course, the great image of fire, presented to us again in this morning's passage from the Gospel of St Luke. Jesus said: 'I have come to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were blazing already!' (Luke 12:49).  It is the fire of the Holy Spirit of which he is speaking, a fire that gives energy, new life, that purifies and enlightens, that warms and comforts, a fire that nothing can extinguish, not even the most momentous of torrents and floods.

Yet fire is also terrifying. So too is the Holy Spirit if, above all, we want to cling to our home comforts and avoid every fresh challenge of following Jesus. That fire will not go away. It will disturb us and seek us out until we turn to him again in our hearts and are cleansed and recreated.

My brother lived in Australia and loved its outback. He showed me, once, the effects of a bushfire. Everything was reduced to ash and cinders. Yet even before the heat had gone out of the ruined earth, we could see the fresh buds of new life emerging from the burned-out remains.

In Jewish reading, the fire of God is always a judgement. That makes it awesome indeed. And Jesus says the same to us, in that passage from the Gospel of St John (John 16:8) where we read that the Holy Spirit will come to teach how wrong the world is: wrong about sin - about what evil truly is; wrong about righteousness - about where true life is to be found; wrong about judgement - about whose opinion really matters and whose judgement should be our only concern. The horizons offered by our world are short-range, prompting such an impoverished view of values and hopes by which to live.

Taught by the Holy Spirit we lift our eyes to the new horizons, which alone are the sure guide as we negotiate our daily lives. This same Spirit helps us to establish, deep within our hearts and souls, that inner core of truth and love, rooted in our relationship with Jesus, which is the foundation of our greater future. This is all the work of the Holy Spirit, and the call of beauty, so often restoring in us a life-giving perspective and refreshing us in spirit, is the gift of his grace too.

Today we thank God for every work of the Holy Spirit, but especially in all who create beauty in our world. We thank God for the gifts he gives, particularly the talent and gifts of musicians and composers, not least those of Sir James MacMillan who, with graciousness and skill, help us over many years to raise our minds, hearts and voices to the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.