Faith: Abandonment and Commitment
Following is the homily prepared by Fr. Peter Varengo for 12th Ordinary Sunday of the Year and the Feast Day of Our Lady of the Southern Cross and St Jon the Baptist Parish [Snap Master]
‘Who do you say that I am?’ If Jesus were to ask that question to you personally, right now, what would you answer? I remember addressing the question to a group of 15 year olds during a religious education class. The response was a strange and unique event that had never happened before and I do not recall happening after over my teaching years. I had perfect silence in that class – that bored and slightly annoyed silence which speaks so eloquently precisely when you want an answer and you are not likely to get one! ‘Did you have to? Please, don’t bother me!” it seems to say so eloquently. Dawdling, tapping of fingers on desktops, some two dozen glassy eyes, last night’s disco!
Stubbornly I persisted, and becoming very personal I began addressing the question randomly to various students individually. Another surprising response never encountered before: Those students actually reached a consensus – short, sweet and very eloquent, invariably accompanied by a more or less marked shrug of the shoulders and strongly protruding lower lip: “I don’t know!” Much more eloquent than others, Roy actually elaborated: “I agree with the others!” Is “disquieting” the correct word?
Suddenly and well before I had time to feel either self-pity or anger, I knew that this time I was in for it. Every class has its crop of “challenging student”, and one of them had just raised her hand, a gesture choreographed by a the snarl of precocious victory and a backing chorus of twenty five teenagers eagerly egging Kylie on to one of her not-unusual performances. “I know who Jesus Christ is,” she blurted out pointing out of window, “He’s a bloke who lives up on that cloud and pays you your weekly wages to come and drive us crazy!” What followed in that class is better left to one’s imagination, but the raucous sound of the bell for the end of the lesson was never more liberating and welcome.
I never forgot Kylie’ insight, of course, but more importantly that mischievous reply gained greater significance and challenge as my years went on. Kylie relegated Jesus to some distant, ethereal or mythical figure “up in the sky”, and in so doing unwittingly she gave expression to an attitude that all too often we share with the disciples in answer to Jesus’ original question: “Who do you say that I am?”. Had not the disciples looked for escapes and alibis a Jesus “out there” away from their personal life, neither touching them, challenging them, or making demands of any kind on their lives? Jesus is always “someone else” (John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets) or “somewhere else”, out there or up there, in the past, in the history books, dead and gone long ago. It is so easy for us too to share such a perception. Often Jesus remains some sort of undefined or historical concept away from daily reality, comfortably retributive of good deeds, judge-and-executioner at the same time of wrong doing. In that case, so long as I pay my dues and perform some strange rituals, then hopefully he remains “up there”, and not bother me “down here”!
On the contrary Jesus came to reveal a totally “Other God”, a God caught up in every skerrick of human affairs right down here in the midst of all my pain and joy, success and failure, doubts and certainties, hope and despair, life and death. That is precisely what Peter proclaims – an outburst hard to comprehend beyond a sudden, almost childish intuition that goes far beyond his own power of understanding or of any deep theological insight but t with the freshness and spontaneity of a child embracing his mother, Peter blurts out, “You are the Christ of God”. “You are God with us!” This impulsive, rough old man lets all well up from the heart, and he feels the presence of God in the Master much more powerfully and personally than any philosophical speculation could ever express. Without hesitation, almost unwittingly Peter declares both his personal faith and his deep love for Jesus, and proclaims to the whole world that faith consists in acknowledging the presence of God in our life and living by this presence. Faith is not a matter of reaching out to God “up there” or “out there”, but of accepting God on God’s own terms “right down here”. Faith is abandonment and commitment, here, now, as we are, and where we are.
By chance rather than by design today our Christian community celebrates precisely this double yet inseparable dimension of faith, through the lived example and the heritage bequeathed to us by Mary, the Mother of Jesus and John the Baptist.
When in the early 1850’s Fr Therry placed this country under the patronage of Mary Help of Christians, he gave us Mary as the Woman of Faith. In a time and place of great possibilities and of enormous struggle, Mary became the ultimate exemplar of trust and abandonment to God and we believers in Australia today are called to be people of faith and trust, lived and expressed right down here. The specific title of Southern Cross expresses precisely this life-giving presence and love-empowered energy of God at work right here, under the Southern Cross. We will never find God except in this land of the Southern Cross, in our cities and country, in our diversity of races and cultural milieu of our suburbs, in our droughts and floods, in our young people and our memory-laden older citizens. These are revelatory moments of God’s presence, and unless we accept them as such, God will always remain distant and we will never really know him or see him. Asked to be Mother of God and to be the bearer of God in this world, Mary said yes in trust and abandonment. We who pride ourselves of the title of Our Lady of the Southern Cross commit ourselves to do the same in trust and abandonment.
On the other hand, commitment calls for action, and action can be demanding and even death-dealing, as Jesus himself reminds the disciples immediately after Peter’s great revelation. Even before the birth of Jesus, John the Baptist understood the meaning of “the living and active presence of God in human affairs”, and threw himself unreservedly to proclaim it. It did cost him his life in the end, but the mission of making God present was urgent and non-negotiable. For John the Baptist, God was certainly not a distant stranger out there or up there, but very much “here”, “in our very midst” demanding a radical transformation of one’s life and in the life of others. John the Baptist was the first exemplar of what it means to accept God in one’s life: commitment. As the Christian community of St John the Baptist, Clifton Hill, we must accept and bring about this presence through personal active involvement in the real world and in human affairs, so that others may discover in their life that presence harbinger of joy, peace and healing. I believe that for us faith means a non-negotiable commitment to unity, peace and concern for each other, in our homes, school, street, workplace and where our daily humdrum takes us, without judgment or distinction, but simply as living and faith-filled messengers of the living and loving presence of God at all times and in all situations. Those whom we encounter us should be able to have a glimpse of the loving presence of God in their own life.
Happy feast day to all
Fr. Peter Varengo PP