Bishop Anthony’s Homily - CCD 25th Anniversary Mass
Homily of Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP - 25th Anniversary Mass for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, St Patrick's Church, Blacktown,
Friday 7 September 2012
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Today is an Ember Day, as is the first Friday in Spring each year in Australia. My guess is that, apart from those theological and liturgical wizzes we call SRE teachers, very few Australians – bishops included – know. But what on earth is an ember day?
On the face of it, it sounds like it’s got something to do with hot or smouldering coals, like the fire of the Easter Vigil or the ashes of Ash Wednesday. The popular motivational speaker Tony Robbins gets people so motivated they will literally walk on hot coals: it was recently reported, or misreported, that some had suffered burns as a result. I’m not proposing to bring that in as a test of my own qualities as a motivational preacher!
But is an ember day about such challenges?
In fact the word is not from ember or coal at all, but from ymbryne the old English word for the seasons. Just as the Romans and Celtics marked planting and harvesting times with various festivals, so did the Jews and Christians, starting each season with a period of fasting and abstinence. Some might think it scandalous that Christians are still following ancient pagans in this, but as the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine knows, the Church has always looked for the best aspect of the cultural pastures it has entered, embedded the seed of the Gospel there, and, if they are fruitful from a Christian point of view, harvested them for the kingdom.
Many dates in the Church’s calendar, such as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, are related to phases of the moon and farming seasons, and yet they have been Christianised and put to the service of Christian worship and sacrament.
The link to the physical heavens with its phases and seasons is not a matter of astrology so much as recognising that we are bodily beings in a physical universe, even if we are also spiritual beings in a spiritual one. Things like droughts and floods, eclipses and cyclones, the weather at planting, growing and harvesting time, all affect us deeply and are properly the subject of our prayers, whether of intercession or thanksgiving. In this 21st Century, with all its concern for the environment, climate change and stewardship of the natural world, such echoes of the cycles of nature in our liturgical cycle have a new resonance.
Making room for the virtues to flower
To start Spring with abstinence can be an encouragement to restraint in our exploitation of the natural universe even as we see it blossoming before our eyes. A day of penance can express our solidarity with those who lack our bounty, especially those who suffer through famine and the inequitable distribution of the world’s resources.
In all great religions, the faithful and their leaders have fasted and abstained from various things at various times in the hope of attaining some self-mastery and pleasing the gods. Our Muslim neighbours, for example, have recently been celebrating Ramadan by fasting from all food and water during the hours of sunlight for a month. The New Testament, too, opens with John the Baptist abstaining from drink and living on locusts and wild honey, and with then Jesus following in his path by fasting for 40 days in the desert.
In all these traditions asceticism was seen as a process of cleansing, purgation, weeding of the soul; by removing the thorns of vice and the thistles of sensuality, we make room for the virtues to flower; by a little self-denial we gain greater self-possession; by a little familiarity with want we grow in solidarity with those who are seriously wanting; and these experiences are helpful to everybody, not just the holiness professionals.
So still our Catholic tradition directs self-denial every Friday and fasting especially in Lent and Advent and before Holy Communion, and abstinence from meat at least on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Still our Church recommends mortification and self-denial of various kinds, but especially through fasting and abstinence.
I remember giving up coffee and tea one Lent and having my staff beg me to return to the drugs as it was becoming their penance rather than mine! For the young people with whom you all deal, fasting from SMSes, Facebook or PlayStation might be a harder and more worthwhile experience for a time.
So what is going on in our Gospel (Lk 5:33-39) with Jesus’ disciples getting a name for being gluttons and boozers while the disciples of John the Baptist and of the Pharisees are famous abstainers?
Jesus’ thought is: these are good practices, but we have to get them in perspective. If you are elderly or sick or on medication of course you don’t have to fast, the Church says. If you are celebrating a wedding or the presence of that Divine Bridegroom, Christ, on some happy feast, you don’t adopt dour looks and stick to bread and water. Use your common sense, He says, use that new common sense that is the faithful conscience.
Stewards of a precious faith, a new common sense
Which bring us to Paul’s little thought (1 Cor 4:1-5) that we are stewards. He doesn’t mean stewards as butlers, housekeepers, waiters or airline hostesses. He talks of spiritual stewardship: “People must think of us as Christ’s servants, stewards entrusted with the mysteries of God.” He could have been addressing our SRE teachers.
You’ve been under the spotlight these past two years, with all the talk of establishing alternatives to SRE in the state schools and the questions about the quality of offerings. The recent review suggests there will be more scrutiny ahead. Most of it will be good for us, helping us to keep on our toes and make our good act even better.
But we must not lose sight of what it’s all about. We are stewards of a precious faith, a new common sense, in the context of other religious traditions and secular wisdoms, none the equal of our Catholic faith but all, hopefully, in awe at the wonders of our natural world and ready for gratitude and justice in relating to that universe.
The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine has a unique role as the steward of sacred mysteries for thousands of young people in our state schools, bringing them all to wonder and gratitude, self-mastery and solidarity with the needy.As we celebrate 25 years of that faithful and fruitful stewardship, we give thanks for the generosity of each one of you, your predecessors and your present collaborators in our many parishes and schools. We pray for a springtime in the faith of your young people. And we offer on this Spring Ember Day the sacrifice of ourselves, asking God that through our small efforts more will be brought to know, worship and love Him and to serve in His kingdom.
View a Photo Gallery of the CCD 25th Anniversary Mass at the Diocesan site
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