The GMD Generation: Light-bearers of the 21st Century
Address of Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP, Diocesan Youth Festival, St Patrick’s Church, Blacktown, Friday 27 September 2013
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth” the cosmos was formless and empty, dark and watery, but “the Spirit of God hovered over the deep.” So opens the Book of Beginnings, the story of our Genesis. “And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. And when God saw that the light was good He separated it from the darkness and called the light time ‘Day’ and the dark time ‘Night’. Evening came and morning came, the first day.” (Gen 1:1-5) Where God and creation meet there is light – such a burst of light that scientists call it ‘the big bang’, an explosion they think occurred about 13.8 billion years ago which has been playing out ever since.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … He is the light of all people, the light that shines in the darkness, the Light darkness cannot overcome.” So opens the Book of New Beginnings, the story of our re-creation. The Baptist came “as a witness to that light,” John’s Gospel continues, a witness to “the true light that gives light to everyone and who was coming into the world”. There would be more witnesses, in due course. But first “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:1-18) Where God and creation meet there is a burst of light. Believers call that meeting of God and creation Jesus Christ, the really big bang, the biggest bang, that rocked the world 2013 years ago and ever since.
But there is still darkness in our world. Back in 1992, when I was still a baby priest and most of you were still babies, a band called Red Hot Chilli Peppers released their song Under the Bridge. Despite the catchy tune, its central theme is very dark. The singer feels all alone. His only friend is the city he lives in (Los Angeles) and the city and he cry together. He turns to drugs. “Under the bridge downtown,” he sings, “is where I drew some blood … I could not get enough … I gave my life away.” Soon after the song was released, the popular young movie star River Phoenix died. He’d made several films including Stand by Me, My Private Idaho and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Despite his success and potential he wasn’t happy. He wanted to be a rock star rather than a film star. In the days before his death he hung out with the guitarist of the Peppers and went on a drug bender. They ended up at a nightclub owned by Johnny Depp. While Depp was performing on stage Phoenix collapsed outside. A 911 call didn’t save him. He was only 23.
I know many young people feel invincible, but you only need to hear a story like this, or to lose someone to cancer, car accident or suicide, to realise that the shadow of death looms large over all creation wounded by sin. The darkness still contests with the light. Disease, famine and violence abound. Only last Sunday, 85 Christians were murdered as they came out of a church in Peshawar, Pakistan. Darkness keeps trying to drag us down.
Yet Jesus confronted the darkness of sin and death, lies and confusion, and by God’s love was victorious. The Gospels relate that darkness eclipsed the world in His last hours (Lk 23:44-45). But He rose from the dead, suffused with light. The shroud of Turin, that many believe was His burial shroud, seems to have His image photographically impressed upon the cloth by some event like nuclear fission. The Resurrection was an eruption of light. That’s why Christians do not approach death like little children afraid of dark rooms. “So [Mr] Death where is your victory?” taunts St Paul, “So [proud] Death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” Paul told the Romans, “not death or life, neither angels nor princes, not things now or in the future, no height or depth or power.” (Rom 8:37-9) Though our earthen bodies carry within them the inevitability of death; yet our Baptism into Christ is assurance of Resurrection. We will be transfigured as His was.
So ours is a religion that is very realistic about the darkness in people’s lives, yet hopeful that light will ultimately win out. To be involved with Jesus is to be involved in His struggle for the human heart and to be on the side of the light. The Go Make Disciples Generation is called to be a light to Western Sydney and beyond. So in a little while I will take light from the paschal candle, Christ the Light of the World, to pass to you as a sign that you are to be His light here and now.
Rocky, Jazza and Jonno – commonly known as Peter, James and John – were Jesus’ inner circle, His backing band if you like. But still they needed three years’ formation, up close and personal with Jesus. There was plenty of confusion and backsliding, petty rivalry and mock heroics. Theirs was a slow and hard learning before they could be set loose on the world. Mary Mag, a bad girl nearly stoned by the crowd, was a faster learner, going from stoned to star in just a few months. She did the intensive, so to speak, sitting at Jesus’ feet and following Him to cross and tomb. By Easter she was ready to be the first to announce that the Lord is risen. Most of us take longer: Paul had years of instruction after his conversion before becoming the great evangelist (Gal 1:18; 2:1). Before they could tell the world the greatest story ever told, the apostolic generation needed to go to the school of Jesus Christ, the school of light that is the Church. So tonight we build on what you’ve already received from family, school, parishes, groups, World Youth Day.
On your return from Rio, I taught you an old Latin adage nemo dat non quod habet - you can’t give what you ain’t got. You can’t enlighten other people’s minds if your own is dark. You can’t be a lamp unless you’ve been lit. You can’t be a disciple-maker unless you are first a disciple yourself. Nemo dat non quod habet.
Young Christians today can only keep and share their ideals if they are solid in their relationship with Jesus. That means weekly Mass, daily prayer, regular confession. No ifs and buts and I’m too busy. You have to work at any relationship if it’s going to survive, you have to communicate, and that’s as true of your relationship with God as any other. You have to grow in understanding the other person in the relationship, so when it comes to God we have to keep studying the Bible and the teachings of the Church. It’s not enough to be high on Jesus all the time or down on the world or the Church. Discipleship requires a solid formation.
St Teresa of Avila once said that keeping company with God’s friends is a good way of keeping near to Him. Another theologian said saints are the best arguments for the existence of God. Why is that? It might be because saints are good at making space for God in a world that pretends He doesn’t exist, doesn’t matter. Saints bring God closer because they are close to Him. Because they are His artwork, to be in contact with them is to be brought closer to the divine Artist. Michelangelo described the sculptor’s art as more like releasing than creating: faced with a block of marble he would clear away the obstructions, disguising the beauty of the David, Moses or Pietà concealed within. The saints dispose themselves to be freed from the dross that obscures the image of God in us. They make space for God amidst the tribulations of daily life. And in allowing themselves to become God’s work they do God’s work. In becoming His space their lives become a space in which others may find Him.
On our World Youth Day pilgrimage we were offered several patrons, such as Pier-Giorgio Frassati, the friend of youth, and Saints Rose of Lima and Martin de Porres, great friends of God and the poor. Our soon-to-be saint John Paul II, founder of World Youth Day, hovered like the Spirit over the waters in Rio. In such saints we see human beings fulfilled, a promise that if we let Him, God will make a masterpiece of us too. Get to know the saints by reading, celebrating, praying with them. Get to know them so that you might join their company.
The saints shine with Christ’s light. Jesus described Himself as the Light (e.g. Jn 8:12; 12:46; cf. Mt 4:16). He called John the Baptist ‘a bright shining lamp’ and said we too must walk always in the light (Jn 5:35; 8:12; 11:9-10; 12:35-36; Lk 11:33-36). The good guys are ready with loins girded and lamps burning; the foolish gals are those who don’t fill up on Gospel good oil so that they are ready (Lk 12:35-48; Mt 25:1-13). In tonight’s Gospel, Christ charges you with being lamps for all the world to see (Mt 5:13-16). He once took Rocky, Jazza and Jonno up a mountain to witness His Transfiguration, when He was suffused with light (Mt 17:2). I once took many of you up a mountain – Corcovado – so you too would witness Christ shining white amidst the clouds.
Transfigured but also ascending. Now, when Jesus said His goodbyes, He didn’t say: see ya, thanks for the fun, it’s been great, back to normal now, back to fishing, tax-collecting, sex-work or whatever you were into before. No, meeting Him changes everything. His farewell is: Go and make disciples of all nations, teaching and baptising them. I’ll always be with you. I’ll send the Holy Spirit to help. He will make you my witnesses to the ends of the earth (Mt 28:19-20; Mk 16:15-8; Lk 24:48-9; Jn 14:16-7; Acts 1:8). Your light must shine for all to see (Mt 5:13-16). Not much back-to-normal about all that! No room for pew potatoes and spiritual sleepwalkers. In his epistle Jazza blogs: What’s the point, bros, if someone says he’s got faith but does nothing about it? Will that save him? If a brother or sister is naked or hungry and you say, ‘God bless, have a nice day’ or sing ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ without giving them what they need, how’s that help? Faith that’s not lived is dead. It’s a corpse. (Jas 2:14-26; cf. 1Jn 1:3-6,9; 3:17-8)
Those first disciples knew what it was to wander around in a spiritual coma, as a faith zombie. It’s not good enough, they said. Get real, disciples. Get a life, a Christian life. Not just a name, not just an ideology. Go build the kingdom of God the Father. Let God the Son teach you. May God the Holy Spirit empower you. Baptism is for biography: for writing the story of God, here and now, lived in you and me.
In our readings tonight Izzy the prophet and Davey Rex the singer-songwriter run the same line: feed the hungry, shelter the poor, clothe the naked, be generous, merciful and just. Do that and “your light will shine like the dawn”; you will be “light in the darkness for the upright” (Is 58:7-10; Ps 111:4-9). In the struggle between light and darkness, the saints are champions.The AFL Grand Final is tomorrow and the NRL Grand Final next weekend. Champions of football, like champions of faith, must shine in what they do. They can’t be passive. They play positive, determined football. So must you in your discipleship. “I came to cast fire upon the earth,” Jesus said, “and how I wish it were burning already!” (Lk 12:49). It’s your time to cast fire upon the earth – or at least upon Western Sydney. You are the Go Make Disciples Generation. As Pope Francis said at the Vigil on Copacabana: “Be active members [of the Church]! Go on the offensive! Play down the field, build a better world, a world of brothers and sisters, a world of justice, love and peace, of fraternity and solidarity. Play always on the offensive! … My friends, the Lord needs you! Today He is calling you to follow Him in His Church and be missionaries. The Lord is calling you tonight! Not just the anonymous multitude, but you, and you, and you, each one of you.” Right now!