St Colman’s Day 2019
Reading the newspapers or watching the news lately can present us with a fairly grim picture of the world in which we now live. We are told that our climate is changing disastrously, that younger people are suffering from high levels of stress and anxiety, and now, to cap it all, we’re all getting too fat! We have an obesity epidemic which will, if it continues, have long term effects on both our individual health and our health service as a whole.
One of the drivers of this problem, it appears, is the growing consumption of what is now called junk food – food which is of little real nutritional value. Needing no effort to prepare, instantly available, (you can even have it delivered if you don’t want to walk to the shop), and relatively cheap, it’s easy to see why it is attractive. It’s heavily marketed and advertised. And of course it tastes nice, being high in sugar and salt. But ultimately if we eat nothing else, it will leave us starved of vital nutrients for our bodies and our minds.
It’s an image and an analogy which I think can be applied to the way in which many of us now live our emotional, moral, and indeed spiritual lives. We seek a constant stream of entertainment and diversion, which must be instantly available. Social media and internet often entrap people in a feeling of low self-esteem as we look for validation from our internet friends, or follow slavishly the dictates of celebrities in the hope that this will in some way make us more lovable, or at least gain us more likes . And yet deep down, we know that such validation is false, that nobody can have 1500 friends, online or otherwise, and that most, if not all, celebrities will never encounter us as persons. It is also interesting that in an era when physical intimacy has now been reduced to the level of transient recreational activity, we see unprecedented levels of loneliness and self-destructive behaviour.
Such false hopes are not of course confined to younger people. Those of us of a pre digital generation or who saw it develop in our lifetimes, sometimes seek our validation in material things, in offices or positions at work or in voluntary organisations.
Such a search is ultimately fruitless, for the true source of our value comes not from others, but from our dignity as a son or daughter of God, and the love God has for each one of us, which, if we have been lucky in life, has been reflected in the love of those around us.
As we gather today to honour St Colman, patron and founder of our diocese of Cloyne we are faced with the question as to how we as Christians are to try to convey to people in the culture I have described the infinite love of God for them, and the great gift a relationship with Christ can bring to their lives. The obstacles are obvious, for a real relationship with Christ can only be built with time, effort, patience, and reflection, and in contradiction of what is now expected, is not an instant fix. And yet, like good food properly prepared, it provides lasting nutrition for the spirit.
But as Christians we must be people of hope, not despair, and I think there are signs of hope, The whole green movement, for one example, which so enthuses young people, and concerning which it is easy to be cynical, reflects, I believe, a desire on their behalf to be part of something bigger than and beyond themselves, and ultimately, to in some way encounter the divine.
So what can we do? First, we can continue to preach the message of Christ, in season or out of season, but beginning not with rules and regulations, but with the simple message that God loves us, has come to walk among and with us, and has overcome our greatest enemy, death itself. It is unfortunate that when so much time and energy has gone into so many issues, we hear very little discussion, or even proclamation, of this central belief. The institutional church has become in many people’s minds associated with the word ‘no’. It’s time we focused again on the ‘yes’ that God has proclaimed to the whole human race in the resurrection of Christ, the yes which has destroyed our greatest enemy, death.
Second we can help people to have some experience of this life giving relationship with Christ through our liturgy. We are all aware of the falling numbers who come to worship regularly on Sunday. And yet many of us who have had a special remembrance Mass this month will have experienced large attendances. Parish missions still draw people, and in a few weeks time we will see our congregations triple or quadruple at Christmas. While the temptation may be to criticise these ‘hardy annuals’ and ask where will they be next Sunday, I believe that most if not all of those who come to our churches at Christmas come in hope that in some way the message of Christmas, that God has walked with us and among us, may in some way become a reality in their own lives. These liturgies are an opportunity to present to people a taste of the really nourishing food we have to offer. To do this effectively, we may need to rebalance the number of our celebrations with the quality of the celebrations themselves.
And thirdly, we can try to live our lives as Christians as best we can, and as St Paul tells us, be ready to give an account of our faith if we are asked. I’m sure you have had the experience of meeting someone you hadn’t seen for a while who looked better than when you last saw them – maybe they had lost a lot of weight and seemed a lot fitter, or didn’t seem to have aged at all.. And maybe you said to them, what’s the secret?
Our aim, our call, our gift, is to live our lives as followers of Christ in such a way that people will want to ask us what’s the secret? What’s the secret of our joy, our peace, our hope? And our answer should be that we nourish our spirits not with the junk food our modern culture presents, but with the bread of life that is Jesus himself, and that having fed ourselves we can than try to fulfil the command of Jesus to Peter in today’s Gospel – feed my sheep.