Wednesday night in Saskatoon, we celebrated a farewell Mass, and Fr. Lorne Crozon attended the celebration and spoke a few words on behalf of the people of the Archdiocese of Regina. He said “we’re not stealing your bishop. We’re simply taking him back.” Thank you for taking me back. While it was difficult to leave Saskatoon, it is very good to be home, and even as I am being welcomed, it is a blessing to be able to join in welcoming so many other people here tonight, in the Cathedral and in the hall below, from near and far, and others following by live stream.
We might begin with a prayer from the 2nd reading, St. Paul writing to the Ephesians: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
As we set out on a journey together, I pray for all of us what Paul prays for: that we might come to know the breadth and length, height and depth, of God’s love revealed in Christ. That is, that we might come to know the dimensions of God, of God’s way with us, the dimensions of God’s mercy.
We could strive for something more modest - and indeed we will as we walk day by day - but hopefully always with that larger vision in mind. One thing St. Paul’s prayer invites of us is a vision of God that is vast enough to speak the Gospel in our world in such a way that it truly comes alive in the hearts of our brothers and sisters. And that asks something new of us in our day.
As many of you know, from early August to mid-September I was blessed, with family members and a couple of friends, to walk the camino to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, a journey of almost 800 km. over 6 weeks. One of the things we came across, in the city of Burgos, was the Museum of Human Civilization. Burgos is just down the road from Atapuerca, one of the most important archaeological digs in Europe, with fossils, and tools dating to 1.2 million years ago. The museum traces the development of primates and hominids from 7 million years ago, displaying bones of homo habilis, homo erectus, neanderthals, and homo sapiens, up to the present. Visiting such a museum makes us ask questions about the dimensions of human history, human existence. And it also invites questions about God.
Some of you will remember or perhaps even still carry on the tradition of reading a text before midnight Mass at Christmas, entitled ‘the proclamation of the nativity of Jesus Christ’, from the Roman martyrology. It begins, “In the five thousand one hundred and ninety-ninth year of the creation of the world from the time when God in the beginning created the heavens and the earth....” I have always loved this text, because it is concerned to place the mystery of the Christ event within the framework of creation and salvation history, locating the Word becoming flesh at a very particular moment in time. The notion that God created the world 6,000 years before the birth of Christ of course predates the emergence of modern science, which dates the creation of the universe at about 13.8 billion years and the earth at 4.5 billion years. The notion that all of history is only a short and measurable duration is quaint, but we are in trouble when science points to a vastness in terms of time and space, while faith is reduced to something quaint. A new version of the proclamation of the nativity of Jesus Christ reads, “when ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world, when century upon century had passed since the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood....” That’s a good change. But the challenges that science and contemporary horizons of thinking pose to faith - and to our vision of God and God’s action in history require more than changing a few words.
Here on the prairies, we are predisposed to vastness. We live in places where we can see to the edge of a very distant horizon, under skies which spread like a great sheltering shroud. Mystery and vastness are all around us. We do well to put that experience of vastness to good use.... St. Paul invites us - indeed the Gospel as a whole invites us - to ponder the depths and heights of God’s goodness to us, and to have a correspondingly vast vision of God’s desires for humanity. While this might seem obvious, I think it’s a word we need to hear again and again in the church. For how easy it is to shrink God to our own size, to reduce God’s creative designs to something we can comprehend, to limit God’s mercy to the size of our own small hearts and minds. The best antidote to factions and polarization and internal tensions within the church is to centre ourselves squarely on the beautiful richness and depths of God’s way with us.
God speaks to us in many ways, and one of the central ways God does so is through our fundamental experience of being human. If we are to think deeply about the dimensions of God and his goodness, then we also need to know well and think deeply about the dimensions of human life, which God has authored. The breadth and length, height and depth of what it is to be human have much to teach us about God and about what God desires, dreams for and asks of us. This also brings us into a healthy dialogue with the human and social sciences, which are ever exploring what it is to be human. We are a mystery to ourselves, a mystery that no scientific studies - whatever the science - can exhaust. But the search for a deeper understanding of what it is to be human is a holy quest linked closely to our search for God.
In this human life, as God has authored it, we encounter a great deal of beauty. The first glimpse of the sun bending over the horizon, holding a newborn child in one's hands, the song of the meadowlark the first time you hear it in the spring, the smell of fallen leaves in the Autumn - these and countless other daily experiences of the beauty of the created order, and our place in it, bring life to us, awaken chords of deep joy within. We rightly thank God for authoring something so amazing. But there is also a great deal of suffering which takes place on this planet, suffering which is woven into a created order where decay and dying are part of the rhythm of human life. And then there is the suffering that comes from selfishness and greed and sin.
The week before last, I took part in an international gathering of Anglican and Catholic bishops, who came from 19 different regions of the world in order to be commissioned by Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. The idea was to be sent out in pairs to spread the Gospel and to assist our local churches in reaching out together to those in great need. A part of our being sent forth was being given a ‘Lampedusa cross’. None of us knew exactly what that was, but I was led to believe it was a pectoral cross of some sort. That was certainly wrong.
Lampedusa is an island off the southern coast of Sicily, and tragically, it is the place where many boats carrying asylum seekers and refugees from north Africa have been shipwrecked as they have sought a new life. The boats which began as vehicles of hope became vehicles of death. So the Lampedusa cross I was given was this (lifting it for all to see), a simple cross made of wood from a ship-wrecked boat that came ashore on this little island.
Shortly after becoming Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis went to Lampedusa, and gave a very powerful homily there: “These brothers and sisters of ours were trying to escape difficult situations to find some serenity and peace; they were looking for a better place for themselves and their families, but instead they found death. How often do such people fail to find understanding, fail to find acceptance, fail to find solidarity.”
Pope Francis went on, “Has any one of us wept because of this situation and others like it?" Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who were looking for a means of supporting their families? We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion - ‘suffering with’ others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep! Let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty of our world, of our own hearts, and for those who by their decisions on the global level have created situations that lead to these tragedies. Forgive us, Lord!”
Holding the Lampedusa cross, you feel a direct connection to the tragedy of lives caught in desperation, peoples whose dreams died with them at sea. Receiving the cross in ecumenical pairs, we received the summons to work for justice, responding to the needs of refugees and working for systemic change so that millions of people do not need to flee their homes; this work and task I now share with you. Finally, the Lampedusa cross is a tangible and poignant sign and reminder of the great suffering of so many people, and the great wounds of our world.
Now, to make a connection to what I was saying earlier: we as Christian community are called to a vision of vastness, and it needs to be one that is vast enough to hold the pain of the world; one that can hold the tension between the suffering and hope; one that can make sense out of the tremendous complexity of human experience. And so we ask: what can allow us to embrace the human condition with resilient hope and joy, despite the limits and suffering that come from illness and decay, greed and brokenness, sin and death?
In faith, we answer: our hope and our joy comes from a crucified and risen Lord; it comes from a God who comes in search of us; whose desire and dream is nothing other than to renew all of creation, to make what was old new; a God who reveals himself as self-giving suffering love. This is what God reveals to us in Jesus Christ. It is what we hear in tonight’s Gospel, the very Gospel read 25 years and 2 days ago when in this Cathedral I was ordained to the priesthood.
The Risen Lord comes in search of Peter, the same Peter he had sought out years earlier. Peter had been captivated by Jesus’ word, had launched out into the deep with him. He is the one who had been summoned to walk on water; who had been singled out by Jesus to be a rock, a leader. This is Peter who, at the time of Jesus trial, is confronted with the accusation of being a disciple of Jesus, and utters those terrible words, “I do not know him!” To this same fellow, the crucified and Risen Lord comes, seeking out Peter in order to cleanse and heal his “I do not know him” with the word eloquently spoken by his risen presence: and yet shall I be with you. Jesus asks, "do you love me?”, the question itself brimming over with an extraordinary mercy. Do you love me? Then feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Share in my mission, my life. Go fort“h in my name. This is an encounter that speaks powerfully of the height and breadth and length and depth of God’s love. The cross is the story of a love so great that it transforms and redeems a broken suffering world, and us within it.
Annie Dillard, the great American writer who is such a keen observer of human life in its darkness and in its glory, has a passage I like very much which grapples with what it is to carry a vision of God’s unfathomable mercy in a world which is complex and wounded. She writes, “The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then [if you see, with the eyes of faith] you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort in death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.”
How do we as a people carry that vision of God’s greatness around in us, in our tunics, in our very being, and live from it and never part from it? What is the way in which we can do that? As I mentioned, I recently walked the camino, literally ‘the way’. On the road to Santiago, the way is marked out by yellow arrows. You need to stay vigilant, otherwise you get lost in a hurry, as we did early one morning when we by accident ended up following some little white arrows which took us 7 km. in the wrong direction. Each yellow arrow quietly speaks the message that we heard in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah: “This is the way, walk in it.” Through the prophet Jeremiah, we hear a very similar word: “Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jer 6:16).
And what is that way? It is the way of discipleship. At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus tells Peter what he told him the very first time they had met: “Follow me.” It is the way of learning to live trusting God so deeply that we are able to give of ourselves generously. It is the way of service, the way of self-giving suffering love. It is a way that yearns to understand the breadth and height and length and depth of God, and to understand and love the human condition God has made. It is a way of joy, and simplicity; a way of community, of dialogue, teaching us how to live together. It is the way of reaching out in justice, in compassion, to those who suffer. It is the way of mercy within mercy within mercy, because an incomprehensible mercy is what we have received from God.
Friends, dear priests, dear Sisters, brothers and sisters in Christ all, this is why I have been asked to come here: to walk with you this way of love and mercy. In Jesus’ name and alongside of you, to wash your feet, so that you can wash each other’s feet; to strengthen us in the sacraments of Christ’s presence, and to proclaim his life-giving and redeeming word, so as to hold us together in the Gospel and in the faith of the Apostles - something made possible only by the living active power of the Holy Spirit in our midst; to foster a community in dialogue with other Christians, other faiths, and with the world, seeking reconciliation, justice and healing. As I understand it, in brief, that is what a bishop does, what I will try to do. Along the way, you will from time to time need to wash my feet as well, and bandage my wounds, as I will stumble and fall. You’ll need to forgive me from time to time. And I won’t be totally shocked if from time to time you will fail too. But amidst all trials and tribulations, joys and wonders, my hope and prayer is that we will walk together, as we strive to love God and our neighbour in ways every ancient, ever new.
And as we walk we will stop from time to time to ponder the mystery of God, to ponder the life he has given us. At the end of the book of Job, Job says to God, "I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know." When words seem to fail, Proverbs often uses a poetic little structure: Three things I don't understand. Four are too marvellous for me.
And so I leave you with this word:
Three things I don't understand.
Four are too marvellous for me.
the vast land under the sheltering sky
human life in its extravagant beauty
the breadth and height of God’s ways among us
the length and depth of his mercy.
God bless you. Pray for me, as I pray for you. God bless us all on our way.
Readings: Isaiah 30: 18-21; Ephesians 3:7-12; John 21:1-19.
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