Mass of Thanksgiving
Feast of St Nicholas: Saturday 6th December, 2008
Fr Stephen Miles, Associate Priest at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Concelebrants: Fr Philip Bewley & Fr Chaplain Soma
It was Martin Luther who in Germany introduced new customs for Christmas including the giving of gifts on Christmas Eve. Before Luther, the exchanging of presents took place on St Nicholas' Day, today, December 6th. It is appropriate then on the Feast Day of St Nicholas that Philip and Chaplain are offering this Mass as a gift, a thanksgiving to God for the people of St Peter's, Eastern Hill, for all that you have given them in the way of support, encouragement and spiritual formation on their path to ordination as priests in the Church of God.
Today's gospel provides a blueprint for the kind of ministry to which Philip and Chaplain have been called, set apart and commissioned. And although the work entails personal sacrifice and selfless labour, Jesus is clear that his call to discipleship is a gift — a gift which is given to the recipient without charge, without his having earned it, and through no merit of his own, and demanding from those who have been given the gift, to give of themselves without charge. "You received without pay" Jesus tells those he has called, "Give without pay." Or, as the New International Bible says, "Freely you have received; freely give."
All that we receive in Christian life and experience is a gift from God for which we ought to be thankful. "In everything give thanks" says St Paul, "for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus." Life is a gift, creation a gift, our capacity to love and be loved is a gift, the talents with which we each have been endowed is a gift. Faith is a gift — the knowledge that God loves us and has shown us the way, the truth and the life in his Son, Jesus Christ, that in him is to be found meaning and purpose in life, strength in adversity and hope in death as in life. None of these benefits or insights have we earned or are ours by right. They are gifts.
For Chaplain and Philip there is an added reason to give thanks — and that is for the gift of a vocation to exercise Christ's ministry in the world in a particular way: that way involves preaching the good news of meaning and hope in Jesus Christ; administering the sacraments through which God's grace and healing is made known; and representing Christ the Good Shepherd to God's people.
In the Catholic tradition, the priest not only represents Christ at the altar but also, as an alter christus, another Christ, brings his power to heal, raise, cleanse, dispel and renew - powers that are carefully spelled out in today's gospel that Christ exercised in his own missionary activity. The 12 disciples are given these powers because their mission is to be the same as Christ's. The power of the priesthood then — to inspire faith and bring healing to others — is not personal, not earned, but comes with the office; it is Christ's gift to us as it was to his first missionaries, to do his work in the world.
Celtic spirituality speaks of 'thin places' where two worlds meet, holy places where one might encounter God as Moses encountered him on Mt Sinai. In his book on priesthood, John Pritchard describes priests as 'thin" people, in whom may be sensed a world beyond where God is, where people can be made to feel 'at home' with God. And this valuation of the priest as a "walking sacrament" (as Austin Farrer put it) admits him or her into deep intimacy with God's people in which the priest, a sign of Christ, is privileged to witness his saving grace at work. The experience is awesome and humbling and very often has the unexpected effect on one of being ministered to instead of ministering and profoundly thankful for the privilege of being entrusted with the office and work of a priest. Let me give three examples:
A few weeks ago on a wild wet windy and dark weekday morning I arrived here at St Peter's to say Mass. It was hard to get here and and I was out of sorts. I couldn't find the light switches to see my way to the vestry. I was worried about setting off the alarm and I then I couldn't find the lock or the light switch to the chapel door. Mercifully, Father John appeared to set me up. At 7.15 when I entered the Chapel half hoping to find no one, I discovered in all 6 people! Immediately, I felt humbled by the extraordinary discipline and devotion that had brought these faithful people together so early on a Friday morning and, along with them, brought to my knees before the one who was to feed us all with the bread of life and the cup of salvation.
Each week I visit Anglican patients at Cabrini Palliative Care Hospital. Recently I met a little old man who had lived all his life looking after sick birds. Alf wasn't a churchgoer nor interested in religious matters, but the day before he died I tentatively suggested we say the Lord's Prayer. Alf at once gave his assent, slowly sat up in bed, clasped his hands, bowed his head and in the most reverential manner prayed faultlessly along with me! It is priestly ministry that admits one into such sacred space, is deeply humbling, and cause for thanksgiving.
Even if they're not theologically articulate, most men and women who come forward seeking Christian marriage want God's blessing on their wedding day and life ahead. To stand before such a couple professing their love and commitment to each other in the presence of God, to look into their open trusting and hopeful faces, to be facilitating but above all to be witnessing the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, is to stand on holy ground.
There is nothing special about any of us who are called to be priests. It is a sobering reminder that we are no better than anyone when every day we come in contact with people of greater faith and goodness. And it's encouraging to note that those first disciples, chosen, commissioned and sent out by Jesus, were fragile human beings with limitations like us. The list begins with Peter, and ends with Judas no less, yet both are chosen by Jesus to be his missionaries.
Like everything in Christian life, including all kinds of vocation, those of us who are priests need to remind ourselves that priesthood too is a gift. As such, it is not to be jealously guarded within an exclusive club of colleagues or even within the Christian church. It is a calling to a special task "to be a pastor after the pattern of Christ the great Shepherd" to quote the Archbishop's exhortation to ordination candidates. Philip, our beloved mentor, Fr Harry Smythe, once wrote: "The Anglican priesthood has it that the priests office is primarily pastoral; it is designed to attract men and women, through love, into the love of God." Yes, priests are to bear the griefs and carry the sorrows of God's people, "heal the broken spirit and bind up their wounds" (Ps.147) bring Christ's healing and deliverance, meaning and hope to a broken, harassed and helpless world.
Chaplain and Philip, may you delight in your vocation as priests and be thankful for all the wonderful blessings your vocation brings, may you rejoice and pray without ceasing to the one who has called you to his service, and in everything give thanks - for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.