HOMILY FOR THE MASS OF THE LORD’S SUPPER 2021
ST VINCENT’S HOSPITAL, KANGAROO POINT
We were here last year just after the pandemic struck, and we were more stunned then than we are now. We weren’t sure what had happened, and we had no idea where we were headed. The mood this evening is more sombre, less dramatic. A year ago we were bracing ourselves for what lay ahead; we certainly didn’t think we’d be back here again this year. Now there’s more a sense of weariness in what seems like a marathon with no finishing line, especially after this week’s lockdown and in a hospital like this where visitors still aren’t allowed.
When the pandemic broke I can remember a priest saying to me, “It’ll be over by Easter, won’t it?” No it wasn’t, and it still isn’t. In Queensland we thought we’d dodged a bullet; but now we know that the snipers are still out there and can fire at any time from any place. We identified a new virus, but we didn’t know how the virus could mutate. We thought we would put this all behind us and get back to life as normal; but now we see that we may just have to learn to live with the virus. It looks now that there’s no way back to where we were. Australia hasn’t been stricken like other countries, but we’re not out of the woods. The drama isn’t over, even if the lockdown is. At the heart of the drama is a new experience of our vulnerability, our powerlessness, our mortality – not just as individuals but as humanity; and that can be very disturbing, even frightening.
Hospitals know more than most about vulnerability, powerlessness and mortality. They deal with them every day and every night; they’re dealing with them right now as we gather in this chapel. That’s why they’ve been at the heart of the COVID-19 drama. Not that there’s been much drama about the work of medical researchers producing the vaccines or health professionals caring for the sick and tending the dying. They haven’t become COVID celebrities. Nor have they been among those who have made a fortune from the pandemic. Instead, they’ve lined up with those who have given themselves, body and blood, for the life of the world. Theirs has been a quiet self-sacrifice, like Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Through the pandemic, they have been the foot washers of the world, and tonight we thank them for that.
We thank them also for their faithful service to healthcare understood as a basic right of every human being. It hasn’t always been so and still isn’t in some parts of the world where healthcare is a commodity to be bought by those who can afford it. But we say that it’s a God-given universal human right; and the root of that claim is the belief that God didn’t create us for sickness or death. We all get sick and die, but that wasn’t part of God’s original plan – which is why God urges us to fight against sickness and death and equips us for the fight.
Tomorrow on Good Friday we’ll hear the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried”. That is certainly true of the crucified Jesus, but it’s also true of the women and men who work in our hospitals and in healthcare more generally. In contemplating him, we understand more of them and why they matter, never more so than in a time of affliction like this. The prophet will also tell us tomorrow that “by his wounds we have been healed”. By the wounds of their self-sacrifice, their selfless service, medical professionals have brought healing to many and hope to all through this time of pandemic. For that too we say thanks tonight.
All hospitals – but Catholic hospitals in particular – are monuments to life, even the triumph of life over death. They stand as witnesses to Easter, which makes them not just monuments but temples of life. How strange it is, therefore, that the shadow of euthanasia now falls across our hospitals and those who work in them, asking them to be servants of death not life. But it’s also why it’s right that we begin the great three-part liturgy of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday here in this hospital, this temple, proclaiming at the coalface of healthcare and at this precarious time that love is stronger than fear and that life is stronger than death.
This is the promise of Jesus who washes the feet of the world and gives his body broken and his blood poured out for the life of the world. On this night, when he goes out into the darkness of Gethsemane and then tomorrow on to the dark mountain of Calvary, that’s the promise he makes to the world. However sombre and weary we may be, we place our trust in that promise which will have its fulfilment when the darkness turns to light as Jesus rises from the dead.