The Cathedral of St Stephen
11 April 2019
“Poor, broken-hearted, captive, bereaved, despondent”: words we hear from the prophet Isaiah – or to be more precise Third Isaiah who was the prophet of the return from exile. They’re words he uses to describe the community to whom he was sent on mission – the exiles returning from Babylon to Jerusalem. The task they faced of rebuilding the city was a daunting, even depressing prospect. The returned exiles did feel poor, broken-hearted, captive, bereaved and despondent as they contemplated the city in ruins and realized what rebuilding entailed. Into this the prophet was sent to proclaim good news; he was anointed by God to lift flagging spirits. It obviously worked, because in time Jerusalem was rebuilt and the temple stood once again on its mount.
Jesus interprets his own mission in the words of the prophet. He too sees himself as sent by God to proclaim good news at a time when bad news abounded. “Poor, broken-hearted, captive, bereaved, despondent”: words that describe the time of Jesus when the Holy Land had become a prison with the occupying Roman forces in control. Into this and much more Jesus is sent as one anointed not just with oil but, like the prophet, with the Spirit of the Lord.
“Poor, broken-hearted, captive, bereaved, despondent”: words that might describe the situation in which we as a Church now find ourselves, shaken to the core as we are by the ongoing crisis of sexual abuse which evolves in ways we never imagined. Like the returned exiles, we contemplate ruins and scarcely know where to start rebuilding. We are in new territory where old assumptions and expectations no longer apply. We need a new kind of courage and creativity. We need a new kind of faith and resilience. And we need to hear good news in ways we’ve never heard it before.
That good news is proclaimed to us here tonight. It begins by announcing that we, like the prophet and the Lord, have been anointed with the Holy Spirit. That’s true of all of us in Baptism, which is what the Book of Revelation means when it says that Jesus has made us “priests to serve his God and Father” – a priestly people anointed with the Spirit to be and to bring good news. That of course presumes that we ourselves have heard good news, that we are not hopelessly locked in a world of despondency.
But it also presumes that we will not ourselves really hear the Good News unless and until we go out to share it with the “poor, the broken-hearted, the captive, the bereaved and the despondent”. As Pope Francis has said under the Spirit’s influence, our internal wounds will be healed only in so far as we say yes to the call to mission. Only by going out of ourselves will we be healed within. If we stay locked within ourselves, wounds of isolation, self-pity, despair and recrimination will fester. But if we go out of ourselves as those anointed with the Spirit for mission, the wounds will be healed and the joy of the Gospel will be a reality, not just a mantra. The city will be rebuilt.
Within the community of the anointed, there are those who have received a further anointing in ordination, and we hold them up to God tonight in prayer and thanksgiving at a time when they perhaps have been more shaken than most and find themselves vulnerable in new and unpredictable ways. They are priests and deacons commissioned by Christ to ensure that the whole community of the anointed really is functioning as a priestly people, really is bearing the fruit that Christ seeks. They are to equip and empower the whole Church for mission; and here tonight that commissioning and their commitment to it are renewed – and this after a memorable two-day Clergy Convocation. They say yes again in circumstances of which they never dreamt when they were ordained. They find themselves in new territory, the landscape vastly changed by the earthquake we have known in recent times. But still they say yes, even if like Abraham they have no roadmap or GPS for the journey. Their yes is a word of faith; and for that we thank them and praise God.
To the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus adds one crucial thing in what we’ve heard from Luke’s Gospel. He speaks of “new sight to the blind”. We can be blind without realizing it. In particular at this time we can be blind to the new and unexpected ways the Holy Spirit is moving within and among us. The Spirit is the great comforter but also the great disrupter; and we – as a Church and individually – are now being offered gifts of both comfort and disruption. This is because we cannot simply put up a sign saying, “Business as usual” or be content simply to chug along as we always have, sensing that the system as we know it is unsustainable but seeming powerless to do anything to change it, settling instead for a thinly disguised form of palliative care.
The Holy Spirit will have none of that, and let’s be clear on this – we have entered a time of the Holy Spirit in this country. The third person of the Blessed Trinity is where our spiritual, theological and pastoral eye now needs to focus, which is harder than it sounds in a Western Church that has been so Christocentric that we’ve been quite unfocused, almost atheistic at times, when it comes to the Holy Spirit.
The journey of the Plenary Council is the work of the Spirit: it was in its origins, it is in its unfolding and it will be in its outcomes. The risk is that the “poor, broken-hearted, captive, bereaved and despondent” can be blind to the gift being offered in the Council and succumb instead to fear, cynicism, apathy or defeatism – none of which will ever lead beyond the ruins and enable rebuilding. The Spirit is also moving in the Archdiocese of Brisbane, as we consider things like a new paradigm for parishes and deaneries, new forms of leadership and of training for them, new kinds of interaction between parishes and schools. No doubt the Spirit is moving in countless other ways to disrupt and change Church culture and to summon individuals like us to a new conversion without which there will be no real cultural change in the Church. Here tonight try to name for yourself the ways in which you see the Spirit moving – in the Church, in your own community and even in your own life; and in time to come keep asking that question. The Spirit is moving: that is certain. The only question is whether we see it or not. Let Jesus give us new sight, here and now, lest we line up with those who have eyes but do not see.
We have, all of us, been anointed with the Holy Spirit – like the prophet and like the Lord himself. Now is the moment to awaken the power of that anointing, so that there really will be in our lives and in the Church, for the sake of the world, not just empty words but a true fulfilment of what Jesus announces – good news for the poor, healing for the broken-hearted, freedom for captives, comfort for the bereaved and for despondency praise. Let these words be fulfilled even as we listen. Amen.