The Cathedral of St Stephen, Brisbane
1 Kings 17:8-16; Colossians 3:12-17; Matthew 6:25-34
“Do not be anxious”, says Jesus. Well, that’s fine for Jesus perhaps. But what about us? Here we are in lockdown and facing a pandemic that seems like a marathon with no finishing-line. It’s been 18 months of masks and lockdowns, businesses collapsing and mental illness rising, sickness and death surrounding us in a way we never thought possible. And all because of a virus we can’t see. How fragile everything now seems. No wonder we’re anxious.
And what about the poor widow of Zarephath we met in the first reading. She’s anxious for her son and herself, because in a time of drought and famine they have almost nothing to eat: “I have only a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I’m gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son that we may eat it and then die”. No wonder she’s anxious.
But what about Mary MacKillop. She certainly knew anxiety for all kinds of reasons – how she would pay the bills, how she would deal with difficult bishops, how she would keep her Sisters on the right path, how she would manage the tensions with Fr Woods, how she would cope with ill health later in life and so on it goes. No wonder she was anxious.
Yet through it all what marked St Mary MacKillop was an uncanny serenity of spirit. St Paul urges us in writing to the Colossians to clothe ourselves in “kindness, humility, gentleness and patience”; and that’s exactly what Mary did. God alone knows how, given some of the treatment she copped. St Paul goes on: “Bear with one another, and if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other”. And that’s what she did through her life. Which is why, as St Paul says, the peace of Christ reigned in Mary’s heart against all the odds. The peace of Christ produced the serenity of spirit that marked her from beginning to end and set her apart as a saint.
Mary suffered in ways that would have broken others, leaving them locked in a world of bitterness and resentment. But far from breaking her, the suffering made Mary what she became. There are many crosses in the world, but only one cross creates rather than destroys; and that’s the cross of Jesus Christ. That’s the cross that Mary bore through her life, which is why it’s so right that she’s known as St Mary of the Cross. The cross that should lead to death led her to life. The wound became a fountain; and millions have drunk from its life-giving waters both during her life and since.
Time and again Mary, like the widow of Zarephath, faced situations where there seemed to be no way out and problems that seemed to offer no solution. I can only say that I know the feeling. How often have I as a bishop and now as President of the Bishops Conference faced situations of the same kind – no way out, no solution. The pandemic is one of those; but so too is the Plenary Council which has been so impacted by COVID-19. Then there are the many challenges of dealing with sexual abuse in the Church and the various financial crises which have flowed from that. How to stir new energies in a Church which in many ways is under pressure and institutionally diminished in a way we never have seen before in this country?
Faced with these and many other quandaries, I’m left feeling at times that I have only my need and my impotence. As with Mary MacKillop and the widow of Zarephath, the need is there for all to see and it’s great. It can seem even a matter of life and death. But I know I can’t meet the need or solve the problem – no matter how hard I work or how much I anguish over it. I just can’t do it. And that surely was something Mary MacKillop felt in her life. She saw what had to be done, but she just couldn’t do it – or at least she couldn’t do it alone.
That’s where her extraordinary trust in God’s providence kicked in. In coming to God, as she did in the depth of her being, she could bring only her need and her impotence – but she also brought her faith; and that was the key. “God has done wonders for us”, she said, “and wonderfully protected us in our helplessness”. Her faith was a trust that God would do for her what God did for the widow of Zarephath. “Do not be afraid”, the prophet Elijah says to the widow. “The jar of meal will not be spent and the jug of oil will not fail”; and so it was. God provided for the widow and her son in ways that seemed impossible.
The words of Jesus: “Do not be anxious” make sense only if we believe what he goes on to say: “Your heavenly Father knows you need food and drink, clothing and shelter” and all the other things over which you fret. This is the God who cares for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field: how much more will he care for you? How much more does he care and provide for you in ways you scarcely recognise? That’s what Mary MacKillop believed and why she set her heart on the Kingdom of God, knowing that all else would be provided, as it was in mysterious ways, against the odds and against the logic of this world.
In a time like this, with so much anxiety and negativity within us and around us, Mary is given by God as a witness of hope and a word of the deepest encouragement.
Can slaves come forth from Egypt in a world which says “Once a slave always a slave”? Well, yes they can, Mary says.
Can water come from a rock in the desert? Well, yes it can, she says.
Can women past the age and even a virgin conceive a child? Well, yes they can, she says.
Can a dead man walk from the tomb? Well, yes he can, says Mary.
We wonder whether there’s a future for us or, if so, what kind of future there will be beyond the pandemic, if there ever is a beyond. We wonder what kind of future, if any, there will be for the Church beyond the sexual abuse crisis, for a community under pressure and diminished. We wonder will the Plenary Council provide us with a Spirit-inspired impetus into the future or will it be a squib that promises much and delivers little. We wonder what the Church in this country will look like in 40 or 50 years’ time. Faced with all this, Mary stands among us this morning and says simply: “God will provide in the future”. Echoing the prophet Elijah and the Lord Jesus, she says, “Do not be afraid”.
These are not her words. They are the words of Christ. And at some point it is no longer Mary we see and hear but the Risen Lord himself. That’s what it means to call her, like all the saints, a witness to Easter before all else. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”, says St Paul; and in hearing Mary we allow the word of Christ himself to dwell within us richly and deeply.
That’s why this morning, with all our needs and our impotence, our anxiety and our negativity, we turn with Mary to God in overflowing gratitude which is, as she says, “the memory of the heart”. With her we give “thanks to God the Father through Jesus, in whose name we do everything”, trusting that the God who provides for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, for widows and orphans, will also provide for us. Amen.