St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
Tel: 028 7126 2302
Jesus is continuing his journey to Jerusalem. Today he is welcomed into the house of Martha and Mary. His actions and words were obviously remembered by the early church – and the Gospel writer wanted to hand on this story as significant. What might we learn from it?
Firstly, it would be easy to see this merely as praise for Mary who sits at Jesus' feet and a reprimand for Martha who is working away. Being a disciple of Jesus involves various elements. In the people of God there are different vocations, all of which are necessary and complementary. But the contrast between Mary and Martha does make one clear point that the Irish Church needs to learn. It is fine to work hard for Christ – but all discipleship is based on having spent time at the feet of Jesus, listening and learning. An earlier generation grew up with a type of religious formation that was based predominantly on dogmas and morals. Duty was important. That appealed to our heads. However, you can do the right thing – but with a cold heart. Thus, for many, there was little relationship with Jesus, the face of the Father's mercy. We had lots of knowledge about Jesus but less emphasis on a relationship with him. Our communities are full of people whose lives are in a mess and who carry dark secrets. They need to know the smile and the strong gentle hand of Jesus, not merely to hear about what Jesus did and said.
We cannot introduce strangers to Jesus unless we have spent time listening to his voice and encountering him. Without an intense contemplative heart, synodality will descend in to being merely a parliament of loud voices, where there is little room for the gentle voice of Jesus.
Secondly, being a disciple of Jesus is not merely an exercise of sitting at his feet. Being a disciple means taking up the Cross and following him. That is why St Paul can see his own suffering for the Gospel, not as a burden that gets in the road, but as a source of joy. The mystery that he teaches is 'Christ among you, your hope of glory'. For those who are disciples of Jesus, pain and crosses are not merely something to be avoided or complained about. Rather, for Paul, Christ is among us in all situations, and struggles are opportunities for him to identify with Christ who suffered and to be made perfect in Christ. Following Jesus is not escapism for the weak minded but a challenge for the strong-hearted. There is a temptation for some people to see faith as what you use when you want something – and then there is anger when the prayer is perhaps not answered. God didn't deliver. But St Paul tells his audience that there is a wisdom to be learnt at the feet of Jesus, namely that we have a hope of future glory, not a guarantee of instant success on our terms. Martha and Mary invite Jesus into their home, on his terms not merely to suit their agenda. Prayer involves hearing what Jesus says and not just hoping he hears our plans.
Thirdly, meals are important in the ministry of Jesus – whether with tax collectors and sinners or at the Last Supper. Jesus wants to gather his followers together so that he can teach and feed them. As Martha knows, you can't really listen to Jesus if you are washing the spuds or cleaning the dishes. Jesus asks for our full attention. On-line worship was a great boon during lockdown. It is still helpful for the housebound. But, for the vast majority of parishioners, it is a very poor substitute for gathering around the table of the Lord with people of all ages and backgrounds. These scripture readings tell us that there is also an onus on churchgoers, not only to gather but also to be welcoming to strangers, as Abraham and Sarah were in our first reading. The reading talks about Abraham running, going in haste and hurrying to welcome their unknown guests. From that welcoming encounter comes the promise that Sara, now getting on in years, will have a child. Hospitality is fruitful in God's own good time. In this passage, I hear a call to ensure that those who gather in Jesus' name welcome, and then spend time with the stranger. The outsider can feel out of place or judged. Jesus takes time with the leper and the sinner. I love the phrase that says that Jesus loves us where we are – but loves us too much to leave us where we are. Do our parishes welcome people to come as they are and to spend time with Jesus and with us - so that we can let him nourish us all, where we are on our journey to Jerusalem? That is part of missionary heart that will not come merely from changing church structures or regulations. Welcoming communities touch the heart. That is where Jesus is first encountered.
This is holiday time for many people. I hope that it can be a period, not just for getting a break from work but also a time for reflection and refreshment. There will be time for meals with family and with relative strangers. Today's Gospel invites us to celebrate hospitality in little and large ways. But it is also a chance to get a break from the hectic pace of work life and deal with important issues that we have to face. Together, with the grace of God, all things are possible. So, find time to sit down with the Lord and let him nourish you. He offers great food for the journey.
+ Donal McKeown
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