St Eugene’s Cathedral
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Mass to celebrate 180th anniversary of dedication of St Columba's Church, Waterside, Derry
Sunday, 1 August 2021
Today we celebrate 180 years since the opening of this church, this sacred space. Then it was then out in the country, well removed from the seat of power that was situated on the hill of Derry. It was built within a dozen years of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and a handful of years before the awful years of the famine. It has stood here in changing times as a sign of both divine faithfulness to people and of faithful people who have coped with constantly changing circumstances. What nourishment for the next stage of the journey do the scriptures give us today?
Firstly, Jesus fed a crowd in a deserted place after everyone – including the apostles – assumed that nothing could be done to provide food. Now the crowd is looking for him, looking for lots more bread. This is an echo of the first Temptation of Jesus where the devil wanted him to turn stones into bread, guaranteeing popularity. But Jesus knows that, like Moses, he would be rejected when the hungry would ask for something different. The miracle of the loaves and the fish is only a pointer to, a sign of something much more profound. That was a message of hope for a poor people who struggled to survive and for whom their daily bread was the best they could hope for. It is also a strange message in our modern culture that gives priority to the superficial and the transient. This church has been a holy place where people have come to be nourished in ways that go below the surface. Jesus says to his listeners and to us today, "I am the bread of life." He assures them that he will satisfy their deepest hungers and thirsts. That has to be the message of the church in every generation. We will not be fed merely by making it easier to follow Jesus and offering watered down teaching that is full of sugar but without content. Nor will we be nourished by any approach that ignores the crowd and thinks that Jesus is there only for the spiritual elites.
Secondly, the Eucharist is the summit of Christian worship, but the reception and adoration of Holy Communion are not the only ways in which Jesus is the Bread of Life. Jesus continues to feed us in different ways. His message of divine mercy can be shared in every conversation. We encounter him in the powerful Word of God that challenges us all. Unless we know and love the Gospels, we can create our own little world of comfortable encounters with an undemanding Jesus. And in the sacraments – especially the Eucharist – we are nourished by the Bread of Life. But it is always important to remember that we encounter, not words or a spiritual food or our own feelings, but the whole person of Jesus who engages with the whole of our lives. Jesus gives his all and he asks for all of us in return. We meet a person who challenges us by name to walk with him. It is easy to reduce faith to keeping laws and observing Eucharistic rituals correctly. That can be comfortable and even help us feel superior to others. But Jesus wants us to have life-changing meetings with him. He will nourish us to face our own personal story. Only when we have been fed with this meeting with Jesus have we anything to share with others. As Pope Francis wrote, holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. (Gaudete et Exsultate 20)
Thirdly, Jesus does not just talk about himself as the Bread of Life as a vague image. He refers to the food that Moses gave, the manna in the desert. He is building on the covenant with Moses. Jesus offers is a new covenant with the human race, where the food is not just nourishment for the body but his whole being, offered for us. He is the bread broken that we might be saved. He is the one who is given for and to us. And all of this is offered so that – in St Paul's words – we might be renewed by a spiritual revolution. This Bread of Life is the food of a radical change in human dignity.
The first of the four words used to describe what Jesus did at the Last Supper is 'take'. He takes bread and wine. He tells his apostles that, when they do what he is doing at the Passover, they will celebrate, not a lamb's blood, shed in Egypt to protect the Israelites, but himself as the Lamb of God when he takes away the sins of the world. And he takes us into the mystery of his death on the Cross. That is why we can join with the angels and saints in their great hymn of praise, calling God holy, holy, holy. Mass is not just about us taking Holy Communion but about us being taken into the mystery of what happened on Calvary. And then being sent out to share what we have experienced.
That is what has been happening in this holy place for 180 years. In famine and conflict, joys and celebrations, people have gathered here to encounter the God who wants to feed us and change our spiritual diet forever. Here people of all ages have gathered to lay aside what St Paul calls 'our illusory desires' and see further. It is a place where we can glimpse God's agenda for human flourishing and not be swamped by the noisy message of the powerful who want to dominate us and feed us with jingle-jangle food that never satisfies. Keep this as a place of prayer. Keep it as a sacred space where God's little people can feel welcome. Keep it as a powerhouse where the community can gather in all sorts of weather. Allow Jesus to make it a place, not where people escape to but a building where God's love flows out into the streets that are full of people who yearn for the nourishment and mercy that only Jesus can provide.
Today we give thanks for those generation of people who have kept this building as sacred space where the Lord can gather his people for rich food. We pray that we will find ways to help our young generation to know Jesus. If they do that, we will have people gathering here in 2041 to celebrate the bicentenary of St Columba's Church. We ask the intercession of St Columba in this his centenary year that we, like him, can be missionaries to our generation. Jesus wants to be the bread of life in every age. All he asks for is those who will work with him to feed people with his rich food. And, as Philip discovered last week, his best disciples are those who feel helpless when faced with the intensity of the task. With a few loaves and a little human help, Jesus will continue to work miracles in our day. Our task is to let God be God in our day – on his terms, not ours.
+ Donal McKeown
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