33rd. Sunday of Year (C)
After forewarning His disciples of the trials and persecutions which lay ahead of them and would bring them to the same end as He Himself was soon to suffer, Jesus said:
That will be your opportunity to bear witness.
That is, the whole wretched process of misunderstanding, rejection, betrayal, persecution, arrest and trial, would not be simply the result of blind chance, nor even, ultimately, the outcome of human perverseness or hatred. No, threatening clouds would assemble over the heads of the disciples with God’s permission, indeed, as part of His plan for them, that will be your opportunity to bear witness.
The word ‘opportunity’ has special connotations which are most important for our thoughts on Our Lord’s meaning, because an ‘opportunity’ has to be grasped surely, must not to be missed, let slip; an opportunity is something to be welcomed and indeed be most grateful for.
Corresponding to the severity of the threat in which the disciples might find themselves would be the measure of God’s grace available to them: as the swelling waters of violence and hatred appear on every hand and mount up against them, that is when their opportunity will also be at hand, an opportunity to bear witness lifted up on the wings of God’s own wisdom, for they will not only be helped to defend the Good News of their proclamation, but Jesus Himself will, through their words, demonstrate the Gospel’s truth and power:
I Myself will give you an eloquence and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to resist or contradict.
That this glorious outcome might take place the disciples must learn to forget themselves and trust completely in the Lord:
Keep this carefully in mind: you are not to prepare your defence.
They must commit themselves entirely to the Spirit of God in the Church Who will give them – in a manner of His own choosing and perhaps imperceptible to themselves at the time – the necessary eloquence to utter His wisdom, despite their personal inadequacy or feelings of natural anxiety.
This belief and appreciation, that Christ is ever with His Church and, through His Spirit given to and through her, seeks to guide all her children -- living members of His Body -- in their and her need, as indeed He is seeking to guide us personally here and now, for God’s purposes – that is an essential part of Christian self-awareness and Catholic strength, BUT it is also something not to be presumed, imitated, ‘put-on’ like show people; rather is it something to be most humbly desired, and lovingly prayed for.
In the world of classical music, it is supremely desirable for a singer to be able to sing the words and music he or she is performing ‘from the heart’, that is, without the direct supervision of mental scrutiny.
Of course, that ready, disciplined, ‘heart’ needs to have been previously formed with careful attention to the vocal techniques required, to a deeply sensitive understanding and expression of the emotions evoked by the words and music, and indeed it needs to have an appropriate observance of current life in society and even a sharp awareness of the concert-hall atmosphere itself. All that however, once the performance is about to begin, must be put aside, ‘forgotten’, in order that the performance might be a ‘living and heart-felt experience’ thanks to the unmistakable beauty and truth of ‘artless’ (!) spontaneity.
Now, the witness of Christians and Catholics to Christ is something of that nature. It is not, ultimately, a matter of expressing a merely human appreciation of and response to, Jesus the Christ, and to His Church’s proclamation of His Gospel. It is rather a matter of baring (sic) a loving and obedient relationship between disciple and Lord, between (our) God and (my) Saviour. And the bearing (sic) of such witness is not for anybody to presume for themselves, it is promised in our Gospel reading only to those disciples who had been with Jesus throughout His public ministry and who were prepared to suffer, with Him and for Him. That means for us today, that one can only hope to fully trust in, rely on, the guidance of the Holy Spirit of God, on the basis of a whole-hearted conversion to Christ, a life of faith not to be measured in years necessarily, but in sincerity and commitment lived with Him according to His discipline in joy and peace.
In the Old Testament we are told that the Lord had wanted Moses to go and speak not only to the People of Israel enslaved in Egypt but even to Pharaoh, the autocratic King of Egypt himself, with a message from the Lord:
But Moses said to the Lord, ‘Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent. I am slow of speech and of tongue’.
Moses was painfully aware – from previous experience it would seem – of his inability to express himself with ease and fluency, and he was afraid that he might make a fool of himself before the mighty ruler of Egypt and prove to be an embarrassment for the People of Israel, and above all, that he might fail the Lord Himself most miserably. Nevertheless, the Lord said to him:
Who has made man’s mouth? Is it not I, the Lord? Now, therefore, go, and I will be your mouth and teach you what you shall speak. (Exodus 4:10ff.)
Moses’ ‘opportunity’ was to be given him despite his fears, and the Holy Spirit did enable him to do what was above him for the glory of Israel’s God and the saving of His people.
Our Blessed Lord Himself, soon after having spoken to His disciples about their coming opportunity to bear witness, Himself had such an ‘opportunity’, something which, despite the accompanying circumstances of betrayal and hateful hypocrisy, He did indeed embrace whole-heartedly from His Father:
If you loved Me you would rejoice that I am going to the Father ... The ruler of the world is coming. He has no power over Me, but the world must know that I love the Father and that I do just as the Father has commanded Me. Get up, let us go! (John 14: 28-31)
Thus, He left the warmth of the Last Supper to go to Gethsemane with His faithful disciples in order to grasp His own ‘opportunity’, to meet up with and face down His enemies, Judas Iscariot and the Temple police.
People of God, opportunities will come our way and only when we have experienced and humbly accepted our own measure of helplessness and personal nothingness, only when we are dead to self-glory and truly seeking God’s will, can we and should we most confidently hope for and trust in God’s supplying grace to grasp such moments of special grace.
Throughout the Christian life there is a most delicate balance between a God-graced mistrust of personal pride, and a like confidence in the goodness and mercy of God, and the true, exemplary, source of a life-sustaining and life-promoting balance is to be seen in Our Lord and Saviour and He assumed our lowliness in order that He might bestow on us a share in His Own divine prerogatives.
Dear People of God, we are now living in persecution times when Christians are suffering all over our world from radical fanatics, mocking unbelievers, and those whose lives are dedicated to seeking pleasure and power ‘a plenty’ or, at least, wherever they can be found. In such times ‘opportunities’ – which can appear unexpectedly and are gone if not seized -- abound for all Christians. We may miss some, but let us remember with holy fear that among those whom Jesus said He will deny before His Father and the angels are those who ‘are ashamed of My words before men’, those that is who never see any opportunities for them to personally witness to the Faith and Our Lord.
For all of us, however, there is one ultimate and supreme ‘opportunity’, the moment of our death. May we all make good use of that opportunity to give thanks to God the Father, bear loving witness to Jesus, the Son of Man and our dear Lord and Saviour, and invoke the Holy Spirit of love and truth for sincerity and peace in our final moments.
As we proceed in this Mass, therefore, let us beseech Our Lord that in Him we might share His death to the flesh and participate in His Risen Life by the Spirit. Let us receive the pledge of eternal life which He has left to us, His own must precious Body and Blood, with hearts truly humbled and contrite in the acknowledgement of our own sinfulness and poverty, and thereby sincerely opened up to, and ever more desirous of, the infusion of His most Holy Spirit into our lives, for His greater glory and our ever-greater proximity to, understanding of, and love for, the Father in Christ Jesus Our Lord.