Sunday 21 December 2014

Homily for the Sunday before Christmas

I want to speak this morning about one of the most famous of the saints of the first centuries of the church. It is the feast day today of Ignatius, the second bishop of Antioch. The city where the believers were first called Christians.

I would also like us to have in mind a passage from the reading of the Gospel today. It is found at the end of our lection and says..

And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel. (Luke 1:80)
St Ignatius was certainly famous in his own times, but it was the fact of his being arrested as a Christian in about 107 AD, and despatched to Rome, where he would meet his death as a martyr, which has especially elevated him into the ranks of those saints most known to us. And it was not so much the fact of his martyrdom, but that he has left us letters which he sent on his journey to the Christians along the way, which has made him so much more than a name, and allowed him to become someone that we almost feel we know personally.

Let me read a little from his letter to the Church in Rome. He speaks about the martyrdom that lay before him and says…

All the pleasures of the world, and all the kingdoms of this earth, shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die in behalf of Jesus Christ, than to reign over all the ends of the earth. "For what shall a man be profited, if he gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?'' Him I seek, who died for us: Him I desire, who rose again for our sake. This is the gain which is laid up for me. Pardon me, brethren: do not hinder me from living, do not wish to keep me in a state of death; and while I desire to belong to God, do not ye give me over to the world. Suffer me to obtain pure light: when I have gone thither, I shall indeed be a man of God. Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God. If anyone has Him within himself, let him consider what I desire, and let him have sympathy with me, as knowing how I am straitened.

What do we see here? It is a man who has so given his life to Christ that he is ready to bear witness even to death that he might find life. Let me say that I do not believe that in the case of St Ignatius and those others who were martyred with him this was some sudden impulse. We know only know the names of his companions in this trial and testing of their faith. They were Rufus and Zosimus and these two were martyred two days before St Ignatius.

No, it was no sudden impulse that led St Ignatius to consider the approaching contest with the wild animals in Rome with such eagerness. It was rather the fruit of a lifetime of service of Christ in which the experience of putting the self to death had already been perfected.

He was prepared for the death of a martyr in the Coliseum in Rome because he had already offered his whole life to Christ in Antioch. We would not have known so very much about St Ignatius if his life had not come to such a manifestation of what had already taken place in his heart. His life would have remained not very much more than a name in a list of bishops. But this opportunity, right at the end of his life, of making a public witness, revealed his heart to those around him, as it reveals his heart to us, 1900 years later reading his letters as if freshly coming from his pen.

In this I find a similarity with John the Baptist of whom it is written in the Gospel for today..
The child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel.

There is this same sense of a time of preparation before the revealing of a life wholly given over to God. What did it mean for John the Baptist to spend his youth and young adulthood in the desert places? What did it mean for him to be strong in Spirit. What did it mean for him to be in the Desert? It surely means that from his childhood he had become practiced and experienced in living the life of the Spirit. He had grown up finding no lasting delight in the pleasure of the world.

Even as a baby in his mother, Elizabeth’s, womb, he had leaped for joy in the presence of Christ, his Lord and his God. And he had not ceased to be moved by the Spirit in all the hidden years in the desert until he came forth at the end and was manifest to the people of Israel as a prophet and the forerunner.

For many of us the years of our life have been ticking away. We consider ourselves in the light of Christ and of the demands of the Christian life and it seems that we have achieved little. But it is not for us to know when the Lord will call on us. We often find ourselves in a Desert place as was John the Baptist. We need not be concerned. We often find ourselves surrounded by daily responsibilities as was St Ignatius of Antioch, bishop in a busy city. We need not be concerned.

God does not ask us to do more each day than to be and become prepared for the time he calls us to manifest his life in us. What does Christ say in the Gospels? Don’t worry about tomorrow, there are enough things to be getting on with today! And this is the life that both John the Baptist and St Ignatius lived.

We might find in these two examples a testimony of the interior and the exterior life of the Christian. For much of our spiritual formation we find ourselves in a desert place. There is an experience of dryness, of confusion, sometimes tiredness and even a sense of the absence of God. There can be periods in which the Christian life seems devoid of pleasure and interest. But all of this is a useful and necessary preparation. We are aware of those around us who have a relationship with God that depends on excitement and constant activity. But this is a pseudo-relationship. It requires God to be constantly pandering to our need for attention and satisfaction. What if the spiritual life were like a desert for some time? This reveals to us what we really think of God. Are we able to continue worshipping him as he deserves, and standing before him on behalf of others, even if we have no pleasurable experiences, even if it seems that our hearts are as dry as a desert? The mature Christian, one who is growing in the experience of God, faces these times of testing with resolution and faithful perseverance. We are not Christians because we want things from God, but because we have discovered Christ as the source of life and wish nothing more than to be in his presence even if the experience of that presence is difficult and tests us.

This was the life that John the Baptist knew. And having found God and been united to him, even in the deserts of life, when the time came, he was able to be used by God, who revealed himself to Israel through John when he came out of the desert and crossed over into the fertile vale of the Jordan, crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord”.

Everything that John the Baptist became in the history of salvation depended on the time of preparation he endured.

And St Ignatius. The bishop of one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire. We can imagine his daily responsibilities. His life was filled with concern for others. Just as our lives are filled with duties that cannot be escaped and should not be avoided. Often we think that we could become proper Christians if only we could find some time for ourselves. And of course that is a good thing. But St Ignatius found his perfection in the life of a busy Bishop. And his daily cares and responsibilities would have remained unknown to us had he not been called, at the end of his life, as one who had already given his life to Christ, to journey to Rome and offer it one last time before the world.

His letters are filled with instructions to other bishops to look after the widows, to know everyone by name, to find out what has happened to people who are missing from the services of the Church. In such a life he experienced the death of self long before the wild animals assaulted him in Rome.
And we also may offer ourselves, a living sacrifice, in the duties and responsibilities we all face. They are not an obstacle to becoming a Christian, any more than experiences of testing in our spiritual life. It is through these experiences, often hidden from the world, that we are prepared to be used by Christ.

Of course I do not mean that we will not be used until the very end of our lives. Christ calls us this day and every day to some service, some manifestation of his life in us for the salvation of others. But all that we do to the glory of God is built upon the experiences we have already passed through, of inner perseverance in the face of spiritual testing, and of outward service to others even to the measure of the death of self and self-will.

On this day above all others we ask the prayers of St Ignatius, the bishop and martyr. May we follow his example of putting self to death and offering all that we have and are to Christ. May we also follow the example of John the Baptist, formed in the desert places, a man who had abandoned all reliance on worldly satisfaction so that he might bear witness to God.

Each day we will be called to be witnesses of Christ, witnesses of what he has already done by his Spirit in our lives and desires to perform in the lives of all. But we must be prepared and the preparation requires the death of self. May we embrace this way of true life in Christ in the death of self. As St Ignatius himself reminds us,

All the pleasures of the world, and all the kingdoms of this earth, shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die in behalf of Jesus Christ, than to reign over all the ends of the earth.

May it be so in our lives for the glory of God, and for our salvation. Amen.

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