Physical presence is more important than words

 I was talking to a 7 year old the other day, and asked him whether he ever told his friends at school that he went to Church. He looked at me and said very solemnly, “No, I keep it to myself.” I was a little shocked, but I hope I didn’t show it! I might have expected that answer from a grown-up, but somehow I thought a little boy would be more enthusiastic! “So”, I thought, “The trend to turn religion into a purely private affair has now got right down to the children. How tragic!”

Tragic, because we Catholic Christians have so many good things worth telling others, not least the joy of being able to share our lives with a God who loves us and never gives up on us; as in today’s Gospel, (Matthew 21:28-32) where the young man who says “No” to his father, is allowed to change his mind, and does his father’s will. It reminded me that some students appear enthusiastically at Mass when they first arrive at University, but then fall away as they are swamped by all the other apparently more exciting things going on. So that’s a warning to some of you! Others however struggle to get their life sorted in the first few weeks at Uni, or even longer. But there is hope, because although such people may go through a period when they say “No” to God and his Church, they often re-find their faith eventually, and discover that it’s all the stronger for having been tested.  Some of these may not re-find their faith until the 2nd or even the 3rd year, but it is that faith that takes them on beyond University and is with them for the rest of their lives.

One of the dangers we all face nowadays is this increasing trend towards privacy. We can so easily sit in our individual rooms, or in our private world of ear plugs and music, and only relate to others either on-line, or superficially at parties and the like, where the last thing we share are our deep personal beliefs. And when we hit problems, we therefore tend to think we are the only one in the world who faces such troubles, because everyone else around us seems to be so happy and sorted. Of course, they’re not, they actually have just as many worries as us, but NOT in public, just like us. Don’t get me wrong here. I am all in favour of Facebook and the like, because I know that many people do not just share fun things but also use it to support and get support from their friends. But beware. If your friends and family are all back home, many miles away, they cannot support you with their actual presence, and that physical being-with-others whom we can trust and share life with is actually vital for us. We have to find friends where we are now, not just where we used to be.

It’s so easy to take all this for granted when we go to Mass back home, because we probably go with our family and know at least some of the other people in the Church. Suddenly, at University, we are faced with Mass where we know no-one at all! This happens to anyone who moves to a new place to live,unless you move with your family. Suddenly you are alone, and know no-one, and that is much much harder on your faith than any of us realize. This is because, as the psychologists tell us, so much of our communication ( and thus our support network) as humans is not through words at all, but through all sorts of other things that only work when we are physically present to one another.

In our 2nd reading (Philipians 2:1-11) we see that this is also a problem for Christians in the ancient world. They too were used to having their private shrine at home but their new religion as Christians was to be quite different. Paul tells them therefore to develop “a common purpose and a common mind”.  It is something they have to create, to be as a Church, but why and how? 

The answer lies in the way God loves us. God could have remained a far away power, but God chose to come close to us, to be physically present to us, as the man Jesus. He could even then have chosen to speak to us, as from on high. Jesus could have simply been a mystical prophet (a bit like Buddha?) rather remote and distant. But Paul tells us that he chose a different course. “He became as men are, and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.” He expressed on the cross what Paul recommended a few lines earlier, that we should “think of other people’s interests” first.

“But surely that’s obvious”, we say. “No” I reply, because most people when they go to Mass instinctively look first at what they can get out of it, and if it doesn’t work for them, abandon it and retreat to their private prayers at home. Forgive me, those of you who have heard me go on about this before, but I must say it again; we go to Mass for God, to offer him our lives because he has given us life, love, everything! And this means we also go to Mass for one another. Think what you would feel like at Mass if no-one else was there with you, and you might get the point. So wherever you go to Mass, look for ways of making contact with others, say “Hello” to people you do not know, and be part of the process in which every church builds itself up as a holy people united in the love of God, and thus able to live that love wherever they go and whatever they do.




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