Homily of the Most Revd. Geoffrey Jarrett, Bishop of Lismore
Church of St Francis Xavier, Ballina, 14 September 2014
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, dear Deacon Stefan: Together with many other liturgical feasts in the course of the year, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross has particular historical origins. The venture to Jerusalem of St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, in the early fourth century, to seek the remains of the Cross on which our Lord was crucified, and the dedication of the churches in Rome and Constantinople in which the precious relics were later preserved, is well known. Three hundred years later, the recovery of relics of the Cross by the Emperor Heraclius after they had been stolen by the Persians, was the event which gave rise to this feast day. The celebration however marked more than an event, for it came to be a votive feast, year by year honouring and glorifying the Cross of Christ as the very instrument of our salvation, the sign of our redemption. The dramatic events of our own time in those lands of the Middle East, and extending once again to Europe, perhaps will recall in some minds that the year 628 was also the year in which Mohammed and his followers captured Mecca, and then emerged from the Arabian desert to begin the conquest of the lands of the Christian churches around the Mediterranean. The encounter between the crescent and the Cross has ebbed and flowed in the rise and fall of empires of east and west across the ages since.
Today on this day we, like our brothers and sisters in the faith, particularly “glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered.” As the Preface of the Mass contrasts the two trees, the Evil One, who in the garden of old conquered on a tree and enslaved us all, is likewise now conquered and his captives set free, on another Tree on that bare hill outside the city walls. The image of the Lamb lifted high on the wood of the Cross is the focus today of our attentive and grateful faith, the image that has come to us through our Lord’s own gospel image of Himself lifted up, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, the glorious Lord who now draws everyone to himself.
Our focus on the wood of the Cross blends within our vision of faith with our entire trust in the great work that He is accomplishing there. For the Cross is also an Altar, and the Altar has both a Sacrifice and a Priest who accomplishes the offering. Nothing is more central in the gratitude of our faith than the bond within our experience between then and now, between what He is doing there to what He is doing here. Same Priest, same Altar, same Sacrifice, same amazing outcome, same benefits and blessing, same triumph of strength over weakness, life over death, and eternity over time.
Tonight the Lord establishes another link in His great work which stretches through time to eternity, a bond as human as His own. His name is Stefan Matuszek. By words of power and sacred anointing Stefan will be embraced by the Lord into that one body which in its precise work here on earth is that of the alter Christus, the other Christ, not another Christ, as if there could more than one, but rather a human image as on the other side of the same coin, a reflection in human flesh of the one eternal High Priest.
“Stefan,” the bishop will ask on behalf of the Church, “Do you resolve to be united more closely every day to Christ, the High Priest, who offered himself for us to the Father as a pure sacrifice, and with him to consecrate yourself to God for the salvation of all?”
St John Chrysostom says that while the work of the priesthood is established in eternity, it is ordained to take place in time. The meaning is that it takes place in the very human world of people and events, of imperfection and limitation, of outright sin tinged often as much by malice as by ignorance. Outcomes will be unclear, simply to be left in the Lord’s hands. That is the reality of priestly ministry. After the years of your preparation, Stefan, you will be aware I am sure that as wonderful and beautiful a thing as it is to be a priest, it takes place in a world of repetitive actions, routine timetables and places, of tiredness, dull responses and let-downs, and the temptation to wonder if any progress is being made.
But keep in mind that these are the ordinary circumstances that the Lord has chosen for your life from this moment onwards, as He has chosen for the rest of us, as indeed, when you think of it, for the countless mothers and fathers in the midst of their marriage and family life and the upbringing of their children. Our fatherhood shares so much with what it is to nurture and shape a family
Keep also in mind the inspiration and example of those priests who have influenced your life and have given you confidence by their example to follow in their footsteps, the men who would say a resounding “Yes!” — I would live this priestly life over and over again, for I could never tell the half of the works of goodness and grace I have seen in people’s lives, which no one else perhaps might even be aware of, just because the Lord chose to use me as His instrument in their relations with him, and as best I could I let myself be used by Him.
I imagine that you will often return in moments of prayer and reflection to this Feast of 14th September, not simply because of its appropriateness as the day on which you pledge “to conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s Cross,” but because so often you will surely be drawing on its abiding power, on this “sweet wood, and sweet iron,’ and the sweetest weight of Him, the kingly priest who made the Cross the Tree of Life, of unconquerable love. I have no doubt also that the Mother who kept vigil with Him then on Calvary will as frequently be present sustaining you now in that royal, prophetic and priestly office He shares with you.
So, in the words in which the Bishop’s ordination homily concludes, you will thus “Keep always before your eyes the example of the Good Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve, and who came to seek out and to save what was lost.”