Today we honour the memory of Saint Lucy, one of the first female martyrs to witness to Christ. Saint Lucy gave her life to God in the act of martyrdom. Will we offer God our lives and accept the easy yoke which Our Lord offers to those who take the time to listen to him?
Imagine going to a museum filled with paintings and sculptures from well-known artists. Would you hear those around you marvelling at the companies that provided the paint to the artists? Would they be more interested in examining the pedestal than in the statue that sat on it? It’s hardly likely. Usually, we pay much more attention to the artist who produced the work than the tools they used. In a similar way, the ancient Jews had become a portrait of God’s power, compassion, and dedication. God had promised that if they followed his laws, they would become a living testimony to the nations around them that he was mighty and had authority to do great things. Even these foreign people would come to recognise God and want to join the Israelites in worshipping and obeying him. Now, it didn’t always happen that way, but this was God’s plan, and he never stopped helping his people embrace it.
God has worked in countless ways in our lives, and he wants us to respond by following him and becoming our own portrait of his goodness. It can be hard sometimes to recognise—or remember—his work, but it’s there. Perhaps he has whispered words of affirmation in the middle of Mass. Even a stern word of rebuke from a friend can be God’s voice turning us from a destructive path.
Sometimes we can be so caught up in the moment that we lose sight of this bigger picture. But Advent can be an especially good time to look back over our lives to see where God’s hand has been at work. He is our Creator, and we ought to be in awe of the work he is doing in us. Even if we can’t see it fully right now, we can still trust that God is transforming us into a masterpiece of his grace and mercy.
It’s interesting that Our Lord talks today about his yoke being easy to bear. We might find this allusion difficult to understand as our preparations for Christmas go up a gear. Even though Advent is a time for preparation, we can easily become overwhelmed by writing cards, wrapping presents and making lists for Tesco delivery.
For some of us, rest and retirement might sound so much better than a burdensome yoke. And yet, Our Lord tells us his yoke is easy, his burden is light, and we will actually find the rest we are looking for as we let him place this yoke on our already weary shoulders. How can this be?
Well, yokes were made to help a team of oxen do their work faster and more efficiently. Wearing a yoke, the oxen walk side by side; they work side by side. They still have a job to do, but they share the burden. Their cooperation makes the task so much easier because they are both pulling together.
When Our Lord invites us to bear his yoke, he promises to be the one walking next to us, working right alongside us. Sharing a yoke with Our Lord doesn’t make our responsibilities disappear, but it sure does make things easier. Not only does he help us carry the load, but we learn from him as we spend time walking beside him.
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, let us follow the example of the yoked oxen. Walking side by side with Our Lord during these remaining days of Advent, our task becomes easy and light as we keep our eyes on the next step.
But, let’s not focus on how many more steps we have to go; far from being a burden, Our Lord’s yoke is there to help us work more effectively, both as individuals and as a community. We are not alone, because Our Lord is right next to us, sharing the load.
We’ve all seen images of the Good Shepherd, and sadly, most of them depict a sweet, slightly effeminate looking Jesus cuddling a fluffy, white lamb. That image is taken from the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the shepherd who is tender and caring: “gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast”.
And yet the prophet is also aware that the term ‘shepherds’ refers to the kings appointed to rule God’s people. God has no patience with weak, indecisive leaders who quake before their enemies and make poor military alliances instead of trusting God. The ideal shepherd – the ideal king – “comes with power” and “rules by his strong arm”. David, the shepherd-king, he defends the flock against predators, especially the spiritual threats posed by our own fallen nature, or by the confused philosophies of the world.
The Good Shepherd doesn’t sit in the field waiting anxiously for the straying sheep to return. Rather, he arms himself with weapons and sets out in search of that lost sheep, overcoming every obstacle to rescue them and bring them home. Sometimes his kindness feels like discipline as he cuts the lamb loose, dresses its wounds and curbs its propensity to wander. But it is still the kindest thing he could ever do for us.
The scriptures tell us how Jesus, our Good Shepherd, knows us, He feeds us, He guides us, He cherishes us and loves us, He protects and preserves us.
There is nothing our Good Shepherd won’t do for us to keep us safe.
There are times when we get to the point where we realise that we are well and truly stuck. We have a habit or a fault that we just can’t seem to conquer, no matter what we do. It can become so frustrating that we are tempted to despair of ever getting over it.
The paralysed man in today’s gospel may have felt like this. After all, he certainly couldn’t improve his situation. He had to be carried around to wherever he wanted to go. Yet when his friends brought him to Jesus, Jesus wasn’t overwhelmed by his condition. He took it all in his stride. With just a few words, he forgave the man his sins, and then, with another simple command, he healed him completely.
Given the right circumstances, just about anything can paralyse us: from little annoying habits to serious addictions. We too can end up feeling just as helpless as the man in the gospel. But Our Lord took command over the man’s paralysis as if it were a head cold, and he wants to do the same for us each and every day. No matter what may be holding us down, Our Lord is bigger. He is powerful even when we feel helpless. He is strong when we cannot find any more energy to fight.
We should never resign ourselves to being bound by chains that keep us from living fully the life God has called us to. God wants to pour out his healing power upon all of us, just as an earthly father delights in giving his children the best Christmas presents possible. We must never be afraid to turn to him for healing and restoration.
I’m sure there are still some people in the world who still think God is rather like the father who says to his daughter: “Janet, go and see what John’s doing, and tell him to stop it!” They think of God as some sort of supernatural spoilsport, an ethereal policeman, ever on the prowl to see if we’re doing something we shouldn’t be doing. Perhaps, even in the Church, there have been times when God has been presented primarily as a God of wrath, ready to wreak vengeance on the sinner.
And yet this image of God is a far cry from Saint John’s insistence that God is Love. And there can be little doubt which of the two views is the correct one. As we approach Christmas, we are reminded once again that the God we worship is the God of Love. “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son.” In our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the love of God is made manifest to us – it’s revealed to us – in human terms, in ways we can readily understand.
And so, far from trying to catch us out in order to punish us, God watches over each one of us with constant loving care, just as a loving father should. As Christians, we are united to God through his Son. And because we are united to Our Lord we can, in a very real sense, call God our Father. God truly is our Father and we are his adopted children. And how else could he look after us but with loving care and concern?
But this shouldn’t mislead us into thinking that we can simply sit back and leave everything to God. We are sometimes tempted to do this when we run into difficulties. We want God to come to our rescue and get us out of an awkward situation, or to solve all our problems for us. But God’s care for us isn’t to be thought of as some sort of insurance policy, to be drawn on only when things go wrong.
Part of our dignity as human beings is that we can cooperate freely with God in his plan for humanity. We must use the intelligence and the talents he has given us to face our problems squarely, and be ready to make informed choices and decisions. And just like John the Baptist, we must play our part by working actively to prepare the Way for the Lord.
But there’s another mistake we can make when things get tough. We can go to the opposite extreme and imagine that God no longer cares for us. We may be tempted to say: “If God really cared for me he wouldn’t have allowed this difficult situation to arise; he wouldn’t have allowed this illness; he wouldn’t have allowed the death of someone I love.”
It’s always difficult to come to terms with suffering, our own or other peoples. And it’s impossible to explain it away. But we can be certain that the presence of suffering in our lives doesn’t mean that God has deserted us and withdrawn his love from us. We only have to look to Our Lord’s life to be assured of that.
God’s plan for each one of us is that we should enter into glory through being united to his Son. But if this is to happen we must grow more and more like Our Lord in our Christian lives. And that’s why suffering is an inevitable part of every Christian’s life. Can we expect God to deal with us any differently than he dealt with his own Son? We can’t doubt that the Father was constantly with Our Lord during his life on earth, and with him even more closely at the hour of his passion and death. How can we possibly doubt that he is also with us, and especially in times of suffering?
God has a plan for each one of us. He loves each of us as though there was no one else to love. And each of us has a special place in God’s plan, each of us has a task that only we can perform. To do it we must be ever open to God’s Will, ever open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit moving within us. In his loving care God is leading us, step by step, to the fulfilment of his plan for us. And so let us pray today, and every day, that we will always co-operate faithfully with him.
It has been said that a saint is a window through which we get a glimpse of another world, a person through whom God’s light shines. If it applies to a saint, then surely it applies even more so to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I remember – many years ago now – sitting in the cloister garth of a monastery where I was making a retreat – watching the sun go down. As the sun dipped lower and lower the shadows began to lengthen; and as the sun retreated, one by one all the colours were extinguished.
As I got up to go back into the house, someone turned on the lights in the church, and my eyes were drawn to one of the stained-glass windows. When the sun was shining, I hadn’t noticed it, but now against the background of bright lights it glowed with a beauty which previously had been invisible. The lights inside the church were shining, not so much on the window as through it. That window had beauty before, but I had to wait until the sun went down and darkness set in to appreciate its true beauty. This beauty was revealed only because there was light within.
In some ways people are like stained glass windows. Many glow and shine, but only in the sunlight of the approval and recognition of others. Many celebrities and politicians suffer this fate. When they fall from favour, and this approval is withdrawn, and nobody pays attention to them anymore, they are plunged into darkness because they have no light within. Anyway, as these profound thoughts were passing through my mind in that monastery garden, whoever turned those lights on in the church suddenly turned them off. Now all was in darkness again. And how dark it is when a light goes out: darker by far than if it had never shone.
When we say that Our Blessed Mother was conceived without Original Sin what are we saying? We are saying that she was as holy as is possible for a redeemed creature to be. Like the rest of us Our Lady too had to be redeemed, but she was redeemed in advance. Unlike us, Our Lady was never subject to the Devil, not even for a moment. Because from the very moment of her existence, from her conception in the womb of her mother, she belonged to the kingdom of light, the Kingdom of God. The light of God’s grace illuminated her from within, so that no matter how deep was the darkness that surrounded her, she was still in the light. And far from extinguishing her light, the darkness merely served to show it up.
It was through the humble and obedient Virgin Mary that Our Lord’s powerful light shone into our world of darkness and shadows. Christ is the ‘light of the world’. He it is who enlightens all peoples. It was his light that illuminated the heart and soul of his mother.
Each of us was conceived and born, not only into a world darkened by many forms of evil, but we were personally subject to the kingdom of darkness. But when we were baptized the light of God’s grace was kindled within us and Christ began to free us from the grip of darkness. As Saint Peter put it, “God has called us out of darkness into his own wonderful light.” And Saint Paul says, “You were darkness once, but now you are light in the Lord; be like children of the light.”
Unfortunately, the darkness still has power over us. The process of freeing ourselves from it through the grace of Christ is a lifelong process. It can’t happen at the flick of a switch. Even though many people are afraid of the dark and it causes us to stumble and lose our way, yet it somehow has a fascination for us. But Our Lady, even though her inner light always burned brightly, knows what it is to live in a world darkened by greed, hatred, pride, cruelty and selfishness. Our Lady will help, guide and encourage us to walk in the way of her Son.
And so, what does living in the light consist of? Saint John tells us, “Anyone who loves his brother is living in the light and need not be afraid of stumbling; unlike the man who hates his brother and is in darkness, not knowing where he is going because it is too dark to see.”
Every time we meet our Blessed Mother in the gospels she is seen as someone who was concerned about other people. Not only did the light of God’s love illumine her own life, but it shone out through her and illuminated the lives of all those around her. Our Lady will help us to keep the light of Christ burning brightly within us, and she will encourage us to shed light into the path of others.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.