Some of you may have seen the musical about the world’s most famous orphan: ‘Annie’. One of the most memorable songs from the show is “It’s a Hard-Knocks Life for us”. Now, I don’t have the confidence to sing it for you, but the orphans’ musical lament can be summed up in one memorable line from the song: “No one cares for you a smidge when you’re in an orphanage!” And yet these orphans sing so exuberantly and are so self-possessed that we’re not entirely convinced of their dire plight. Even their overseer, the grim and grouchy Miss Hannigan, is more comical than terrible. And yet we know from history that this sugar-coated version of an orphan’s life, complete with a happy ending, courtesy of Daddy Warbucks, doesn’t reflect the harsh reality. The lot of orphans has, more often than not, been a miserable one.
This was certainly the case in the time of Christ. To be an orphan in 1st century Palestine was to be in a truly desperate situation. Unable to support themselves in any way, these parentless children were at the mercy of a social system that simply looked the other way.
Though orphans are mentioned more than 40 times in the scriptures, today’s reading from St. John contains the only use of that word in the four gospels. Our Lord uses the image of orphans to assure his followers that, even though he is leaving them, he will never leave them in the precarious position in which orphans are left. And so, today we worship and thank God who, like any good parent, will stand by us and never abandon us.
Some years ago, I read a learned article about parenting which contained a little slogan that emphasised the importance of parents providing ‘presence’ as opposed to ‘presents’ for their children. While many parents are only too willing to shower their children with material good, they are often too busy to provide more important things like consistent guidance, personal example and the support that is manifested in being physically present in the home. Ironically, the ‘going away’ gift that Our Lord promises his disciples is his continuing presence in their midst through the power of the Holy Spirit.
There are some people who think they will never be able to go on after the death of someone very close them, especially a husband or wife. Some people who grieve, literally languish and eventually die, of what can only be, a broken heart. In a theological sense, all followers of Jesus must take that cliché “I can’t live without you” seriously, for Our Lord is, quite literally, our lifeline to God. Whether we use the analogy of vine to branches, shepherd to sheep, or parent to child, the point is that we are utterly dependent on Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ for spiritual life.
The English mystic Julian of Norwich prayed: “God, of thy goodness, give me thyself … If I were to ask anything less, I should always be in want, for in thee alone do I have all.”
As we continue with the Mass we welcome and we worship the ‘real presence’ of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in our midst. As he promised the disciples long ago, he remains with us today and always as we gather in his name.