Dear friends. Three years ago I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On my first day in Jerusalem, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where under one roof, there is both the rock of Calvary where Jesus was crucified and the empty tomb where he rose from the dead. Soon after I arrived at the Church, Mass was about to begin so I took my place with the other pilgrims. The reading at Mass was the second reading at Mass today where in his letter to the Romans, St Paul talks about us being united with Christ in death and united with him in new life. That day, it was like I heard that reading for the first time. I realised that being a Christian in that place at that moment was not just about events that happened there 2,000 years ago but about realities that take place in our lives all the time. As the rock of Calvary and the empty tomb are under one roof so the mysteries of death and new life play out under the same roof of every Christian life.
Last week, Jesus encouraged us three times not to be afraid. What is it that we humans fear most? Death and the losses that go with it. We don’t just fear dying but losing abilities, health, loved ones and independence as we get older. We live in a culture that celebrates who is young, beautiful and those with the world at their feet. We are not always comfortable in facing up to the reality of death and often avoid it. But in contrast, we have been baptised into a faith that rubs our noses in death from the very beginning when we were baptised into Jesus’s death at our baptism. The symbol of our faith is a cross, an instrument of death. This is the sign with which we mark ourselves every time we pray. So why do we do this? Why this fascination with death and does it paralyse us with fear? On the contrary, it sets us free. With our faith in Christ who has died and is risen, we are free from the fear of death to walk with courage and to live lives that are worth living. We are free to live with real hope that even though losses in our lives are inevitable, new life will follow somehow, someway. So what examples are there for this process of dying and rising? Here are just some doors that can open when others close.
In middle age we may lose some of our youthfulness but realize that what’s inside is more important than how we look on the outside. In retirement we may lose income, but we find more freedom to do the things maybe we had no time for before. In old age we may lose independence, but we receive back some of the love we gave to others. When we lose possessions, we find after mourning their loss we are freer and less burdened, realizing that we were meant to travel lightly through this world. We may lose items or abilities, only to realize how much we appreciate that which we have left. We might lose loved ones and mourn their loss but come in time to see the time we had with them as sources of blessing, gratitude and reasons to praise. Finally, when that moment comes for all of us to die, if we have grasped this freedom from fear that Jesus has given us then there will be no reason to be afraid for the one who loved us since we were conceived will be waiting for us.
I conclude with words from St Oliver Plunkett whose feast we celebrated yesterday. He and the martyrs are the best examples of lives of courage as people who basked in freedom from fear and the gift of new life in Christ. ‘Sentence of death has been passed against me. It has not caused me the least terror or deprived me of even an hour’s sleep….I shall, with God’s grace, give good example to others not to fear death’.
St Oliver and all women and men of courage, pray for us!