Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown at reopening of All Saints Church, Ballymena

12 Feb 2012

Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown at reopening of the Church and Dedication of the Altar Church of All Saints, Ballymena

The texts of our liturgy today, just like the building in which we gather, are dripping with passages from, and references to, the scriptures. We have heard readings about celebrations from 1 Maccabees, community life in the Acts of the Apostles and words from Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew – and the prayers of the liturgy are marinated in scriptural phrases. Around the cornice of the church, we have extensive – and recently rediscovered – passages from the Psalms and Gospels. The windows behind the high altar depict the saving death of Jesus. The panels in the sanctuary ceiling proclaim Jesus as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, the four evangelists and angels holding various instruments of the Crucifixion. And the floor around the altar bears the inscription – Salvator mundi, salva nos – Save us, Saviour of the world.  This whole building and the entire ceremony echo incessantly a message about the purpose of this Church building and the identity of the People of God who gather here.

So what does today tell us about who we are and what we do here?
The Irish word for church is ‘teach an phobail’ – the house of the people. But this is not merely a community hall. This is not where we gather to impress God with our music, art and energy – or even with our piety. This building was not created so that we could attract people by entertaining them. In fact, this is not a place where we do anything. This is where pobal dé, the people of God, the Body of Christ, is gathered at God’s call to encounter together the mystery of God’s redeeming action in Jesus Christ and to worship God in Spirit and in truth. We are called to do what he has commanded us to do in memory of Jesus. Here we come together, not to do anything for God, but to enter into what God has done, and continues to do, for us in Jesus Christ –and to join with the unending choirs of heaven as they sing the hymn of God’s glory. The church is where we gather to celebrate God’s work, not ours. It is the power of God and not the beauty of the building or the piety of the clergy that works our salvation. 2,000 years ago, Jesus, the Son of God, the Word, took was made flesh and became Emmanuel, God with us, dwelling among us. God continues to meet and surprise people in many places. But the Liturgy – made up of Word and Sacrament, to touch us in head and body – is God’s chosen place where the mystery of our redemption dwells among us and becomes active in our midst. That is why he calls us to make space and time for God’s healing space and time in our midst. Christ’s grace is the rock on which we build our trust.

And what is God’s work here? Faith in God means not just fidelity to the past but also faithfulness to God’s future for us. During the centuries following the Reformation, Catholic theology tended to emphasise the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And that is an element of our faith tradition. But one risk in any over-emphasis of this was that we tended to separate the sacramental presence in the Tabernacle from Christ’s redeeming action in his death and resurrection. The weekly celebration of the Eucharist risked becoming an event where individuals gathered mainly for their individual private nourishment. And, then – almost as a second separate question – people argued over how the Mass could be a sacrifice. In documents of the Second Vatican Council – which began fifty years ago this year – we have begun to rediscover the thousand year tradition of the Church which had understood that the Christ’s presence among us is an action, not a static reality. What is present among us is the redeeming work of Jesus through his sacrifice on the Cross where we are forgiven and gathered into the Body of Christ.  The Eucharistic celebration is not so much something that we do or view as Church. It is through entering into the celebration of the Eucharist that we become Church through the grace of God. In the reception of Communion, we are formed into the Body of Christ. That is the real insight of the phrase – teach an phobail. It is not just where we gather when we fancy the idea. Sacraments are not merely for private consumption. The Church is where we come together to become the People of God and to be sent out to be bread broken for the world. We cannot be Christians on our own or be limited to prayer as a purely private devotion. As someone said, it is not so much that we worship often because we believe. The truth is that we receive the gift of faith because we worship often together.

So there is a clear purpose to the work done on this beautiful 152 year old Church. The challenge was not to see how some new ideas might look or what modern craftsmanship we might introduce. It was not to reject anything of the past. It was not to chase after the passing trends of our current zeitgeist. All our church buildings are created as sacred space in order to enable the People of God to be gathered and celebrate in such as a way that they can encounter Christ in the mystery of our salvation. As we know from the Jesus’ own life, he can speak to us through our ears and our senses, our memories and our dreams, our sin and our forgiveness. Because Jesus took on human flesh, the earthly can be a bearer of the infinite to all of us who have been made in God’s image and likeness, and born again through water and the Spirit as children of God. The architecture seeks to nourish us in our heads, hearts and imagination by presenting the many complementary – and not contradictory – identities of the Pilgrim People of God and the Body of Christ, the flock of the Good Shepherd and branches of the vine, God’s work of art and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. We open ourselves to music and silence, to colour and image, to word and sacrament that the power of God’s grace might percolate down into the core of our being, that the Holy Spirit might invade our imagination. After all, it is only the grace of the Risen Christ that can move us to live, in our time, the characteristics of the early Church in Jerusalem – the truth about Jesus, community, the breaking of bread and prayer.

This particular renovation does not seek to overturn any particular model of how we are church. The work that has been undertaken here over the last four months does not mark a break with anything in the past but a building on the strengths and limitations of the past. Rather, in our age, it is at the service of enabling us to sense and glimpse in this holy place how our hearts can be marinated in all – and not just some – of the various ways in which the scriptures have revealed to us who we are as Church. It is dedicated and blessed as the locus where our human frailty and sinfulness can encounter the holiness of God. It is not a place, where we can reflect how we see ourselves, but rather a place where we can reflect on how God’s sees us. It is not meant to be an expression of our talents, but of our giftedness in Christ. St Paul tells that the only thing we can boast about is the Cross of our Lord, Jesus Christ (Gal 6:14).  We come here to see life in the context of eternity. As your parish priest Fr Delargy says in his introduction to the commemorative booklet, this building “is a sign of our being called to fulfilment in our eternal home in heaven”.

This re-opening of the Church of All Saints comes at a very opportune time for this particular cell of the living Body of Christ. This is an era of great change and opportunity.

Faith in the transcendent is less and less a feature of the cultural wallpaper that surrounds us without us even noticing it.  For that reason it is wonderful to see representatives of other Christian churches with us today. That is a reflection of how far this community has come in recent years in bearing common witness of our fraternity in Christ. Your presence is a blessing on us as we seek to bear public witness to the presence among us of the grace of God, revealed in Jesus Christ.

This work is also being completed during the much needed renewal in the Irish Church, where there was much deafness to God and to the cries of the poor.

This opening takes place in the middle of our diocesan renewal process, called ‘The Living Church’, which is looking towards an important milestone with a Diocesan Assembly at Pentecost 2013.

In the meantime, we have the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in June 2012, with the focus on “Communion with Christ and Communion with One Another”. In October 2012, the Universal Church will begin to celebrate ‘The Year of Faith”. That period – up to Advent 2013 – is an invitation for us as Church to be renewed in various ways. Pope Benedict XVI has specifically mentioned that it is a concerted call

to arouse in every believer the aspiration to profess the faith in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope. It will also be a good opportunity to intensify the celebration of the faith in the liturgy, especially in the Eucharist, which is “the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed; … and also the source from which all its power flows.” [1] At the same time, we make it our prayer that believers’ witness of life may grow in credibility. [2]

Then in July of 2013, millions of mainly young people will gather in Rio de Janeiro for the celebration of World Youth Day, under the Gospel theme “Go make disciples of all nations”. And all of these events are packed into the start of the decade when the Irish Church will be implementing Share the Good News – National Directory for Catechesis in Ireland.  Who said that the Church in Ireland was dead?

And we are entering a period on this island we also have to find new ways to talk about our past as we celebrate centenaries of events that marked and scarred our history. It was the late Cardinal Daly who said that this period of change and crisis is actually a great time to be a Christian. How faithfully we, as Christians, respond to all these challenges will be determined, not by how smart or influential we are or by how beautiful our buildings are, but by how open we are in this sacred space and elsewhere to the grace of God and to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. We pray individually and communally, not so that our influence and power might grow again, but so that God’s kingdom will come, that God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Today we will use poor water and human words, we will use blessed olive oil and fragrant incense, we will light candles and lay white cloths on the altar table at which we are fed. But however beautiful the objects, the building or the music, they – like us – are poor earthenware vessels which hold the treasure to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us (2 Cor 4:7). We come here in humility to be astounded by the generosity of God.

On the journey to Emmaus, the two disciples heard Jesus break the scriptures for them. That opened up their minds to the mystery of God’s plan – and enabled the signs to speak to them of his presence in the breaking of bread. Can we take a few moments of silence to enable the colours, the smells and the divine presence to seep into our hearts that we might be better able to hear the distant voices of choirs of angels and of all the saints who sing their praises before the throne of the Lamb. For it is only with them that we dare to dedicate this altar in this venerable sacred space – and realise more profoundly that, as St Paul says, it is we who are “God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it” (Eph 2:10).

Glory be….