The first performances of Handel’s Messiah were held in Dublin’s Fishamble Street in 1742. So many people wanted tickets that the organisers asked the men not to bring their swords and the ladies to come without hoops in their skirts!
When Handel’s Messiah is mentioned, many people think of Christmas. Others like to listen to it during Holy Week, but my favourite time to play Handel’s beautiful setting of the story of our salvation is during Easter Week.
Although we are an Easter people whose song is Hallelujah! Hallelujah! it is important for us never to forget that God became human and suffered for us on Good Friday. In our troubled world, the Cross of Good Friday casts a long shadow – from the hungry lands of Ethiopia where Mahlet, the young girl on this year’s Trócaire box, lives – to the refugee camps of Syria, to the homes of Kenya where families are left devastated this Easter
weekend by the murder of their loved ones at Garissa University on Holy Thursday.
If the story of salvation had ended on Good Friday, we would be a people of despair, only able to cry out as Jesus did on the Cross “my God, my God, why have you abandoned us?” This year I joined with Richard Clarke, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, in issuing a message for Holy Week and Easter. We pointed out that on Good Friday, “it seemed that the worst that the world can do was victorious over the best that there can ever be. The crucifixion was the rejection of all that it is to be truly human. It was the refusal to believe that only in Christ can men and women find their truest identity and fullest humanity. It was the attack of darkness on the reality of a total Love”. Archbishop Richard and I went on to say that all around “we still see powerful signs of that same darkness in our world. It is found in in the horrors of cruel and vicious inhumanity to those who are seen as other; in the day to day debasement of the dignity of those who are unable to defend themselves; in physical violence, murder, war and persecution. It issues in the extreme selfishness of some individual lives that have fallen away catastrophically from any generosity and forgiveness”.
Christians are challenged to be Easter people, to spread the message of hope into the reality of life which is often overwhelmed by darkness and despair. The Christian vocation is to seek out and accompany those who suffer a long ‘Good Friday’, and open to them the promise of resurrection. In his Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Doloris (Salvific Suffering), Pope Saint John Paul II explored the meaning of suffering in union with Christ. He himself died ten years ago this weekend after enduring prolonged suffering with Parkinson’s disease. He pointed to the sense of uselessness, of being a burden that sick people can feel, especially when they are dependent on others for everything. Pope St John Paul encouraged them to realise they were sharing in the suffering of Christ. In this way they carry out an ‘irreplaceable service’, completing ‘what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions’ and thereby serving the salvation of others (SD 27).
This does not mean we should remain totally passive in the face of suffering. We must strive to alleviate it where possible. Every Christian, and all people of good will, has a responsibility to work earnestly for an end to injustice, greed, selfishness and exploitation which is at the root of so much preventable suffering and inhumanity in the world.
In this regard I welcome the efforts of President Higgins over the past eighteen months to encourage a national conversation about ethics. The President’s ‘Ethics Initiative’ has already received important contributions from Third Level institutions and many others in civil society – recently the Irish Congress of Trade Unions launched a worthwhile discussion on ethics in employment and in the workplace.
Unless, as a nation, we have a clear sense of our fundamental values and principles, together with a vision for the common good in Irish society, the causes of preventable suffering will only fester and multiply. It is worth asking ourselves: is the common good being served in Ireland any better than it was a generation ago? What foundational ethical principles do we want to be in place in Ireland? What moral compass is guiding us as we make the critical decisions that will impact on society today and in the future?
Catholic social teaching can make an important contribution to this discussion. Some people have described this rich body of teaching, especially its developments from the Pope Saint John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) to Pope Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), as ‘the Church’s best kept secret’! Others suggest that, because of recent scandals, the Church should remain silent in national conversations about ethics. On the contrary, I believe it would greatly impoverish debate if the principles of Catholic social teaching were left unheard: for example, our strong belief in the dignity of every human person; respect for human life from the first moment of conception to natural death; the importance of family as the basic cell of society; respect for the dignity of work and the worker; care for the poor and the marginalised; the importance of subsidiarity and solidarity; promotion of a fair distribution of the world’s goods; and, care for creation. I hope that the Catholic Church can continue to bring its sincerely held beliefs and convictions to the national debate – not to dominate, but to enlighten and encourage dialogue.
Saint Paul describes the Resurrection of Christ as the “first fruits”- evidence that there will be a harvest of hope, and a final victory of love over hatred, injustice and futility. On this Easter Sunday I know there is still much harvesting to be done. Happy Easter!