- The Sparrow-hawk and the Spirit
A few weeks ago, as I was walking around the headland at Mullaghmore, I saw a sparrow-hawk hovering over the ditch along by the road. I imagine he had spotted some movement and was preparing to collect his dinner. The writer of the book of Genesis refers to the Spirit of God, hovering over the waters. The Spirit, more like a dove than a hawk, watches over God’s world, from the very beginning, not to take but to give. In these first verses of the bible, it seems as if the Spirit imparts the gift of life to water. The water, in turn, makes it appearance throughout the rest of the reading, giving life and growth to all God’s creatures. I’m sure you have probably noticed down through the years, in the Lenten campaigns of Trocaire, how often the focus is on the need for fresh clean water for human consumption, for animals, for crops and for hygiene.
In almost all of the Scripture readings which we have heard during our vigil this evening, water appears as a symbol of God’s saving power. The people of Israel are saved out of slavery and given new life in the wilderness, by passing through the waters of the Red Sea. It all seems to happen overnight but, of course, the crossing of the Red Sea has to be understood as more than just an event. It is the beginning of a relationship which grows and deepens over many years, until God’s people cross the River Jordan and take possession of the land that God has given them.
Speaking in God’s name, the prophet Isaiah invites the people to come to the water. “Come to the water all you who are thirsty; though you have no money, come!” In this passage the “water” seems to be God’s word which, like rain, “comes down from the heavens and waters the earth”. In much the same way, God’s Word irrigates the dry ground of human hearts and makes them bear fruit.
Our Gospel reading this evening gives us, as near as possible to an eye-witness account of the Resurrection. The fear of the women changes to joy as they recognise Jesus and realise that he is alive. As the news of his Resurrection spreads, and as Jesus appears elsewhere in the city and in Galilee, all of his disciples are drawn into the joy of the women.
The Resurrection begins as something that happened on a particular day in a particular place. It is only afterwards, that the disciples of Jesus begin the realise that this actually changes everything. The Resurrection of Jesus is not just about Jesus himself. As someone who encountered the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, St. Paul writes a lot about the Resurrection. If Christ has risen, he tells the Corinthians, that has implications for all of us (1 Cor 15). He reassures them that, on the last day, “the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall arise”.
But much of what St. Paul writes about the Resurrection is not about the last day or the end of time, it is about our life here and now as the people of Jesus, living by the Spirit of Jesus. It may be helpful to remember that, although Baptism was practiced in the Old Testament, it was mainly understood as a ritual of repentance. In the New Testament, however, it comes to be seen as the way for believers to participate in the new life of the Resurrection. This comes across very strongly in the writings if StPaul, including this evening’s reading from the letter to the Romans.
Baptism, in those early Christian times was by full immersion in a river or in a pool. For St Paul, going down into the water was like dying to the old way of being and going down into the tomb with Christ. Coming up out of the water, the newly Baptised Christian was, quite literally, “a new creation”, through the working of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 5:17). As far as Paul was concerned, those who are “in Christ” are already living the new life of the Resurrection, which Jesus gained for us through his death on the cross.
Christian morality is not meant to be based on rules. It flows from the Resurrection. It is about how we live “in Christ”. It is very well expressed in the Act of Sorrow which the children learn when they prepare for First Confession, and which many of us now use. It ends with the words: “help me to live like Jesus, and not sin again”. In our recent synodal conversations, many Catholics, young and old, spoke about how challenging it is to “live like Jesus” and to bear witness to Him. They spoke about peer-pressure, even from fellow Christians. Priests also spoke about their anxiety, especially when preaching on sensitive issues, that they might offend someone, or that they themselves might be attacked. In a society which places such a strong emphasis on respect for diversity, it sometimes seems that Christians don’t feel that they have permission to be different. On the other hand, what is the point of being Christian if it doesn’t make any difference. Paul is very clear about it; Baptism is much more than a ritual or a rite-of-passage. Being “in Christ” is a whole new way of being; so much so that, as he writes to the Galatians, (Gal. 2:20), “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”. This is the source of our hope.
When you look back two thousand years, the society in which Jesus lived and died seems to have been very violent. Three crucifixions in one day; and all of the prisoners tortured in advance! St. Paul tells us that Christ, having risen from the dead, can never die again. In a certain sense, however, Christ is crucified in every person whose life is unjustly taken or diminished through violence or neglect. This weekend we celebrate the Good Friday agreement. In celebrating what has been possible in the space of twenty five years, we are also reminded of the enormity of the human tragedy that took place in Northern Ireland, and which is still a cause of pain to so many.
In our own society today, women and men are murdered with alarming frequency. Too many people still die on our roads, when a little more care might make all the difference. Too many of our young people have had their lives destroyed by drugs. Neither can we forget the babies, whose innocent lives are taken before they are born. Our faith tells us that, Christ died for all of them, and indeed for all those who die in futile wars and in small boats crossing the Mediterranean and all those who sleep rough in our streets. He died for them, just as he died for us; and on the last day, they too will share in the fruits of the Resurrection.
But, as St Matthew reminds us, on the day of judgement, the Lord may turn to us and say: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”. Today is as good a day as any, for us who have been Baptised, to renew our commitment to being “in Christ” and, in the power of His Spirit, to building a society which is consistent with respect for the dignity and life of every person. It is from such a starting point that we set out on our own personal path to eternal life.