Homily For Lourdes Day Mass 2018

01 Dec 2018

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

In The Brothers Karamazov the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously wrote that ‘hell is the suffering of being unable to love’.[i] A serious Christian himself, though one who experienced grave doubts and the attraction of other philosophies, he knew that we are creatures made for loving by a God who is Love (1Jn 4:7-21 etc.); for the likes of us not to give ourselves to others in love is a grave tragedy.

There’s something very important here. The God revealed to us in the first Advent is a God in relationship. In today’s Gospel (Lk 1:26-38) God the Father’s angel announces that God the Son would be conceived as a human child by the power of God the Holy Spirit; though one substance, all three persons give and receive their being and identity to and from each other. For us to be God-like and fulfilled we must love, says Dostoyevsky – with more than a little support from the Christian tradition – and for us to fail to love is to be anti-God, like devils, eternally unfulfilled, in hell.

Which is pretty wise, but not the whole picture. So I turn to that other great literary psychologist-theologian: Charles Schulz, author of the Peanuts comics. In one Charlie Brown declares that he has “come to the conclusion that there’s nothing worse than being unloved”. His crabby companion Lucy insists that being lost in the woods would be worse. To prove it she shoves him into a grove of trees and tells him to stand there a while and he’ll see. Eventually his friend Linus comes by, and asks what he’s doing, to which Charlie laconically replies: “No matter what anyone says, it’s much worse to be unloved than it is to be lost in the woods.” Linus wanders away remarking that he sometimes thinks Charlie Brown has been lost in the woods his whole life!

Jokes aside, Schulz’s definition of hell differs from Dostoyevsky’s. For him the greatest tragedy – hell for a human being – is not so much a failure to love as a failure to be loved. Dostoyevsky’s fellow-existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre famously said “hell is other people”.[ii] But Christians know none can be happy without deep and enduring friendships, as well as other relationships and networks. And were God to cease to love us, we would instantly cease to exist. If the God of Advent is revealed as a God in relationship, three persons eternally loving and being loved, so that for us to be like Him is for us to love; then the God of Christmas is uncovered as One whose love overflows into creating and holding us in being, a love so big He can’t resist joining us in a human life (cf. Jn 3:16 etc.); and so for us to be, is for us to be loved.

What’s all this to do with our Lourdes Mass today? Well, the Old Testament story of our genesis tells the story also of our brokenness (Gen 3:9-15, 20). The failure of Adam and Eve to love God, creation and each other as they should results in Paradise Lost. As God calls out “Where are you? Why are you hiding? Why so ashamed? What have you done?” we hear the grief in His voice. As the consequences of this betrayal play out in the falling away from grace, God never for a moment ceases to love them. Even in the casting out of Eden there is an intimation of a Second Eve and Second Adam, a woman with offspring who together will crush the Serpent. Even in the judgment there is the pardon, in the punishment the promise of salvation. Whatever else is broken about us, we are still made for loving and being loved.

So it comes to pass in our Gospel that a new Eve says Fiat, Yes, where the first Eve said Non serviam, No; a new Adam is conceived of her flesh and bone, as the first Eve came forth from the flesh and bone of Adam; and the new Adam is the eternal Yes spoken to the Father and now spoken in time to us and by us (Lk 1:26-38). We are loved first, by God, family, community, then we love in return. In receiving and giving love we are most truly ourselves, and destined to heaven rather than the other place.

In our Lourdes Day Mass we bring forward the halt and the lame, whom the members of the Order of Malta call “our lords the sick” for blessing with water from the Spring at Lourdes. Mary’s love, not only for her own boy but for all those who are vulnerable like Him, is told powerfully at Lourdes, and humanity’s need for such love told powerfully in the stories of our malades. Let me share with you such a story I told for the first time earlier this week.

I once witnessed a man in a hospital café who was profoundly handicapped. He was wheelchair-bound and his arms weren’t up to much – certainly not up to holding a cup to his lips. He was trying to drink coffee through a straw, but comically the straw kept floating to the top and falling out of the cup. He managed to get it back in with his teeth, but the straw would just sit flat on the top of his coffee. So he put his head flat on the table and slurped the coffee through the straw from that rather undignified position. It was obviously very frustrating for him. People at surrounding tables could easily have helped by simply holding the straw in place for him. But no-one did. Maybe they thought noticing his troubles and offering to help would embarrass him. Maybe they were afraid there was an intellectual or emotional impairment to match his obvious physical ones and they were uncertain how they would deal with that. Maybe disability somehow made him invisible.

Why didn’t I help? Because I was the guy desperately trying to get his caffeine fix but too crippled to do so. During my episode of Guillain-Barré Syndrome in 2016 I suffered crippling paralysis, terrible pain and other disabilities, including a decided lack of coffee. But I was destined to recover. My five months in hospital gave me a window into the lives of those whose physical or intellectual disabilities would be permanent. I experienced first-hand the paradox of the human body unresponsive to the human spirit. I knew the grief and frustration, the challenge to patience, courage and hope. I knew the humiliation of baby-like dependency. But I also witnessed the triumph of human spirits in the care people gave and received, in the determination of some to conquer or accommodate their disability, and in the camaraderie amongst the patients as we shared our limitations and frustrations, tried to keep each other’s spirits up, and pushed each other to maintain the struggle for rehabilitation.

That camaraderie was rooted, in my case, in a strong sense, instilled in me by my Christian upbringing and culture, that everyone counts. “Let the little children come to me,” said Jesus, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Lk 18:16) Let blind Bartimeus come (Mt 20:29-34; Mk 10:46-52; Lk 18:35-43; cf. Mt 9:27-31; Mk 8:22-6; Jn 9:1-12). Let the lepers (Mt 8:1-4; Mk 1:40-5; Lk 5:12-14; 17:11-9). Let the man with the withered hand, even on the Sabbath (Mt 12:9-14; Mk 3:1-6; Lk 6:6-11; Lk 14:1-6). Let the bleeding woman (Mt 9:20-22; Mk 5:25-34; Lk 8:42-48). The deaf and dumb (Mt 9:32-4; 12:22-23; Mk 7:31-7; Lk 11:14-23). The mentally impaired and devil-possessed (Mt 8:28-33; 15:21-8; 17:14-20; Mk 1:21-7; 5:1-20; 7:24-30; 9:14-29; Lk 4:31-6; 8:26-39; 9:37-43). Let the dead, the near-dead and the paralysed come to me (Mt 8:5-13; 9:18,23-6; Mk 5:21-4,35-43; Lk 7:1-17; 8:40-2,49-50; 13:10-17; Jn 5:1-15; 11:1-45). Let the man with Guillain-Barré Syndrome lowered through the ceiling by his neighbours (Mt 9:1-8; Mk 2:1-12; Lk 5:17-26).

Amidst pain and suffering I’d never known before, I experienced in a new way how we are sustained by love. I was surrounded by the love of God, by medical, nursing and physio care, by prayers and emotional support. I couldn’t help but feel loved, and thus give it in return. This enabled me to join Mary in saying Yes to God’s plan even when it was quite mysterious to me.

The culture of death told in the constant push for more abortion, more euthanasia, suggests that some are beyond our care and some of us should give up caring. But this Lourdes Day Mass says everyone counts, everyone is loved into being by the One who is Love Himself, and so will be loved by us until their natural death and beyond. I thank all members and friends of the Order of Malta for that commitment. God bless you all!


[i] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book VI, ch. 3

[ii] Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit, last scene.