15 Dec 2019

Sacred Heart Church, Cabramatta

Why on earth is John the Baptist sending emissaries to inquire if Jesus is the Messiah (Mt 11:2-11)? After all, he has already identified Jesus as ‘the Christ’, ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’, and ‘the Son of God’ (Mt 3:11-17; Lk 3:15-22; Jn 1:19-36). It can’t just have slipped John’s mind that cousin Jesus was the Saviour. Has solitary confinement messed up the head he’s about to lose? Has his heart become a dark and gloomy place, like his prison cell, full of doubts and despair? Or is something else going on here?

Well, one thing worth remembering is that John’s role was to wake people up, calling them to repentance and readiness for the One-who-is-to-come, which is why he’s our Advent saint. His wake-up call and his baptism in the Jordan were not about identity politics, a personality cult or being an ‘influencer’ – even if he followed the paleo fashion when it came to food and dress! No, his sole mission was to point people to Christ.

So when John sends disciples to Jesus, he is actually continuing his prophetic work, even from his prison cell! As the 4th century bishop St. Ambrose pointed out, John points to Jesus as the fulfilment of his prophecies – and all prophecy – the Lord for whom he was making straight the way. John is, in Jesus’ words, “the greatest of the children of women” and the climax of the kingdom of men; he is the last hurrah of the Law and the Prophets, the end of the Old Testament. Jesus, on the other hand, is the fulfilment of all that and the beginning of a New Testament, inaugurating “the children born of the Holy Spirit” and citizens of “the kingdom of God”.[1]

In sending envoys to Jesus, John is not displaying personal doubt. He is yet again saying, as he’s said all along: “Don’t look at me if it’s the Messiah you’re looking for; go and look at that guy Jesus. I must decrease so He may increase. Forget me now and focus on Him and His kingdom.” John is the laser-pointer, Jesus the picture; John the sign-post, Jesus the destination; Jesus is the way, John merely the sat-nav. Indeed Christ is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:16): the Way to heaven, the Truth about God and man, the source of Life eternal.

So why doesn’t John just say to his followers, “Stop following me, go follow Jesus”? Because John’s followers were still caught up in the old way of thinking. They were expecting the Messiah to be a powerful earthly ruler, who would free them from the Romans, and set them up as king-pins in the top country. Though John had identified Jesus many times, the message wasn’t getting through. So now John cleverly sends them to Jesus to watch and learn. See Him healing the blind and deaf, the lame and leprous. See Him proclaiming Good News to the poor. See Him raising people from the dead. See for yourself and believe!

"St. John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Two Disciples" (1455-60, detail) by Giovanni di Paolo (Art Institute of Chicago)

Detail from St. John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Two Disciples (1455-60, detail) by Giovanni di Paolo (1455-60)

See for yourself and believe! Jesus never forces faith. To be a Christian believer is to be someone who freely seeks the way, the truth, the life, and when they find that Jesus is these things, freely professes Him. To be a Christian disciple is to be someone who freely seeks and finds, believes and professes that Jesus is Lord, and then makes Jesus Lord in their life by freely following Him. To be a Christian witness is to be someone who freely seeks and finds, believes and professes, is ‘discipled’ and follows Jesus as Lord, and then enacts His Gospel in their lives. And that makes them into very particular kinds of people.

What kind? James today emphasizes Christian patience: we need the patience of farmers, who patiently plant seeds, wait for rains, watch for sprouting, growth and fruit, and then harvest in due course (Jas 5:7-10). Isaiah calls for courage: the steadfastness of those who endure in trial and weariness (Isa 35:1-10). And Jesus calls for fidelity: the faithfulness of His cousin and precursor John: “happy that man who does not lose faith in me” (Mt 11:2-11). So the Christian character is marked by patience, courage and fidelity.

Parishes are precisely schools in such character. And the call to cultivate these virtues is especially directed to those, like John himself, who are or will be challenged or suffering. In our dry and burning continent, where many are challenged or suffering at present, we understand very well what Isaiah means when he talks of wilderness, dry-lands and wasteland, or what James means when he says the farmer longs for seasonal rains. Christians are called and graced to persevere in such difficulties.

But Christian perseverance in courage and patience is not enough. We are also called in faith to intercede for those facing such trials and graced to support them practically. As Archbishop I have asked that we pray for rain at every Sunday Mass until the drought and fires in this land have been eased; and that we do whatever else we can for our farmers, rural communities, firefighters, those suffering and those relieving them. Our Gaudete Sunday hope, Isaiah says, is that with patience, fidelity and courage – and a good dose of help from the Christ – “the wilderness and dry-lands will exult, the wastelands bloom and rejoice,” so that “joy and gladness will go with then, and sorrow and lament be ended.”

Fr Remy Lam Son Bui, parish priest of the nearby parish of All Saints, Liverpool, holds up the host as he gives Communion during Mass at St Francis Xavier, Lurnea. Photo: Patrick J Lee

Today as I install Fr Remy as chief farmer of present day Sacred Heart Parish, Cabramatta, we give thanks for past pastors and people who tilled these fields, and we rededicate ourselves to bringing new growth, fresh fruit to Christ in the future. There is cause for real celebration here: if one in three Cabramattans regularly attends Sunday Mass, this is one of the highest practising rates in Australia. It is a real cause for pride and joy – but not for complacency. We miss the other two out of three. We must ask ourselves, again and again, how we can be like John the Baptist, reaching out to the unconverted and the diverted, and so make this the place they want to be on Sunday. We must ask, too, how we can be like Jesus, reach out to the sick and poor and marginalised, so as to make our farm and fruit theirs.

Fr Remy will now be responsible on my behalf for the worship, evangelisation and service in this parish. In his priestly service, he must sanctify you by prayer and sacrament. In his shepherding, he must lead and serve as Christ did. In his prophetic ministry, he must proclaim the Gospel and Church teaching in season and out like the Baptist did.

But he cannot do this all by himself. Together, priests and people achieve far more than any one of us could do alone. To strengthen Fr Remy for his new task, we now have the formal Rites of Installation of a Parish Priest. They are a useful reminder to us all, not just of his mission but of yours, as brothers and sisters who have seen what Jesus can do. I ask you, of your mercy, to keep supporting Fr Remy, as he prays for and serves you.


Sacred Heart Church, Cabramatta

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice… The Lord is at hand; have no anxiety about anything; but in all things, by prayer and thanksgiving, make your needs known to God.”

Welcome dear parishioners to this morning’s Mass for the Third Sunday of Advent, known as ‘Gaudete’ or Rejoicing Sunday. The day takes its name from the first words of our Entrance Antiphon. And so while there are still ten shopping days till Christmas, the Church is already dressing her priests up in Christmas wrapping of a decidedly Vietnamese hue!

Today I will formally install Fr Remy Son Lam Bui as your parish priest. I am pleased to acknowledge my childhood pastor and brother priest Fr Pat McAuliffe, Dean Michael de Stoop, Assistant Priest Fr Moses Tamale and other brother priests and friends of Fr Remy. I also recognise many lay leaders from the parish and the Vietnamese community.

In witnessing the Rites of Installation of a Parish Priest this morning, we all have a chance to reflect on the various stages of our own faith journey. As we look forward to Christmas, we begin by repenting of our failures to live it as we ought.

[1] St. Ambrose, Commentary on Luke, 5.99-102