17 May 2020

Livestreamed from St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney

The birds in Nunhead Cemetery begin
Before I’ve flicked a switch, turned on the gas.
There must be some advantage to the light

I tell myself, viewing my slackened chin
Mirrored in the rain-dark window glass,
While from the graveyard’s trees, the birds begin.

In 2007 the Irish poet Maurice Riordan received accolades for his collection of poems The Holy Land. Known for his narrative lyricism and interest in a vanishing rural idyll, these poems also signalled Riordan’s return to his Irish roots and the Celtic-Christian mysticism of that place. The last of the poems, entitled “The January Birds”, describes unseasonal birdsong in Nunhead Cemetery in the London borough of Southwark. He interweaves description of singing birds with his own early morning musings, as he peers out at the dawning light and wonders how the birds sustain their hopefulness at the start of each new year. Antiphonally through the poem we hear the gentle Christian insistence: ‘there must be some advantage to the light’.

There must be some advantage to the light. In this Easter season we celebrate the victory of life over death, goodness over evil, truth over lies, not just in Jesus’ life but in ours, and we often use the symbols of light and darkness. Indeed, the Gospels record that when Jesus was crucified a literal eclipse darkened the earth (Mt 27:45; Mk 15:33; Lk 23:44-45). The Resurrection, on the other hand, occurs as day dawns (Mt 28:1; Mk 16:2,9; Lk 24:1) and appears as dazzling light (Mt 28:3; Mk 16:5; Lk 24:4; Jn 20:12) like the flash of an atom bomb. John begins his Gospel with a prediction: “In Him [Jesus] was… the true light that enlightens every person”, “a light that shines in the darkness”, a light the darkness would try to overpower but “that the darkness could not overcome” (Jn 1:5,9). As the story proceeds Jesus reveals that He is the Light of the world (Jn 8:12; 9:5,39). The Easter victory of that Light is the triumph of love over hate, of mercy over sin, of truth over ignorance, of hope over sorrow. Just as Riordan describes the birds singing that Another year will come to pass, so we believe all creation sings with joy at Easter. “Yes,” we cry, “there is advantage to the light!” We can, as Peter exhorts us, give everyone who asks reason for the hope that is within us (1 Pet 3:15-18).

An image from a dream survives the night,
Some dreck my head refuses to encompass.
There must be some advantage to the light.

You are you I mouth to my shadow skin,
Though you are me, assuming weight and mass —
While from the graveyard’s trees, the birds begin:

Thrush, blackbird, finch — then rooks take fright
At a skip-truck and protest, cawing en masse.

How are we to maintain that Easter cheer in our minds and hearts, while like Riordan we see graveyards and shadow skin before us? How in times of pandemic and isolation, bushfire, unemployment, economic insecurity, or some personal difficulties in our families or in ourselves? We need some help… even after Easter.

The imagery of birds in Riordan’s poem naturally evokes for us Christians the Spirit promised in today’s Gospel (Jn 13:15-21), the same Spirit the apostles communicated to the Samaritans when they confirmed them (Acts 8:5-17). We naturally think of the Spirit as a bird because the Gospels record that at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan the Spirit descended ‘in the form of a dove’ (Mt 3:16; Lk 3:22). Indeed, when I was a child we thought the word used to describe the Spirit in today’s Gospel, Advocate or Paraclete, was ‘Parakeet’ – a rather more colourful Aussie version of the dove.

So the Holy Spirit is usually represented as a bird in sacred iconography, not just in images of the Lord’s Baptism but also of the Annunciation, Pentecost and the Blessed Trinity.

But that’s not the only way to represent the Holy Spirit. Of the classical elements of earth, air and fire tradition has often associated God the Father with air because He is pure spirit, God the Son with earth because of the incarnation, and God the Spirit with fire because He appeared as tongues of flame at Pentecost (Acts ch 2).

That Pentecostal flame filled cowering apostles with zeal: He was fire in their bellies. He also gave them words to speak: He was light for their minds, ‘the Spirit of Truth’ (Jn 14:15-21). It’s dawn light gets the birds in Riordan’s poem going, without which they’d never know another day or year was coming. It’s spiritual light that makes us ‘cry out with joy’, not just on Easter Day but through the long Easter season that extends from then till the end of time.

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So the Light of the world that is Jesus did not go out like an empty lamp when He returned to the Father. No, it still shines in our world through the action of the Holy Spirit. And He in turn makes each of us a light for the world, candles lit from the Paschal candle of Christ, flames to enlighten the minds and brighten the hearts of others. Hence Jesus’ talk today not just of a promised Spirit but of the commandments, the behaviour that is love-in-action. That’s how people will see the hope within us: “let your light shine out before others, that they may see your good deeds and so glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:14-16).

When Christ speaks today about Spirit and commandment, light and love, life and truth, these are not contraries but all of a piece. To love Jesus is to do what He-who-is-love requires. To be enlightened by the Spirit is to acknowledge the truth He brings. No more the tepid heart, the chill wind of ignorance, the ice of sin. Where His Spirit dwells it’s the excitement of romance, the fire of love.

There must be some advantage to the light,

Or birds would need the gift of second sight
To sing Another year will come to pass!
The birds in Nunhead Cemetery begin,
There must be some advantage to the light.

After a long Lent of severe restrictions upon worship and ordinary life, we see at last light at the end of the tunnel. Though our Easter season primarily celebrates the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, we are also experiencing a kind of release from the tomb and resurrection for new life for His body the Church. The resilience demonstrated and pastoral energies released in recent times amongst our faithful and their pastors will by the grace of Easter carry us forward in the months ahead.

There must be some advantage to the light. Indeed. “If you believe me the Spirit of Truth will enlighten your minds,” says the Lord. “If you love me the Spirit of Love will fuel your hearts. And so my commandments of love and truth will come naturally and supernaturally to you.” Sine Dominico non possumus, we reply with the martyrs of old, “We cannot live without the things of the Lord! We cannot do anything. But with You Lord, everything is possible!”


Before Genuflecting

Because current circumstances continue to impede attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion, I invite you now to ask God that by spiritual communion you might receive the graces you would from sacramental communion. Offer this Mass and your hunger for the Eucharist for the safety of your loved ones and yourselves and for all our world. God is not limited by our separation.


Livestreamed from St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney

“Cry out with joy to God” our psalmist sings this morning, and so do we, as the COVID-19 pandemic abates and our churches are at last re-opened – at this stage only for private prayer and small liturgies. This is a wonderful step forward, but only a first step and it comes with important responsibilities. We continue to exhort people to download the CovidSafe app and to comply with all public health directives, as we take all reasonable precautions to protect each other’s health and our own, especially spatial distancing and hygiene measures. I have issued special directives for churches and liturgies as a result. And we continue to offer endless intercession, online spiritual resources, counselling and practical assistance to help carry each other through.

So today’s is a first step toward that time when at last we can all gather together in community for worship and all receive Christ’s Body and Blood. Until then, I welcome all of you at home again, joining us here at St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney for this live-streamed Solemn Mass for the Sixth Sunday of Easter.

Tomorrow is the centenary of the birth of that saint, Pope John Paul; John Paul the Great: a man who exemplified the very Catholic integration of faith and reason in all his teaching; that great champion of life and love. During his time on earth, he taught and inspired many to courageously follow Christ and he continues to assist us to intercede for us from his place in heaven. Conscious of his call to all of us in this new millennium to be saints for our times, we repent of our sins.