Monday, December 25, 2017

BY GRACE THINGS CAN BE BETTER - Archbishop Anthony Fisher's Christmas Homily

One of the truly great Christian leaders of our time is Anthony Fisher OP, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney. In 1985 he entered the Dominicans, (the “Order of Preachers”), dedicated to preaching the Catholic faith in the context of a life of study, prayer and community. He studied for the priesthood in Melbourne, receiving an honours degree in Theology, having already received degrees in History and Law from the University of Sydney and practising law in a city firm. He gained a Doctorate in Bioethics at the University of Oxford, lectured at the Australian Catholic University and was an Adjunct Professor at The University of Notre Dame Australia. Archbishop Fisher has published extensively in bioethics and moral theology. He was the Foundation Director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Melbourne, and served as Chaplain to the Parliament of Victoria. He became an Auxiliary Bishop in Sydney in 2003, Bishop of Parramatta in 2010, and Archbishop of Sydney in 2014.

Following is the homily Archbishop Fisher preached in St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, on Christmas Day, 2017. It has been reproduced from the Sydney Catholic website.

Genealogy is all the rage. There are plenty of websites and search companies to help: some search birth and death, migration and marriage, council and electoral records for you; others even investigate your DNA. People construct family trees, join historical societies, organize big reunions. Europeans look for the blood of aristocrats or great historic figures in their veins, whereas Aussies hope to find a convict or bushranger in the family line! 

The first words of the New Testament are in fact “The genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham” and thereafter follows a long list of Jesus’ ancestors, often recited at the Christmas Masses before midnight (Mt 1:1-25). St Matthew sought thereby to highlight that the Baby born of Mary was indeed “of the Holy Spirit” but was also a real human being, with an extended family, history, culture and geography. His account picks and chooses a bit, as it traces 14 generations of ancestors between Abraham and David, when they became the royal family of Israel; 14 more until the exile, when they lost their position; and another 14 generations until kingship was definitively restored in Jesus Christ. Jesus is presented, then, as the cause and site for the reign of God. Make Him yours, make yourself His, as “God’s kingdom comes, on earth as it is in heaven”.

And so we meet the greats of Jewish history: Abraham, our Father in faith; the patriarchs Isaac and Jacob; the illustrious king David; Solomon the wise and Josiah the pious; the honourable Joseph and faithful Mary. Jesus is presented as the culmination of all that is best in our history, the patriarchs, prophets, priests, potentates and parents. It seems a rather European style of family tree, then, full of the great and good. Yet beneath the surface is a rather more Aussie-looking family gumtree: for Jesus’ tree is full of non-entities, and those whose names mean anything to us are a very mixed bunch indeed!

At the top of the tree are, of course, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, later known as Israel. But Jacob, we know, conspired with his mother to trick his blind father and thus steal his place in the line from his brother Esau. He was conned in turn, taking the wrong girl for wife, and so fathered Judah. Judah was also tricked, in his case by his own daughter-in-law Tamar; having lost several husbands, most recently the infamous Onan, she played the harlot, lured Judah to her bed and so conceived Perez, her son and brother-in-law. Hearing his daughter-in-law was a pregnant lush, Judah ordered her execution, only to learn he was the father. So there’s a lot packed into an innocent-sounding line like “Isaac was the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah, Tamar being their mother.”

Drop a few lines down and we’re told “Salmon was the father of Boaz, Rahab being his mother. Boaz was the father of Obed, Ruth being his mother.” Again it sounds ordinary enough until we realize that grandma Rahab was another notorious prostitute who betrayed her own people to massacre. And as for Ruth, so determined was she to carry on the line that she slipped into Boaz’s bed though she was not his wife. But because the baby Obed was to be King David’s grandfather, all was forgiven as the family line wound its serpentine way towards Jesus. It seems that God can indeed “write straight with crooked lines”, working not just through the great and the good, but also despite and even through the not-so-good.

As the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recently revealed the shocking deeds of some clergy, religious and lay church-workers and inaction of some church leaders, we ache with shame and sorrow for the young people who were so terribly hurt; we rededicate ourselves to bringing such justice and healing to them as we can; and we resolve to do all in our power to ensure this is never repeated. But we are confronted yet again with the fact that there have been more-than-a-few rotten apples in our Church’s history, all the way back to Jesus and before, and more than a few failures of leadership. Ours is a family that needs periodic and radical renewal… a family that needs Christmas.

So much for Part One: Part Two of the genealogy turns out to be equally seedy. David is Jesus’ most famous ancestor, a shepherd-boy become king, poet-musician, slayer of giants, all-round great guy. But scratch the surface and you find a ruthless bandit who through various intrigues and murders secured power for his family. A voyeur, he had an affair with a married woman, murdered her husband, took her for his wife, and sired Solomon by her. Unsurprisingly, Solomon was no great example of “family values”: he took 700 princesses as wives and kept 300 commoners on the side as concubines!

No wonder he had so many descendants! But next in the line that stretches to Jesus is Rehoboam, a reprobate who introduced pagan rites and male prostitution into the Temple. The royal descendants continued thereafter as a most unseemly crew: idolaters, assassins, a mass murderer or two, even a wizard who engaged in child sacrifice, as well as more mundane examples of lust and ambition, greed and mismanagement… As our culture is riven by debates over life and love, and our politics all-too-often descends into fiasco, we might recall that God’s plan has often been worked out not just by the peace-loving and pure-hearted, but in polities and cultures muddled about values and led by the ruthless and irreligious…

So the line of Jesus carries forward, until we come at last to the sentimental story of Christmas, with angels, shepherds and kings, with fields, animals and manger, with mother, father and Babe (Luke 2:1-20). Yet even that romance is far from tidy: the mother is dogged by suspicion and snub; the angels sing of joy and peace even as Herod sets about killing the little children; the kings of earth shower gifts on the Babe, yet the family find no welcome at the inn and ultimately flee to Egypt. Their story echoes through the ages to our time, in which asylum-seekers, including desperate young men, pregnant women and newborn babies, still risk all in search of a safe inn. It resonates in the emotional complexities of Christmas for many, where families are hurting or bored, where someone is missed or would like to be. It resounds in our time in the terrorist killings of children this year in Manchester, Mogadishu and Manhattan, leaving populations grieving and terrified as in Bethlehem of old. And it echoes still today in Bethlehem, where high concrete security walls and check points confront residents and pilgrims alike… When I was there recently I saw a painting on the wall of a white peace dove wearing a flack-jacket and jailhouse graffiti saying “Make hummus not walls”.

The Christmas story, then, has everything. All human life is there, gathered around the cradle of a Child: light and dark, joys and heart-breaks, hopes and fears, angels and devils. And so the patriarchs are there beside the three kings, the nobodies and worse with the shepherds, all attending this Vigil in search of hope, good will, peace. If you are ever disappointed with your family, your country, your Church: that some lack faith or don’t practice what they preach; or if there’s mental illness, addiction or abuse, feuding, promiscuity or poor communication; if there’s financial stress or work stress, cooling passion or too much passion: whatever it is, rather than imagining you and yours are uniquely cursed, remember it was all there, and worse, in Jesus’ own family tree. Rather than the perfect, Jesus came to join a family just like yours; indeed, yours is the very family He connects with this Christmas.

But Jesus joins you this Christmas not to say that sin and sadness are all there is, that human beings are doomed to be mired in such things, and the best He can offer is to stand beside you. No, God-made-Baby says that by grace things can be better: humanity can be united to divinity and transformed by it. A new page is turned today; a new start given. The genealogy of Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham continues: for of Him was born the Church and onto that family are grafted all the baptised and our hopes for every person.

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Word of Thanks after the Mass of the Day of the Lord's Nativity St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney Thanks to all those who contributed to today’s beautiful celebration of the Lord’s Nativity, especially our deacons. Our Dean Fr Don Richardson, Master of Ceremonies Fr Emmanuel Seo, Precinct Manager Helen Morassut and Sacristan Chris Backhouse, and their teams of celebrants and confessors, acolytes and servers, extraordinary ministers and lectors, ushers, staff and volunteers, ensure that our liturgical and devotional life are worthy and our cathedral always welcoming. Our Director of Music, Thomas Wilson, and our wonderful choir and organists, let us glimpse the glory of God in the highest and the harmonies possible amongst people of good will. Many others assist in the daily life of this great cathedral and I thank them all.

Some of you are regulars here; others less frequent; some visitors from overseas, from other parishes, even from other faith traditions. Please know that you are always welcome in this basilica and the other churches of Sydney. The God whose family tree has room for everyone wants you to be grafted onto his family, especially through acts of worship and then action to make our world a more just and loving place.

On behalf of all of us at St Mary’s Cathedral I wish you and your loved ones every blessing of this holy season of Christmas and of the New Year of Grace 2018.


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