Fr Robert McNamara
I will never forget Aoife. During a Leaving Cert retreat, we were having a discussion about the dark and dangerous topic of bullying. I asked the group what they would do if they knew there was bullying going in in the school. Aoife spoke up: “I would speak out against it, because it’s wrong,” she said. “Ok,” I said, “but what if the bully was your best friend?” She replied: “I would still speak out against it because it would still be wrong.”
Aoife was speaking and potentially acting in the great tradition of the prophets of Israel, one of whom we hear from this weekend, the great Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s name in Hebrew means “God will uplift” and, along with Isaiah and Ezekiel, he’s one of who are termed the Major Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. We are familiar with his beautiful call-narrative, where God says to him: “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” (1:4), and then arms him with words and confidence when Jeremiah objects that he’s only a young lad and wouldn’t know what to say. Later on, Jeremiah is tempted to abandon his prophetic call completely, as it’s only bringing him mockery, or, in this week’s case, the violence of being thrown into a well during a siege of Jerusalem. But, he says, the Word of God in my heart is like a fire in my very bones, in my very self, and I can’t hold it in. (20:9)
The Word of God suffusing your very heart and bones! Passionate stuff indeed, and we find echoes of it over in the New Testament, when the disciples walking away on the road to Emmaus are given new heart by the accompaniment of Jesus: “weren’t our hearts burning within us when He talked to us on the road?”(Luke 24:32)
I suggested that Aoife spoke in the prophetic tradition of Jeramiah and co because in the Greek of the Bible, the term for “prophet” is pro-phetes, one who speaks for another; in this case, God. So prophecy in the Bible does not refer as much to foretelling the future as to speaking out for God’s values in a given, present situation, doing and saying what’s right, even if it’s not popular. My mother used to say that the most comfortable pillow at night is a good conscience, and St. John Henry Newman declared memorably that “conscience is the aboriginal vicar of Christ.”
John Henry Newman found himself in good company with Our Lord Himself, the prophet par excellence, as He articulates the values of His Father in our Gospel this weekend. In Jewish thought, fire always refers to judgment, which will be for us an inescapable part of the coming of Jesus’ kingdom. Then we have this mysterious verse about a baptism Jesus must receive, and is longing to be done with.
The Greek very baptizein means to submerge, and can be used metaphorically too, so what Jesus is really saying is that there’s a terrible experience I must endure, the cross, and I will be anxious until I emerge triumphantly from it. Ultimately, what gets Jesus through is His abiding and uncompromising trust that His Father-God is in control, which is so often the missing element when we find ourselves in similar situations, and proudly try to go it alone. How much do we really trust, and hand over a situation to God, or do we take it back again, or at least retain control of the small print?
Ultimately, Jesus Himself makes the choice and commitment to follow the Father’s will right through to the end, no matter the cost. Followers of Jesus are always faced with the choice to be prophetic or not, and this can indeed cause division in our own families. It’s a source of great pain when family members do not share our faith or even deride it.
All we can do is offer the silent sermon of good example, and offer prayer and sacrifices in reparation for them. In the case of St. John Henry Newman, all but one of his family cut off contact with him when he became a Catholic. Only one niece stayed in touch, and was present when he died. Providentially, her name was Grace.