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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: The hand on your shoulder

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The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni, c. 1773. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni, c. 1773. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 3 September 2023

He was at the height of his powers going into the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The British sprinter, Derek Redmond, held the British record over 400m and the year before was on the relay team that upset the red-hot US squad, winning the world championships. His Olympic campaign couldn’t have started better: he blitzed the field in his qualifying heat and made light work of the quarter-final. He was in such fine form that pundits thought him a certainty for the podium and an odds-on favourite for gold.

Yet Derek’s dream evaporated with 250m to go in the semi-final. He heard a sudden loud pop and felt searing pain down the back of his leg: he had torn his hamstring. 65,000 fans gave him a standing ovation as he limped towards the finishing line, against the advice of track officials and medics, and aware his rivals had long since completed.

Suddenly, an unknown man emerged from the stands, leapt over the security barriers, and placed his arm around the hobbling athlete. Derek’s father, Jim, was determined to be by his son’s side at this lowest point in his career and to help his weeping boy finish if that was his goal. It was one the most memorable moments in Olympic history, exemplifying human perseverance through hardship and parental love to the end.

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Of our many names for God, “Father” has pride of place. It’s a name that comes naturally to us and the first we recite in the sign of the cross, the creed and the Mass. Fathers generate, guard and govern, giving of themselves for their own. To call God Father suggests parallels between such human fatherhood and divine. Thus in Michelangelo’s famous Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, the man is like a much younger version of God the Father, and God reaches out to communicate to him life and grace.

Yet God’s paternity is mysterious, and there is a risk that we anthropomorphise him, importing our experiences of earthly fatherhood, good and bad, and inappropriately pinning them on God. Conscious of how different he is to us, the Old Testament spoke only cautiously about God as source, authority and carer for creation, and only rarely described him as like a father to Israel (Dt 14:1; Jer 3:19; 31:20; Hos 11:1-4). Only with the coming of Christ did we learn that this paternity runs much deeper in God. Now it was revealed that one person of God is The Father precisely in relation to another divine person, The Son, eternally generating him and donating his entire essence to him. Put simply: without the Son, God is not the Father. The Gospel describes Jesus as from the bosom of the Father (Jn 1:18) and Jesus speaks of and to God as my Abba or Dad. He was taught by his Father-God and knows him as only a child knows his father (Mt 11:27; Jn 6:45; 8:26-40). The Father shares all he is and has with Jesus, and is one with him.

What Christ then makes possible—by his incarnation, passion and continuing action in the sacraments—is for us to receive divine adoption. There was a premonition of this in old Israel’s almost blasphemous talk of humanity being “like gods” (Gen 1:26-27; Ps 8:5; 82:6). By Baptism into Christ we are truly made siblings of the God-man and so God’s children.

So, talk of God as Father is more than a metaphor. It’s why Jesus could instruct his followers to think of God and talk to him with the intimacy they should have with their own dad (Mt 6:6,9; 18:19; Lk 11:2,13; 12:32 etc.), recognising that as a father generates, guards and guides his offspring, so God cares immeasurably for each of them. No hair of our head goes uncounted, no need of ours unattended. Here is a love so fatherly that Paul can say that nothing—not life or death, no heavenly or earthly power, nothing present or future, no height or depth—nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:31-39). And so we should imitate and glorify God as Father in our actions, seeing him as our true parent and all parenthood as a reflection of and subordinate to his (Mt 23:9; Lk 9:59; 14:26).

Which can be quite challenging to us who have only ever given or received imperfect natural or spiritual paternity, who’ve found fatherhood hurtful or hard. So Jesus didn’t just instruct us to relate to God as Father, he modelled it for us. Though his relationship to the Father was unique and somewhat opaque to us, the Gospels show him regularly conversing with his Father-God in please and thank-you prayers. In this he set us an example of courageous trust. In today’s Gospel (Mt 16:21-27) Jesus’ best mate tells him to put his own safety first, provoking a sharp rebuke for behaving like a satanic tempter. We too are called to conform our will to God’s, to be obedient and learn from him, to trust even when the chips are down, and to be confident that God’s care never wavers.

Who knows what was going though Jim Redmond’s mind as he leapt the barriers to be by his injured son’s side? There wasn’t much he could do to take away his son’s physical pain or psychological suffering. But his instinct was to stand by him, hold him close, comfort him in his pain, assure him it would pass. Jim Redmond chose to share his son’s suffering and, in the process, helped him transcend it. “Everything I had worked for was finished,” Derek later reporting thinking that day. “I hated everybody. I hated the world. I hated hamstrings… I felt so bitter… hopping around… Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was my old man.”

Peter wanted Jesus to forego his passion, to pull out of the race. But the Lord’s response is: See how much I love this world that wants to kill me. You too must take up the cross. You too must give your all. What point gaining every medal the world offers, if the price is your eternal soul? But know that you are not alone. There is redemption even at your lowest ebb. There is a loving providence, a hand on your shoulder, a boundless love, a Father who comforts you all the way to the finishing line.

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