A warm welcome to you all to today’s Solemn Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral. Today we welcome pregnant Mothers from across the archdiocese and pray for them in their important vocation.
We live in the age of “I” and “my”. Devices are called ‘iPhone’, ‘iPod’ and ‘iPad’. ‘MyTrains’ or ‘MyBuses’ take us to ‘MyZones’ or the web takes us to ‘MySchool’ and ‘My eBay’. Ever since ‘the Me generation’ we’ve been bombarded by such self-centred language.
A recent example that really struck me was the appropriation by the ABC News Digital platform of the traditional American spiritual He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.
The hymn, sung for generations not just by black Americans but Christians in many places, has been adapted by our national broadcaster so we now hear You’ve Got the Whole World in Your Hands. Of course there is a clever pun here on the ability of handheld devices to access the world of sound and information.
People will differ on the wisdom of appropriating religious texts in such ways. But what struck me as significant was that the ABC proposes that you and I – the listeners – granted God-like omniscience through the internet, might now take the place of God in a hymn.
The philosophy underlying much of pop culture is individualism: the idea that individuals are what matter and that what I want is the source of all values; that each of us is in effect an independent atom pursuing his or her own path, bumping up against others from time to time, sometimes cooperating but more often than not rivals for what each of us wants; that groups such as families, workplaces, enterprises and societies are merely means for the satisfaction of the desires of individuals – nothing more; and that each person’s autonomy should be maximised and groups like church and state keep their noses out of the business of individuals.
The bottom line is: each of us is the central character in the only important narrative, my own, and not just a character in the story of humanity; the best photo is the selfie.
Now, this is not all bad.
We should be grateful that we live in a time when every individual person, at least in theory, is cherished and protected as an individual. A great gift of Christian civilisation to world history has been its teaching that every person, from womb to tomb, is made in the image and likeness of God, equal in dignity, infinite in worth, irreplaceable and unrepeatable.
We are right to resist any ideology or dictatorship that treats the individual as unimportant or a pawn in some game of maximising profits, achieving military or political goals, or imposing some one-size-fits-all idea or lifestyle on all.
Like so much else in our democratic politics, law and culture this respect for the individual is largely a Judaeo-Christian inheritance.
We are lucky enough to live on ‘social capital’ that presumes all human beings are free and equal, that rights of conscience and other rights should be respected, and that a great deal of diversity is to be permitted and even celebrated. Though we take such things for granted there are many parts of our world yet to hear or embrace them.
Like all good ideas, however, respect for the individual can be distorted. All the talk in our pop culture of I and me rather than us and them, the tendency to think of ourselves as little emperors, even little gods, with the whole world in our hands, only amplifies that natural selfishness with which every Christian soul must contend.
The consumer culture encourages us to spend, spend big, and spend especially on ourselves; the pop culture to focus on making our bodies beautiful and using our minds to “win friends and influence people” – code for use friends and control people; and pop spirituality tells us to pick beliefs, communities and traditions to suit us, and choose ways of connecting with the transcendent that are not too demanding and make us feel good.
Today we celebrate some truly radical women whose vocation is a countersign to the ‘me, me, me’ culture: pregnant mothers from across the Archdiocese of Sydney. Without romanticising them or pretending they are yet ready to be canonised, we honour what they are doing in putting others first. We honour their witness to the preciousness of life, to the need for generosity, and to a happiness found not through pursuing self but rather through self-spending for the sake of others.
Now, while Jesus shared in a great many human experiences and indeed was like us in all things except sin, including being conceived in, carried by and born of a human mother, He was of course never a mother Himself.
Yet towards the end of His life, when seeking a metaphor to describe His love for Jerusalem and His solicitude for the children of Israel, Jesus used a biblical image for God as a mother bird: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” He cried, “you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Mt 23:37; Lk 13:34; cf. Dt 32:11-12; Ps 91:4)
The image is a beautiful one, evoking intimacy, nurture and protectiveness, what we might call the ‘maternal’ side of God. But there is also recognition that not all is well in every family, certainly not in the family of Israel, and so for all His ‘maternal’ longing Jesus’ love was unrequited. So, too, in today’s Gospel passage we hear Jesus’ anxiety for those who do not respond to the offer of salvation.
Instead of the contemporary delusion that everyone is saved, indeed everyone their own god with the whole world in their hand and so in no need of saving, Jesus is upfront with us saying that some will not enter the kingdom of God (Lk 13:22-30). To the unrighteous, He warns, “The Lord will say to them: ‘I do not know you; away from me you wicked men!’ And there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Though people today might not like it much, Jesus spoke several times about hell and damnation, even if He talked rather more often about heaven and salvation. So, too, Pope Francis often speaks about hell and the devil, but the popular media refuse to report anything so old-fashioned from his lips.
Heaven, Jesus teaches us, is like a party and while you can invite and cajole till kingdom come, you can’t in the end force people to party. You can’t force love. God nurtures and protects us like a mother, exhorts and teaches us like a parent, tries everything, compatible with our freedom, to get us to join His family. But He will not force us to choose Him, for that would do us violence. He will not make us His puppets or robots. Parents must in the end set their children free. Instead of thinking “God loves us too much to let us go to hell” we should say: “God loves us too much to force anyone into heaven, though He’ll try everything short of force to get us there.”
In our second reading today we hear another aspect of divine parenting: that God rewards goodness and corrects badness, that rather than mollycoddling us He permits us to experience the downsides of our own bad choices (Heb 12:5-13). God, like any good parent, wants the best for us and what is best for us is not always what is comfortable, what the me generation expects of God.
Mothers, yours is an incredible blessing and responsibility – the care and formation of eternal souls. Do not take this responsibility lightly!
When you bring your little ones to be baptised, you will make promises to God and the Church and to them that you will raise them to know and love God in the Catholic Faith. So never stop praying for your little ones and teach them to talk to God also.
Foster in them a love for everything good and true and beautiful. Offer up your burdens for them. Teach them to be kind, loving, and forgiving. Do not take this opportunity for granted but rather rejoice in the chance to show your little ones the path to Heaven and eternal happiness!
This is an edited version of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Annual Mass for Pregnant Mothers at St Mary’s Cathedral on 21 August.