This is the first of our Station Masses, and a special one.
Here are our 10 catechumens. Tonight they are being ‘chosen’, ‘elected’. They can now be called the ‘elect’. This is their name for these final Lenten weeks before Easter. If someone wants to be a monk or a sister and join a religious community, he or she must pass through various stages. A person is a candidate first, then a postulant, then a novice, then temporarily professed, and lastly, at least three years later, perpetually professed. Then they enter fully into the life of the community. They take on rights and duties within it. They are out of the harbour and into the open sea. And so for entering the great community which is the Church: there are steps and stages and names. First someone enquires, then becomes a catechumen, then is enrolled among the elect, and finally one Easter receives the sacraments of Christian initiation and becomes a Christian. And so a person enters fully into the life of the Church – also an ocean, and a mother and a family and a home.
The Liturgy is full of symbolism. The words we hear, the things we use, the actions we perform – they have double meanings, sometimes more; they’re literal and figurative at the same time; they can have many levels. And so it is tonight, with this Rite of Election and Enrolment of Names.
It’s nothing to do with a parliament or a referendum or a majority vote. It’s a liturgical rite with a mystical meaning. Tonight our catechumens are chosen and from now on can be called the ‘elect’. Here is one of those words and actions which reverberates with more than a single meaning.
You are being chosen ‘to receive the three sacraments of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Easter’ (RCIA 111), with all that entails. At the first level, it’s the Church in this place which is choosing you, the Church of the diocese of Aberdeen, under the patronage of our Lady and St Machar. It’s the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church built on the rock of Peter, alive and active here, making this choice. It’s this bishop, these priests and deacons, the catechists you know, your godparents, all of us here, who are choosing you.
But choice / election – this is something that belongs first of all to God. The Church’s choice is an echo of his. ‘Before the foundation of the world,’ says St Paul, ‘he chose us, chose us in Christ, that we should be holy and blameless before him and live through love in his presence’ (Eph 1:4-5). Faith is a gift, the sacraments are gifts, the Holy Spirit is called ‘best Gift of God above’. And it’s God who has chosen us to receive these gifts. ‘Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights’ (Jas 1:17). Each of us has had our own journey towards faith and within the faith, sometimes with plenty of suffering. Each of us has had to make choices. But it’s all God’s gift, God’s leading, God’s work, God’s choice. Each of us is accompanied by others along the way. We couldn’t make it without their help. But all of that too flows from the hand of God. Again, it’s God’s gift, God’s leading, God’s work, God’s choice. So none of us is an afterthought. This choice has always been there, in the inner life of God, part of his divine thought. ‘Before the foundation of the world’ – there we are, eternally foreknown and predestined, and then in time, the years of our life, called and justified and glorified (cf. Rom 8:29-30).
‘Already you knew my soul, / my body held no secret from you / when I was being fashioned in secret / and moulded in the depths of the earth’ (Ps 138: 14-15). Yes, in the prayers and words of tonight, in this Rite of Election, this is what is shining through.
And the other name for tonight, the Enrolment of Names, rounds this out. You will write down your names. There’s another deeper meaning. The Bible talks of the Book of Life, ‘the book of life of the Lamb’ (Rev 21:27), where the names of the elect are written, ‘written in heaven’, says Jesus (Lk 10:20). The ancient Rabbis insisted that the Bible should never be written on papyrus, paper made from a plant, because it perished so easily. It had to be written on parchment, on animal skins, because they could last. Written in heaven means written for heaven. Being chosen from eternity we’re chosen for eternity, a blessed eternity. ‘Behind and before you besiege me / your hand ever laid upon me’ (Ps 138:5). Our own life is surrounded, as it were, by the past and the future of God, firmly, gently, lovingly clasped between these two divine hands. Think of that when you write your names! They’re already on the palms of his hands.
And, dear Elect, what a beautiful use you are making of this middle time, our present, this time before we die! This is the time for the responsible use of our freedom and you are freely responding to the choice of God. You’re allowing the gift of faith to enter and shape your life. You are letting God’s mercy in.
And then we discover it’s not just the words or actions of the liturgy that have double meanings. It can be us, our lives, as well. ‘Our span is seventy years / or eighty for those who are strong’ (Ps 89:10). These years can carry, we can carry, they can transmit and convey something more than themselves. The light of God’s everlasting, all-encompassing mercy can be refracted through us.
Yes, all of us, we have been chosen. Chosen from all eternity, chosen for eternal joy. Chosen in time to believe and receive the Sacraments and enter fully into the life of the Church. Chosen therefore, not in contradistinction to others rejected or reprobate. No, chosen to be merciful to all, chosen to shine with the light of mercy. ‘Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me – it is the Lord who speaks -… to share your bread with hungry and shelter the homeless poor, to clothe the man you see to be naked and not turn from your own kin? Then will your light shine like the dawn and your wound be quickly healed over. Your integrity will go before you and the glory of the Lord behind you’ (Is 58:6, 7-8).
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 7 March 2014