How good it is to be together again – and to be together around this altar and in this place, Pluscarden Abbey, the spiritual heart of the diocese as bishops of Aberdeen like to call it!
Today’s pilgrimage is in honour of Mary, our Lady, and especially of her as Mother of the Church. This explains today’s Prayers, Readings and the Preface of the Mass. Mary, mother of the Church. Mother of the Church, which is God’s family, “the household of God in the Spirit” (Lumen Gentium 6) and of which we are part too. Mother of the Church because Mother of Christ who is the Head of the Church and inseparable from it. Mother of the Church because established such by Jesus from the Cross when he entrusted his beloved disciple to her, and her to him; he was a symbol of all Jesus’ disciples. Mother of the Church already before Pentecost, at the heart of the first Christian community in the Upper Room, praying for the coming of the Holy Spirit, a sign of her role for all time and beyond. Mother of the Church too, please God, in our own experience, and in our diocese which has her as its primary patron, and has so many churches dedicated to her.
Today’s pilgrimage is also linked to the World Meeting of Families which has been taking place in Rome these last few days and concludes today.
Today is also a special day for the children’s choirs of the diocese, who are represented here.
Jesus once said, “My Father is working still and I am working” (Jn 5:17). Today is a sign, yet another sign, that it is so. The sabbath of eternity lies before us, when we will rest in God and God in us, but on pilgrimage to that, as we journey together, “my Father is working still and I am working.” Working for what? St John would say, to undo the works of the devil, the divider; to bring together; to gather into one the scattered children of God; to draw all things and all people to the One lifted up on the Cross; to weave a seamless tunic; to pull ashore the unbroken net with its 153 fish. A name for this work, believe it or not, is precisely “Church”. The English word “Church” unfortunately rhymes with “lurch”, and often the Church herself can seem to lurch from crisis to crisis, from scandal to scandal. But, oh, if we only see that, how myopic we are! Look at the Cross: God revels in being in the overlooked and easily despised, and when he rises only eyes of faith can see him. “My Father is working still and I am working”. And it is to weave the seamless tunic, to fill the untorn net, that Son and Father are at work. The Church, the great re-gathering, is God’s intent.
In that first reading from Genesis, we could almost hear the sound of tearing. We sense that something has slipped, the centre hasn’t held and things are falling apart. “Where are you?” calls the Lord God in the garden. It was the call of a mother looking for a child. It was a call to repentance, to come back. Adam’s answer could have been Abraham’s or Moses’, “Here I am”, or the prodigal son’s, “Father, I have sinned”. Instead: “I was afraid and so I hid”. Something has been torn, something has slipped. Adam even has the nerve to say, “it was the woman you gave me, she made me eat.” It’s the original “it wasna me”. The inner evasion of responsibility and the outward projection of blame. And the woman in turn blames the serpent. And the cracks run out in every direction. The rest is history.
But “my Father is working still and I am working.”
Take that little Gospel cluster around the Cross: three Marys (two of them sisters) and one beloved disciple. It is the micro-Church. “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself”. Here, atom-like, molecule-like, it’s happening, an imperceptible turn of the wind, an alternative, a new beginning. In the group in the Upper Room, some forty days later (the 2nd reading), the Church is growing further. St Luke speaks of 120 people: women and men, disciples and relatives, the apostles and the mother, meeting together, persevering in prayer. Small, but one.
“My Father is working still and I am working.”
Here are we, in the garden of the monastery, a reminder of Eden, around an altar which stands for the Cross, under the mantle of Mary and the saints, with a bishop in communion with the Pope, the successor of Peter, united in the faith we will sing in a moment. Here are we, laity, clergy and religious, from four continents at least, mothers, fathers and children, married, single, old, young and somewhere in the middle. For all our limits and littleness, we are a sign that “my Father is working still and I am working”, a sign that even here, even now, the world is more than torn clothes and broken nets. As St John would say, “Little children, let us love one another.”
This moves seamlessly into the thought of family life. Pope St John Paul started World Meetings of Families, held every three years. The latest, the 10th, is concluding in Rome today. In family life too, another micro-Church, the word holds true: “my Father is working still and I am working.” There too there’s a force to lift us above the constant irritations and squabbles, and take us the other side of the more serious difficulties. There is the power of grace. If every Christian can say, “God gives me my baptism every day”, every couple can say, “God gives us our marriage every day.” The other day the Pope, talking of the Sacrament of Marriage, said this: “God solemnly promises his presence in your marriage and family, not only on the day of your wedding, but for the rest of your lives. And he keeps supporting you, every day of your journey.” Last night the Holy Father issued a Missionary Sending of Families. It included this: “Be [families] who “sew” the fabric of society and of a synodal Church, creating relationships, multiplying love and life. Be a sign of the living Christ, do not be afraid of what the Lord asks of you, be generous with Him. Open yourselves to Christ, listen to Him in the silence of prayer. Accompany those who are most fragile, take charge of those who are alone, refugees, abandoned. Be the seed of a more fraternal world! Be families with big hearts! Be the welcoming face of the Church! And please pray, always pray!”. And when the wine runs out, turn to Mary. Specifically, he asked older families to support younger ones. We can be part of God’s working too.
One last thought, sparked in one way by our singing children and in another by those sad conversations between the Lord and Adam and Eve, the unravelling. What are we made for? As we cling aboard our lurching Church, seasick perhaps but undrowned, what do we do? We’re not made to be pampered or endlessly entertained. We are made to celebrate. We are made to praise. And we can begin with each other. Yesterday, in a parish, I met a woman with two boys, perhaps around 8 or so. I wasn’t sure who was related to who. Surprisingly, one of the boys suddenly said of the woman, “she’s a very intelligent person.” And “who is she?”, I asked. “My mother.” I just hope he’s still thinking that at 16, but wasn’t it delightful? When I’m miserable, I’m instantly cheered when I hear a woman spontaneously, sincerely speaking well of her husband or vice versa. “My Father is working still and I am working.” The opposite is horrid. St Benedict forbade his monks to murmur and told them to praise God seven times a day. “What’s your vision for the diocese, bishop?” That we sing. Do we think Mary said the Magnificat? Come on! She sang it, as her namesake Myriam sang at the Red Sea. The New Testament opens with Mary singing. Thank you, children, as so often, for showing us the way.
Let us stand now and sing our faith.