Diaconate Formation, 16 May 2020

Dear friends, what extraordinary times we’ve lived through in the past few months. At the beginning of Lent – which seems an awful long time ago now – who would ever have imagined that we would be live-streaming our Mass today as part of your formation programme for ordination to the diaconate.

How the life of the world and of the Church has been changed. What incredible generosity and sacrifice we’ve witnessed in service of people affected by Covid-19. In what has been the worst of times, we’ve also seen the best human qualities triumph. Whatever the ‘new normal’ is, then, please God, it will be one that is kinder and more appreciative of what matters most.

According to media reports, one result of the lockdown has been increased numbers of people tuning into religious broadcasts online. And a not infrequent question for google has been ‘How do I pray?’ In a landscape so often described as post-Christian, the search for religious significance is alive. The search for God is real. For some people, the experience of staying at home has surfaced the big questions of Who am I?, Who is God?, and What does life mean?

In these days of Eastertide the Acts of Apostles recounts the ‘who,’ the ‘what,’ and the ‘where’ of life in the Early Church. It paints a vibrant picture of people in mission, alive in the Spirit of the risen Christ. My friends this is the model for our ministry. At the centre of all that apostolic travelling, preaching, and teaching, is a straightforward unassailable conviction: that God who raised Jesus from the dead has called us, is calling you, to bring this Good News to others, in word, in sacrament, through witness and through service.

We can evangelise because this Good News has taken root in our hearts. To preach the Word of life we must first have received the Word of life. We need to ask ourselves: how has the risen Christ changed my life? And, perhaps even more significantly, we need to ask: how is the risen Christ changing my life?

These are important questions for everyone baptised into Christ. But their answer must find particular expression in you, in those to be ordained deacon by the laying on of hands. Ministry is never just about what I’ve found. It also has to be about what I can share. Ministry is not just getting something, it’s also giving something, and, more often than not, it’s in the giving that we also receive. Our ministry goes out to help others make sense of who they are, who God is, and what life means. Our multifaceted ministry is a hearing and doing the Word of God.

So, where is the Cilicia, the Derbe, and the Lystra, of your diocese, of your town, or of your neighbourhood? Where are Phrygia and Troas, where are the communities and their people waiting for Good News? Where is the frontier of Mysia that is yet to be crossed?

Just like the early apostles and their collaborators, we must be ‘at large’ with our people in the places in our parishes and deaneries. Perhaps even more than for our twentieth century predecessors, for us, the missionary disciples of today, our towns, our cities, our villages, our streets, are closer to the territory encountered by the first century Church. So many of our contemporaries have never heard the Gospel in such a way that makes them want to cry out with joy to the Lord.

The Irish Benedictine Blessed Columba Marmion once said that ‘joy is the echo of God’s life within us.’‘Joy is the echo of God’s life within us.’ If the Gospel has not been preached and taught, heard and received, primarily as a message of joy, then we might ask: has it ever properly been proclaimed at all? ‘Cry out with joy to the Lord.’

Before His passion, the Lord Jesus reminded his disciples that His fate would be their fate; in a sense that His fate would be our fate. And his warning rings true. A self-sufficient world, closed in on itself, does not need a Saviour. A world that trades in hatred struggles to believe in love without conditions. A world of persecution throttles the Word of life. But in foreseeing the cross, the Lord Jesus knew that God loved and loves the world; that God sent and sends His Son to the world, to our world, to this world, here and now. The coming of Christ is joy to the world. The truth of the Gospel is joy to the world. Above all, we in the Church, especially those ordained for her service, must be joyful servants who announce to the world that there is hope in Jesus; there is mercy in Jesus; there is love and life in Jesus

‘I have told you all this,’ said our Lord, ‘so my own joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.’ These words of our Master underpin what it means to serve after his example.

‘Cry out with joy to the Lord.’ This is a diaconal anthem. To be servant ministers of the Lord’s joy. Even in darkness, in despair, and in doubt, we are, and must be, witnesses to a joy that is not our own, a joy that is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Dear friends, Christian joy isn’t the manufactured giddiness of a good time. Christian joy is not the cheery papering over gaps and crevices. Christian joy isn’t pretending everything’s ok when life is crumbling away. We cry out with joy to the Lord because faith in Christ is all that makes sense at certain times, in certain places, for certain people – ourselves included.

We cry out with joy to the Lord because God has kindled a flame in the darkness of sin and death that can never be extinguished. And this cry of joy, this absolute certainty of Good News in the risen Lord Jesus, is not just a song for soloists. Our ministry demands that we call others to cry with us, to sing together a new song to the Lord in the choir of those redeemed in Christ.

Will there be days when we, and those around us, don’t feel consumed by joy? Yes, there will.

Are we going to experience situations that leave us, and those around us, feeling sad and sorrowful? Yes, we are.

Is it part of our calling to minster to people for whom joy is not the overriding reality of their lives? Yes, it is.

Yet, we can persevere knowing that no matter how dark the black hole, or how deep it plummets, we believe and we trust that we can, and will, draw water joyfully from the wellsprings of salvation. Why? Because God desires that our human story ends in joy. This is what it means to have faith in the resurrection: that our human story ends in joy

As you move through formation, accompanied by your family and friends, supported by your tutors and your parishes and dioceses, remember that the ‘cry of joy to the Lord’ is the hope by which we live and the hallmark by which we serve.