“Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16).
The word of the Lord urges us to place our trust in God, not in the brittle supports of created things on earth. People have always been tempted to rely on some visible and profitable reality. To us, it seems at times to be a step too far to place our confidence in Him whom we know only through faith. It was a test failed by Adam and Eve when they were asked not to taste of the fruit of the tree of Good and Evil. Relying on their own wisdom, and abetted by the false promises of the Evil One, they put their trust in a created gain rather than in the power of the all-wise Creator.
They were very soon to regret their folly. They immediately tasted the bitter fruit of the confidence they placed in a lie. They felt ashamed of each other and afraid of God. Their misplaced confidence led to death for both of them. There we see how true it is that God did not make death (Wis 1:13) but that “through the devil’s envy death entered the world” (Wis 2:24). Our first parents trusted in a lie and in the father of lies. As Jesus would say one day: “The devil…was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44).
Throughout the history of salvation, people have been led astray. They trusted in something or someone less than God – human idols of one kind or another. It was either in riches or power, earthly princes or human allies. Yet the wisdom of God denounces such shallow confidence: “Cursed is he who trusts in man….whose heart turns away from the Lord…Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord” (Jer 17:5-7).
The Trust of one who believes
Trust or hope means persevering in faith against the evident difficulties that free us. On a natural level, hope is a movement of our will towards something we perceive as good, that is not ours completely, but that is possible though difficult to attain. Psychologically it creates a tension within us because, what we aspire to, we do not fully possess as yet. But the very fact that it is possible to attain makes us overcome the uncertainties and be confident that what we long for is not beyond our grasp.
Christian theological hope, or trust of one who believes, aspires to the greatest good of all, namely, our salvation and the vision of God in heaven. The Lord Jesus tells his disciples that this is not a delusion for “it has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom” (cf. Rom 4:18). However, the God who gives the promise is faithful so that “hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5)
Trusting in God through suffering and in the Dark night of the Church
The moment of history we live through in Ireland at present is certainly a testing one for the Church and for all of us. Attacked from the outside by the arrows of a secular and godless culture: rocked from the inside by the sins and crimes of priests and consecrated people, we all feel the temptation to lose confidence. Yet, our trust is displayed and deepened above all when we are in troubled and stormy waters. It is easier to be confident when we ride on the crest of a wave, when the tide is coming in. Not so easy, however, yet every bit as necessary, when what is proclaimed by the Church namely the truth of faith with its daily practice and influence on behaviour, is under severe pressure.
Some of you may be labouring under a severe trial and have come to this Shrine of Our Lady at Knock for strength and consolation. It may be a dreaded illness or family difficulties; it may be spiritual darkness and desolation; it may be trying circumstances in the present financial downturn. Or it may be the spiritual Dark Night that now engulfs the Church in Ireland, in which our spiritual horizons are dimmed because some of those anointed to preach the word of God and to sanctify, were found to have betrayed the trust placed in them by innocent souls.
What we are called upon to do at this time is to act hopefully, with patience. Every dark night of suffering is meant to be a time of purification and renewal. As so often in times past, there were dark days of disorder and trial for the Church. But then, she rose again fortified in light. So too will it be once again this time.
One man who sacrificed all he had to discover the true Church, Blessed John Henry Newman, and who had personal experience of her weakness as well as of her beauty, expressed this buoyant trust in eloquent words:
“But in truth the whole course of Christianity from the first, when we come to examine it, is but one series of troubles and disorders. Every century is like every other, and to those who live in it seems worse than all times before it. The Church is ever ailing, and lingers on in weakness, “always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in her body.” Religion seems ever expiring, schisms dominant, the light of Truth dim, its adherents scattered. The cause of Christ is ever in its last agony, as though it were but a question of time whether it fails finally this day or another. The Saints are ever all but failing from the earth……; meanwhile, thus much of comfort do we gain from what has been hitherto,- not to despond, not to be dismayed, not to be anxious, at the troubles which encompass us. They have ever been; they ever shall be; they are our portion.” (Via Media I, 354-5)
These troubles seem to us to be the worst ever – simply because they are the ones we struggle through at present. The Lord however has to be met in the midst of the very trials that beset us. We should not so much fight them directly as give them into the Lord’s keeping. In some ways we exchange our weakness for God’s strength. Simply to worry and fret makes the anguish fester within us. We do not deny them but rather take them as our share in Christ’s redeeming sufferings. From the midst of them we call upon the only Person who can really help us.
As we heard in the first reading, David, looking back on how the Lord delivered him from his enemies and the waves of death that encompassed him, said: “In my distress I called upon the Lord….” (2 Sam 22:7). He recognised his predicament but he sought help in his weakness from God, the Strong One of Israel. Or like the two desperate people in the Gospel passage: a prominent ruler of the Synagogue whose daughter had already died, but who hoped beyond hope in a miracle and a poor women, a socially marginalised person on account of her ailment, making a desperate grasp, trying to touch even the fringe of the Lord’s garment. The unshakable trust of both of them was rewarded promptly and with astonishing authority (Mt 9:18-22). In some ways, the worse our condition, the nearer is God’s help. For nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, for he has promised to be with his Church until the end of time. As Christians, so much will depend on our attitude of faith and trust. We cannot avoid trial and suffering in this world. “It is not by side stepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed (writes our Holy Father), but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love” (Spe Salvi No. 37). Therefore, we need to trust Him.
When we enter into any kind of suffering and distress, it is the Lord who allows us to experience our own weakness and inadequacy. Some situations cannot be rectified without special help from on high. The sad effects of accidents on the roads, of dreaded diseases, of social and economic upheavals, of addictions and so on, need more than human resources. They also need the helping hand of God. The prophet warned the people of old: “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many…..but do not look to….the Lord” (cf. Is. 31:1). We look for prosperity, but there is no real and lasting prosperity without God.
Indeed unless we trust in a higher power, in God himself, what hope can we have? St. Paul told his converts at Ephesus that before they came to know Christ, they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). We need the radiance of a hope that looks beyond the horizons of space and time, one as Pope Benedict teaches “that cannot be destroyed even by small-scale failures or by a breakdown in matters of historic importance” (Spe Salvi No. 35). For the distinguishing mark of Christian believers is “the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness….To come to know God – the true God – means to receive hope” (Ibid, No. 2.3). We thank God for the faith, that enables us to trust in Him.
Knock: a Call to trust in God
In this holy Shrine of Knock, we are always reminded of the reasons we have for hope and trust in God. Central to the Apparition itself is the altar with the Lamb standing on it. This reminds us first of all of the Eucharist where, as fruit of Christ’s Sacrifice, there is offered to us in every Holy Communion the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. By nourishing us with Christ’s life, the Eucharist nourishes in us a life that has no end. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn 6:54). This is a pledge of something great to come, a seed that will blossom into eternal life, into immortality.
From this point of view, the holy Eucharist, which we shall celebrate with intensity at the International Eucharistic Congress next June, is a Sacrament of hope that strengthens our trust in God. It sustains us as we are buffeted by the storms of this world and bear a cross that weighs us down. The Mass is a foretaste of heavenly peace. At this Eucharistic celebration we too experience it at least imperfectly but really, and we are given the promise that it will one day be perfect and cannot be lost. Therefore, let us trust our God.
Moreover, the Lamb on the altar at Knock reminds us of the Apocalypse with St. John’s vision of the end of time and of fulfilment in heaven. We see the risen and triumphant Lamb of God. He is surrounded by angels and a countless number of Christian believers who come here on pilgrimage. This vision foreshadows the heavenly city from which will descend at the end of time the Church, which is the Bride of Christ, the Lamb of God. In his prophetic gaze, St. John “saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and heard a great voice from the throne saying, “Behold the dwelling place of God is with men. He will dwell with them….he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more….” (Rev. 21:2-4). In that company there will be for us “things no eye has seen. No ear has heard, things beyond our imagining, for outweighing our present distress” (cf. 2 Cor. 4:17).
This triumphant Church of the elect is the same that now struggles and sighs in the slow and painful grip of history that is unfolding hour by weary hour, minute by minute. We now face the challenge of trusting in our Saviour, at times without hope. The powers of evil and their apparent triumphs put our trust in God to the test. However, we have the certitude of faith that Christ, the Word of God, will have the final victory. And it is not far away. For the Lord says: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:7).
And we all respond with a cry of hope that hungers for his presence: “Maranatha, Come. Lord Jesus, come.”
Perhaps Blessed John Paul II, at the time we embarked on a new Millennium of human history, had this vision of hopeful trust in his mind when he wrote: “Duc in Altum! Let us go forwards in hope! A new Millennium is opening before the Church like a vast ocean upon which we shall venture, relying on the help of Christ. The Son of God, who became incarnate two thousand years ago out of love for humanity, is at work even today: we need discerning eyes to see this and, above all, a generous heart to become the instruments of his work…we can count on the power of the same Spirit who was poured out at Pentecost and who impels us still today to start anew, sustained by the hope which does not disappoint” (Apostolic Letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte, No 58).
We are under Our Lady’s protection, who visited her people here at this spot in a time of poverty and distress. As long as she is praying for us in Heaven nothing whatever, high or low, can harm us or take away our trust in God. She reigns a Queen forever and her Son refuses her nothing she requests. Our Lady of Knock, pray for us.
- This homily was delivered in Knock on 20 August 2011 by Bishop Philip Boyce, Bishop of Raphoe.