30 August 2013

'You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.' Sunday Reflections, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Columban Fr Aedan McGrath speaking about his time in solitary confinement in China, 1950-53

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)                                  

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel Luke 14:1, 7-14 (Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition)

One sabbath when Jesus went to dine at the house of a ruler who belonged to the Pharisees, they were watching him. 

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he marked how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, "When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; and he who invited you both will come and say to you, 'Give place to this man,' and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, 'Friend, go up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." He said also to the man who had invited him, "When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just." 

I remember the homecoming of Fr Aedan McGrath from China to Ireland in 1953 when I was ten. It was front-page news and there was a photograph on the now defunct Irish Press of the President and Prime Minister of Ireland greeting him along with thousands of others at Dublin Airport, much smaller than it is now.

Father Aedan had been imprisoned by the authorities of the People's Republic of China who had come into power in 1949 for his work with the Legion of Mary. He spent nearly three years in solitary confinement.

I had no idea in 1953 that one day I would be a Columban missionary priest like him and that he would become a good friend. I was also to discover that we both spent our early years in Holy Family Parish, Aughrim St, Dublin.

Father Aedan told me in the Philippines that when his plane landed in Dublin and he saw the thousands of people on the observation deck he said to himself, 'There must be someone important on board'. It never crossed his mind that he was the VIP. Friend, go up higher.

One of the parishioners in St Brigid's, Blanchardstown, in the Archdiocese of Dublin, to which I've  been going home since 1981, is Lawrence Wren, now 89. From 1983 to 1987 he was Commissioner of An Garda Síochána, ie, Chief of Police in the Republic of Ireland. Before, during and after that period he was an active member of the Society of St Vincent de Paul in the parish. The society helps families and individuals in difficult financial circumstances. Once a month members stand outside the church after all Sunday Masses holding collection boxes. Until a few years ago Lawrence Wren was always among them, even when he was head of the Irish police. A stranger would have no idea who he was. When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.

The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself; so you will find favor in the sight of the Lord, the Book of Sirach tells us in the First Reading. 

Seamus Heaney (13 April 1939 - 30 August 2013)

When I had reached this point in preparing these Sunday Reflections I learned of the death of Seamus Heaney, the poet from Derry, Northern Ireland, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. Here he is reading his own poem, St Kevin and the Blackbird, which ties in with today's readings and with the story of Fr Aedan McGrath and the bird that used to visit him in prison in China. There was, for me, an extraordinary connection between Father Aedan's experience with the bird and his burial in St Columban's, Dalgan Park, Ireland, a few days after he died suddenly at the age of 94 at a family gathering in Dublin on Christmas Day 2000. You can view A Heavenly Farewell here or read it here.

In Seamus Heaney's poem the prayer of St Kevin, To labour and not to seek reward, reflects today's gospel: But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just

In his introduction the poet speaks of Doing the right thing for the reward of doing the right thing. Father Aedan was prepared to go to prison for doing the right thing, even if it meant death, as it did for Fr Beda Chang SJ, a Chinese priest who was jailed with him. For Garda Commissioner Wren Doing the right thing for the reward of doing the right thing meant carrying out his professional duties to the best of his ability at a particularly difficult time in Ireland and serving the poor as a member of the St Vincent de Paul Society almost anonymously.

Thank God for the many Aedan McGraths, Beda Changs and Lawrence Wrens among us and for the Seamus Heaneys who can put words on the lives of so many who quietly serve even the least of God's creatures, who do the right thing for the reward of doing the right thing and who will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
and Lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in Love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
Seamus Heaney
The Spirit Level (1996)
St Kevin's Bed, Glendalough, Ireland, the cave where the saint lived as a hermit.

Please pray for the repose of the soul of Seamus Heaney.

Photos from Wikipedia. Poem taken from The Poetry Place.

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