Sunday Reflection with Fr Terry Tastard - 24 January 2010

In our first reading (Nehemiah 8) what we see is nothing less than a ceremony of national repentance.  The Hebrew people have gone through the terrible experience of the fall of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon.  Now, around the year 538 BC  they are back in the Holy Land, where they are literally and figuratively picking up the pieces.

They begin to rebuild the city walls and the Temple.  Trickier still will be rebuilding their life as a people.  The ceremony we hear about is part of a movement of national and religious rebirth.  In this ceremony they pledge that they will follow the Law, the Torah.  This will be the source of their unity.

Notice how in today’s reading we are told repeatedly that all the people were there, ‘men, women, and children old enough to understand’.  The message is that everybody has a part to play in the life of the nation.  Each can contribute to the good of the whole, each can strengthen the others  – or weaken the others.
The contrast with our Western culture is profound.  We have become supremely individualistic.  This allows us great freedoms, but also means that we risk falling apart as nations, societies or communities.  We need ideals to inspire us.

We need a sense of a common history that has shaped us.  We need shared values that sometimes challenge us, in the sense of giving us something to live up to.

For two millennia Christianity has been that glue in Europe.  It has given us a sense of history and a sense of identity.  It has challenged complacency and been an endless source of renewal.  Now, in a strange mood, a good deal of European sentiment has turned against its spiritual heritage.  They either prefer no religion at all or a religion that makes no demands on them.

From time to time I hear it said:  ‘You don't have to go the Mass to be a good Christian.’  Or, ‘Just because I don't go to Mass doesn't mean that I'm a bad person.’

What kind of answer would you give to such statements?

Here is what I would say. In the second reading today, St Paul reminds us that we are part of the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12.12-14.27). Just as a human body is made up of many parts, so, too, the Body of Christ is made up of many parts, each Christian being a part of the body.

Indeed: just as a human body depends on all its parts to function well, so, too, the Body of Christ, the Church, depends on each of its members to play their part.

Of course you can pray without going to Church. But I suspect that people are much more likely to pray throughout the course of the week if they join others for prayer on a Sunday.

Of course you can live by good moral standards without going to Mass. But I suspect that those who go to Mass with an open heart and attentive mind find their conscience becomes more lively and their desire to help others increases.

To help them in this they have the wonderful gift of communion with Christ himself.  When Jesus announces  his mission (Luke 4.14-21) it is in terms of bringing hope to those who are trapped, dispirited, on the margins of society.  This is faith and practice which he encourages in us also, a faith which binds us to others and enlarges our horizons and our sense of responsibility.

Faith should both encourage us and inspire us through the demands and conflicts of daily living.  We receive from our faith – and we learn to give also.  

Fr Terry Tastard is parish priest (pastor) of Holy Trinity, Brook Green, in the Hammersmith area of London.  His new book:  Ronald Knox and English Catholicism is published by Gracewing at £12.99 and is available on Amazon, from religious booksellers and from the publisher.

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