Shrewsbury ... shall be a name 'as stirring to the heart as the glories we have lost'

Blessed John Henry Newman, 1852

Letters and Homilies

Homily Preached in the Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth, 22nd October 2013

Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem are names and places we have known from childhood. In their ordinariness today they might appear different to the way we might have pictured them 2,000 years ago. I remember my first visit to Nazareth: disembarking from a coach into the bustle of an urban street with the smell of diesel fumes and negotiating the traffic just as we would do in Shrewsbury, Stockport or Birkenhead! However, an urban centre with shops and houses may not be the scene which springs to mind when we hear the words of St. Luke’s Gospel: “in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth …” (Luke 1:26). The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that in Nazareth we should, in reality, expect to find what is most ordinary. “The hidden life at Nazareth,” the Catechism explains “allows everyone to enter into fellowship with Jesus by the most ordinary events of daily life” (CCC 533).

IMG_1907It was “here,” and we can never read the inscription in this basilica without wonder, here that the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling amongst us (John 1:14). In a town, an urban centre much like any other God the Son “became truly man while remaining truly God” (CCC 464). The heresies of the first centuries rebelled against the thought that God could truly have made his home amongst us, in flesh and blood like ours, in the ordinariness of a life in Nazareth (cf. CCC 464). “During the greater part of his life Jesus shared the conditions of the vast majority of human beings” the Catechism reflects “a daily life spent without evident greatness, a life of manual labour” (CCC 531). It was here for the greater part of 30 years Jesus of Nazareth, He who is truly God, shared a hidden life, an ordinary life. In the shorter years of His public ministry would be recognised as “the carpenter, the son of Mary” (Mk 6:3) from Nazareth. This is part of the Gospel we must always be attentive to.

Four years ago in this Basilica of the Annunciation Pope Benedict XVI reflected how the wonder of the Incarnation challenges us, opens up your understanding and mine “to the limitless possibilities of God’s transforming power, of his love for us, his desire to be united with us” (14th May 2009). The ordinariness of Nazareth leads us to pray that the greatness of the Christian calling may be awakened in all hearts – the limitless possibilities Pope Benedict speaks of, realising that “nothing is impossible to God,” to know God’s desire to be united with us – not in another life, another place, but amid the ordinary circumstances of your life and mine. Amid, we might say the diesel fumes, the bustle and the traffic of the place where we live, the ordinary paths of life we walk.

God’s greeting to Mary that we translate as “Hail Mary” literally means rejoice, be glad: it is an invitation to know joy. How easily we might think of God’s plan for our lives as somehow burdensome, our calling as fraught with the fears and anxieties which become obstacles to so many of the young today. With Our Lady we hear the angel’s words: “do not be afraid, you have found favour with God” (Lk.1:31). How much we need to hear those words again today in all our callings. In this joyful mystery we glimpse how God invites and does not impose, seeking our consent so that we are ready to say freely and wholeheartedly with Mary in each of our lives: “let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). How much I pray today that every one of us may see like Mary that we have a part to play in God’s plan for salvation. In Pope Benedict’s words “bringing forth Christ to the world.”

The Year of Faith which has brought us together to the Holy Land is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th Anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. At the heart of the Council’s call to us is the repeated, and too often neglected, call to holiness in each one of our lives. Holiness, becoming a saint, is not the goal for a few Christians, the Council reminded us, those who have made religious vows or received the grace of ordination: it must be the goal of every Christian life. “All Christians in any state of life,” the Pope and Bishops wanted to remind us half a century ago “are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Lumen Gentium n. 40). It is a universal call without exception, “all the faithful are invited and obliged to holiness and the perfection of their state in life” (Lumen Gentium n. 42).

How much depends on each one of us, on us seeking this goal of holiness in the life which is yours and mine. In the Gospel Our Blessed Lady was called as a young woman. St. Bernard in a celebrated sermon reflected how much depended on the response of this young woman of Nazareth: “on your lips is hanging the consolation of the wretched, the redemption of the captive … in word the salvation of all Adam’s children, of all your race.” St. Bernard pictures heaven and earth awaiting her reply and imploring: “Answer, O Virgin, answer the angel speedily; rather through the angel, answer your Lord. Speak the word, and the receive the Word; offer what is yours, and conceive what is of God; give what is temporal, and embrace what is eternal.” (Homily 4: In Praise of the Virgin Mother).

I think here in Nazareth of so many, especially the generous young, who might hesitate and be like Mary “deeply disturbed” by the greatness of their calling. A new generation surely needs our encouragement, our prayer and looks to the example of our perseverance and joy. In Birmingham last week with more than 300 young people considering their calling I repeated Pope Benedict’s words: Christ takes nothing away and He gives you everything. “Do not be afraid to give yourself totally to Jesus …” Pope Benedict said in London’s Hyde Park, “ask for the generosity to say “yes”! He will give you the grace to fulfil your vocation” (Hyde Park, 18th September 2010). So whatever our age, whatever our calling we all need to hear those words of Pope Benedict again! In Nazareth, where we have travelled by air and road and to which we will often return in heart and memory may we recognise how God so loved the world giving us His only Son in the ordinariness of an ordinary life and until the end of time under the plain, ordinary appearances of bread and wine in the wonder of this Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. Nazareth will surely lead us to be attentive, in Pope Francis’s words, more attentive to the silence of the Eucharist wherever we find ourselves on this earth (Homily of the Holy Father, Corpus Christi 2013).


(Photo by Simon Caldwell)