Today’s feast is, you may feel, a very Catholic one, associated with some very kitsch art, and some undesirable sentimentality, and not at all appropriate for the setting of a university given over to the things of the mind. But in fact I’d like to suggest that it is a feast that speaks to you precisely in your search for truth (and I hope it is that, and not those elusive alphas, that you are seeking in your weekly essays). The devotion to the Sacred Heart, often linked with a devotion to the Five Wounds of Christ, goes back as an individual devotion to 11th Century, received great impetus from the visions of Margaret Mary Alacocque in the 17th century, and has been universal in the Catholic Church since 1856. And it is, let us be clear about it, a feast about love, not sentimentality; but in the course of its history it has provided a corrective, and should for us today provide a corrective, to the austerities of purely intellectual pursuits, which can turn into a rather dangerous and unlovely power game.
What the feast does is to celebrate God’s passionate pursuit of the human race, God’s com-passion for suffering humanity, the power of love in an age that drearily exalts the intellect. That passion of God is beautifully expressed in the first reading that you have just heard. The context is that of Ezekiel’s terrible condemnation of the “shepherds of Israel” (by whom he means the political and religious leaders – and you might ask yourselves whether he would not say the same today), who have fed themselves rather than their sheep. In response, Ezekiel hears God say, “I will search from my sheep, I will bring them out, I will gather them, I will feed them, I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled and I will strengthen the weak… I will feed them in justice.” These are words to make us quail; for this is a God who will do what society’s leaders should be doing, and who will then demand an account of us for how we have exercised their leadership. And it is no good nodding wisely and saying, “Yeah – right on, Ezekiel. You just tell those bishops and cabinet ministers where they get off”. For it is every one of you here tonight to whom those words are addressed, for it is you, because of your expensive education, who are challenged to look after the strayed and the weak and the crippled and the lost. The challenge will not be “Did you get a First or a Blue?” but “Did you look after my special ones?” And who are the special ones? They are those who fall through the net of our society, the homeless whom we rush past on the streets, the drug addicts whom you saw making their transaction today in Bonn Square, the person in your college whom no one will talk to.
And we mutter guiltily to ourselves, “That’s really not my problem – it’s all their fault, anyway.” But that simply won’t do, as that beautiful second reading makes clear, for Christ died for us when we were precisely in that condition of weakness: we are God’s “special ones”. It comes from that bit of the Letter to the Romans when Paul has worked through a good deal of the difficult argumentation, and is now trying to give us, and that divided church in Rome, our grounds for hope. And our grounds for hope are precisely what God has done in Christ. The measure of it is Christ’s death: and there is nothing easy about death, especially, as Paul remarks elsewhere, that appalling death on the cross, and especially when it is done on behalf of no-hopers, people who are a waste of space. For it is they who are God’s special ones, who have been, in the terms of the metaphor which surfaced three times towards the end of that reading, “reconciled”. Our sanest response to the situation in which we live is, quite simply, gratitude. And once we see that, then at last we grasp who the no-hopers are, those whom we so readily avoid. They are ourselves, and any human who ever felt pushed out of the centre where it all happens. They are there before us, these special ones of God – for they are ourselves.
That is what is going on in the gospel reading that you have just heard. The setting is that astonishing 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, with its three stories of parties being thrown in heaven to celebrate the recovery of what had been lost. You know them all (and if you don’t, then I suggest that you read them tonight before going back to the demands of your essay): the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost (or Prodigal) Son and his Unfortunate Elder Brother. And we should notice the setting: good religious people have been complaining about Jesus’ terrible friends: tax-collectors and sinners (Shock Horror). We might think of our own equivalents: who are the people, in your view, for whom God cannot possibly have any time? They might be immigrants, or the homeless, or pederasts or murderers, or the Cambridge Rugby team. Whoever they are for you, Jesus is here telling the story of a God who goes looking for precisely those who are on the margins of society, including, as in this evening’s gospel, the one idiot sheep that gets lost, as opposed to the ninety-nine who are comfortably, not to say complacently, ensconced in the JCR or the Library – or the Chapel. And what happens when God finds that one? He throws a wild party! This is not a God whom we can easily control, this God of love for the unlovely.
So what we celebrate today is the compassion, I have to say the absurd compassion, of a God who loves the poor and the oppressed and the marginalised. But there is more to our celebration; and this is where you come into it. For your task is to be the hands and eyes of God in our world. Your Oxford education has, believe or believe it not, put you in a place of power. But the training you have received here has given you an unparalleled ability to see through weak and specious arguments, to unmask the deceits of the Evil One, to bring to the light the dangerous allurements of power and privilege and pleasure that are so readily available, here and in the glittering careers that lie ahead of you.
and the other thing that your education has given you, or should have done, if your tutor is doing her job, is the possibility of imagining our world in a different way. If you can do that, and resist the very Oxford temptation of regarding all change as change for the worse, then something rather remarkable will happen. You will find, possibly only in retrospect, not really noticing it at the time, that you are or can turn out to have been, the presence of the compassion of God in a broken world, reaching out for the lost and the weak and the hungry, not out of useless guilt, but because they matter to God, and because when God’s special ones are brought home where they belong, then the world is a better place because it has become the world that God wants it to be. And that is what we are celebrating on this great solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Fr. Nicholas King
10th June 2010