Fr. Derek Darby KHS

Vy Rev Derek Darby, KCHS, Adm, EV

The Fifth Gospel

Recently I attended a meeting of the ordained members of this Order at which our Grand Prior, Cardinal Brady, was also present.  He used a term to describe the Holy Land which I had never heard before.  Maybe you know it already, but I didn’t, and it struck me as something profound.  He described the Holy Land as “the fifth Gospel”.  

As Knights and Dames prepare to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land at the end of this month, that description is a powerful reminder of the fact that this is the land of Jesus’ birth, made “holy” by that very fact, by the fact that Jesus walked those roads, visited those places, exercised his ministry and performed his miracles there, was put to death there, and ultimately rose from the dead there.  Calling the Holy Land the Fifth Gospel is more than just creating a smart headline; it actually means something.  It means that a prayerful disposition while on pilgrimage there will allow God to speak to us through our senses as well as through the biblical texts.  And it’s always worth remembering that when people go on pilgrimage it’s not so much that they choose to go but, rather, they are invited, invited by the Lord to go there because he has some special gift he plans to give to those who are open to receive it.

That being said, access to the Fifth Gospel is not always possible for us.  Maybe once in a lifetime, or maybe a number of visits will be possible, but at all times we have the four canonical Gospels in addition to the other sixty-eight books of the Bible – from which are drawn the readings the Church offers us in today’s Mass.

Baruch’s Poem of Consolation

The first reading comes from what the scripture scholars call “Baruch’s Poem of Consolation”.  This passage reflects a beautiful appreciation of God’s eagerness to forgive.  Baruch was writing, somewhere up to two hundred years BC, for a people who had been guilty of abandoning God.  However, the prophet reassures them: “Fear not, my children; call out to God.”  Notice how his call to repentance does not employ any fear tactics, instead it seeks to draw the people into the overwhelming goodness of God, and Baruch encourages them to make a new start: “As your hearts have been disposed to stray from God, turn now ten times the more to seek him” he says.

So this reading speaks to a moment in history, but because it’s a passage of scripture it is always fresh, always relevant, and it is, therefore, most certainly applicable to our time too.  Those who have to listen to me preaching regularly know that I love to quote a line from the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament to support this assertion: “The word of God is something alive and active” (Hebrews 4:12).  The word of God is alive and active – even if it dates from long before Jesus was even born!

When we take the word of God in Baruch’s Poem of Consolation and allow it to guide our prayer and meditation, we will soon recognise, in a gentle way, that you and I are people who are also prone to abandoning God, as did the People of Israel long ago.  One of the consequences of turning our backs on God is that we become afraid to turn around and look for God again.  We become a bit like Adam when he responded to God in the Garden: “I was afraid […] so I hid”.  Baruch’s words encourage us to feel the fear but do it anyway: “Fear not, my children; call out to God” he says. 

Luke the doctor

We know from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians (4:14) that St. Luke, from whose pen today’s Gospel comes, was a doctor.  In a sense, then, Luke’s Gospel is also a “Poem of Consolation”, and it is certainly more accessible to us in many respects by comparison with the others.  Because of St. Luke’s close association with St. Paul, Paul’s influence on him might well help to explain why Luke sees Jesus as the ‘reconciler’ of God and humanity.  In fact, there is a sense in which his Gospel could be defined specifically as ‘the Gospel of reconciliation’.  For this reason Luke has been described as “the scribe of the gentleness of Christ”.

I liked what the late Welsh Protestant theologian, W.D. Davies, wrote about Luke’s Gospel.  He said: “The Jesus of Luke, one feels, might well have uttered words written on the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour – ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.’”

Luke 9:46-10:24 (Twenty-sixth week of the Year)

But don’t be fooled!  Once we encounter Christ in this way we will never be the same again.  He doesn’t call us to leave us as we are; he doesn’t call us to mediocrity.  He calls us to greatness.  Throughout the week just ending the passages from St. Luke’s Gospel assigned to the weekday Masses have made this clear (unless we read the alternatives for the different feast days which occurred):

On Monday the lesson was spelt out for the disciples – and for us, namely, we are to be people of childlike simplicity in all things.  Attempting to achieve this is the work of a lifetime and it does not come easily to us.

On Tuesday Luke made a point of telling us that Jesus “set his face for Jerusalem”. Jerusalem, for Jesus, meant suffering and death, but also the glory of the resurrection and return to the Father.  Our Christian journey involves suffering too, but we travel the road, not alone, but together and we do so with a purpose.  

On Wednesday we saw how, despite that we are all going in the one direction, some are called to respond to a particular vocation.  We saw too how we must be urgent about the mission entrusted to us, and we must persevere despite whatever obstacles we encounter along the way.

With that in mind, on Thursday, the sending out of the seventy-two draws our attention to the fact that the Church is missionary by nature and we are endowed with a missionary spirit, and this means, as we read yesterday, that “the one who hears [us] hears [the Lord], and the one who rejects [us] rejects [the Lord], and the one who rejects [the Lord] rejects [God the Father] who sent him”.

And today’s passage shows us that our missionary endeavours – in whatever form they take, will be successful when we proclaim God’s Word to those whom we meet.  St. Francis said, “preach the Gospel always and, if necessary, use words”!  Proclaiming the Gospel in the world is not the preserve of the clergy alone.  Certainly the Knights and Dames of the Equestrian Order proclaim impressively the Gospel of charity in many and varied ways, but today’s Gospel sounds a note of caution for us too: in the midst of our good works, we have to be constantly checking ourselves that our purposes and motives are correct.  

Aperuit illis – Sunday of the Word of God

In other words, we need the Lord to show us that the work we do is his and not our own. We need the Lord to open our minds to understand the scriptures, and we need him to allow us to recognise him in the Breaking of Bread as he did for the disciples on the road to Emmaus long ago.  And in that regard, finally, the announcement from Pope Francis at the beginning of the week that he has designated the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time as the Sunday of the Word of God is something I was delighted to hear.  For preachers like us it will be a mighty challenge, but for all of us it will be an opportunity to dive into the ocean that is God’s Word and allow it to seep into every fibre of our being and to be transformed by it.

As it happens, the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time occurs the day after our pilgrimage to Knock ends in January.

In the meantime, the readings today and every day give us plenty to think about, as the Fifth Gospel beckons!

By Fr Francis Mitchell