Words on the Word
St Matthias: Confirmation
Acts 1:15-26: You, Lord, know the hearts of all.
John 15:9-17: No one has greater love than he who gives his life for his friends.
Dear candidates for confirmation,
The word ‘confirmation’ means, well, what it says: it denotes an action that ratifies. Today God ratifies the gift you received in baptism. For your part, you confirm: ‘Yes, this is what we stand for!’ You declare yourselves mature Catholic Christians, adult members of the Church’s communion.
The apostles, says St Paul, are the foundation of the Church (Eph 2:20). It is fitting therefore that you are being confirmed on an apostle’s feast. The apostles were twelve in number. Symbolically, they corresponded to the twelve tribes of Israel, called to communicate God’s promises to all of creation. The Gospels tell us how Jesus early on in his public ministry ‘appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach’ (Mark 3:14). They are listed solemnly by name. But the name of the apostle we celebrate today, Matthias, is not among these. His history is peculiar, unique. It testifies to a deep crisis in the early Church. I should like to reflect a little on this crisis, for it speaks to our life here and now, and to our own crises.
The proclamation of Easter, the key to our faith, rests on the account of unconditional fidelity. ‘No one has greater love than he who gives his life for his friend’, Jesus says. To say it is one thing. To prove it is another. Jesus confirmed his words with his sacrifice. The cross stands for his ‘confirmation’. A crucifix forms our visual focus here in the cathedral. It must be likewise in our lives. The cross is a sign of fidelity unto death. But that isn’t all. The cross points beyond itself. Death doesn’t have the last word. To be a Christian is not to be morbidly concerned with suffering and death. It is to recognise that suffering and death play their part in human experience (to pretend otherwise is to show a blatant lack of realism). But love is stronger.
What is love? We sometimes use the word too casually. It can seem banal. At the same time it expresses something enormously great; something we all long for so intensely we hardly dare to confront ourselves at that level. To seek love is to acknowledge that I am not self-sufficient. It is to know that I, in order to become who I am, must give myself to another; and to ready myself to receive another’s gift of self. We learn to love humanly. It can take time. It can be messy. The life, teaching, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus allow us to see such experience in a true light. The Lord shows us what it means to live audaciously. He tells us: ‘There are things worth living and dying for! Set a high standard for your life! Trust the longing of your heart!’ His love is a magnetic field within which we can establish our lives. To live there is risky, but glorious. There we find a sustaining foundation for our lives.
This, I have said, is the Easter proclamation about unconditional love. Not everyone was able to receive this proclamation. Throughout Holy Week, while Jesus steadily moves towards the fulfilment of his call, we are aware of Judas rummaging in the background, in increasingly explicit rebellion. He was a rationally-minded fellow, used to calculating the value of things, to weighing up profit against loss. At first he found Jesus’s teaching attractive. It is always pleasant to hear eloquent people expound a great ideal. However, when Christ honed in on dedication, oblation, and perseverance to the end, Judas refused to follow.
We shall never know why he decided to serve as ‘guide to those who arrested Jesus’. But we shouldn’t discount the possibility that he did so in order to put an end to a performance he thought had gone too far — so to speak, to protect Jesus against himself. What Judas didn’t understand, was that the play-acting was his; whereas what Jesus was going through was reality itself. When he realised what was at stake, it was too late.
The story of Judas shows that it is possible to walk with Jesus over time, a long time, without getting to know him. All of us have it in us to say ‘No!’ to Jesus’s friendship, and to choose darkness instead of life. The early Christian community carried this experience like an open wound. Their witness to God’s fidelity went hand in hand with their remembrance of the infidelity of one of the twelve. Yes the Church didn’t let itself be paralysed. The call to Matthias is of great importance and encouragement. Where one has failed and betrayed, another can step in and repair, so that life goes on. The Gospel of Jesus transcends what human beings can destroy. Thank God for that. Remember: Love is stronger than death, and stronger than all that is of death.
Dear candidates, this may seem like just another well-intentioned but predictable bishop’s sermon, stuffed full of pious phrases but with zero relevance for life as it really is. Let me then conclude on a note of explicit clarity. Let me then conclude on a note of explicit clarity. The future entrusted to you, teenagers of today, is brittle and endangered. We live in a world built on the sand of broken promises. We have seen, in the Church and in society at large, what fatal impact the faithlessness of individuals can have. We live with threats of war and destruction, threats that only a few months ago would have seemed unthinkable.
You can’t, the way my generation to some extent could, just sit on the fence while you try to make as much money as possible and ensurie long holidays. You are faced with great, grave choices. Those choices will be costly. They will also enrich and potentially ennoble you; and their will have far-reaching consequences. Each of you has potential to be a Judas or a Matthias; one who betrays or one who repairs the betrayal of another. Choose well! And receive with an open heart, an open mind, the grace conferred on you today. The seal of the Holy Spirit is the love of Jesus. It has real power. Live in that power. Let it live in you. Live worthily, recognisably as friends of Jesus. There’s nothing the world needs more. Amen.