(I'm back, after a few days away and a week with the flu!)
A few years ago a priest friend of mine told me the following story. He is a Dominican priest and he was based in Tallaght (Dublin) at the time, where they were using a make-shift chapel which was a bit cramped. The chapel was jammed as they were celebrating the Easter Vigil and he said that the reader was reading the account of creation in Genesis. While he was reading this piece of Scripture a wino came up to the top of the chapel and sat down right underneath where the man was reading and listened to the reading. When he got to the part of the reading that says ‘and God saw all that He had made and indeed it was very good,’ the wino said out loud, ‘you’re havin’ me on!’ Then the reader went on to the next part and again when he got to the part ‘and God saw all that He had made and indeed it was very good’, again the wino said out loud ‘you’re having me on!’ While it might have seemed very ignorant of the man to interrupt the reading like this, what he was saying was that this might be what the scriptures say about the world, but it certainly wasn’t his experience.
How do we make sense of a reading like today’s Gospel which says that Jesus, the anointed one of God, came to bring good news to the poor, to free prisoners, etc? For many people, such as that wino, and indeed so many others too, their experience of the world is that it is a difficult place where often things don’t work out. Think of the people of Haiti at this time, trying to make sense of their lives now when they have lost so many loved ones and all their material things too. What could possibly be ‘good news’ for them?
The ‘good news’ that the Son of God came to tell us is that there is a purpose to our lives. We are here for a reason. Our lives are not meaningless and the meaning of our lives does not depend on how ‘successful’ or otherwise things seem to be for us in this world. How well we do on the outside is really secondary. What is primary is what happens inside us, in the heart. God has created us to love and to blossom as people. Hopefully we will also do well on the outside and be able to provide for our loved ones and enjoy this life too, but whether or not everything works out well for us is really secondary. The only thing that really matters is that we realise what the purpose of our life is about—to love God and the people around us. That is something that everyone can do, no matter what their circumstances.
I used to visit a man in prison for a couple of years while I was studying to be a priest. He was in for a very serious crime and he was doing a life sentence. As far as I know he is still in prison. (A life sentence means you are convicted for life and will usually serve at least 12-15 years). Having got to know him I also realised that he was basically a very good man himself. The crime he committed, which was a murder, was one of these bizarre things that happens where 30 seconds either way and he would never have met the person he killed. Now his life is apparently ruined and he will spend most of it in prison. Does this mean that his life is meaningless, or totally wasted? Not necessarily so; it depends on what goes on inside him more than anything else, because that is what God sees and that is what God will judge him by. That is what God will judge all of us by: how we have loved. Whether we end up living on the street, in prison, or being the president of some huge company is really not that important. Of course we should try to make the most of the opportunities that we are given, but if we can see that the purpose of our lives is much deeper than just what we achieve on the outside, in the world’s eyes, then we will have an inner strength that will help us keep going no matter what happens.
This ‘good news’ that we often talk about, is that we are loved, we are noticed, we are valued, and there is a purpose to our lives. We are not just here by chance. God deliberately created us. God wants us here at this particular time in history, in the particular family that we are part of. If I cannot see this bigger picture then my life may appear to be meaningless, or pointless, especially if things haven’t worked out the way I think they should have. But that is to limit my purpose to my own very limited way of seeing the world. If I try to see it with the eyes of faith, then I will see something quite different. To understand that is to give sight to the blind and freedom to those who are imprisoned. It’s not just prisons like ‘Mountjoy’ in Dublin either, but the kind of prison of the mind that tells me that my life is a waste of time. No one’s life is a waste of time if we realise that God wants us here. Our job here is primarily to love God and to love the people around us. We leave the rest up to God.
‘I came that you may have life and have it to the full’ (John 10:10)