50th Anniversary of Family Fast Day
On Sunday 19th September, over 50,000 people participated in Great North Run. Thousands of them did so to raise money for their favorite charity, many for CAFOD. Unfortunately, it clashed with the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to this country; otherwise, I am sure, that the Bishop of Middlesbrough would have been of their number. Alas, I also missed it, in my case because I had had a pretty bad fall from my mountain bike earlier in the summer. It truly is a great event, half a million people lining the route from the West End of Newcastle to South Shields, loads of bands playing music, folk with hosepipes keeping you cool, friends cheering and shouting and generally making you feel better than you actually feel. It may be that the Prophet Habakkuk has such an event in mind when he wrote:
‘Write the vision down, inscribe it on tablets, to be easily read, …for it will come, without fail…’
Habakkuk clearly wants people to read the vision easily – perhaps on huge bill boards. He appears to have been scandalised by the violence and tyranny meted out to his people by a fierce and fiery oppressor and he really struggled to understand how God could tolerate such a thing. He realised that in the short term there would be violence and famine, but eventually, the earth would, indeed will, be full of the glory of God.
His vision was that eventually, things would change. Peace, equality, ‘right relationships’ would eventually flourish. This is the vision Habakkuk wanted painting on huge posters that people could read as they ran past on their half marathons, or simply made their way around the countryside. It is a brilliant vision, not yet fulfilled, so still valid – still to be fully realised. Habakkuk was passionate about his yearning and his vision. To be honest, exactly this passion, this commitment and horror at what was happening to poor people in the world, lies behind the first ever Family Fast Day, organised by volunteers of the National Board of Catholic Women. It is 50 years ago, in March 1960 that a total of £6,673 was raised and sent to Sr Mary Alicia in the Caribbean island of Dominica to build a nursing home to treat babies affected by malnutrition.
It is extraordinary how this imaginative initiative has blossomed and grown in England and Wales. It is important in itself, but more than that, it is a symbol of solidarity – the interconnectedness within the human family. Family Fast Day urges us to do without something. It invites us to get into the habit of often doing without something, not just a couple of times a year. We just don’t get it if we don’t feel, from time to time, a sense of anger and frustration about injustice, the simple fact that so many people die of hunger every day. I recently came across a phrase from James Forbes, the pastor of the amazing Riverside Drive Church in New York. He said:
No one will get into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor…
Imagine that in the light of last Sunday’s Gospel – the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus – the rich man didn’t make it because he didn’t have a note of support from Lazarus. I realise this could become a different homily – but imagine the rich, people like us, needing not just a note from the poor, but written evidence from the now almost extinct Chinese river dolphin, the decreasing number of silverback grillers in Sudan, or thousands of species of plants or animals in our world today that we’re on their side and encouraging their development… In the 2nd letter to Timothy, Paul is suggesting that followers of Jesus, rather like soldiers and athletes, cannot expect success without constant training and painful efforts and hardship. Paul is encouraging his readers to hold on to what is precious, and a celebration like this urges us to appreciate and hold on to what is precious to us.
It is a good question. What is deeply precious to us? Where do our loyalties lie? What do we hold most dear?
It is a very dangerous thing to ask a question when you’re preaching – because those listening (if there are any…) require an answer. OK – how about this.
Loyalty can be very dangerous, fidelity can be very limiting. Paul tells Timothy that he has been trusted to look after something precious – he urges Timothy to ‘guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit’.
The great thing about the Holy Spirit is that the Spirit is free. The Spirit cannot be tied down. The Spirit is bigger than the National Board of Catholic Women, bigger than the Justice and Peace movement, bigger than CAFOD – bigger than the Catholic Church. Perhaps what is most precious is our relationship with Jesus Christ. But then, of course, we need to wonder ‘which’ Jesus do see as our friend?
Is our Jesus the ‘meek and mild’ figure who is simply ‘nice’?
Is our Jesus the angry man throwing out the money changers from the Temple?
Is our Jesus the highly provocative challenger of rather loyal and faithful, yet narrow minded and hearted Pharisees?
Is our Jesus the travelling preacher, or the courageous toucher of lepers, healer of the ‘unclean’ possessed, homeless man who lived in a graveyard in close proximity to pigs?
Is our Jesus the befriender of Samaritan women at wells, the baby born in a stable the lonely figure spending the night with Abba?
Is our Jesus the host of the Last Supper, the tortured forgiving victim betrayed by those closest to him?
Is our Jesus the Risen Lord who constantly gives his closest friends more and more chances to believe and follow him?
To whom do we commit ourselves, in faithfulness and loyalty? To be a friend or follower of Jesus to serve others in God’s name is a privilege in itself, it requires no further reward. Our faith teases us and beckons us into a deeper and deeper relationship with Jesus, supported by the community and tradition we call our Church. A gathering such as this today brings together ‘the faithful’ open to becoming more willing disciples, more prophetic people in our world today. Prophetic people don’t struggle to accommodate the wishes of powerful people; they struggle to discover what contributes to ‘right relationship’ what helps to establish the Common Good. The ‘common good’ is whatever is best for the whole human family or the whole community of living beings or the whole universe in its grand unfolding. We are not isolated individuals, no one is an island, we are essential parts of the body of Christ.
During his recent visit, on Friday 17 September, Pope Benedict addressed Politicians, Diplomats and Business Leaders in Westminster Central Hall. I saw it on TV and thought it was a hugely impressive and important moment. Near the end of his speech he said:
To turn solidarity into effective action call for fresh thinking that will improve life conditions in many important areas, such as food production, clean water, job creation, education, support5 to families, especially migrants, and basic healthcare. Where human lives are concerned, time is always short: yet the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed too ‘big to fail’. Surely the integral human development of the world’s peoples is no less important: here is an enterprise, worthy of the world’s attention, that is truly ‘too big to fail’.
The £65 million raised over the last 50 years as a result of Family Fast Days is a magnificent achievement. It is a witness to huge solidarity and generosity, it is a bit of a note with which we can creep tentatively towards the promised land of heaven, and it is a commitment that cannot fail to help the poor of the world.
So, as we give thanks for the grace given to those volunteers 50 years ago, I’d like to ask some of the younger members of our gather to come together in 2060, in 50 years time, to see how they’ve held on to the vision of Habakkuk, committed themselves to the energy and dedication of Paul to Timothy and delighted in the privilege of being a follower and lover of the Lord.
Fr Jim O’Keefe 3 October 2010.