Patronal Homily Abbot Paul Gunter
Abbot Paul Gunter of Douai on 25 July 2023, St James's, London
Anyone who has experienced surprise and relief at the sight of the iconic scallop shell with the yellow arrow that signposts the Camino de Santiago, will know the choice of a path of desire that surrenders to unique fascination with Jesus Christ. Put simply, the experience of the Camino, shows that one’s pilgrimage does not end in Santiago but begins there.
Like the Magi who learnt how to worship the newborn Christ; after Santiago, we are the same, but not the same. Our lives have been infused with new perspectives. For the Magi, nothing earthly mattered as it once did; even the wisdom of the stars in which they were well-versed. Hope eclipsed any other objective they had thought was enough. Returning from the Christ-Child, the Magi were ‘caught up through him in love of things invisible.’ Only their mystic gifts would give sense amid their remarkable conversion, with Life in the Trinity ahead of them. It can be suggested that their actions were the first experience of ‘baptism of desire’ ever granted. Three consecutive stages that followed indicate this, and chart the way to worship for all of us: ‘Vision’, ‘Submission’, and ‘Consecration’.
If you look at the front of the beautiful High Altar, designed by Bentley, you will behold a similar scene, but including the Shepherds with the Magi, and depicting many saints in whom God inspired conversion during two millennia. To illustrate the point, among them are St Mary Magdalen and St Francis of Assisi, whose well-attested conversions radiate still the hope humanity craves. By way of assurance, even from the imagery of Our Lord Cleansing of the Temple, because Our Lord had found corruption there, sin was not to have the last word. Jesus made the Father’s intentions clear: “God needed not that any should testify of man, for he himself knew what was in man” (Jn 2:25). Poignantly, amid that array of saints at the front of the altar, fourth on the right from Our Lady, is St James.
By contrast from the Magi, who by preparation were erudite and wise, the style with which Our Lord approached Simon, Andrew, James and John was very different, ‘for they were fishermen’. The life Jesus plasmated in these simple men, was for conversion to follow, in continuity with John the Baptist his forerunner, who had ‘leapt for joy at the coming of human salvation’. From John to Jesus there are also the movements from waiting to presence, and from promise to preparation. This is what emerges from the words of the first and concise announcement Jesus makes: ‘Repent and believe in the Gospel’ (Mk 1:15). Jesus passed by the Sea of Galilee and called these fishermen, individually, certainly, but as ‘men in communion’ with him. Simon and Andrew left their nets and followed after Jesus. James the Son of Zebedee and his brother John stopped mending theirs. Christ called. They followed him. From the infinity of God, only these apostles would be able from heaven to describe the tenderness of their human interchange with Our Lord, of how it was that they were inexorably drawn after him, and of the heart of flesh Jesus had now placed within them. What they learnt from discipleship is as applicable to us as to them, in short points: There is no substitute for prayer and solitude with Jesus. Jesus is free to choose and call those whom he wishes. Our response to the call is essential. A way of communion identifies a shared life of companionship with Jesus and the other disciples. The mission is to teach and to heal.
Scant detail is given of the martyrdom of St James except that he was killed by the sword. That, in itself, indicated St James’ position in the Church of Jerusalem, as well as increasing acceptance that Christians witnessing to the Lord faced martyrdom. Yet, the martyrdom of the Apostle James, as a ‘man in communion’, we can see from the Acts of the Apostles, was surrounded by the arrest of Peter, in whose context, sub et cum Petro, submissive to and with Peter, we note the ‘sense of Church’ or ecclesiology already at work in the other Apostles. For Peter, ‘the Church prayed […] unremittingly’. Peter, too, underwent his own and very personal conversion for service. St Augustine addressed Peter figuratively for the whole Church until the end of time, that none should despair of forgiveness: “Do not be sad, Apostle! Answer once, answer again, answer a third time. Let confession conquer three times with love, because self-assurance was conquered by fear […] and for all that, the Lord […] entrusted his sheep to Peter.”
The mystery of God’s election is at the core. Jesus did not merely ‘appoint’ the apostles. The Greek makes it evident that Jesus ‘made’ them into apostles. He transformed very ordinary, sinful, and unpromising persons into active vessels of divine grace. That is why of ourselves and of anything God might do with us, we can say with St Paul: “We are only the earthenware jars […] to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us.” Jesus lay absolute store on his knowledge at first-hand that conversion was not only possible, but that people change genuinely because of it.
This should give us encouragement to open ourselves to God and see what happens when we have become ‘available’ for the mission of God. To any society that has all-but ‘abolished’ forgiveness, as if there could be no second chance, Pope Francis cautioned against this attitude during an Angelus address he gave last year:
“Brothers and sisters, God believes in us! God trusts us and accompanies us with patience, the patience of God with us. He does not become discouraged, but always instils his hope in us. God is Father and looks after you like a father. As the best of fathers, he does not look at the achievements you have not yet reached, but the fruits you can still bear. He does not keep track of your shortcomings but encourages your potential. He does not dwell on your past, but confidently bets on your future.”
So, let us pray that the sacrifice offered here this evening may be acceptable to God. I did notice, St Benedict is also to be found on the front of the altar, fifth on the right from the centre. The second chapter of his Rule, such a civilising document, written in the fifth century, asks of abbots such facility as ‘serves all temperaments’ - ‘multorum servire moribus’ so that the father and teacher adapt himself to individual personalities. That is what Christ has always done. He still does that throughout the Church when our hearts open to the hope his call holds for us now.
As for St James ‘in the Twelve’, and the Church throughout the ages, so the Lord has broad and brave horizons for us, if we would but have the confidence to look at them. This is the only time in history that we have, with which to make God better known and loved, and the world a more just place. In his thirtieth Sermon, St Augustine, more than fifteen hundred years ago, faced down the pessimism around him of people who wished they had been alive in a different era: “Bad times, hard times, this is what people keep saying; but let us live well, and the times will be good. We are the time: Such as we are, such are the times!”
The great apostle James, was asked if he could drink the Precious Chalice of the Father’s will that Christ would drink. Let us avow, then, to fix our eyes on God in ‘Vision’, ‘Submission’, and ‘Consecration’. Christ’s Body and Blood at the altar give us life now; and union with him is a pledge of life hereafter. Words by a sixteenth century Augustinian Friar, Luis de León painted in Spanish along the camino near Ponferrada in the Province of León, tell us this night, why, in God, who is the eternal day, St James’ feastday should reassure us.
“Cuando se os acabare todo, se os dard todo El”
“When you have run out of all else, then he will give all of himself to you. He will unite your whole selves to himself in a tight and most sweet bond that will never fail.”