Thinking Anew – Our desire for community is instinctive

   Ethel Sinclair (100), with care staff Cathy Lacey and Lauren Adams, who received the coronavirus vaccine at Bradley Manor care home in north Belfast.  Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Ethel Sinclair (100), with care staff Cathy Lacey and Lauren Adams, who received the coronavirus vaccine at Bradley Manor care home in north Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

 

Clergy in churches up and down the country worked hard to keep in touch with people during the recent lockdown. Online services and other forms of distance engagement were developed but, as one serving colleague said, it just wasn’t the same without people. Talking to a camera in an empty building is not easy.

We miss each people not only in church but everywhere and not just because we like each other but because we need each other. Our desire to be with others is instinctive. Throughout this pandemic our leaders have assured us that they have been guided by science and we are fortunate to have the benefits of such expertise. But medical science does not have all the answers when it comes to understanding what it means to be a person and it is arguable that not enough attention has been paid to people’s spiritual and social needs. Juvenal, a first-century Roman poet wrote, “Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano” (You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.) There has been too much hidden and sometimes tragic cost caused by isolation and loneliness these past months.

Our shared experience of isolation ought to give us a better understanding of what it means for those who live full-time on the margins of society. Their plight is compounded by the fact that some of them find it difficult to fit in and that can be a problem for those wanting to help. However, it is made worse when wider society dismisses them as unworthy or undeserving. They deserve to be treated with respect.

The German theologian Dorothee Sölle wrote: “Death is what takes place when we look upon others not as gift, blessing or stimulus but as threat, danger, competition.”

For most of us with the new year promise of a vaccine, there is light at the end of the tunnel but for the outsiders, “the least of these (our) brethren”, normality means further isolation and loneliness. There is little light ahead for refugees, homeless people, and those among us struggling with addiction.

When Jesus was invited to read from the scriptures in his local synagogue, he chose the passage from the Book of Isaiah (Ch. 61), which we read in church tomorrow: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners . . .”

He would later be driven out of town by the churchgoers because they did not like the challenging words of their own Hebrew scriptures, but their hostility did not prevent him from making clear where his priorities lay.

In tomorrow’s Gospel reading we meet John the Baptist, “a man sent from God”. We are reminded that “he himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” – the light being Jesus Christ and his gospel – a warning to churches and individuals not to put themselves centre stage or compromise the message. The Christian gospel makes sense because it addresses the real needs of our world by promoting “the things which make for peace” – love, compassion, justice, truth and more – exactly what a broken world needs. The fact that self-serving humanity resists does not invalidate these truths; they are self-authenticating.

The Benedictine writer Dom Hubert van Zeller wrote: “The world may be in darkness, but this should not upset us. Christ is the light of the world. If we bring this truth into the context of our own experience, we must know that light inaccessible has invited us to enter into this light. He has asked us not merely to reflect it but to be it. Otherwise his words ‘you are the light of the world . . . the salt of the earth’, are no more than an oratorical flourish. Jesus did not go in for oratorical flourishes.”

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