Readings: Isaiah 49:1-6 Acts 13:22-26 Luke 1:57-66,80.
A Homily preached at the First Mass of Fr. Alex Ladds
‘What will this child turn out to be?’ they wondered. (Luke i.lxvi)
In his legendary comedy sketch The Blood Donor, Tony Hancock offers us his thoughts on discernment and public service.
‘Something for the benefit of the country as a whole. What should it be, I thought? Become a Blood Donor or join the Young Conservatives? But as I’m not looking for a wife, and I can’t play Table Tennis, here I am.’
Father Alex, your processes of discernment have, we pray, been slightly more exacting than Hancock’s, as he determined to offer his blood. But we should acknowledge that the task has similarities. The shedding of blood should be part of the consciousness of every priest, because the shedding of Christ’s blood has a direct message for us as you stand, alter Christus, at the altar this morning. The call to priesthood is, at heart, a call to witness, and to sacrifice.
Like a fine wine, your priestly vocation has matured through a number of phases and roles. What will this child turn out to be? A Theologian? A Police Officer? A rugby player? A Teacher? A son? A brother? A husband? A Dad? Father Alex has turned out to be all these things, and more, for Jesus teaches us that we, precious humanity that we are, are not simply defined by the parts we play – but are unique, precious and, to Jesus’ way of thinking, to die for. And yesterday we celebrated because not merely another role, but rather a whole new character, was imprinted upon him – a share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ himself, the only priesthood which exists, and from whose identity all priesthood in the church derives.
And I hope , Father, you won’t mind me saying that this has been coming for a long time. From conversations in Heathcotes, and on Fishergate, in Woodplumpton Vicarage and other such places, I with many others have been privileged to watch with joy as you have discovered, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, that your life, your identity, your very being, is to be consumed in the joy of priesthood, the joy of the Gospel, the identity of Jesus Christ himself. This does not remove the other roles or identities (although it may have been a while since you strayed down the blind-side of a scrum with less than moral intent) – rather, it enhances and completes them. Put simply, all your relationships change today, because you have changed – a major step towards the person God intends you to be, a further stage on the journey towards what John Henry Newman called the ‘final me.’
And you, for a moment the newest priest that ever there was yesterday afternoon, waste no time in doing what a priest does, being who a priest is. You hasten to the altar, here to reveal the presence of Jesus, whose priesthood you now share, in the species of bread and wine, obeying your Lord’s command, so that we, the people you serve, might be fed with this most sublime and mysterious food. This priesthood is a shared enterprise, both in the sense that this is a gift to all priests, but also because this priesthood is a gift to the whole church – the local church here, certainly, but more widely, across the universal church.
A new priest is a sign of great Good News, and of hope for the church – a sign that God continues to provide for, feed and guide his people. The priestly task which we share with Jesus Christ is the task of guiding his precious people through the gates of heaven. I have often thought that priests will indeed be the last people into heaven – because of the task of making sure that everyone is safely home, following behind, with a brush and shovel if necessary. If that sounds over-romanticised, it nevertheless points to an important truth – that priesthood is a vital part of the means by which God reveals his ultimate purposes for his people, by which the church fulfils her role as the very continuation of Jesus Christ. And this is so, because the priest is the assurance of the presence of Jesus, God-with-us.
Father, you remarked to me in the lead up to today that we would celebrate The Birth of John the Baptist – because he has accompanied you throughout your life. He is not the most comfortable of companions along the way – but he is hugely effective in mission. He is vital to the life of the church and the world at this time. He is the lifeguard who slaps us in the face to bring us to our senses, so that we do not drown in sin. He is the original ‘critical friend’. What did that child turn out to be? ‘A prophet, yes, and more than a prophet’, one who speaks the truth with little by way of varnish, because he can read the signs of the times, and because it is the only way he knows to get people ready for Jesus. The Baptist reminds us all of the urgency of the task – that of proclaiming the gospel, of winning souls for Christ, of preaching the dire need for repentance and reconciliation, of living the life which results in the completion of the sacrifice. And this – a life soaked in love, in priestly service, is an aspect of the answer, the antidote, if you will, to the turbulent and violent world in which we live. We can only counter these things by love, supreme love, and our task is to live this, to embody it, to proclaim it incessantly into the uncertainty and turbulence.
And it is for this task that the Lord has conferred his character, his charism upon Fr. Alex, because it is the best use of Fr. Alex, the best use of his many talents, and because it is what God had in mind for him since before he was born. We who know him delight in this, because it is good for us too – richer, deeper blessing, a visible reminder of the closeness of God to each and every one of us, further evidence of God-with-us. God has again provided, and we who benefit from this grace rejoice, and will keep rejoicing, until it is accomplished, and Christ is all in all.
Vicar of Ettingshall
Preached at All Saints Church, Broughton, North Yorkshire, 25 June 2017