I want to take you to a little house situated not far from the centre of a small rural community.  Nothing sets it out as anything special – nothing specific – its just like all the rest in the neighbourhood – functional but poor, simple, houses in that rather quiet part of the village.  As we enter, we see ‘mum’ going about her daily work – washing, cleaning and polishing, mending, cooking and baking ready for the evening meal.  She sets the table so that the family can sit and eat, then sits down – for the first time in the long day – and relaxes, rests, waiting for her men-folk to come in from work.  They will be hot and tired and hungry. 

But, this working ‘mum’, you can see, is uneasy.  She tries to relax, but relaxation does not come easy.  Her face shows the worry that is troubling her – unsettling her.  You feel for her – this hard-working, caring, loving matriarch of the family – and want to try to help.  But help you cannot – she cannot even help herself. You see, she does not know what is troubling her.  She cannot ‘put her finger’ on it. She just knows, with a mother’s intuition, instinct even, that there is ‘something in the wind’, something indefinable, not spoken, not visible, but turning her life ‘upside down’.  She utters a prayer – that things will be alright – and then the mood is broken, as her husband and son come in from their day’s work, from the workshop, nearby.  They are hot and dirty from their labours.  Her husband washes and then almost ‘collapses in a heap’ to wait for his ‘tea’.  He is old and rather weary – getting near to retirement – but retirement would bring further problems.  They have little money on which to live and his work keeps them surviving.  Once he finishes work, their income would suffer and life would be all the harder.  The son, grown up now, would then have to provide for the family and, with just one person working, the money coming in would be halved, almost.  Son follows father, washes, and gets ready for his meal.  Suddenly, he puts his arms around his mother and says: “Love you, mum!”

They sit to the table and ‘mum’ serves the simple meal.  They sit and eat – mostly in silence – each with their own thoughts on the day’s events, and wondering what tomorrow may bring.  The scene is outwardly peaceful – a small family, grouped round the table, eating their evening meal – but there is an undercurrent.  All is not right.  Each of them is aware of something deep – troubling – worrying. All is not quite at peace. 

All at once, the son breaks the silence and sets hearts blazing: “Sorry to have to say this, mum, dad, but I am going to have to leave home.”  Mum and dad look at each other and turn, the unspoken question alight in their eyes.  Then Jesus answers their look and drops the rest of his ‘bombshell’: “Tomorrow – I have other work to do.” 

Mary and Joseph – still speechless – cannot come to terms with what has just happened.  In shock, they ask with loving hearts and eyes – the unspoken question, “Why”, and food has long since been forgotten.  Joseph, is beside himself with concern for the son – his life-long friend and help-mate – and what will happen to his family?  Mary, heart and eyes full of tears – remembers the words of the wise old man in the Temple, to the effect that a ‘sword should pierce her heart’ – and knows also that, for the future, there is much, much worse still to come, for she knows the scriptures and cannot forget those words of Jesus, spoken many years previously – also in the Temple – “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?”  And Mary knows something about how God works!

Thus, from this most unsettling scene in Nazareth, with a ‘bombshell’ that near tore his family apart, Jesus begins his life’s vocation, to then go about his Father’s affairs and begin his public ministry.  On the morrow, he gathers his few personal things together, says his ‘Goodbyes’ to Joseph and Mary and walks away from his home – the home in which he has been happy for some 30 years, a home in which he has been subject to mum’s, and dad’s, love and controlling influence, a home in which he has repaid that love with perfect devotion to his earthly ‘parents’. 

It must have been a very sad parting – one tinged with deep regret, that the days of childhood and youth were now long-gone – with steps into a future, unknown.  Mary and Joseph must have been beside themselves with grief at the ‘loss’ of a ‘son’ they loved with all their hearts.  Yet in all this, and because of the people they were, they would be accepting all that was happening as the will of God.  They would be praying to Him that things would turn out well, knowing full well that God knows, far better than any of us, the ‘why’s’ and the ‘wherefores’, and what the future holds.  Even in deep sorrow, Mary and Joseph – I think – would still be aware of the immensity of the ‘job-in-hand’, the life-changing importance of the work Jesus was about to undertake, and so there may have been a sort of ‘acceptance’ – a sort of ‘not my will, but thy will be done’ – about it all.  I hope so, because, without that kind of assurance, the parting would then have been nothing short of disastrous – and what would have been the point?

Bishop Seamus Cunningham, Hexham & Newcastle, ordains Fr. Marc Lynden-Smith at St. Aloysius Church, Hebburn, 12 June 2010

I have been trying to reconcile the scene at Nazareth with some kind of parallel, within the realms of my own experience – difficult, I know – but there is one which, without too much imagination, has some common themes to commend it.   Many years ago, whilst still at Grammar School, I remember visiting priests coming to talk to the student body about vocations to the priesthood (and religious life).  I remember some of the heart-breaking, heart-rending decisions such visits brought about in some families, when sons and daughters decided they would choose to leave home and study for the priesthood.  Parents – invariably, they would have been loving parents, almost by definition – must then have been ‘pitch-forked’ into the ‘Mary and Joseph’ situation, only to find themselves between the proverbial ‘rock and a hard-place’ – torn between love for their children and their love of God, pride that their children should be choosing to give their lives to God, yet despair at the apparent ‘loss’ of ones held so dear.  I remember such thoughts crossing my mind whilst still at a rather tender age.  I remember my parents’ reactions when I voiced them, and though they would not have stood in my way, they would have been saddened, I know, should I have made the decision to take things further.  It was not to be! I think I would have made a rather poor job of it, in any case, – but the thoughts, the feelings, the concern and the worries the decision would have caused – are still part of my make-up.  

Fr. Marc Receives His Chalice at His Ordination, 12 June 2010

From the point of view of an ‘outsider’, I cannot begin to fully comprehend, fully understand, the feelings of separation – how could I?  However, it seems to me that in making the decision to follow one’s vocation to the Religious Life, this must inevitably involve mixed ‘blessings’.  I see great ‘sacrifices’ made  by parents, that sense of loss, those feelings of leaving behind home and family – something like tearing away an arm or a leg – to begin studies leading, eventually, to the giving of one’s life to God, but then there are the compensations – and very rewarding ones at that!  

Having come to know Father Jonathan and several other monk priests very well – with many years of learning on my part – I begin to realise something, I think, of the peace and harmony in their lives – lives devoted to the service of God and their fellow brothers and sisters.  This is not to say that priests, monks and nuns have it easy – surely, there are tribulations, distractions, along the way – but ultimately, they are following the example of Jesus, who left home and family behind at Nazareth.  And with just one driving motive – to serve; to serve God and do His will; to serve their fellow men and women and to help them on their way to paradise.    

And not just our friends, the Benedictines, but great ‘servants’ from the Jesuits, Redemptorists, Franciscans and many others, those who give their lives to the Missions, the many orders of nuns – Sisters Gabriel, Anna and Veronica, providing us with just three wonderful examples from the many other Religious Orders – all people, and religious, serving God and their communities – something magnified thousands of times throughout the Church.  What wonderful gifts from God – gifts to the men and women who make this ‘sacrifice’ –  to their parents, to their communities and the world, at large.  On  this note, and as this ‘Year of the Priest’ comes to an end, it would be as well to remember all this, and to thank God for his great love.  Without these men and women, our societies – and our lives – would be, so, so much more, the poorer.  We thank God for all this.  We thank all our priests, monks, brothers and sisters, who give their lives to serve us.

Jesus left home and family – to serve his community and world – in much the same way – then to make the ultimate sacrifice to His Father.  Parallels – yes, parallels there certainly are – across two thousand years – the service to mankind in between.

And, the answer to the rhetorical question in the title?  To serve – is to love – is to live!