Address given at the Judges Service Monday 3 October
3 October 2011 at 11:00 am
The Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster
August was a difficult month: difficult for families, difficult - very difficult - for police forces, ruinous for some shop-keepers and businesses, deeply distressing for many local communities, and demanding - exceptionally so - for many court rooms and their services.
It was also a period of days in which many aspects of the faith communities in our cities were seen for what they are: not at all part of the problem but a significant part of the solution.
Many church leaders have spoken of the role of priests, pastors and people over those days and nights of civil disturbance and looting. One Catholic priest spoke of his efforts at guiding many young people away from criminal action, even the simple act of picking up looted goods abandoned on the roadside. Chaplains to the police worked worked hard to give support. Churches and halls became focal points of prayer and of gatherings expressing support for hurting, bewildered people. Mr Jahan, in Birmingham, speaking out of the depth of his Muslim faith, turned the tide of events by his passion and courage.
But this morning we reflect on the administration of justice and the work of the courts. That work was relentless in some places. And it was not easy, for it became the focal point of so much outrage, and so many questions.
Perhaps those weeks, more than anything else, illustrated the need for our prayer this morning. And I am honoured to be part of it, highlighting its ecumenical nature. It is right that we followers of Christ come together to ask the Lord's blessing on this important and challenging work.
The administration of justice relates closely to the truth about our human lives, affirmed and illuminated by our Christian faith. The simple truth is this: actions always have their consequences. We are not, and never have been, and never shall be, autonomous individuals able to act as we please, as we think fit, as if we were detached from all around us. Even if the cult of the autonomous individual carries considerable weight today, we know it is misleading.
The deeper understanding of our shared nature is that we belong together and have serious responsibilities towards each other, within families, within schools, associations, enterprise and as a society.
The deeper understanding still is that this mutual belonging is rooted in the hidden depth of life itself, rising from the mystery of God and, in the end, inexplicable in it's meaning when wrenched apart from that mystery. It is, then, in the things of God that our sure perspectives are to be found concerning the meaning of our lives, their origin and destiny, the patterns of good living which arise from those perspectives and, most relevantly, how we are to respond to failure, sin, crime, in terms of judgement, punishment, retribution, pardon, mercy and new freedom.
These things are, within the judicial system, your business, your bread and butter. So you know how delicate, complex and demanding they are.
So we pray for God's blessing and we look to God's word for our guidance.
The Words of Scripture we have just heard may speak to us with a certain directness. Let us reflect on them.
The first reading was from St Paul's Letter to the Galatians. In his Letter, Paul is passionate. The challenges he was facing were radical: was he truly an apostle, or an imposter? Was his message no more than a variant on the Jewish faith - with it's requirement of circumcision - or was it breaking new ground? In his Letter Paul is at his most forceful. And the lines we heard, the conclusion of the Letter, are special, for just before them Paul tells us that he has taken up the pen himself, to add this final flourish:
"See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand"
Then his punch line:
"May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world."
Why is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ so central for us today? Because it reveals to us, spells out for us, the justice of God, God's response to our failure, our sin; God's working of judgement, retribution, pardon, mercy and new freedom.
This revelation of God's justice is most fully expressed in the figure of our crucified Saviour. In Christ's body, broken on the cross, we see the effects of sin - our sins, too. We know well that every sin, every crime, no matter how hidden it may seem to be, has a victim. In the crucified Christ we glimpse the unwavering love of God, his endless mercy for God permits all our failures, the damage we do, and our anger at it, to be absorbed by Jesus - absorbed into the infinite capacity of his divinity - so that the justice of God, who cannot be deceived, may issue forth in forgiveness and freedom.
Our systems of justice do not reach those heights. Nor could they, limited as they are by our human nature, our incomplete understandings, our best effort at judgement which will be subject to review and revision. Nevertheless we welcome this glimpse of divine justice. We strive to reflect it as best we can and we are consoled - I trust - that it awaits us when we come before God, as we most surely will, for we know that actions have their consequences also in the eyes of God.
St Paul boasts in the cross of Christ. We can, at least, find our consolation and hope in it.
The words of the Gospel add another reflection. Jesus speaks of his yoke as "easy" and his burden as "light". This makes more sense when we recall that the yoke, used to support the weight of the burden, was carved and adjusted to fit the person's shoulders. A well fitting yoke was easy to use and made a burden light.
This is how we may understand our Christian calling. Our relationship with Christ, personal, unique, intimate, helps us to face the challenges and bear the burdens of office with serenity. Knowing that we are trying to do what is right, rather than what is convenient, finds it's support and encouragement in the person of Jesus, who walks with us every day.
This relationship is at the heart of our sense of purpose in life, our vocation. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta said "Many people mistake their work for their vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus." May this sense of vocation support and encourage you all.
These two short readings are taken from the Liturgy for the Feast of St Francis of Assisi which comes tomorrow. I made this choice for a simple reason. For St Francis too the Cross was central to his experience of faith. Indeed, as is well known, he bore the wounds of Christ in his own body, in the stigmata.
In the first reading St Paul speaks of "carrying the marks of Jesus branded on my body". No one knows for sure what exactly he means. But the witness of Francis and Paul is sufficient for us, too, to strive that our lives, our work, are distinguished by the marks of Christ. In particular, may your lives be marked by a passion for the truth, a compassion for the weak and an unfailing commitment to justice before the law and before the throne of God.
3 October 2011