St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Advent 3 2008

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On this 3rd Sunday in Advent, called Gaudete Sunday, we have reached the mid-point of the season of Advent. Today is one of the Sundays in the liturgical year that takes its name from the first words of the Introit. The Introit is taken from St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians 4:4,5: "Gaudete in Domino semper" ("Rejoice in the Lord always").  

 

Because we are half way through Advent the church historically has given us a little breather – to prepare us for the last stretch before Christmas. The vestments are rose in colour, to show that we indeed are rejoicing, as opposed to the violet of Advent showing the penitential nature of the season.

 

For us as a parish today is the Sunday when we welcome the members of the Military and Hospitaller Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem at Mass. They join us on the Sunday closest to St Lazarus Day, the 17th December.

 

The members of the Order were last here for my Institution, after which a number of people asked me who the people in the black cloaks were. The Military and Hospitaller Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem was founded during the Crusades in the Holy Land.  Like the other orders of religious knights those of St Lazarus adopted the eight pointed Beatitude cross – what we so often call a Maltese cross – as their badge. The Knights who placed themselves under the patronage of St Lazarus, to whom was later added Our Lady of Mount Carmel, used a green cross.

 

Members of the orders fighting in the Holy Land sometimes contracted leprosy. When they did, as a way of isolating them and protecting the other knights they were transferred to the Knights of St Lazarus.

 

Not only did these various Orders fight in the Holy Land but they also focussed on particular works of mercy. Because so many of them were afflicted with leprosy, the knights of St Lazarus looked after those who suffered from the same disease. They built a hospital near the Jerusalem city wall, next to St Stephen’s Gate. Through the years the word ‘Lazar’ became used to describe a hospital set up by the Order of St Lazarus for the treatment of lepers.  Throughout Europe you can find still find buildings which started life as a lazar.

 

Here in Cape Town the Order forged a link with our Parish in the early 1990’s when Fr Binns became a member of the Order. That link was further reinforced earlier this year when Archbishop Desmond blessed the St Lazarus Chapel in the South transept.

 

For many people the finest example of the church working for people with leprosy comes to us from the Kingdom of Hawaii, before that country joined the United States of America. The King of Hawaii had established a leper colony on the island of Molokai. The Diocese of Honolulu wanted to set up some work with the people living in the leper colony. A young Belgian priest, Fr Damien de Veuster, volunteered to go to live in the colony. Four nuns volunteered to go with him. He spent most of his adult life as the priest in that community, until the day came when he was one of them – he had contracted the disease. He ended his days there. At present Fr Damien is in the process of being canonised as a saint – he is currently on the second stage, where he is known as “Blessed”.

 

The story is told on one of the nuns who was on Molokai to help Fr Damien. Every night the sisters would go through the ward of their pretty rough and ready hospital to settle the patients for the night. One night this particular sister did not turn left to leave the ward to go to the convent, but turned right and knelt down at the side of the empty bed at the end of the ward – she had become one of the lepers.

 

What of today? The disease is more properly known as Hansen’s Disease, and is treated by a course of medication. People who suffer from it are no longer banished, but more often than not, undergo their treatment at home. Leprosy is one of the fastest growing diseases in certain parts of Africa. The highest rate of growth is in Mozambique. The Leprosy Mission, which has been supported by this parish in the past, has a number of clinics in the rural parts of Mazambique.

 

In today’s Gospel our Lord receives some messengers of John the Baptist. They ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” There was this spiritual hunger for God’s messiah - God’s chosen one. Jesus told them to go back to John and report what they had seen: the blind received their sight, the lame walked, those who had leprosy were cured, the deaf heard, the dead were raised to life and the good news was preached. What a simple, uncomplicated description of the work of Jesus.

 

In this story from the life of our Lord we learn that the various works of healing were placed on a par with the preaching of the good news. The gospel was not merely words, but rather actions as well. The ministry to those who had disabilities and sicknesses, even the dreaded disease of leprosy, was vitally important to Jesus, and therefore should also be in the church of today.

 

It is fitting that today, as the members of St Lazarus visit us here at St Michael’s, there is an ordination being held in the cathedral. Those who are being ordained priest in the Church of God will take their place with those countless numbers through the years who have, through their ministry, brought sight to the blind, movement to the lame, cleansing to the lepers, hearing to the deaf and life to the dead. The good news will be preached. The work of the church continues in both the care of those in physical need and those who need to receive the gospel.

 

Our world is in just as much need as the world in which Jesus lived and moved around. People are still searching for meaning to their lives. In their yearning, they still ask the question posed Jesus by those messengers from his cousin, “Are you the one?” The statement of our Lord to the messengers of John the Baptist is just as valid as an answer to that question. Jesus said “…report what you hear and see…”

 

Now may God bless you as you rejoice in your preparation for the birth of the one for whom the whole world waits, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

     
 

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