Sometime we overlook the importance of the contributions of some of the Minor Prophets in the Bible. The first reading in our mass today is taken from one of these, the Prophet Nehemiah. Nehemiah lived in a time when the chosen people were trickling home from Babylon and seeking to re-establish their lives. One of the most heart-breaking moments in the bible is Nehemiah’s description of Jerusalem, which had once been a stately city, now lying in ruins. Imagine an Irish person coming back to Ireland after it had been ruined from foreign invaders. There has been a lot of talk in the media about walls, we have Donald Trumps famous border wall; we are hoping that there will be no walls – hard borders between Ireland and Northern Ireland. One of the essential characteristics of any city is its walls; if the walls are breached then the identity of these people is compromised. A wall is essential to the health of a city just as the wall of the cell is essential to the health of the cell. Nehemiah found that the walls of Jerusalem had been breached and thus it was porous to outward influences. He decided to rebuild the identity of the people of Israel.
- The first thing he did was to rebuild the walls to preserve their identity.
- The second thing he did was to recast the spiritual, intellectual, and moral life of the people. He did this with the help of Ezra who was a priest. He found a copy of the Torah (first five books in the Bible) and first reading today tells us how “men and women…” They listened from dawn until noon (6 hours) and you think that you have to listen to long sermons.
With these two moves Nehemiah wanted to re-build up the identity of the chosen people of God. Israel had always been aware of its mission, which was to bring the God of Israel to all the nations of the world. There is an old Latin adage “nemo dat quod non habet”. They had to preserve themselves from the world for the sake of the world. If they lost their identity they could not fulfil their mission. We must never lose sight of who we are. I think this is so particular to Irish people. When you travel you will always find these pockets of Irish people abroad. The Irish always maintained their integrity and identity: poems, songs, culture, and storytelling. When we hear stories of the Irish people, we all feel so proud to have their genes. Israel was in danger of losing its identify, the walls of the city had become so porous, there was the danger that they would not be able to fulfil their mission.
The church is the new Israel. After Vatican II the walls of the church become so porous that many people within the church forgot what it meant to be catholic. Vatican II encouraged the church to be open, to attend to the signs of the times, to read the signs of the times, it encouraged the church to open the windows yes, but not to tear down the walls, we were called to open the windows not to modernise the church but to Christianise the world. We must never lose sight of our mission of our identity as Catholics. Modern culture should not be the norm for the Church; modern culture has aspects that are compatible with Gods message but there are also aspects that are incompatible. Unless we know who we are, our identity, we cannot transform the world. Walls are important but we should not hunker down – cower down – behind these walls, we should let the light out. If the walls of Noah’s ark had been so porous it would have sunk, these walls had to protect the People from the floods of destruction and when the time came the light was let out. Walls are important but so are windows and bridges and the rhythm (balance) between the walls and windows is essential and central to the health of the church. I’ll just finish with a quote from John Henry Newman: The church is not an organization it is an organism, a living thing. An organism has to have its own identity if not it will die. This balance between walls, windows, and bridges is essential to the life and identity of our church.