For those about to be Professed in the Third Order
SERMON FOR PROFESSIONS, NOVICING AND RENEWAL,
Western Australia Region, AD 2011
by Ted Witham tssf
A wonderful word in the New Testament is ‘homologia’, which means ‘profession’. In Hebrews 10:23, we are urged to ‘hold fast to the profession of our hope without wavering, because the One who promised is faithful.’ Earlier in Hebrews in 4:14, ‘Having then a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold tightly to our profession.’
Today some of our number come to make Profession, and others of us will renew our Profession. We note that it is Profession of hope, and that Jesus, the Son of God, empowers us to make this Profession.
In the three centuries following the death and resurrection of Jesus, there was an extraordinary process for new believers who wanted to make the great Profession that they had been filled with the resurrection faith. They underwent a two or three year preparation called the catechumenate, which involved learning about the faith, attending the Eucharist up until the Offertory, and being mentored by another Christian into works of charity. When Easter came after two or three years, the catechumens made their great Profession, their ‘homologia’ during their baptism by immersion in a great ceremony. They went down into the font naked (or dressed in a loin cloth) and were robed in white when they came up out of the waters.
I promise you that the Profession you make does not involve immersion baptism or even near nudity. And of course you have made your great Profession in your baptism and confirmation. Profession as a Tertiary does not replace baptism, but in it you effectively renew your baptismal promises. Listen to the words you will say:
I, N., give myself to our Lord Jesus Christ, to serve him for the rest of my life in company with my brothers and sisters in the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis, seeking to spread the knowledge and love of Christ, to promote the spirit of love and harmony as the family of God and to live joyfully a life of simplicity and humble service after the example of Saint Francis.
A big Profession indeed; a public statement of an earnest and passionate response to a call from God.
Don’t under-estimate the power of this renewal. A friend of ours years ago had a charismatic experience, and he asked his fairly conservative parish priest if he could be baptised again. The priest answered, correctly, ‘No.’ And our friend kept asking. The priest could not give any other answer. Then the parish had its first Easter Vigil including the renewal of baptismal vows. Our friend was ecstatic, “It’s happened, it’s happened!” he shouted excitedly, “I’ve been baptised again.”
I hope that your great Profession this morning captures some of that same excitement.
The preparation for your Profession has been similar to the catechumenate. You have met for two or three years with a mentor. The Novice Counsellor has helped you reflect on this Franciscan way. She or he invited you to find ways of expressing Franciscan spirituality in prayer and action.
The catechumenate has a number of other characteristics worth mentioning. One was that if catechumens were martyred before they were baptised, they were considered to have been baptised in their blood. It is my personal belief (not in the statutes at all!) that Novices who die should be considered full Tertiaries, but in any case, the comparison expresses something that your Profession says about the claim that Christ is making on your life and death and beyond.
Catechumens were also kept from the mysteries of the Eucharist, until the night of their baptism, when they received their First Communion. Then in the months after Easter they continued their learning about the Christian faith. Now it was no longer called the catechumenate, but the mystagogy – the teaching about the mysteries.
You who will be make your great Profession in a few moments will also continue to meet with your Novice Counsellor for another 12 months to reflect more deeply on what it is to be a Franciscan Christian. This will be your mystagogy – although I doubt anyone will actually call it that. There are no secrets to learn, as there were for the catechumens in the Early Church – sorry about that – but it is a reminder that the Franciscan Way is not something to be learned in a few months or a couple of short years. You will continue to discover depths in it as you walk in it.
Rae and I were professed 28 years ago. We were seeking an expression of community in our Christian way, and we began as Franciscans by seeking out people. But our mystagogy has included falling in love with Francis and Clare and many other Franciscan saints. For me in particular, as one who enjoys theology, it has been a joy to discover the Franciscan intellectual tradition from Bonaventure to Duns Scotus to Ilia Delio.
But you will discover different things than I have, maybe new depths in social activism; maybe new courage for evangelism; maybe new springs for community – they are all there to discover following the great Profession.
So remember how the writer encouraged the Hebrews:
• Firstly, to make the great Profession in hope, in Christian hope, in the great hope that there always lies before us more joy, more love, more delight in trusting than we have experienced so far; and
• Secondly, that Jesus, the Son of God, our great High Priest is both the energy and the destination of our Christian life.
Your great Profession is that Jesus will always empower you as you seek to serve him in love, humility and joy.