My dear friends,
On the last Sunday of July each year great crowds gather from all corners of Ireland and beyond to climb Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holy mountain. About twenty thousand people usually travel to County Mayo on that day. With the assistance of a wooden staff in their hands and in the company of friends and strangers, they make their way up the two and a half thousand-foot mountain. Sometimes the weather is fine and sometimes not so and the last section of the climb is steep. Whatever the weather there is always a great feeling of solidarity and mutual support and a great spirit of friendliness in the experience.
The mountain itself is cone shaped and it stands out in a striking manner against the backdrop of the surrounding hills. Sweeping down to the sea, it dips its toes in the water of Clew Bay. It is a mountain that cries out to be climbed and people have been doing so for thousands of years, even before the coming of the Christian Gospel and the traditions of St. Patrick.
In the days of Jesus, the people of Gallilee came to realise that there was someone special in their midst. A young man had appeared who had special powers of healing. He spoke in ways that drew listeners. People wanted to listen and the crowds gathered. The people could see that this man could cure sicknesses. He seemed to understand life and had an air of authority about him which persuaded people that he was the genuine article, a saviour and not a showman.
Jesus knew all about the problems of being in the public eye. Words and actions are scrutinised. A person will be misreported and misrepresented. Enemies will seek to humiliate and destroy you in whatever way they can. King Herod Antipas, a vicious ruler, had just executed John the Baptist and so Jesus, his cousin, could very well be next in line. He leaves Herod’s territory and moves along the coast, hoping to find a quiet spot and quiet time for himself and his disciples. His boat is not far from shore so the crowds can track his movements. When he steps ashore they are waiting for him.
These people need to have their sickness healed; Jesus does that. They need guidance; Jesus offers them the word of life. They are hungry and need food; Jesus feeds them and teaches his disciples to feed them from the little they have. Health, education and welfare – common needs of all humankind – are attended to.
Mountains, high places like Croagh Patrick, and places apart can help us feel nearer to God. They can call people away from the grind of everyday life and invite us to look up to the skies. The experience can help us to get life into perspective and sort out the higher values of our earthly journey. “Pay attention, come to me, listen and your soul will live. Why spend money on what is not bread, your wages on what fails to satisfy?” This is how Isaiah puts it.
Paul puts it slightly differently. “Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ, even if we are troubled or worried or being persecuted, or lacking food or clothes, or being threatened or even attacked.” His former life was peppered with violence as he persecuted the Christians he now serves. Blinded on the road to Damascus he now opens his eyes to the world in a new way. Having experienced the love of the risen Lord he now opens his heart to others and tells them there is no reason to be afraid.
“He took the five loaves and the two fish, raised his eyes to heaven and said the blessing. They all ate as much as they wanted and they collected the scraps remaining.” When Jesus saw the crowds he knew what they were looking for. His need for peace and solitude was superseded by his compassion for those who had climbed the mountain with family and friends in search of healing and nourishment. Although Jesus and his disciples are tired, deprived of their peace and only have enough food for themselves, still – with the blessing of God – they find they have sufficient resources to match the needs of the people. “Listen, listen to me and you will have good things to eat and rich food to enjoy.”
+Liam S. MacDaid
31 July 2011