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When you were growing up, were there certain children, with whom your parents did not want you to associate: the ones who were the first to smoke, drink cider, and get up to mischief behind the bikesheds? If there weren’t, then either you lived in a rather virtuous place or perhaps you were one of those children, whom other parents told their children to shun. We can be influenced by the company we keep, by those with whom we associate. Some may be a good influence, and bring out the best in us while others seem to bring out the worst.
From the early days of the church, Christians have sought to be associated with the martyrs and saints. Excavations under St Peter’s revealed an inscription on one of the tombs of early Christians clustered around his tomb which reads, ‘Peter is near’. The tombs of royalty surround the shrine of St Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey.
Medieval Christians associated themselves with the saints as patrons of their churches, localities and guilds, and with their name-saints. On altarpieces you find name-saints accompanying donors into heavenly company. The memorial brass of Marguerite de Scornay, abbess of Nivelles in Belgium, shows her being ushered into the presence of the virgin and Child by St Margaret, whom we remember today, with a spewing dragon beside her.
These associations were very important: they showed that they were not alone, that they had heavenly protectors, saints watching out for them.
The disciples were the associates of Jesus. They shared in his ministry of preaching and healing, and carried it on after his ascension. Some disciples dissociated themselves from Jesus when his hard sayings proved too difficult to accept. Jesus asked the twelve if they would go away too, whereupon Peter replied, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.’
They had found the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price. Nothing in this world could compare with what they had found in the person and teaching of Jesus; which exerted a force so strong they felt compelled to leave everything and follow him.
Jesus attracted many people to him, some of them people whom society looked down upon, people who were definitely regarded as a bad influence.
However he was pleased to associate himself with them, to show his acceptance of them by eating in their homes, to the scandal of the self-righteous.
There may be people with whom you like to associate, because they are interesting or amusing or even because they are holy. Those whom others perceive to be holy carry a high burden of expectation. Holiness is not denoted by the collar, by the habit, or by the badge. Holiness is a state of grace, a gift from God. It is found in those who have made the purchase of the field in which the treasure is found and in whom that treasure is displayed.
It is found in those who show that there is nothing greater than untarnished, uncompromising love. No truly holy person would ever presume to call themselves that. It is a state recognized by other people. Any holy person would feel unworthy of the epithet, and identify with the one who said: ‘I aspire to be the person my dog thinks I am.’
St Margaret’s Day is a celebration of the associates of this house, of those who have chosen to unite with this religious house, though not resident members of the community, but who are associated with the life of this house and support it through prayer, financial assistance and practical work.
It is curious that while the desire to live the religious life has diminished, the desire to be associates is ever-increasing. The associates are the natural seed-bed from which vocations to the religious life may germinate. If you feel called to more, maybe it is worth considering living alongside the community for a week or so, and testing the vocation. It is good that you wish to be associates of this house, and renew your promises today, and we welcome Jill as a new associate. The two active sisters of this house have quite a responsibility: to live up to the expectations of the associates, to try to be the holy persons they presume them to be. And associates have the duty to emulate how you perceive them to be, by sharing in the prayer life, being faithful and self-disciplined and abiding by a rule of life.
Christians today are not naturally people with whom others will want to associate; but if we aspire to live good and holy lives, if we are people of integrity and honesty, then perhaps people will feel drawn to associate themselves with us. They may ask us for advice and counsel, they may even ask us to pray for them. By perceiving in us a hint of the treasure we possess
They may seek to know where the pearl of great price is to be found. So may they be introduced to our Master Jesus Christ and associate with the Lord.