The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
God has come to feed his people. And there is more than enough to go around. Indeed, there are seven baskets left over. Seven is the Biblical number of completion and perfection, so we’re to see in this a sign that God satisfies our current needs, and still has enough to satisfy the deepest hungers of the human heart completely, perfectly.
And our deepest hungers are not for food and drink, although these are primary human bodily needs that must be met. But once our physical hunger is sated, even when we have had the finest of meals and the rarest of wines, something is still lacking. For human beings do not just feed; we dine. And so, even as we eat, we long for companionship, communion, fellowship; we long for love. The miracle in today’s Gospel and the seven baskets left over thus point to a feeding that goes beyond our natural physical hunger. For we long for something that transcends our human nature, something that only God who is Love can satisfy. Advent reminds of this, and stirs up our fundamental human desire for God.
And here in the Eucharist that desire is, to some extent, being met. For here Jesus comes to feed his people by giving us his love. Here, the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled. For do we not come up to the Altar, the high place, the mountain where God makes for us “a feast of fat things, a feast of wine”? From this mountain, this Altar, the wine of the Eucharist intoxicates us with God’s love and fills us with joy. And the Eucharist is a “fat thing” because it fills us with God’s grace. For we have become emaciated by sin. We are malnourished, having fed on the addictive junk food of worldly pleasures which seemed to satisfy us but never really do. We are starved of love. So, the Eucharist feeds and strengthens us with Christ’s own life; it fattens us up with divine grace, and it fills us with God’s love. Hence, we need it and we pray: “Give us this day our daily bread”.
But although the Eucharist feeds us in body and soul, it is still just a foretaste of heaven, a pledge of future glory; there is something more to come. So, looking at the Eucharist, we say with Isaiah: “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us”. For it is through the Eucharist that Christ comes to save us with his grace. The Eucharist thus sustains the life of grace within us, if we are well-disposed to it, so that we can come at last to the blessedness of eternal life; it is food to sustain us on Life’s journey. This is the central idea in today’s Collect. But the Eucharist also stirs up our desire for our final destination, namely heaven. For it is only when we see God face to face in heaven that the deepest hungers of the human heart shall be perfectly and completely satisfied.
So, the Eucharist is a kind of Advent experience in which Christ does come but in his coming to us in this sacramental way, he whets our appetite for the eternal banquet of heaven when we shall have perfect communion with the Holy Trinity. For only then, on seeing God as he really is, can the saints say at last with Isaiah: “This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation”.
The words of the centurion are significantly placed in the Mass just before we receive Holy Communion. When we hear them in the wider context of today’s Gospel we see just how apt they are. The centurion says Christ need not come personally to heal his servant; just his word will effect the miracle. This is the substance of his faith which caused Jesus to marvel.
This same faith is evident when we approach the Eucharist and repeat the centurion’s words. For we also believe that Jesus need not come personally to heal us, his servants. Rather, he comes to us sacramentally albeit really and entirely through the Eucharist. And, like the centurion, we believe that this happens at Jesus’ word. Thus St Thomas says, “The presence of Christ’s true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority”. Hence, we see that the centurion also appeals to the authority of one’s command to effect an action. Thus we believe that Christ’s Word – the words of institution by which the Eucharist is consecrated – carries a divine authority which effects a divine action, namely, Christ being present under appearances of bread and wine. So, when we repeat the centurion’s words before Holy Communion, we are making the same act of faith as him.
In the Gospel, Jesus then says “not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Mt 8:10b), and he makes a reference to Gentile peoples coming from all over to sit with the Jewish patriarchs at the table of the kingdom of heaven. As such, this is a reference to the Eucharist, which is a sign of the heavenly banquet. So, when we come up for Holy Communion, we are enacting this scene from the Gospel and fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy. For with faith, we have believed that Jesus’ word has authority and that they make him present; with faith, we approach the Eucharistic table, and share in the communion of the prophets, patriarchs and saints.
And what we believe the Eucharist effects in our souls is healing: “only say the word, and my soul shall be healed”. Whereas the centurion asks for healing for his servant’s physical ailments, we ask for spiritual healing for ourselves. And again, with faith, we know that this is what a worthy reception of Holy Communion effects in us since it is Christ the divine Physician who comes to us, and heals us. The Catechism (following St Thomas) thus teaches that “by giving himself to us Christ revives our love and enables us to break from disordered attachments to creatures and root ourselves in him” (CCC §1394). So, through Holy Communion, we are forgiven and healed of our venial sins, and we grow in love for God. Hence, in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis said: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (Evangelii Gaudium, §47).
Today is a day of beginnings. It’s the first Sunday of Advent – the beginning of a new liturgical year. And today we also rejoice with Victoria and Sascha at another signifiant beginning – the baptism of their son Emil Louis-Christophe. And, so, it is fitting that at the start of the Church’s year we are reminded of the start of our Christian journey. It is fitting, too, in Advent that we rejoice. For this is not so much a penitential season as a quiet season of joyful expectation; a time in which we hope to “go rejoicing into the house of the Lord”, not just on Christmas day, together with the shepherds and wise men, but also on the final day, at the end of Life’s journey. We hope to go rejoicing, with the angels and saints, into the eternal house of the Lord, into eternal life with God in heaven. For this is the destination of the Christian journey, and it begins for each one of us with baptism. Hence, when Victoria and Sascha was asked what they wanted for Emil in asking for him to be baptised, they said: “Eternal life”.
The Christian journey is depicted by the prophet Isaiah in our first reading as a pilgrimage up a mountain, up to the “house of the God of Jacob”. The rite of baptism tries to give this sense of journeying too, as we move from the entrance of the church towards the lectern, where God’s Word is read, then to the font, where we are re-born to new life, and finally to the Altar. This is literally the ‘high place’, the mountain of the Lord, where we come to dwell with God and he abides with us through the Eucharist.
Our Christian life is, therefore, never static but is marked by this kind of movement towards God. Inasmuch as it is a journey up a high mountain, so, the Christian life has its struggles and difficulties. We may battle against high winds, occasionally wander off the path, or be distracted by various sights. But, we must move ever upward. In the words of the Dominican saint, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, the patron of our scouts, and patron of youth: “Verso l’alto”. We must move ever onwards “toward the top”, to the summit where God awaits us.
But, we do not struggle alone on this journey. Some of us may recall a recent climb up Arthurs Seat, where the wind was so strong that you could lean back into it and it supported one from falling. God’s Holy Spirit, the divine Wind or Breath of God, is like this. He supports us on our Christian journey if we would lean into him, and we are supported, too, by a host of saints and fellow pilgrims, by God’s holy Church. This is the reason Emil is baptised during Mass, so that we can all pray for him, and support him. No one is a Christian alone, and nobody journeys to heaven alone. We do so as members of Christ’s Body surrounded by a crowd of friends and family, by parents and godparents, by brothers and sisters in Christ.
Isaiah says: “Come, let us go up… that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isa 2:3). So, on our Christian journey, we will need not just the prayers and support of one another, but we can also learn from one another, especially from the saints. This is why we invoke their prayers in the rite of baptism. The saints have reached the summit of the Christian life, and so, they can show us the way up and help us with their prayers. In this journey, Emil can look to one of his name saints, Christopher, who is patron saint of travellers, for help. The paths that the saints have trodden before us are well-worn but arduous. We may need to lighten our load, and shed unneeded burdens and worldly attachments if we want to walk in their paths. Because the path they take is the Way of the Cross; the mountain they have climbed is Calvary. So, too, each of us can learn from the saints how to walk this way too. It is the way of our Lord Jesus Christ; it is the way of Love.
In modern times, one saint stands out for the way he sacrificed himself for the love of his fellow Man, and in doing so, he clearly reached the summit of the Christian life. His baptism found its goal, its perfection, in his martyr’s death. As he offered his life in exchange for the life of another fellow prisoner in Auschwitz, St Maximilian Kolbe, patron of the pro-life cause, shows us what it costs to reach the summit of the Christian life. It costs us love.
St Maximilian, who is Emil’s special patron because he was born on his feast day (14 August), teaches us the costliness of walking in Christ’s way of love. For love demands sacrifice. But it is precisely this Christ-like love that “shall judge between the nations… so that “nation shall not life up sword against nation [nor] shall they learn war any more” (Isa 2:4). Love heals violence, hatred and strife. And the one who follows Christ’s way of love shall “walk in the light of the Lord” (Isa 2:5). This is to say, he will share in Christ’s glory and be raised up to reign with Christ in heaven. For Love endures for ever and is stronger than death.
For many of us, the Christian life may not be so dramatic, but if we are to learn to love, then it will still be costly and demanding. Every day, situations arise which demand a sacrifice, which ask for love, or mercy, or compassion from us. These may be small instances, but many will be unexpected. Hence Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel to “be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Mt 24:44). We’re to be vigilant, then, in our Christian life. Or perhaps, we should think of it in an Advent mode. Let us be full of joyful expectation that the Lord could come at any time, and give us opportunities to love, to be kind, to be tender-hearted to him. For Christ is with us in the “distressing disguise of the poor”, as Blessed Mother Teresa said. He is all around us waiting to be recognized, served, and loved. Another of Emil’s name saints, Louis, was thus always attentive to care for the homeless and poor.
Hence, it is here in the Church, which we can truly call “the house of the Lord”, that we learn from the saints how we can walk in the Lord’s paths and find him. It is here in the Church that we support one another with prayer, friendship and love on our Christian journey. It is here in the Church that Man finds his way home to God. So, as Emil is baptised today, he indeed goes “rejoicing into the house of the Lord”!
The Byzantine church calls today’s saint the Protokletos, the first-called. Because St Andrew was the first apostle to respond to Christ’s call to follow him. This is not as apparent in the Gospel we’ve just heard but in St John’s Gospel, we learn that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist, and that he was drawn to Jesus when St John pointed to the Lord and said: “Behold, the Lamb of God”. Together with an unnamed disciple, they went to Jesus and stayed with him (cf Jn 1:35-40).
Today, we find ourselves in the place of that unnamed disciple. We hear those words, “Behold the Lamb of God”, and we are invited to go with St Andrew to Christ. But here in the Eucharist, Jesus comes under our roof; it is the Lord who condescends to come to us, to stays and remain with us. Through this sacrament, God dwells in us so that we can abide in him. So, although St Andrew is the first to be called, and the first to respond, each day we too are called; we’re also being invited to respond to God’s grace and do as St Andrew did: to follow Christ and stay close to him. And it is this on-going response, a daily ‘Yes’ to Christ that matters most. For what is remarkable about St Andrew is not so much that he was the first to go to Christ, although this requires great courage and faith. But rather, it is the fact that Andrew remained close to Jesus for the rest of his days, and continued to live with such courage and faith that he willingly suffered the same kind of death as the Lord – crucifixion. In a 6th-century text, The Passion of St Andrew, the apostle says: “Hail, O Cross, inaugurated by the Body of Christ… I come to you, therefore, confident and joyful, so that you too may receive me exultant as a disciple of the One who was hung upon you”.
Those words “confident and joyful” bring us back to today’s Gospel. St Matthew is not so much concerned about who was the first to go to Christ, but he concentrates on what being with Christ does. What does following Christ entail? “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19). So, it seems that going to Christ and remaining close to him, being friends of Christ, makes us fishers of men, that is to say, evangelizers; people who draw others to Christ. And St Andrew does so with confidence and joy.
This is something Pope Francis spells out at length in his new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. A Christian is someone who has encountered the person of Jesus Christ; someone who has, therefore, experienced the personal love and mercy of God – this is what it means for us to recognize, with St Andrew, that Jesus is the ‘Lamb of God’. The Christian disciple thus has his life transformed by love and mercy, and his heart is filled with joy, a joy which cannot be contained but must be preached to others as life-changing, transforming good news. So, Pope Francis asks us: “[I]f we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” (§8).
But to become a fisher of men means that one has to patiently, gently attract people to Christ. We fish, not with dynamite, but with light in the dark waters. As Pope Francis (citing Pope Benedict) says: “Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, [Christians] should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction” (§15).
So, today, we have been called with St Andrew to go to Christ. We are being invited to taste the goodness of God here in this sacred banquet, to witness the beauty and wisdom of Christ in the Scriptures, and so to be filled with the confidence and joy of an apostle. For each and every one of us has been called, like Andrew, to follow Christ, to remain close to him, and so, to draw others – the people of Scotland – into the joy of friendship with God.
These apocalyptic readings continue to be a challenge to our faith. When the centre of our world collapses, and disaster and calamity hits us, when we feel besieged and surrounded by desolation how can we respond?
Many people will wonder where God is. They may feel abandoned by him, or punished by him, or bereft of God’s love and support. Or many will say, in the face of great natural tragedies, that there just is no God, or he doesn’t care. Many will react, as the Gospel says, with perplexity, fear and foreboding (Lk 21:25f).
And what about us? What about you and me?
Today, Jesus assures us that when disaster strikes and our world falls apart, he is coming, and our “redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:28). In other words, when others interpret terrible events as the absence of God, we, who have faith, who rely on his Word, know that God will come, and, indeed, is with us when catastrophes happen. Why? Because our God is Love, and Jesus is for ever, the “Son of man” (cf Lk 21:27), i.e., God-with-us.
Just this kind of faith was expressed by the early Christians in the face of death and persecution. On the ancient sarcophagi in which they buried their dead they carved an image of Daniel in the lion’s den. For them, the story we’ve heard in our first reading was a prefiguration of Christ’s Resurrection. And so, this image was placed on their tombs as a sign of their faith that they could enter the lions den of persecution, enter the pit of death and even stand in the lion’s jaws of death, and yet, they believed that they would not suffer annihilation. Rather, like Daniel, they would emerge victorious and free.
Because the just man in whom they placed their hope and trust was not simply the prophet Daniel but the Just One himself, our God and Redeemer, Jesus Christ. So, when disaster struck; when the jaws of death closed in; and when the world came to an end, they looked to Christ. As Jesus says to his beloved disciples, to you and me, today: “when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:28).
For with faith in the Resurrection and the Just One, we do not look down in despair; nor look wildly around in bewilderment; nor close our eyes in fear. We look up. We look up at Christ. We raise our heads to look at Christ our Head. And we unite ourselves to him in faith, in hope, and in love. We cling to our Redeemer who is ever near, who is “coming… with power and great glory” (Lk 21:27).
With this in mind, we can see why St Martha said what she did when her brother had died; when her world had, in a sense, ended, and Jesus asked if she believed that he is the resurrection and the life. She said: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27). May such faith be ours too. Amen.
The final week of the liturgical year always focuses the mind on what, in the final analysis, really matters. For Nebuchadnezzar learns from the prophet Daniel that earthly kingdoms and temporal power will fall. And Jesus speaks of how even religious institutions and earthly glory will be not last. But so much of our human activity, our energies and time, have been poured into building and organizing. Yet we’re told that every earthly thing will come to an end at some point. What are we to make of this? What is the point of our human activity, then?
The Second Vatican Council says that “the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and that it allow men as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfill it” (Gaudium et spes, 35). In other words, nations, institutions, organizations; degrees, jobs, businesses; are not ends in themselves, but they serve a goal. And not a self-serving, individualistic, finance-driven goal – for all these are temporary and doomed to end – but a goal that transcends time and history.
This goal is relational, it is rooted in our Triune God who is the One relation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God is Love. So, all human activity is directed towards love, and is meant to enable us to love God and to love our neighbour. What this means is that the good things of our world now point to the Good that endures eternally. So, we can begin to build on earth now what will last for ever – not buildings and structures, as such, but relationships, friendships; build up Love. And this can be developed and built even in the midst of great calamities and disasters. As Jesus says in the Gospel, these will come, and temporal things will end. But even in the midst of them faith and hope bring light, and love deepens and brings joy.
Pope Francis released his new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, this morning. And in it he reflects: “I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to. I also think of the real joy shown by others who, even amid pressing professional obligations, were able to preserve, in detachment and simplicity, a heart full of faith. In their own way, all these instances of joy flow from the infinite love of God, who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”.
Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being.” (§7 & 8).
So, as the liturgical (and calendar) year comes to an end; now that the Year of Faith is over; we can take stock of all our activities and attempts and achievements. And we ask: Through them, have I experienced, known, encountered God’s love for me; the friendship of Jesus Christ for me and for all humanity?
For in the final analysis this is the one thing that really matters and that lasts for ever.
Promises, promises… Jesus promises one of the criminals beside him that he will be with him in Paradise. But why should he believe this? Another promise was made at the start of St Luke’s Gospel which we’ve been reading this whole liturgical year. In chapter one, Gabriel had said to a young maiden: “[T]he Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32f). And what had become of this promise? Here, in the penultimate chapter, the maiden looks at her son reigning not from a throne but from two rough-hewn logs. Promises, promises… Are these just empty promises?
This prospect haunts us, I think, especially in the face of tragedy such as we’ve seen recently in the Philippines. As Joseph Ratzinger once said: “[T]he believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a continual temptation…” So, confronted with suffering, violence, and death, we’re taken to the foot of the Cross. And, in the desolation we hear Jesus’ promise. But we also hear the mockery of those who say: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Lk 23:39).
So, to countless many, this is what the Gospel looks like: a condemned man, deluded by pain and hunger and dehydration, promises ‘paradise’ to a thief. He hangs from a Roman torture instrument, barely able to rein in his breath, let alone reign over a royal house; and his kingdom, it seems, has not even begun. Indeed, his life is about to be annihilated. Empty promises, then, coming to an empty end. One of the earliest depictions of the crucifixion of Christ, a bit of Roman griffito, thus shows a donkey-headed man crucified, with a man kneeling before him. In Greek, there is scrawled: ‘Alexamenos worships [his] God’. The earliest surviving image of the Crucified One is thus a mockery, a taunt, a challenge to faith. And yet in the next room, someone had scrawled a riposte in Latin: ‘Alexamenos is faithful’.
Hence Ratzinger notes: “So [too] for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently permanently closed world. In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a [human person]”. For our humanity confronts us with the fragility of life, with suffering and pain, with temptation and threats, and with the uncertainty of faith and unbelief. The questions remain: Can we build our life on promises, on Christ’s Word? Is he, the One hanging and dying on the Cross who is suffering with us, our king? Do we go with Alexamenos the slave and the good thief? Or are we swayed by the mockery of the soldiers and the rulers?
Today’s feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the Universal King presents us, perhaps unexpectedly, with such questions. Because today’s Gospel challenges us to see the Crucified One as a king, and it is on the Cross, in his Passion, that he is reigning and being king. The Virgin Mother, standing at the foot of the Cross, experienced the fulfillment of a promise made to her: that “a sword will pierce through [her] own soul also” (Lk 2:35). And so, she recognized, too, that the angel’s promise that her Son would reign for ever was also being accomplished. Promises, promises… But not empty ones for Our Lady because they were being fulfilled in her sight.
Hence we must ask what kingly act was Jesus doing in his crucifixion and death?
The socio-political allegory of Suzanne Collins’ ‘The Hunger Games’ have been mentionedoftenenough. This (and indeed, ours) is a world where the multitudes are brutally oppressed to support a grossly indulgent few, where the life and death horror of (ritualised) war is treated like a spectator sport, where the ruling class is distracted by the superficialities of celebrity culture, media sensationalism, fashion and food. Such is the world of bread (Panem) and Games.
However, in this world there is hope, but not in Katniss the reluctant figure of resistance and revolution, as such. Rather, the hope of a more humane future has to be navigated by Katniss. Does she go with Gale or Peeta? Is it the way of counter-violence and revenge that gives us hope, or the way of sacrificial love? This was a question faced by the oppressed People of Israel under Roman rule; the Twelve Districts of Panem, perhaps, echo the Twelve Tribes of Israel. When Christ was born, many expected a warrior Messiah and King who would lead his people to freedom. Instead, the Messiah was crucified, tortured by the State, just as Peeta Mellark was.
And it is this that intrigues me. Is Peeta Mellark an allegory of Jesus Christ? And what other Catholic resonances might one find in ‘The Hunger Games’?
I had been fascinated by the first movie of ‘The Hunger Games’, and proceeded to read the three books avidly. They had a certain je ne sais quoi. There was, it seemed to me, much of the Christian and even Catholic imagination beneath the surface. So, I was not surprised that Suzanne Collins was named as a Catholic, and I soon found other online articles that also saw Christian allegory in ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy. Having just watched the ‘Catching Fire’ movie, I feel it is worth registering a few ideas on the Catholic allegory I saw in the movie, notably about Peeta.
Peeta Mellark is, in the books and also in the movies, known as ‘The Boy With The Bread’; the baker’s son. In the first movie, he saves a starving Katniss and her family by throwing her some bread. The book tells us that he suffered punishment from his family as a result of this. It is his first sacrificial act, and it involves bread. In the second movie, we’re reminded of this. The first thing Peeta does is to cut bread and offer it to Katniss, but this time she turns it down.
Is it not in the humble form of bread that Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice of his Body and Blood to us? And Katniss’ ambivalence towards this reflects our own (sometimes) indifference to the Eucharist that Jesus always offers to us generously and unstintingly.
Indeed, Peeta is always portrayed as one who unhesitatingly gives his all for Katniss’ sake. She is an allegory, I suppose of the Everyman, whom Christ lays down his life for again and again, even when the Human Soul vacillates in its relationship with him. We see this in the way Katniss flits between Pete and Gale, and we are never sure whom she truly loves. In many ways, neither are we as we seem to love both Christ and the world (cf Rom 7:23f).
In ‘Catching Fire’, after Peeta walks into the force field and is stunned and then revives, Katniss says: “You were dead! Your heart stopped!”. This moment struck me in the film because to add to Peeta’s Eucharistic self-giving, there was a sense, too, that Peeta was one who (in all three books) seems to die and rise again; another Christ-like allegory.
Finally, the ‘Catching Fire’ movie conveys an idea that is not as apparent in the book. After Katniss and her companions are poisoned, she discovers a pool of water, and this leaches away the poison and heals her. She then says something like “Get into the water; the water heals”. This is not found in the book, and in the book it is the sea water around the Cornucopia that removes the poison rather than a pool of water.
It seemed to me that this was an image of baptism. We have been poisoned by sin, and we must get into the waters of baptism to be healed of sin. This healing stings - we see Katniss writhing in pain but she plunges into the pool nevertheless. So, too, baptism is called by St Paul “dying with Christ”. There is necessarily a dying of our old self, and this will sting in some way. But we get into the water anyway because it heals us and restores our life and strength to carry on.
There are probably many other images and allegorical resonances but these are the ones that come to mind (for now), and which I wanted to share!
Music and singing are integral to any celebration. We see this in today’s first reading where the people of Israel rejoice for eight days “with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals” (1 Macc 4:54). They had endured persecution; the Maccabees had fought and suffered; and now they celebrate their victory with music and song.
This is fitting today as we celebrate the feast of St Cecilia who is the patron saint of music. She was a 4th-century Roman martyr who was killed for the Faith. It is thought that she was beheaded in her family home, and it’s still possible to visit the site under the basilica of St Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome. As she died, Cecilia was said to have sung to God “in her heart”.
So, like the Maccabees, St Cecilia had endured persecution, she’d resisted and suffered – they tried to boil her alive to begin with! – and, then, as she was being killed, she sang. This is quite bizarre if we think about it because Cecilia saw her dying – her martyrdom – as a victory to be celebrated with music and song.
However, the Preface for Martyrs in our Liturgy says the same thing. In the struggle of the martyrs, God gives them “ardour” and “firm resolve” so that they can remain faithful to Christ even to accepting suffering and death, and so, in their death there is “victory” over those who oppose Christ. What is this victory we celebrate, then? It is the triumph of grace, and indeed, the victory of Love. For only love for Jesus Christ can move someone to accept death. So, St Cecilia dies for Truth, for the integrity of her faith, for fidelity to Jesus rather than to renounce him; she dies for love of him.
We find this idea, of dying for love’s sake, quite often in romantic love, especially in what McCartney called “silly love songs”. And St Cecilia’s martyrdom might seem like a version of this kind of love. But is it? Did St Cecilia simply sing a silly love song as she died? Well, the martyr is not just someone totally in love with God and who dies out of fidelity to her conscience, to her love. There is something more, I think, that she witnesses to.
The martyrs’ death is an act of witness to the fundamental Christian belief in the truth that God’s love is stronger than death. This means that we believe and we hope in the final resurrection of our body. We believe that the death of our bodies, even under great suffering, is not the end of life. Because, we believe that the Christian is so united to Christ that even if we die as he did, we will also rise just as he did. Hence the YouCAT says: “Eternal life begins with Baptism. It continues through death and will have no end” (No. 156).
We will rise to eternal life with Christ because Love – God himself – is eternal and Christ, the living Word of God is the final word. His is the song of victory, and so, we too can sing that triumphal song with him. St Cecilia thus died with a song in her heart. Not a silly love song, but a celebratory Easter song. It’s significant that the Jews celebrated their victory for eight days, for Easter is often called the eighth day because it is the day of a new creation, of life after death, of eternal life. So, with Christ, we, who have died with him in baptism, and who have endured the trials and sufferings of this life, shall also rejoice and sing with him for eight days, that is, for all eternity in heaven.
This is what St Cecilia bore witness to. May she pray for us that we may share her faith, her hope, and her love for Christ.
Today’s celebration is one of twelve great feasts in the liturgical calendar of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and is called by them: The Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple. Nothing of Our Lady’s childhood is recorded in Scripture, of course, so what we know about her early life comes to us from tradition. An account of Mary being dedicated to God by her parents when she was three first appears in the 1st-century Protoevangelium of James. And this finds a Scriptural parallel in the dedication of the prophet Samuel by Hannah; he would grow up in the Temple, serving God under the care of the priest Eli. So, too, the tradition is handed down that Our Lady lived in the Temple during her infancy where, like Samuel, she is ready to say ‘Yes’ when God calls.
In the Eastern Church, today’s feast is a correlation to the Immaculate Conception. It celebrates the truth that Mary was set apart by God’s grace to become the Most Holy Theotokos, the God-bearer, Mother of God. And this truth is presented through this beautiful image of Our Lady, as an infant, coming to dwell in God’s Temple in Jerusalem so that, “in the fullness of time”, she would become God’s Temple, the earthly dwelling place of the Word-made-flesh. So, Mary dwells in God’s Temple; she lives with God, so that God will dwell and live in her.
As such, today’s feast shows outwardly, through an occurrence in Our Lady’s life, what the feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates concerning Our Lady’s interior life: that from the beginning, the Blessed Virgin Mary was dedicated to God through a special grace; consecrated to become Mother of God.
But Our Lady is also Mother of the Church; she is our mother. So, what she receives is also communicated in some way to us her children. Hence, it seems to me that today’s feast also points to a great Christian truth: that we, too, have been presented in God’s Temple, set apart for him, so that he comes and abides in us, making us his temples. This is what happens in baptism. Through baptism we are brought to live in God’s living Temple; presented to God in his Holy Church. And then, through baptism, the Holy Trinity comes to dwell, abide, live in us, here and now through the gift of sanctifying grace. So, as Jesus says: “Abide in me, and I in you… He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:4f).
So, today’s feast reminds us that we - many of us from our infancy - have also been presented to God. We have been set apart as his, consecrated to him in baptism, and he is the divine Guest in our souls; only mortal sin can cast him out. St Teresa of Avila thus says: “Remember how important it is for you to have understood this truth - that the Lord is within us and that we should be there with him”. Hence, holiness is not something extrinsic to the Christian, but rather, it entails responding to the divine presence within us so that we are motivated from within to do the Father’s will.
This, essentially, is what Our Lady did her whole life as she co-operated with the fullness of grace given to her from the moment of her conception. Through her intercession, we pray that we, too, will serve God all the days of our life, will also co-operate with the grace given us in baptism, and so, be ready to say ‘Yes’ whenever God calls.