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.
The Word that proceeds from the mouth of God is Jesus Christ, and as Isaiah says, he “shall accomplish that which [God] purposes, and prosper in the thing for which [He] sent it”. That ‘thing’ for which God sent the Son is you and me, it is Mankind. And he came that we might prosper and flourish and live. The task which Jesus was sent to accomplish was our salvation, which he does through his death on the Cross. So we say in the Nicene Creed that “for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven”.
If we return to the image that Isaiah uses, then God’s Word is like water falling from the heavens, and sinful humanity is the dry earth. Without Christ, the soul remains dry and unfruitful. Hence, we are all in need of Jesus, whose grace is like water from the heavens. Christ’s grace, given to us in the waters of baptism, brings new life to the human soul so that it can prosper and be fruitful in good works, in true charity.
Through baptism, we receive the grace of Christ and so we come to share in his divine Sonship so that we can even call God ‘Our Father’. Indeed, we have the audacity to do so because Jesus has commanded us to. But, as we say in the Mass, we “dare” to call God our Father not only because Jesus tells us to but also because we have been “formed by divine teaching”. What does this mean?
Because we’re God’s little children, Jesus, God himself, has taught us how we are to behave. We are taught, in fact, how to love as Jesus loves; how to be truly sons and daughters of God who are ready to forgive and do God’s will. This is why we say that we “dare” to say the Lord’s Prayer because it means that we have the courage and the grace to truly become like Christ. For the ‘Our Father’ is not our prayer but, primarily, the prayer of the Son, and only those who live and move in the grace and likeness of Christ the Son, thanks to baptism, can dare to say this prayer with him.
During Lent, we pray, fast and engage in good works of charity because we are training ourselves to love more; to become like the Son so that we can more truly call God our Father. So, like St John the Baptist in the desert we, too, enter the desert of Lent and say: “I must decease and He, Jesus, must increase” (Jn 3:30). But here in the Lenten desert, we recognize how dry we still are, and how much we need the water of God’s grace if we’re to grow in love. Hence we cry out like the psalmist: “O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting” (Ps 62:1). And as Isaiah says, God sends his Word into our hearts to accomplish his work of salvation; the waters of grace are poured into our thirsty souls to revive us, give us new life, and bear the fruit of good works.
So, let us be open to God’s grace and co-operate with it. For we say: “Thy will be done on earth…” Which is to say: let God’s grace seep into our being, into the dry earth of our souls, and empower us to do God’s will, meaning that we will grow to love and forgive and serve as Jesus does.
"What are you giving up for Lent?" That’s the question that many people ask themselves and one another at this time. And perhaps we decide to give up things like chocolate, or drink, or some sleep. And although we’ve just begun Lent, we may find ourselves flagging already. But those are just the things we think we can afford to give up. However, I have heard people say, for example, "I can give up coffee but I couldn’t live without sugar". So, there are some things too vital for us to let go of.
But what about St John Ogilvie? What did this martyr give up in Lent? His life.
For so many of us, material things like coffee, chocolate, wine and so on are the consolations of life. We like our comforts and luxuries, and we can become so attached to material goods that we even say that we can’t live without them! But the example of today’s saint, and indeed of all the holy martyrs, reminds us of how superficial we can be. For they not only gave up luxuries and comforts, but even that which is most precious: their life. Because the one thing they could not live without wasn’t sugar but the sweetness of the Catholic Faith. They detached themselves from all created goods – and even life when it was demanded of them – so that they could attach themselves to Christ who is the Truth. And the consolation they sought in this life was not material comforts but God himself who is our Life.
The example of St John Ogilvie thus gives a sharp focus, I think, to our Lenten exercises. We ask “what are you giving up”, but we should ask “Why am I giving things up?” Our Lenten renunciations are more properly called mortifications. We detach ourselves from material things in order to die a little – to die to our wants, our worldly attachments, our creature comforts, but more importantly, to our old habits and selfish attitudes. True penance, then, is not based on a calculation of what we can afford to give up, what luxury we can cut down on. Rather, it means giving up even what we need, what we once thought was vital! Thus Pope Francis said in his Message for Lent: “No self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt”.
I don’t think this means that we should hurt ourselves physically. But it does mean that we could stretch our hearts to love better: to be kinder to those we find difficult; to look out for ways to help others; to serve the common good. We could die to our pride and learn humility: we restrain our craving for attention; stifle our petty irritations and prejudices; hold our tongues and guard our opinions. All these kinds of spiritual mortifications form our internal character so that a renewed, more loving and Christ-like Me emerges from Lent into the new life of Easter. So, external acts like giving up food and drink are meant to lead to this: a transformation of our heart so that we love better God and our neighbour. Otherwise, they’re futile.
Our mortifications and penances, then, whether during Lent or every day of our Christian lives, train and prepare us for that great mortification of Love, of self-sacrificial giving, of following Christ, that we’re each called to, and of which martyrs like St John Ogilvie are the supreme example. May he pray for us that we too will give up what is necessary in order to be one with Jesus Christ.
In medieval images of the Temptation of Christ, the Tempter is often depicted as a monk. But if we look closely, beneath his habit are the clawed feet of the Devil. What is the meaning of this? The artist, I think, wants to express the fact that every temptation appears good and wise, reasonable and just, and therefore, desireable to Mankind. Hence George Bernard Shaw once said: “I never resist temptation, because I have found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me”. This is precisely the point. Only those things that seem good and right and justifiable to us can tempt us. If they did not appear good and attractive we would not even begin to think of choosing them. Hence, the Genesis account we’ve just heard, which has such insight into the psychology of sin and temptation, makes this observation: Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired" (Gen 3:6).
However, as St Thomas says: “the good in view of which one acts is not always a true good [but] sometimes an apparent good”. For we can become so focussed on a particular good, so obsessed with getting what we desire that we lack perspective about the true good. It is as though we have had blinkers put on us so that we do not see the bigger picture. Every sin, therefore, involves a certain myopia because we can only see the transient good immediately in front of us but not the broader vision of the good as God knows it.
Thus every sin also involves a certain forgetfulness of God’s goodness and love. In the Genesis account, it is as though Eve forgets that God has loved her into being from nothing and has given her all that is. Instead, when prompted by the Tempter, she doubts God’s goodness and questions his Word, seeing God as a kind of restriction on her human freedom. But God is the source of all our being including our freedom; he could never be a threat to Man’s good but is, in fact, our highest Good and the Giver of every good gift.
But the tragedy of sin is that we forget this, and so we choose lesser, transient, material goods. Hence, Eve is so overcome by her desire for the good she sees in the fruit of the tree that she reaches out for it in spite of what God had said. In doing so, we’re shown by the Genesis account that every sin, at some level, involves a preference for my own vision of the good over and above God’s vision. Every sinful act, effectively says that we know better than God what is good for us and what makes us truly happy; we’d rather trust ourselves and put our faith in Man’s reasoning, Man’s knowledge than in God and his Word.
And, so, temptation leads us to choose some good, but only a partial good. We’re led to some truth, but only a half-truth. For this is the Tempter’s tactic – temptations come to us under the guise of a monk, and so, they appear wise or good. Hence Soloviev said: “Such temptations are not produced by a simple or direct denial of truth: a naked lie can be attractive, yet is tempting only in hell and not in the world of humanity. Here it is required to cover it with something attractive, to connect it to something true in order to captivate” us.
Therefore, when the Devil appears to Christ, he tempts him by appealing to something attractive, namely, bread to sate his physical hunger. Then, he appeals to something true: Jesus is the Son of God, so why not reveal his true glory to all people, lifted up by God’s angels before all in the Temple? And finally, he appeals to some apparent good, which is that Jesus should be given the whole world. Would it not be good for all peoples to be subject to Christ?
But as we can see, each of these goods are superficial. For as Jesus himself says: “What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:26). Moreover, the Devil tempts Jesus with a way to carry out his mission which would have avoided the Cross. In a similar way, Adam and Eve are tempted to attain divinity, to snatch at it, without the Cross, without having to learn to Love sacrificially. But whereas our first parents were deceived by the Devil, Jesus is not. For despite the attractiveness of the Devil’s temptations, Jesus rejects them because, ultimately, he chooses the true good which comes from God alone. He places his trust in God’s Word, and he remembers God’s unfailing goodness and love. Hence in his reply to the Devil we see Jesus’ faith in God’s goodness, his embrace of God’s wise plan, and his placing of himself at God’s service. Thus, Jesus chooses the Cross because, as St Paul says, it reveals the “power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).
Therefore, like Eve, Jesus sees that “the tree was to be desired”, but not the tree in the centre of Eden, but the Tree of the Cross on the summit of Calvary; the centre of the world. This is the Tree of Life that Jesus desired: it delighted his eyes and he saw that it was good because from it came salvation for the whole world. From the Cross, God the Father revealed the depths of his love for all humanity in the person of his Son. And from the Cross, humanity is taught to “be like God, knowing good and evil”.
Every Lent sets this lesson before us as we are invited to follow Jesus to Calvary and beyond to the risen life of Easter. But every Lent, and perhaps each day of our lives too, the Tempter also stands before us with half-truths and truncated versions of the good. With God’s grace, may we respond as Jesus does, saying, “Begone, Satan!” (Mt 4:10).
One of the images of Lent is that of going into the desert or the wilderness, for so Jesus did for forty days, and the people of Israel for forty years. However, what comes with the image of the desert is a place of blistering austerity, of hard stones and discomfort, of unpleasantness. No wonder, then, that so many people dread or fear the rigours of Lent; it can appear almost masochistic!
But I think we need to look at Lent from God’s perspective. Today’s Collect prays for God to “look with compassion” on us, and to give us his “protection”. In the book of the Apocalypse, the Woman clothed with the Sun, who stands for the Church, is taken by God “into the wilderness” for her protection, to keep her safe from the Dragon (Apoc 12:14). And, the prophet Hosea says that God will “bring [his beloved people] into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” there (Hos 2:14). So, during Lent, God leads us, his beloved Church, into the wilderness for our protection, so that he can allure us and woo us, and show us his compassion. Hence in the reading we’ve heard from Isaiah, he says: “The Lord will always guide you, giving you relief in desert places” (58:11).
And how does the Lord show compassion? How does he give us relief? How does Lent protect us? In the same way, I think, that the Sabbath does. The latter part of Isaiah’s reading for today, the Saturday after Ash Wednesday concerns the Sabbath, which was given to Mankind as a gift from the Lord. All too often we can see it as an inconvenient commandment – that we are to keep the Sabbath holy – which, if we even remember it, gets in the way of work or shopping or other things we’d rather do than go to church. But as Jesus has said, “The Sabbath is made for man” (Mk 2:27). So, it’s not for God’s sake that we keep the Sabbath holy, or go to church, or cease from servile work – it’s for our sake.
Because, again and again people have come to me saying that they are stressed, over-worked, and feel enslaved to their desks and jobs. Like the dragon of the Apocalypse, our work and the demands of a competitive work culture, our deadlines and economic targets can threaten to consume us. But Life lived like this is imbalanced. So, the Sabbath is God’s way of ensuring a balance is kept in our life, that we not only work, which is vital for mankind’s dignity – there is something debilitating about unemployment as well as idleness – but that we also rest. For in the Sabbath rest we discover God who is a communion of persons, we discover the divine dignity that is fundamental to our humanity. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, thus explains that the Sabbath is the “still point in the turning world, the moment at which we renew our attachment to family and community… [It is] the one day in seven in which we live out all those values that are in danger of being obscured in the daily rush of events; the day in which we stop making a living and learn instead simply how to live”.
So, too, Lent is like an annual Sabbath. As Jesus called Levi away from his work in the tax office, so we are called to follow him into the wilderness each Lent. For God calls us into the desert to protect us; to speak tenderly and compassionately to us; to restore our spirits and strength, and recall us to “live out all those values that are in danger of being obscured”. So, during Lent, if we take up the opportunities it provides, we learn to re-discover community through almsgiving; we learn to re-balance our life and its priorities through fasting. And, most significantly, we learn “simply how to live”, indeed, how to love through prayer. For through prayer know that we are loved; through prayer Christ calls us away from the wild-ness of our world to follow him into the Lenten wilderness where we can rest in God’s love, where God can speak “tenderly” to Man.
The prayer Actiones nostras, which was prayed as the ‘Collect’ today, is an ancient prayer of the Roman church. In the Dominican rite, it was said just before Mass began for it is a prayer fittingly said at the beginning of any task or good work. So, as we embark on our Lenten journey, taking up our Cross with Christ and following Jesus, it is fitting that we begin this task of Lent, the good work of these 40 days, with this prayer.
A more literal rendering of this prayer might be: ”Prompt – or go before – our actions with your inspiration, we pray, O Lord, and further them – or continue them – with your constant help, that every one of our works – or our service – may always begin from you, and through you be brought to completion”.
The truth being expressed in this prayer is that God’s grace is necessary for every good work, every holy action. It is God’s grace that prompts Man to act, his grace that accompanies and sustains the good act, and his grace that brings it to completion. Hence, as we begin the season of Lent with God’s grace, we do well to pray that God will give us the grace to persevere over the next six weeks, and that all our actions, all the good resolutions we’ve made this Lent, will end well and be perfected by God’s grace. Thus, prayer, which teaches us to rely on God’s goodness and mercy, is a vital and foundational part of Lent.
As Pope Francis said yesterday: “Lent is a time of prayer, a more intense, more diligent prayer… In the face of so many wounds that hurt us and that could harden the heart, we are called to dive into the sea of prayer, which is the sea of God’s boundless love, to enjoy its tenderness”.
There is this sense in today’s Collect, too, of our every action being immersed in God’s love and goodness. There is no angst and gritted-teeth violence against our wills, but rather, we allow God’s grace to support and sustain our good actions; we turn to him and rely on his goodness, mercy, and love to bring our good works to completion. If we’re immersed in God’s love and mercy like this, then even our failures and falls are not fatal but are forgiven, and we can be picked up by God’s grace to continue on our Lenten journey.
At the same time, today’s First Reading reminds us that we do need to use our human freedom to choose the good, and to will it, to desire it. So, prayer helps form our choices, and stirs up in us a desire for that which is good and true so that we can freely choose life and blessing, as Moses says (cf Deut 30:19). For God’s grace will not do violence to the human will – there must be a graced co-operation between God and Man.
Hence, Jesus calls us to “take up [your] cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). Because if we follow Christ; if we remain close to him through prayer as we carry our Cross each day – whether in Lent or throughout our lives – then we do not struggle alone. Lent, and indeed, the entire Christian path of discipleship is not a lonely journey, not simply a matter of my human will power. Rather we are called to walk with Christ, co-operating with his grace which goes before, sustains, and completes our good actions. Thus Jesus is with us, carrying our Cross with us. But it doesn’t end at Calvary. As the ‘Prayer over the People’ for today says, Jesus leads us along “the ways of eternal life” to God himself, who is “the unfading light”.
This afternoon the Holy Father went to the basilica of Santa Sabina, which has been the ‘headquarters’ of the Dominican Order since 1220, to celebrate Mass and mark the start of Lent. Since the earliest centuries the Pope has travelled from one church to another in the city of Rome celebrating the Liturgy in a different church of his diocese each day of Lent. And the church of the day is called the statio or ‘station’. The word is used in a 2nd-century Christian text to refer to a fast. Hence today is one of just two days of fast and abstinence left in the Western Church. Today we fast and keep our station.
But it’s still a rather strange use of this word. If we look further back, we find that the Latin word statio is derived from a Roman military use. It means to stand on post, or on guard. So, the Pope gathers in a church to stand guard with the Christian people, and the church itself became called a statio, a guard-post. Hence, in today’s Liturgy we also find military language being used in our prayers. A more literal rendering of our Collect would go like this: “Grant us, O Lord, to begin the station/guard-post of the Christian’s military campaign by taking on holy fasts, so that as we begin to take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of abstinence and self-restraint”. It’s a very striking prayer dating to before the time of Pope St Gregory the Great, and the basic idea is that we, as a Church, have paused to take up our station, to stand guard, during the holy season of Lent.
The weapons we take up as we stand guard are our fasts. As in a diet, or fitness regime, so, too, during Lent, we make a special effort to train and discipline our bodies by fasting – less food, less sleep, less beer and wine, perhaps. We also take up the weapons of prayer, and of charitable giving. Together with fasting, these are the three exercises of Lent that are mentioned in today’s Gospel. All three are essential and they go together. Indeed, I would suggest that without prayer, which focuses us on God who is the end and goal of all our good actions, the other two will fail or become ends in themselves. Otherwise, giving alms can become a way of making ourselves feel better rather than an act of justice and love, and fasting can become like a challenge of one’s own will power rather than a means of spiritual combat.
Which brings me to my final point. Who are we battling? It is true that we are all, in some sense, battling against our own sinful habits, weaknesses, addictions; training our spirit to be stronger and more full of faith, hope, and love. But no soldier simply battles against himself. Rather, each of us Christian soldiers are daily called to fight the Enemy. In Biblical Greek, the word for enemy or adversary is diabolos, or in Aramaic, satanas. The Enemy is not some vague notion of evil, or just our own weakness, or a psychological construct. Rather, the Devil – so Scripture and the Church teaches us – is a real creature whose will is fixed on evil and on thwarting God’s plan for our salvation by seducing us, tempting us, to choose sinful acts. And his most successful ploy is to get us to think he doesn’t exist!
Therefore, in Lent, we are summoned together to train and take up arms against the Devil. How? St Peter put it this way: “Be sober, be vigilant. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Pt 5:8f). Again the language is military – we’re to be vigilant, keeping watch, keeping guard soberly and attentively, and we’re to put on the armour of our faith. This means that we’re to place our trust in God, relying always on his goodness, mercy and love. With such firm faith in God as our armour, we can then take up our weapons of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. So that we know who our fellow soldiers are in this military campaign, we can look to the sign of the ashen Cross on the forehead; a sign of Christ’s victory over death and sin. So, my fellow Christian soldiers, let us take up our battle station – this, our Lenten fast. And let us shame the Devil and, with Christ’s grace, help, and strength, defeat sin and the Evil One.
St Peter says: “Now for a little while you may have to suffer many trials” (1 Pt 1:6). Perhaps this is true, but one thing can help us alleviate the suffering, and even avoid life’s trials: money. How often have we said to ourselves: if we had more money we could do this, enjoy that, and avoid such and such a hardship? And this is true: money does provide opportunities and does save us from certain pains, or at least, I’ve lived with the destitute and seen the terrible impact of a lack of money. So, we do need money in this world, and it does buy for us good things. The problem arises when we forget who is the Giver of all good things and our priorities go askew. Hence, we heard in yesterday’s Gospel: “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well” (Mt 6:33).
If we look at a US dollar bill or coin, we’ll see these words: “In God we trust”. So, it can remind one that the good things that money buys ultimately come from God; we should trust him even above those good things. But, very often, the God in whom people really trust is the very thing on which this slogan is imprinted: Money itself, or at least, what it buys. Thus the slogan becomes a taunt. Hence Pope Francis has spoken of a “new idolatry of money” in which we “calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies” (Evangelii Gaudium, §55). And the thing about idols is that they are very well-disguised.
The rich young man who comes to Jesus in today’s Gospel did not even recognize the dominion of wealth over him until Jesus exposed it. And Jesus does this because he looked at him and loved him. Thus, by asking him to sell all he had, Christ unmasked the idol that took the place of God in the young man’s life.
We might wonder today, especially as Lent approaches: What are the idols in my life? What are the things that I cannot, indeed, will not, give up for Christ’s sake; for the sake of the Faith; for the living out of the Sermon on the Mount which we’ve been hearing these past Sundays? This coming Ash Wednesday, the Blessed Sacrament will be exposed for several hours in this chapel. I encourage you to come to Our Lord and adore him; look at him. Or rather, let him look at you and love you as he loved the young man in today’s Gospel, so that Jesus will reveal to you what are the hidden idols in your life. What are the gods, truly, in which we trust?
The point isn’t that money or worldly things are bad. Rather, when an earthly good – even another human person – or spending time with friends, or our work, or a desire for money and its security and consolations has displaced God who is the highest Good, then we have begun to trust in idols. Hence, because Jesus looked at the young man and loved him, he invited him to “Come, follow me” (Mk 10:21). This Lent is an opportunity to do this. But do we dare let Jesus look at us, love us, and so, expose our idols that we cling to and trust in so implicitly? Will we, as St Peter suggests, allow ourselves to be tested by the purifying fire of God’s love so that our faith becomes “more precious than gold” (1 Pt 1:7). If we do, then, as Jesus promises the young man, we will have “treasure in heaven”, namely, God himself.
For God alone is our treasure, our worth, our security and Giver of all good things. “In God we trust”: let this slogan become no longer a taunt but true.
Yesterday’s readings allowed us to consider the sacrament of marriage, instituted by Christ as a means of our becoming holy; we saw it’s role within Jesus’ new creation of grace. Today’s readings allow us to consider another two sacraments, and the same question is asked: How do they aid our salvation and make us holy?
Let us listen again to St James’ words – they still form the essence of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, and the sacrament of reconciliation (Confession) in the Church today. The apostle says: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:14-16).
"Is any among you sick?" Placed in this context, we can see that both these sacraments are sacraments of healing; they’re an encounter with Christ the Healer. We’ll hear more about Confession in our Penitential Service later today, but I want us to consider at this time how the sacrament of the sick makes us holy.
People often think that the sacrament of the sick is primarily about praying for physical healing. Some seek a miraculous cure, or even – judging by those who ring for the priest after the person has died – a physical resurrection! But the primary gift that is conferred in this sacrament – and in all the sacraments – is grace which is necessary for our final salvation; grace that sanctifies us. So, this is what the Church teaches: “This sacrament gives the grace of the Holy Spirit to those who are sick: by this grace the whole person is helped and saved, sustained by trust in God, and strengthened against the temptations of the Evil One and against anxiety over death. Thus the sick person is not only able to bear suffering bravely, but also to fight against it. A return to physical health may follow the reception of this sacrament if it will be beneficial to the sick person’s salvation” (Pastoral Care of the Sick, §6). As such, it is clear that this sacrament is focussed on the goal of our entire Christian journey, which is union with God in heaven; salvation. Indeed, every sacrament is given by Christ to his Body, the Church, in order to facilitate, meaning literally, make easier, our journey to heaven.
So, rather than physical healing, as such, the primary healing that Christ gives through this sacrament is far more crucial, going beyond the natural to the supernatural. For the former is in the gift of skilled women and men – doctors and physicians – but the latter can only be given by God. Hence, when we are ill and dying, Christ comes in this sacrament to raise us up to a new life with him; the life of grace. So through the grace given in this sacrament, Jesus comes to carry our cross with us, to empower the sick person to suffer and die with him, and finally, to lead the sick Christian to paradise with him. This is what St James means when he says: “the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up” (5:15).
Hence, as we recalled yesterday, the Christian vocation always involves picking up our cross and journeying with Christ to death and resurrection. Each sacrament confers a grace that enables us to do that; to grow in holiness, and so, to become more and more like Christ until we are completely one with him.
A couple of days ago, Cardinal Muller re-affirmed that valid Christian marriages cannot be dissolved. Divorce is not possible, he said, since “Church dogma isn’t just some theory created by some theologians” but is “the word of Jesus Christ which is very clear”. He must have had today’s Gospel in mind when he said this. But when the Catholic News Service posted the Cardinal’s words on their Facebook page, it generated a huge and rather revealing debate.
Now, we’re not speaking here of cases where a spouse is abandoned or abused. In such cases, the Church advocates separation. Hence the Catechism notes that “there is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage” (CCC 2386). Nevertheless, even where there is a valid marriage and where there is some fault, a good number of people commented on Facebook that this doctrine had to change. Which suggests that some Catholics believe that Man knows better than God, or at least, that Jesus was mistaken. Such was the original sin of Adam, so such hubris is not new. A few said that a celibate man had no right to lay down rules on marriage. It’s uncertain if they were referring to Jesus or Cardinal Muller; the latter, I suspect, which makes the comment all the more ironic. And some said we needed more love and less doctrine. Except, of course, the Gospel says that, “as was his custom”, Jesus “taught” the crowds, that is to say, he gave them doctrine (Mk 10:1). And teaching, too, is an act of love, isn’t it, especially if it leads one to Truth and to the Good? But just as some rejected Jesus’ teaching then, so it appears that some would reject it today. And this, too, is nothing new for every sin is a rejection of God’s wisdom in some way.
But where is the Gospel, the good news, in all this, then? As always, the Gospel is found in a vision of what God’s grace makes possible, transcending what nature by itself can achieve. So, Jesus recalls that in the first place, men and women were both created with equal dignity. But because of Israel’s “hardness of heart”, that is, because of sin this unity was disrupted. Man obtained power over his wife as though she were chattel that he could just “put away” (Mk 10:4). But Jesus comes to restore what was lost through sin, and to elevate nature through grace to a new supernatural end. Hence Jesus repudiates the concession made to sin and says that in his restoration and re-creation of the cosmos through grace, husband and wife “are no longer two but one flesh” (Mk 10:8). Indeed, Jesus then elevates marriage so that it becomes a sacrament, a sign of the new creation caused by grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus, as St Paul says: “This mystery [of two becoming indissolubly one flesh] is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:32).
However, we are still likely to find this teaching hard to grasp. So did the disciples, hence they “asked him again about this matter” privately (Mk 10:10). They wanted to be sure that they understood Jesus properly, and so he explains himself in even more blunt and plain language. It is in utmost fidelity to this explicit teaching of Jesus Christ that Christ’s disciples today, that is, his Church continues to teach that valid Christian marriages are indissoluble. We can do nothing else but be faithful to Jesus’ teaching.
But it’s not surprising that we should find this difficult. Because although Christ has given us his grace to live as his new creation, and although his Spirit dwells in our hearts, we still find ourselves very much attached to former habits, still very much surrounded and influenced by the old sinful self and its ways; we still struggle with sin. As St Paul says, then, we need to let our old selves die so that a new will arise with Christ (cf Rom 6). Hence, living the Christian call to holiness constitutes a cross, and discipleship means picking up our cross, dying to ourselves, and following Christ.
For those who have chosen to marry, marriage is a central beam of that cross. It is one that was freely taken up and committed to for life. As St James said: “let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation” (5:12). So, having made this commitment, the married couple have to depend on Christ’s grace and take up their cross. This means having to work at the marital relationship, learning to forgive, and stretching one’s heart and mind and life so as to make space for another. It means, ultimately, learning to love, and this is never easy. There will be falls and mistakes but these have to overcome with grace and faith, as both husband and wife strive for holiness. Hence, Christ’s vision of marriage is certainly possible and even joyful if we co-operate with God’s grace – the witness of countless Christian couples down the centuries testify to this. However, as so many saintly married couples show, it is certainly easier and thus objectively better if both parties in a marriage desire holiness, and, so, as “one flesh” both desire to learn from Christ.
The Church, then, is to be a facilitator of God’s grace and not an arbitrator (cf Evangelii Gaudium, §47). She exists to make it easier for us to co-operate with God’s grace and to grow in holiness. Hence Cardinal Muller says that “God’s mercy does not dispense us from following his commandments or the rules of the Church. Rather it supplies us with the grace and strength needed to fulfill them, to pick ourselves up after a fall, and to live life in its fullness according to the image of our heavenly Father”. If holiness is our goal – whatever our vocational state of life – then changing or removing Jesus’ teaching, or walking away from his Mystical Bride, the Church, certainly will not help.
Perhaps we can begin by considering what Jesus did not say in today’s Gospel. He does not say: “He who is not against us is with us”. So, there is still a distinction between those who are explicitly following Christ such as the Twelve, and those who are not.
Rather what Jesus says is: “He that is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40), and that the lone exorcist has been doing “a mighty work in my name” (Mk 9:39). This suggests that God’s grace is not limited to the Twelve, who stand for the Church. Rather God is free to grant his good gifts to all people, whether or not they are explicitly following Christ; whether or not they are Christians, therefore. As we were reminded in last Sunday’s Gospel, our Father in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). Hence, the Second Vatican Council could teach that “Divine Providence [does not] deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life” (Lumen Gentium, §16).
So, Jesus says in today’s Gospel that the apostles should not forbid the good that the man is doing in his name. For any goodness and truth comes from God. As we heard in St James’ letter last week: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (1:17).
But because there is still a distinction between those who do explicitly follow Christ and those who don’t, it doesn’t follow that the man who does mighty works in Christ’s name should not subsequently become a follower of Jesus Christ. Indeed, if the Church is to encourage all good and truth, and bring forth still more graces, then it needs to lead all men and women of good will to an explicit faith in Christ. Hence Vatican II goes on to say: “Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel” (ibid.).
It is in this light that the Holy Father said in Evangelii Gaudium, that “frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators” (§47). For this was what the apostles wanted to do: forbid the good being done, and thus control God’s grace. We’re not to do this. Rather, Christ’s Church has to facilitate God’s grace, that is to say, make it easier for people to grow in grace and virtue, to find the truth and good that every human heart naturally desires and seeks after. As such, the Church must evangelize, must bring all from merely being “for us” to being “with us” as explicit followers of Jesus Christ, visible members of his Body, the Church. Why? Because united with Christ in the Church we have easier ‘access’, so to speak, to God’s grace; more ready and sure means of growing in knowledge and love of God, and so, of being intimately united to One who alone satisfies the deepest desires of the human heart.
Thus, Pope Francis also said: “It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize” (EG, §266).