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 and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
Today, the 21st of July, in the Roman Martyrology is commemorated the martyrdom of St Praxedes who died around 160. Hers is the name of one of millions of Christian martyrs, of those “faithful and true witnesses” of Jesus Christ, whom we barely recall; her feast isn’t even in the universal Calendar of the Church, although a great and beautiful basilica – one of my favourite, in fact – still stands over the site of her home in Rome. Santa Prassede, it’s called, and in that church Pope Paschal I brought the relics of some 2300 martyrs to rest there in the early 9th-century. And he did this because St Praxedes had great love and devotion for the persecuted Christians of her time, and for the first martyrs of Rome. The Roman Breviary recounts how St Praxedes, with her sister St Pudentiana, kept [some of the persecuted Christians] in hiding in her house, others she encouraged to profess the faith heroically, and the dead she buried. To those languishing in prison she brought needed assistance”. At last, on this day, she too was martyred and joined those holy martyrs whom she had honoured in life – she was honoured with eternal life.
Even now, in these difficult times, the roll call of martyrs is being added to – thousands of people whose names we do not know, and whom the Media cannot be bothered to recall or even report. On Saturday, almost 1700 years of continued Christian presence in the city of Mosul in Iraq ended. Mosul, incidentally, is the city in which the prophet Jonah (mentioned by Christ in today’s Gospel) was buried until the Islamists recently desecrated his tomb. So, in that historic city, the bells had been forcibly silenced months earlier with the arrival of Islamic terrorists, even as the Western world largely remained willfully silent to the persecution and oppression of our fellow Christians. Then the ‘Caliph’ issued an ultimatum. The Christians were to convert, or pay a fine (too large to be realistically borne), or leave the city; otherwise there was “only the sword”.
So this past weekend saw an exodus of Christians, literally stripped of their belongings by the so-called ‘Caliphate’ as they fled Mosul; the churches they left behind despoiled and burnt down, including the Archbishop’s headquarters; their homes seized as property of the so-called Islamic State. Just to put the numbers affected into perspective, and not to minimize in any way the suffering of other oppressed innocent peoples: the Iraqi Christians displaced since 2003 outnumbers by more than double the number of Palestinians displaced since the creation of the State of Israel. However, while Muslims took to the streets of Paris and other parts of France yesterday to protest the injustice suffered in Gaza, the Christian people remain, largely, silent in the face of this great historic atrocity and massive injustice in Iraq and across the globe. Online, there has been far more moral outrage over images of an American girl who was legally culling African game animals than over this!
I cannot say it urgently enough: the Body of Christ, his Holy Church, suffers multiple wounds as we Christians are the most persecuted people in the world. The blood of the martyrs, like the blood of Abel, cries out to heaven for vengeance. We cannot stand by silently and uncaring like Cain. At the very least, tell your neighbours and friends about what is happening; bring the brave witness of the 21st-century martyrs to light, and honour their memory by naming them before God in prayer, and before other people in whatever way you can.
The prophet Micah says today that our God asks us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [him]” (Mic 6:8). So, in justice, we owe our persecuted brothers and sisters our attention, our concern, our prayers, our action. It is a kindness to them that we help them in any way we can. And let us walk humbly with our God, in solidarity with the suffering Body of Christ, and with gratitude that we still have the freedom to worship him and bear witness to the true Faith openly. So, I’m able to wear my habit and walk the streets of Edinburgh praying the Rosary, for example, and I am largely unmolested. But we cannot take these liberties for granted.
The only news so far from our Dominican brethren is that the priory of Notre Dame al Saah in Mosul had its doors smashed in yesterday morning. We do not know the state of the interior or where the friars are, nor is there current news of the sisters. If they are not dead or captured, we have no doubt that they are humbly walking alongside God’s suffering people, bearing witness to God’s Love with their fellow Christians, our martyrs of this current age. Together, the Christians of Mosul are the “something greater than Jonah” (Mt 12:41): they are a sign of faith in Christ’s Resurrection (cf Mt 12:40). Many among them will be the St Praxedes-es of our time.
So, this Mass is being said to pray for them that they may have courage and grace in this suffering, and to honour and love them, even as St Praxedes honoured and loved the persecuted Christians of 2nd-century Rome. It’s the very least, in one sense, and in another sense, also the very most, we can do for them.
May God have mercy on them and on us all, and may St Praxedes and all the saints of Syria and Iraq pray for all the persecuted Christians around the world.
Last July, Pope Francis famously said: “Who am I to judge?”, and it caught the world’s attention. The Holy Father had been asked about those with a homosexual orientation, and citing the Catechism, the Pope responded: “A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will—well, who am I to judge him?” And for some Catholics this was controversial; for many others, this was misunderstood as a papal moral license to do anything.
And yet the Holy Father’s attitude echoes that of the Householder in today’s first parable: “No… Let both grow together until the harvest”. That is to say that judgement of one’s good or ill is delayed until the harvest time when Christ will come as Judge. Until then, the Church is like that great tree in the second parable that shelters all the birds of the air. Christ’s Church is called, then, to be a refuge for sinners, a resting place for the weary, a home for all those who are seek truth, goodness and beauty; all kinds are invited to come and nest in her branches. And if anyone has seen a tree full of birds, it’s quite a lively noisy place, as they tweet away and, presumably, disagree and dialogue with one another.
But if judgement is made, and only those who agree with one another are gathered together, and all those who are judged ‘bad’ are excluded, then there is just silence, and hums of mutual agreement. Rather, the third parable has a vision of somewhat more confidence in the good and the true – it naturally attracts and grows and nourishes, like leaven in the dough. Interestingly, this, I think, is one of the instances when God is likened to a baker woman, mixing dough with the leaven of righteousness and truth, causing the dough of the Church and our world to rise up with the leaven of his grace.
Nevertheless, there are zealous servants who fear the damage and confusion caused by those who are deemed weeds. Who are these weeds? Pope Francis, I suppose, was thinking of people who are homosexual, who are written off by Christians and others because of they’re gay. It’s not difficult to find such zealous servants around especially in the Church - just yesterday, I read this sentence in a blog: “A lesbian who accepts her sexuality already defies church teaching just by existing”! But there are others, especially in the world, who would weed out and write off convicted pædophiles. Others still are written off because they’re deemed liberals or conservatives. Indeed, one can consider as a weed a whole range of labels and identities – based on what periodicals one reads, or what language one worships in, or what one does in the bedroom, and so on. But the bottom line is that the zealous servants believe that the Sower’s pure field, which should have only yielded good wheat, has been contaminated and confused by weeds sown by the Enemy.
But the Head of the Household, that is, Jesus Christ says: “Let both [weeds and wheat] grow together until the harvest” in case “in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them”. Here we see the patience of God, and his confidence in the power of grace to transform the sinner, to move one to repentance. As we said in our psalm response, the Lord is “good and forgiving”. But he can only be forgiving, only show mercy, towards someone who chooses to repent. This means, someone who we choose to include in our conversation and allow to nest in the tree of the Church; to grow in the field of the Lord. If they are judged immediately, and then excluded and weeded out now, there is no more opportunity for growth and change, less chance for repentance, no place for mercy and for God to show that he is good and forgiving. For because God is good, so we believe that he will also send the grace that moves us to repentance, to seek and receive forgiveness for sins.
In fact, those who would judge and act now to weed out the sinners have a more fundamental problem. They lack faith in the power of God’s grace. There is a kind of spiritual despair – the lack of hope – in believing that the evils of the world is stronger than the good; that the Enemy has won the war simply because he has won a skirmish or a battle. But the spiritual battle for the salvation of a soul is not over until the harvest time. Until then, God’s grace is still active and powerfully at work, even though it is unseen like the leaven in the dough, like the grain of mustard seed germinating underground. Until harvest time, repentance is still possible; a human person is still capable of change and conversion – that is our hope. And it is this hope, countering the despair and hopelessness all around us, that motivates the Church especially under Pope St John Paul II to oppose the death penalty, and to oppose the ‘Assisted Dying’ bill. Why? Because until one’s natural death, until harvest time, no zealous servant in the form of doctor or State should execute judgement and uproot the weeds.
This same hope of growth and repentance, then, this same faith in God’s redeeming grace, this same love of the whole human person and his whole life is what underlies the words of the Holy Father, when, echoing the Householder’s attitude, he says: “Who am I to judge?”
These are the words of a patient farmer who wants the Church to be that field in which both weeds and wheat can grow together. Because while there is growth and while there is time before the harvest, then there is also time for conversion, for change, for repentance. This requires, of course, on the one hand, that Christ’s true teachings are proclaimed and taught clearly and well, with sensitivity to people’s lived experience especially from among the saints. On the other hand, it requires of us a humble readiness to listen, to be challenged to grow, and to be open to change. The most terrifying thing is when a human person, who by nature is changeable, obstinately refuses to change. If our mind is made up and we believe that our opinions are necessarily correct; that there is no alternative way; that ours is the final word, then our growth is stunted – we may well remain weeds.
But in contrast to this, the Gospel of Jesus Christ keeps challenging every human person to grow and change and to be supernaturally perfected in grace, to become wheat. So, our minds must be opened up in repentance, metanoia, to humbly seek the Truth who is Christ. For as Pope Francis said in Lumen Fidei, “truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us”. The Gospel and the teachings of Christ’s Church also challenge us to grow beyond the fatalism of our age to see that nobody is doomed by genetics or sexual orientation or culture to behave in a certain way. No, Christ is the Way who leads to our fullest human flourishing and deepest joy. And it is he who is the final Word, God’s one Word spoken into our human lives and world with all its limitations, our weakness and sufferings, trials and confusion. Into this world, God’s Word is spoken, and his Word is “good and forgiving”, patient and gentle, forbearing and merciful and true. His Word is Love.
And so, this parable is not about moral relativism, nor does it say that the True and the Good is unknowable. Neither does it say that the sinner should be abandoned unchallenged or unrepentant. Rather, these parables tell of God’s Word of Love, about his grace patiently and powerfully at work in the world, converting and transforming the hearts of us sinners. God keeps faith with Man, hoping for our repentance, for more than we thought we’re capable of, more than the world cynically or ‘realistically’ expects. But the question is, will we keep faith with him? As Jesus asks in St Luke’s Gospel, when the harvest time comes, will he find any faith on the earth? (Lk 18:8).
HOMILY for the Wedding of Chris Oldroyd & Becca Coult
Songs 2:8-10, 14, 16a; 8:6-7a; Ps 128; Col 3:12-17; John 17:20-26
The readings that a couple choose for their wedding are very revealing. What might have gone through Becca and Chris’ minds when they chose these readings especially the first one? “Behold, he comes, leaping…” Was she thinking, maybe, of their romance begun on a dance floor? Why Not? Or perhaps of many a ceilidh celebrated here in the CSU? Then, again, the reading says: “Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet” Perhaps, then, Becca was thinking of Chris’ sweet singing in the CSU choir? Or maybe, Chris just fancied being compared to a “young stag”, although I don’t quite see him standing at the back, peering in shyly through the lattice screens! It may well be any of these reasons… But if I look at the other readings they’ve chosen, then I’d like to think that it may have to do with a CSU retreat last autumn. Both Becca and Chris were there, and together we’d explored my favourite book in the Bible, the Song of Songs, and I think they came away quite enthused.
The Song of Songs, as its name means, is the greatest song. Why? Because it tells of the greatest love story of them all: God’s passionate desire for Mankind. And the Singer of this love song is the greatest Lover of Humanity: God. For the entire history of God’s dealings with Man is a great romance, a love song that is still on-going and mirrored in the beauty of human love, of husband and wife. As Pope Benedict XVI has said: “Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love”.
And what is God’s way of loving? For millennia, through the prophets and through various messengers, God had been wooing Mankind from the very beginning, calling us into a relationship of love, of intimate friendship, with him. Again and again he has had compassion on his people when they fail, and he has shown forgiveness, mercy, great forebearence. So, in the second reading you chose, Becca and Chris, St Paul reminds you to become an image of God’s patient love to each other, “forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive”. And I know that you already strive to do this for one another.
However, when the prophets and kings and leaders fail, God at last comes himself to court us himself. Jesus is God’s Way of loving; He is Love made flesh. He, the eternal Word of God, gives voice to God our Beloved. So, the Song of Songs point to Jesus, the “voice of my Beloved” who comes leaping and bounding into human history; he comes to woo us in the Incarnation. As one of my favourite Christmas carols says: “Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love, This have I done for my true love”. Yes, for you and for me who are God’s true love, he has become Man. So, we are taken up into God’s love song; he is romancing you and me even now, drawing us closer into union with him through grace.
But notice that Christ doesn’t come and impose himself on us; he doesn’t break into our house. Rather, he stands “gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice”, waiting to be invited into our hearts, our lives. For – and again we should note God’s way of loving – love is courteous, kind, patient, gentle, and respectful of our freedom. He is waiting for us to let him in. Why do we fear? For see what our Beloved does for us.
Christ’s love song reaches its crescendo on the Cross, when he dies for us, offers his life and self for sinful humanity, even when we are undeserving. Again, God shows us the measure of human love: it doesn’t count the cost or what the other truly deserves, but is ever ready to sacrifice and so to suffer for the good of the other. The Dominican who founded this Edinburgh priory, fr Bede Jarrett OP put it this way: “Love finds words inadequate to hold all its deep meanings, and can only feel in sacrifice and in self-sacrifice a satisfactory outlet to its desires. Suffering is the only full speech of love”. So, on the Cross, the eternal Word-made-flesh speaks the full speech of God’s love: he dies that we might have eternal life.
As every mature married couple can attest, what you will undertake, Becca and Chris, will require sacrifice of you both, of a certain dying to self to make room for the other; in order that others, especially in the many children I hope you’ll have, may have life. Such is the way of Love, and it will sanctify you both; it will unite you ever more closely to Christ our Saviour; it is your particular path of salvation that you are choosing today.
But “love is strong as death”, we’re told. And so, Love brings with him new life and resurrection, even if Love demands much of us. Our Beloved says: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away”. So, when you feel weary and burdened, when your love for each other is tested, remember that God’s love will sustain you and raise you up to new life. He calls you “my love” – so, go to him and be loved and restored and strengthened by God. If we do, then, Christ will raise you up with him – “Arise”. God’s Holy Spirit will heal your wounds and makes you beautiful with his grace – thus he calls you “my fair one” and says your face is “comely”. And our loving Father wants, at last, to carry you away with him – “come away”, he says, and rest in his peace. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts”, St Paul says. In your marriage, Becca and Chris, always make space, make time, for Christ. Pray together, even as Christ prays for you; speak – or sing – of him to your children, even as the Father sings his love song for you; love God, who has first loved you and sustains your every breath with his love.
For, as the Song of Songs says: “My beloved in mine and I am his”. This, really, is the central refrain of why we’re here today. Here in the Mass, we celebrate God’s giving of himself – his Body and Blood – to us, and we say as his faithful People that we belong to him when we receive Holy Communion. And here in the Sacrament of Marriage, we see this reciprocal love of God and Man, of Christ and his Church, take flesh in your flesh, Becca and Chris. For you two shall become one flesh: one with each other in love even as you are one with God through Christ’s love, as we hear in the Gospel.
So, after this, as we all dance and sing, drink, feast and make merry, it is right and just that we do so. Not just because we’re Catholics, and Catholics love parties. But, more importantly, we love parties because we rejoice in God our Saviour. And wedding parties are the best because they give us a foretaste, a glimpse, of the joy and celebration of heaven itself, of eternal life in God.
We’ve heard the words of today’s Gospel three times in the last month since the feast of the Sacred Heart. What more can be said? I would like to share with you reflections of a somewhat more personal nature on this Gospel, but I hope that they are no less relevant for you because of that.
These words of Christ frame my life as a consecrated religious and as a priest. When I made simple profession in September 2006, this Gospel was read. It seemed to me, at the end of a novitiate year which can be trying and quite difficult at times, to be apt. Because whenever things seemed wearisome and I felt burdened by our life as Dominican friars, I turned to Christ in prayer; I went to him and felt rest. And often, I reflected, I felt weary because I had drifted away from Christ and relied mainly on my own efforts. So, together with Christ, lifted up by his grace, the yoke that is laid on us becomes sweeter and lighter.
For the yoke that Jesus lays on us is the yoke of love. Religious life, insofar as it is a perfection of the baptismal life of every Christian, is about learning to love as Jesus does. It is, as the Collect for First Profession says, about offering to God “a perfect gift of loving service”. And this is only possible with Christ’s grace, if I go to him and rest in his mercy and goodness.
In September 2011, when I was ordained a priest, I chose this same Gospel to remind myself of those thoughts that accompanied by Simple Profession five years earlier. But, this time, I reflected on the heart of Christ that I, as a priest of Jesus Christ, needed. Then, and now more than ever, I am still in need of a heart transplant so that my divided and often hard heart may become “gentle and lowly” like Christ’s. I had in my mind, the words of one of my brothers who examined me for the faculty to hear Confessions. He reminded me – not especially, I don’t think – to be gentle and kind. The grace of ordination, of course, doesn’t replace my heart with Christ’s heart immediately. As my Student Master said to me, we, with all our frailties and very human characteristics, are still the instrument cause of God’s grace, so the instrument must still be purified and improved by grace.
So, this Gospel read at my Ordination reminded me that if I wanted a heart like Christ’s, I need to go to him again and again, to remain close to him. Pope Benedict XVI put it so well in 2007 when he said to priests: “Taking the Lord’s yoke upon us means first of all: learning from him. It means always being ready to go to his school. From him we must learn gentleness and meekness: the humility of God who shows himself in his being a man”. So, again, when I fail in humility and gentleness, when I feel burdened by Christ’s yoke, I know it is because I haven’t gone to Christ, haven’t prayed and relied on his grace enough. So, today’s Gospel reminds me to go to him.
And, in fact, every time I celebrate Mass I am reminded of this. As I prepare to go to Jesus in the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, prayers are said to accompany every vestment we put on; they remind us of who we are and what we’re going to do at the Altar. So, when the chasuble is put on, I say this prayer: “O Lord, Who have said, ‘My yoke is sweet and My burden light’: grant that I may so carry Your yoke as to merit Your grace”. For the yoke of Christ, as Pope Benedict says, “is that of loving with [Christ]. And the more we love him and with him become loving people, the lighter becomes his seemingly burdensome yoke”. This is what comes to mind as I prepare to celebrate Mass, as I go to Christ in the Eucharist, and receive his Body and Blood. It is a prayer that he will give me rest by increasing my love for him and for his people, by transforming – not replacing – my heart with his grace, so that my heart will beat in tandem with his Sacred Heart.
This year marks the 740th anniversary of the death of St Bonaventure, and also, incidentally of St Thomas Aquinas who was a good friend of his. There is much that these saints share in common. Both died in connection with the Council of Lyons: St Thomas had died on the way to the Council; Bonaventure, who was instrumental in preparing for the Council as a bishop, theologian and cardinal died during it. Both were mendicant friars and had defended the friars movement in Paris; both had studied and taught in the University of Paris. However, one incident (which echoes a similar one in the life of St Thomas Aquinas) shows us St Bonaventure’s priorities. When asked by St Thomas what was the source of his learning and insight, he pointed to an image of the Crucified One, and said: “This is the library, wherein I find all that I teach to others”. Thus, St Bonaventure, a Doctor of the Church, says to us: “If you learn everything except Christ, you learn nothing. If you learn nothing except Christ, you learn everything”.
The primacy of Christ in all things, and thus, the priority given to the Word of God, is central to St Bonaventure’s thought. As Minister General of the Franciscans he’d had to grapple with notions that St Francis had inaugurated a new, more spiritual and charismatic age for the Church. But St Bonaventure insisted that Jesus Christ is God’s final Word to humanity. There can be no further new revelation for in Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh, God had said all, giving himself entirely to humanity, even giving us his Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
Hence, Bonaventure said that if we seek truth, especially concerning eternal salvation, we needed to look to Christ in faith, to love him through prayer, and only then can we truly understand God’s words in Sacred Scripture. As he says: “This faith is the foundation of the whole Bible, a lamp and a key to its understanding”. And this faith, of course, comes to us as a gift from Jesus Christ; it is an ecclesial faith that we receive from Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church. Thus, as Minister General, St Bonaventure strived to unite the Franciscans more closely to the hierarchy of the Church. For this reason, I think, Bonaventure (unlike St Thomas) accepted being made Archbishop of York and a cardinal.
As a Scholastic, St Bonaventure (like St Thomas) firmly believed in the unity of faith and reason in the human quest for true knowledge. For, ultimately, God is the source of all wisdom; Jesus is Truth itself. Therefore, as a theologian, Bonaventure stressed that if we desired to know truth concerning our salvation, we needed to depend on God’s Word, and to learn from Christ. As he says: “The source of sacred Scripture was not human research but divine revelation”. For Bonaventure, then, the motivation for genuine theology was a love for Christ and a desire to know him better. Against this, he warned of the danger of intellectual pride which subjected the Scriptures to merely human reasoning and research. St Thomas, likewise, warned that “in knowledge and in every other endowment that belongs to greatness, Man finds occasion to trust in himself rather than to give himself over completely to God”.
The sanctity of these men, then, came not from their learning or formidable intelligence, as such, but from their humility and love for the Word of God. This enabled them to use their human reason to understand divine revelation, to accept God’s Word in faith and to conform their lives to it rather than to rationalize the Faith away or relativize God’s Word. This intellectual pride is the temptation in every age. Currently, we must wonder if some churchmen have not fallen into such temptation through arguing in support of the Assisted Dying Bill, or in favour of divorce and remarriage, or allowing for the ordination of women – positions which all contradict the teaching of Scripture and of sacred Tradition. The positions they advance all sound reasonable but we must always beware, as St Bonaventure teaches us, that the pride of human reason does not take precedence over the Word of God; over the divine Wisdom and knowledge that is only known through the grace of the Holy Spirit – that same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures and continues to guide, inspire, and animate Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. As such, her Magisterium cannot teach error in matters of faith and morals when it concerns our salvation.
St Bonaventure, therefore, said that only “the pious and the humble, the contrite and the devout” can learn from divine Wisdom. So, let us imitate his docility to the Word of God, and so, by God’s grace grow closer to Jesus Christ, the “Way, the Truth, and the Life”.
Today’s Gospel is connected to Isaiah’s image of blessing through the seed which is sown. Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God, has been sown by God the Father in the earth; he has taken root in the soil of our humanity, and he has become one with us. This marvellous truth, this wonder of the Incarnation of Christ, is that great thing that prophets and righteous men longed to see and hear but did not. But you and I, we who are baptized in Christ, we are the ones whom Jesus calls ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’ because we have seen and heard him whom so many before us, and so many around us long for. This is the source of our Christian joy for we, because of God’s generous love and the free gift of his grace, have seen and heard God’s divine Word, Jesus Christ his Son. In fact, we not only see and hear the Word but we receive it into our lives just as the seed is embedded in the earth. In the Mass as the Scriptures are read to us and we listen to God’s Word, it is being sown in our hearts. And then, when we receive the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, then we receive into our very bodies what Isaiah calls “bread for the eating”.
Isaiah also says that it is the rain that gives “growth to provide seed for the sower and bread for the eating”. What is this rain? It is the Holy Spirit. Through our baptism, we have all received God’s Holy Spirit who dwells in our hearts, and it is the Spirit who teaches us and leads us into all truth. And so, we perceive the truth of the Gospel and our hearts are opened to receive the Word of God, not by our own efforts, but rather, because of the gift of faith and the gift of understanding which is given by the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is also the Holy Spirit who sanctifies the bread and wine that is offered at Mass so that in Holy Communion we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. However, the rain also causes the earth to yield, that is, to be fruitful. Thus, it is the Holy Spirit who causes us to “hear the Word and understand it” and consequently to “yield a harvest” that produces abundant fruit, each according to the individual gifts and talents God has given us.
Just as a tree bears fruit which is attractive and delicious and offered to all who pass by to receive it and taste its goodness, so too with us. If we draw from God’s grace and live in him, then we will bear fruit that will last and which our world longs for and needs so very much. St Paul tells is that the fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal 5:22f). These fruit render us sweet and attractive to others, as the saints are, so that others may look on us and be drawn to taste and see the goodness of God, the sweetness of his grace. A parish is thus like an orchard, and each of you are a fruit tree, and if you are fruitful by the grace of the Spirit, you will be full of joy, mercy, and love that is deeply attractive.
Our Holy Father has said much about the joy of the Gospel and the mercy we should show to others. At this time, we are faced with a challenge as the Assisted Dying Bill comes before Parliament again on Friday. It is a false sense of mercy that would kill the most vulnerable and dying, and the very real fear is it is the depressed, the weak who would not be helped but rather pressured to die, and so ease our troubles rather than their own. In a society where the right to life and to live is already denied millions of unborn children, this is yet further descent into the “culture of death” that Pope St John Paul II warned against. No. We must strive to build the “civilization of love”, and love doesn’t kill off; it suffers with and finds redemption through suffering love.
Look at that great Cross that hangs above us, and we see Our Lady and St John with the dying Christ, accompanying him with love, compassion, and much care; doing all they can to assist him to die with dignity and grace. This is what ‘assisted dying’ truly means.
For suffering, is a mark of our humanity, just as Christ who became human suffered, and he suffered greatly for his love was so great. So, St Paul says: “all of us who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free”. Imagine the seedling breaking free from the seed-pod, straining towards the light, growing into a fruitful tree. We too are struggling, straining to become more fully who we are called to be, reaching for the light of heaven and that is not a painless process. But it is a process that will come to fruition as we rely on God’s grace and hope in him. For Isaiah rightly says that God’s Word does not return empty but will “succeed in what it was sent to do”. This is to say that God’s Word, Jesus Christ, comes to strengthen the dying, give grace to endure the Cross with him, and sends his Spirit to console the afflicted. Hence it is vital to anoint the sick and dying that they may receive this needful grace.
The witness of Christ, and of his saints and mystics, has been to what is called ‘redemptive suffering’ as Christians, motivated by faith and great love for Christ, suffer with Christ and die with him. But they do so with hope and resurrection joy, confident that they will rise to glory with him. Thus St Paul says: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothingcompared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Rom 8:18). One of the most beautiful deaths I have seen was of a Dominican brother who died with such dignity, surrounded by loving brothers, in the priory in Oxford. And I have been privileged to see Catholics die like this in hospitals too, surrounded by loved ones. And the image that comes to mind is of a seed buried in the ground in the hope of the resurrection. It is perishable but it rises to imperishable life (cf 1 Cor 15:17).
This is our faith and our hope as Christians; the Cross of Christ is our response to suffering, and we love and cherish all life from conception to natural death. For we are confident, and thus joyful, that the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise our mortal bodies too. For God dwells in us – the seed of glory, the Eucharist, has been planted in our bodies, and the grace of his Holy Spirit waters us and makes us flourish and yield the harvest of eternal life. This is the joy that we have to preach to a world gripped by despair and desperation. This is the mercy that truly responds to the needs of our contemporaries. This is the love that only Jesus Christ, Love made flesh, can give us; he fulfills the deepest longings of humanity.
Now, let us share this sweet and good news, and help build a civilization of love and of life.
A ruler, that is, a leader of the local community, one who is in the elite core comes to Jesus. Another who is at the very margins of the community, ostracized by society because she suffered the flow of blood, haemorrhaging for the past 12 years, comes to Jesus. One a man, another a woman. Both come to Jesus for help, and they represent all of humanity, both the powerful and the dispossessed, male and female, young and old. For they come to Jesus bearing the conditions that are common to us all: our mortality. The woman comes to Jesus suffering from a debilitating illness; the man comes to Jesus on behalf of his child who has suffered the last and greatest illness that afflicts Mankind, death itself.
And often it is sickness and death that challenges and tests our faith, isn’t it? So, these people in the Gospel represent us who are prone to the suffering that they have, who sorrow and grieve even as the father does for his dead daughter. What are we to do when we endure these mortal pains? We’re encouraged to go to Jesus.
And this takes courage; faith requires courage, hence Jesus says to the woman, “Take heart” or in other translations, simply “Courage!”. The same Greek word, in fact, is used later on in St Matthew’s Gospel when there is a storm at sea and the apostles cry out in fear. Jesus appears to them, walking on the sea in the midst of the storm, and he says: “Take heart, courage, it is I; have no fear” (Mt 14:27). The storms of the human life are its trials and sufferings: illness, grief, death. These stir us up. But God is Lord of the storms, he is able to reach out in the midst of them, and he comes to us, calling out to us to go to him in faith and hope. And this takes courage.
The woman who is not allowed to come into the city had to overcome her fear of social conventions and customs, of public disapproval and even violence if she was caught, to approach Jesus. And even so, she reaches out to just touch the tassels of his garment from behind, not daring to be seen by others. But this is enough. She has done a very brave thing, risking further social exclusion and harm just to touch his garment. And the man who had rushed out to find Jesus when his daughter had died – he must have risked humiliation. For if the crowd laughed at Jesus, they would also have ridiculed the father of the dead girl. So, he too has done a brave thing, risking reputation and public esteem to go to Christ.
They go – perhaps because they’re desperate, but hope often springs from such conditions – and they go nevertheless because they have faith. And faith takes courage. Because with courage, the man and woman in the Gospel are able to manage their fears and so go to Jesus and ask for what they need: health, well-being; salus in Latin, which becomes also salvation.
Their faith and their courage thus gains for them salus – not just physical health and healing from Christ, but above all, salvation, eternal life in God. And this is promised us too if we keep faith with Christ. So, “Courage! Take heart!”, Jesus says to us too. As a cancer patient I read about said so pithily: “Those who go to Jesus Christ find in him a cure for death”.
I’ve spent the past week attending graduation ceremonies in the McEwan Hall; six in total. And from the platform, seated under the organ, I’ve looked out on the happy faces of thousands of young people, with their parents and supporters all looking on. It has been a privilege and a joy to be among those supporters, applauding our new graduates. As each of them mounted the platform to be tapped on the head with what the Principal famously calls a “hybrid antique space bonnet”, I considered the many steps that had brought them to this day, and gave thanks for their accomplishments. And as I perused the titles of the doctoral theses printed in the graduation booklet, I marvelled at the breadth of learning and knowledge and experience gathered in that Hall.
And yet, as today’s Gospel reminds us, not everything can be investigated and discovered by the “wise and understanding” (Mt 11:25a), no matter how many years of research are undertaken. For some things are only known by God and revealed by him. What are these things? They concern Christ’s saving work and his divine identity. Hence the prophet Zechariah says: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he” (9:9). And St Paul says: “Christ is in you” (Rom 8:10) and “the Spirit of God really dwells in you” (Rom 8:9). These are the divine mysteries of our salvation, of the Incarnation, of God’s abiding closeness to us through grace, which are revealed by Jesus Christ and proclaimed in the Scriptures, and handed on by his Church.
St Thomas, at the beginning of his Summa theologiæ thus says that it was necessary for Mankind’s salvation that certain truths “which exceed human reason should be make known to [Mankind] by divine revelation”. Moreover, even “those truths about God which human reason could have discovered” would take too many years to research and learn, and too few would have the intelligence to do this kind of academic work, and it might be riddled with errors since human reason is fallible and prone to making mistakes. Therefore, St Thomas argues, because Mankind’s “whole salvation, which is in God, depends on the knowledge of this truth” it was necessary that Mankind “should be taught divine truths by divine revelation”. That is to say, we need Jesus to teach us the Way of salvation. So Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “learn from me” (Mt 11:29).
What is it we learn from Jesus? How to become children of God. For today’s Gospel says that the Father has “revealed [these things] to babes”. But, in fact, a better rendering of the Greek text would be: to “the childlike” (Mt 11:25b).
In the first place, childlikeness is a reference to faith. Children don’t find faith difficult because from the moment of conception a relationship of dependency and trust, of faith, is established between the child and the mother; it is the most natural thing. Every child thirsts for truth – which is why they ask so many questions; it a most human thing to do to seek truth. But their childlikeness means that they believe the answers given to them by their parents and teachers. They do so with an inherent faith. So, when Jesus says that the Father has revealed divine truths to the childlike, he is calling on us to have faith like this and so to believe Christ’s Word, to rely on his teachings revealed in Scripture, to trust the teaching of his Body, the Church. Christ is the answer to humanity’s deepest questions.
However, the Father reveals divine truths to the Child-like in another sense. I think it’s a reference to baptism which unites us to Christ the divine Child, and makes us children of God. There is a hint of this in today’s Gospel but the translation obscures it. What is rendered as “Yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” is literally “for thus it was well-pleasing before you” (Mt 11:26). This phrase brings to mind Christ’s own baptism when the Father declares: “You are my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). So, our Child-likeness comes through baptism in which we are reborn in the likeness of the Son, and become sons and daughters of the Father by adoption. Through our baptism, God is well-pleased with us, and he reveals his divine truths to us, his children. As Rowan Williams noted when he received an honorary doctorate last Friday, baptism was thus known in the early Church as “enlightenment”. For the baptised are the Child-like whom God has enlightened with true knowledge concerning salvation. Such knowledge doesn’t come through many years of laborious research and hard work, but rather through faith. It comes through going to Christ, believing his Word, and so resting in him. Thus Jesus says: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).
Every Christian, then, went to Christ in baptism which is also called the “sacrament of faith”. For we step up from the font, and so, ‘graduate’ into a life of faith; a life of Child-likeness. While Edinburgh doctors graduate in scarlet robes of precious silk, we, the children of God were robed in the scarlet of the precious blood of Christ. But the key difference between the graduation ceremonies I witnessed and baptism is this. For many, graduation is a major step of adulthood, a milestone in the movement of an individual towards independence from one’s parents. And yet advancing in faith requires a contrary movement. As we grow up in faith the adult Christian has to become more Child-like. Essentially, we have to become more like Jesus, the divine Child.
- preached to the Lay Dominican Fraternity in Edinburgh
Today we speak, rather unusually, of St Thomas and mean, not our brother Aquinas, but the apostle who first brought the Faith to Syria and Persia and then India; to this day Keralan Christians, still happily flourishing, are also called ‘Thomas Christians’. The Church in Syria, too, has survived until now and until recently Syria had, reputedly, the only village to still speak the mother tongue of Christ, Aramaic. But, it seems, no longer. The ancient Christian community in Syria is struggling now for its survival, and in the persecuted Christian communities of the Middle East, the Body of Christ is bleeding, wounded and raw.
We can see, if we choose to look on the internet – or occasionally in the mainstream Media when they’re interested – the wounds in Christ’s Mystical Body, the “print of the nails” (cf Jn 20:25), so to speak, imprinted in Syria and Iraq, as well as the former lands of Persia. These lands, which St Thomas had once evangelized, and so, united to the Body of Christ, are now scarred by persecution.
As Dominicans, we have even more reason to know this pain and suffering because we have family, brothers and sisters in St Dominic, who are trying to live out their Dominican vocation in Syria, in Iraq; indeed, they are trying to survive. You who will make profession tonight as lay Dominicans, or even you who will become a candidate, a ‘novice’, are joined to them.
In the words of St Paul, “you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens” (Eph 2:19) – a fitting enough word, I suppose, given the oft-cited ‘democracy’ of our Order. But if you are no longer strangers, then ‘they’, those around the world who share your profession are no longer just ‘them’, either; not strangers any more but fellow Dominicans, brothers and sisters in St Dominic and, more fundamentally, in Christ. The blood that flows in our veins, as Christians, flows in theirs too: the precious blood of Christ. And Christ’s blood, now, doesn’t just flow but bleeds out from the wounds in his Body the Church, our Body.
The first challenge for us today, then, is to, as it were, see the wound in Christ’s side and put our finger in it (cf Jn 20:27). Many in our world, tired and perplexed, would turn their faces away, but we Dominicans must look and see the suffering of our brothers and sisters; must feel the pain and tragedy of the situation; and we need to be wounded by the injustice and outrage of what is happening to our fellow Christians – and not just in the Middle East but all over the world. As Pope Francis said recently, there are more martyrs and persecuted Christians in our day than at any other time in history. Only when we truly feel the enormity of what is happening can we be moved enough to act for justice and peace, both through socio-political action and through ardent prayer.
And because we pray and are a people of faith, we also believe that nothing is beyond our Lord and God’s power to save and raise up, even if from the grave. The situation in Syria and Iraq is grave, and we may well not see the way forward. But Jesus says: “Do not be faithless, but believing” (Jn 20:27). At this time, then, we Christians are called to join with our persecuted brothers and sisters in a great act of faith and hope: to pray unfailingly. For we believe that although Christ died and was buried, he rose from the dead. For God did not allow the Body of Christ to suffer decay but he was raised to new life. Can not the same be said for Christ’s Mystical Body? God will also vindicate Christ’s Church in Persia, in Iraq, in Syria, and so on. Christ’s Mystical Body will rise from the dead, with the scars from the many wounds inflicted on her members in these places, but she will be, ultimately, victorious, forgiving, and bring peace.
For this is what the apostle St Thomas was a witness to. “Peace be with you”, the Risen Lord said (Jn 20:26). So, this was the Gospel that Thomas first preached in those lands: a Gospel of hope in the resurrection; a Gospel of peace through Christ’s saving death; a Gospel of the final triumph of divine love. May this Gospel sustain our brothers and sisters in faith and hope. May it move us Dominicans to action on their behalf, as a ‘holy preaching’ for the salvation of souls, and may St Thomas – both of them! – pray for us all.
What makes you angry? St Thomas says that anger is a response to perceived injustice. So, we can feel anger when we think we’ve been treated unfairly, when our dignity (or pride) has been violated, or when we see someone being treated unjustly. Anger, then, serves to stir up activity that would redress an injustice. As such, St Thomas says that anger, properly ordered, is at the service of justice. Indeed, he says it is praiseworthy to be angry for right reasons, that is, when justice is at stake.
St Thomas’ stance on anger is surprising since it was traditionally classed as a ‘deadly sin’, and yet St Thomas believes anger is more complex and ambivalent. He knows, of course, that very often our angry response to a perceived injustice can be disproportionate, unjustified, vengeful, misdirected and unreasonable. In these cases, it would be a vice. However, it is not always so. Indeed, it would be wrong, St Thomas says, not to get angry in some circumstances.
And this is how we can look at God’s anger. It’s true that the term anger is applied to God analogously. For the eternal God is unchanging and thus is not prone to emotions as we, ever changing human creatures are. Nevertheless the Bible uses the language of God’s wrath in order to convey something important about God.
For anger tells us that someone cares deeply. Just consider what it means if we say we’re never angry. It means that we don’t care enough to bothered by a wrong, or to be stirred up to redress an evil. But God cares very deeply indeed, and in particular, he cares about the poor and oppressed; those who are treated unjustly. Thus the prophet Amos is clear that God is furious about the grave injustices committed by Israel and especially by their elite, and he will put an end to sin and injustice. In very graphic language, the prophet says of God: “Behold, I will press you down in your place” (Amos 2:13).
Anger, we’ve said, stirs us to action to redress an injustice. Thus God is stirred to right action to respond to sin, injustice, and hatred in his creation; to put things right. Hence God becomes Man, and his angry judgement of a sinful world is revealed on the Cross (Jn 12:31). We call this the Passion of Christ, and indeed, it is on the Cross that God in Jesus Christ does experience emotion. He experiences passion, as in deep love and care for humanity, and so, because he cares so deeply, he also experiences anger. This righteous and just anger takes Jesus to the Cross where he dies for our salvation; that we might live.
And anger, we know, is also deeply powerful – it can fuel great activity; it can be a fearsome force. No wonder then that on Easter Sunday everyone from the Roman soldiers to the apostles and women disciples are frightened and fearful. For on that day, God’s powerful anger is revealed in the resurrection of his Son from the dead. On that day, then, as Amos foretells, “he who is stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away (2:16). Hence they go running away from the empty tomb (cf Mk 16:8), the scene of God’s great anger.