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.
A few years ago, when I was a younger and even more inexperienced deacon, I was invited to a Catholic comprehensive school in Essex. And I went into a class of 16 year olds, dressed in my full 13th-century habit to take some questions. And all they wanted to ask about was sex: talk about Daniel in the lions’ den… But I survived to tell the tale! It’s fitting, then, that the image of Daniel in the lions’ den is one of the earliest Christian depictions of Resurrection hope, found on sarcophagi in Rome.
But not all the questions were about sexual matters. One boy hoped that I would do his homework for him, and so he asked me: ‘What is the relevance of the doctrine of the resurrection for today’? A good question. As I walked through the Meadows yesterday and watched everybody enjoying the sunshine, seemingly oblivious to what was happening in our little hidden chapel, this question came to mind again: what is the relevance of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection; of these three sacred days, the Triduum, we’ve been celebrating?
And here is, more or less, what I said to that boy. We begin with Christ’s Passion and Death, his suffering on the Cross. So, we think, too, of the suffering of all humanity; of the people of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Central African Republic, and so many other spots forgotten by us and the Media. As I was on my way yesterday to visit the sick of our parish, I considered, too, the pain and suffering around us and in our own lives, so much of which is unseen. Suffering is very immediate and it touches each of us at some time and in some way, directly and indirectly. Then we begin to see how very relevant the resurrection of Jesus Christ is.
For we believe that God became one of a us, a human person who suffered, died, and was buried. In Jesus Christ, our God became present to human suffering, so that when we suffer, God is there. So, ours is not a God who is distant from us, but a God who bore our sins and pains and all that belongs to our human mortality in his own body. He, the Crucified One, bore all that on the Tree (cf 1 Pt 2:24). Each generation is overwhelmed by evil, suffering and sin in our world, and we rightly ask, ‘Where is God’? But the God whom they – we – interrogate is One who we beheld taking up his Cross, struggling under its weight to Calvary, and disfigured by torture and anguish on the Cross. And so, the mystery of sin and evil suffered is given meaning even if we don’t – and I think can never fully – understand it. But it has meaning because of today, the day of Resurrection.
Easter is typically celebrated with loud music and triumphant singing, but if we pay attention to the Gregorian chants given to us by the Church, we note a different mood altogether. There is a certain ambivalence of tone; the musical mode chosen is not triumphant but still hesitant. Why? Because we still live in suffering and witness it around us every day. Nevertheless, the music and text for the Entrance chant of today’s Mass strikes a note of reassurance. “I have risen, and I am with you still, alleluia”. This assurance of Christ’s living Presence, with us in our suffering; with us in the Eucharist which is always a sacred memorial of his Passion; Christ with us still, no matter what happens to us, is the tone for Easter Sunday that the sacred Liturgy wants to teach us.
For it is Christ, risen from the tomb, who gives meaning to all that befalls us. It is his Resurrection and the promise it holds for us that gives meaning to our suffering, our death; to the Cross we carry each day; to the dying in baptism and in daily martyrdom that we endure for the sake of his Name. It is the resurrection that gives meaning to the crucifixion of humanity… in Haiti, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, the Philippines; on our streets where the homeless lie, and in the slums where the poor scavenge for scraps in rubbish dumps, and in our homes torn apart by violence, selfishness, disharmony. And in our hearts too, crucified by the insults, humiliation, and indignity that others mete out to us. All this pain, sadness, and suffering, where Christ is present only makes sense, or has any meaning because he is the Risen One; because he is risen and is with us still.
Last night at the Chrism Mass, Archbishop Leo Cushley of St Andrews and Edinburgh led us priests in renewing our commitment to the priestly ministry. I’d entered the cathedral, preoccupied by thoughts of preparing for the Triduum, so I had forgotten about this key aspect of the Chrism Mass. It came as a pleasant surprise especially after a beautiful and inspiring sermon from the Archbishop encouraging us by reminding us that we were given the grace of ordination to be “faithful, not successful”. So, with joy, I recalled my Ordination in September 2011, and thanked God for the grace of being called to minister as a priest of Jesus Christ.
Christ is ever faithful.
Hence, the very next day, that is, today, I was given reminders of just how joyful and beautiful the priestly vocation is.
A letter arrived from Dublin; the address incomplete but it was sufficient for it to find its way to me. And the content surprised me but moved me to tears of gratitude and joy.
The previous August I had been in Lourdes on the Dominican Pilgrimage, and I’d been to the shrine’s Reconciliation Chapel in search of a confessor. The queues were long and I waited some time. After I made my confession to the priest in charge of English-language confessors, I asked him if he could do with some more help since there were still quite a few English-speaking pilgrims waiting and I had a few hours to spare. He readily agreed, and I settled into the confessional.
Christ is ever faithful.
So, he gave me the words to minister to his beloved flock, to the wounded and lost, to those who sought consolation and healing mercy. One confession in particular opened the way for reconciliation between estranged persons, and today I received a letter explaining to me how reluctant the person who’d been to confession had been to go to Confession that day. But that person did, moved by Our Lady of Lourdes, and what happened after that confession, since that grace-filled day has brought such peace and reconciliation to a personal situation. The letter I received this afternoon recounting all this simply moved me to tears, and I thanked God for his mercy and justice.
Subsequently, this person looked for me online, only knowing my first name, that I was from Scotland, and my face. And then, on the same day, this person saw me on EWTN giving my reflection for the Annunciation.
Christ is ever faithful.
So, we can be sure that if we are faithful to him, if we’re open to his grace, he will do beautiful things. It’s just so amazing, as a priest, to be used by God in this way; to be an instrument cause of his grace.
And so, this Holy Week, this final day of Lent, I offer this testimony as a song of love to the divine Lover who calls us and keeps faith with us.
“My song is of mercy and justice; I sing to you, O Lord…” (Ps 101:1)
Let us pray for our Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI. May the Lord protect him and grant him length of days. Amen May the Lord be his shield and deliver him from all harm. Amen May the Lord give him happiness and peace all the days of his life. Amen
"Don’t let yourself forget that God’s grace rewards not only those who never slip, but also those who bend and fall. So sing! The song of rejoicing softens hard hearts. It makes tears of godly sorrow flow from them. Singing summons the Holy Spirit. Happy praises offered in simplicity and love lead the faithful to complete harmony, without discord. Don’t stop singing."
As any choir director or Cantor knows, Holy Week is full of music and singing. Indeed, Holy Week opens with singing. And as St Augustine says, only the Lover sings. So, yesterday, we heard the song of the children of Israel, welcoming Jesus into the city of Jerusalem. It is an image of our souls welcoming Christ with faith into our hearts. And today the song is taken up by the prophet Isaiah in today’s First Reading. For what we’ve heard is often called the first Song of the Servant. It is a poetic text in which God, the divine Lover, sings to Israel, to us.
The last time we heard this Song of the Servant was on the feast of the Lord’s Baptism. Then, Jesus was anointed by the Spirit to begin his mission as Saviour. Today, the song is heard again, and it crescendoes throughout Holy Week as Christ’s mission of saving love comes to its peak on Calvary.
As the Lord says in this love song, his Servant, Jesus, will “open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa 42:7). And this is what Christ does for Mankind on the Cross. Our eyes are opened to see the depths of God’s love for sinners. And by his Cross and Resurrection, he has set us free. Thus, on Holy Saturday night at the Easter Vigil, our two Elect will be baptised. Through this sacrament they will be released from their captivity to Satan and sin, and will be united to God in love so that at last they may see God face to face. In a similar way, God’s grace has been at work in our lives. Through the holy season of Lent, God has been working to move us to repentance, and thus to draw us closer to him in love.
We may think we’re such great sinners, or commit the same sins many time, or we might still be afraid to go to confession. But today’s Gospel encourages us. For the greater our sins, then the greater our repentance, the more deeply we can know God’s loving mercy. As Jesus says in St Luke’s version of today’s Gospel: “I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Lk 7:47). Hence, through repenting of her many sins, Mary has known the extravagance of God’s saving love for her. Thus she shows her love for Christ her Saviour in such an extravagant way. In contrast, Judas, who is unrepentant and hardened by sin, who has no need of the Saviour and so doesn’t experience God’s mercy and love, is unable to understand Mary’s gesture of love.
For only the Lover sings. God is singing to us this week. Can you hear his song, calling us to righteousness and justice (cf Isa 42:6)? Calling us to repent and so, be forgiven. If we do, then we can take up the song too, for only one who knows he’s loved and loves back can sing; only the lover sings. The repentant sinner is just such a singer. So you and I are called this Holy Week to take up the song of grace and mercy, a love duet with God.
We carry palms and process today so that we become part of the sacred drama of our salvation that plays out over this Holy Week. And this participation is vital because salvation is not just something done to us as passive spectators. Rather, the drama of salvation is played out in our daily lives. He comes again and again to us, invisibly, through grace that heals and sanctifies us; in his sacraments especially in the Eucharist; in the people we meet on the streets and in our homes and work places, especially those who suffer and are rejected and are in need. And he is with us, crucified alongside us, present in our depressions and sufferings; present in the cross that shapes all genuine and pure love. In the Passion drama of our daily lives, then, we can be sure that our Lord is with us, that our God is present in our worlds, and that our Saviour comes to us, humbly but purposefully to bring about our salvation. So let us actively participate in our salvation by giving our Lord welcome, and crying out in every moment of our lives, “Hosanna”, which means, “Lord, save us”!
God’s covenant with Abraham is the bedrock of our faith. For through the incident recounted in today’s First Reading, God takes the initiative to enter into a personal relationship with Mankind; he calls Abraham and his descendants into communion with him. And our faith is founded on this promise of “an everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7). Thus, Abraham is called, in the Roman Canon, our “father in faith”.
In the covenant, God promises: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful” (17:6), and makes the gift of “all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession” (17:8). What this means is that communion with God brings life and flourishing. It is a promise, then, of salvation. We need to bear in mind that the word ‘salvation’ comes from the Latin salus which means health, well-being, flourishing. So, in the Old Testament, God is seen to have established a special relationship with Abraham and his descendants, with Israel, that promises to them health, success, and flourishing in this life so long as they are faithful to God and obey his Law. This, it seems, is what salvation entailed.
But Abraham’s faith shows its mettle when he’s asked to sacrifice his only son, his heir, Isaac. Thus the promise of physical health and material success is jeopardized. We need to wait until the Easter Vigil to hear this story recounted in the Liturgy but we want to keep it in mind today because what this incident shows is the depths of Abraham’s faith. He, our father in faith, shows us that faith encompasses the suffering, sacrifice and the endurance of all earthly sorrows and grief. And Abraham can do this because he believes above all that God is faithful and good, and so, will ultimately bring about life and flourishing. God will be faithful to his Word even in the face of death.
Hence, Abraham grasped that salvation is not so much about success and power in this earthly life but something deeper and more lasting, transcending even death. The covenant is not just a treaty for worldly gain, then, but something more profound, of spiritual significance and with its promise of rescue beyond the grave. So, when the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is read on Easter night, then we see that Jesus’ resurrection is God’s final and definitive answer to Abraham’s faith in the covenant. Here is the promised salvation, perfectly realized for all Abraham’s descendants. Because, by Christ’s Resurrection, Mankind is rescued from the privation of death, and shares in the everlasting life and health of God himself. Through Christ’s Resurrection the covenant with Abraham is perfected, and the salvation promised him is fully realized. We, who are Abraham’s descendants and heirs because we share his faith in Jesus’ Resurrection, are thus also inheritors of God’s covenant, the “new and eternal covenant” signed with Christ’s blood.
It seems that Abraham already had a glimpse of all this. For all this is what his faith signifies and anticipates. Hence Jesus says: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad” (Jn 8:56). For the day Abraham saw was the day of God’s salvation, and now, in Jesus Christ, in his saving Passion and Resurrection, that day shines out clearly. So, in the coming Holy Week we will see Abraham’s faith come to fruition so that with him, our father in faith, we can also rejoice and be glad.
We can all think of ways in which knowing the truth about some situation sets us free. Think, for example, of the Oscar Pistorius trial: people, and especially the parents of the dead woman want to know the truth about their daughter’s fate. The truth doesn’t raise the dead but it does bring some closure, and so, some relief; a kind of freedom. A similar phenomenon is observed in the hunt for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. The relatives of the missing are bound up by uncertainty, tormented by a lack of knowledge of what happened to their loved ones. Finding the truth, again, wouldn’t end the grief, but it does bring a certain freedom to move on with one’s life. So, it seems right to say “the truth will set you free”.
And this is what I thought Jesus had said in John’s Gospel. But on closer examination, he says: “The truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). Because Jesus isn’t talking about a psychological state, nor is he making a political point, as the Jews seemed to have thought. Rather, Jesus is saying that the Truth transforms us and does something to our very being; Truth changes us. In John’s Gospel, we know that Jesus is the Truth, so we’re being told that Jesus is going to transform us. The all-creative Word of God will re-create us, make something new of us: we will be “made free”.
Now, it’s often said that what this means is that Jesus will make us free by causing us to choose what is good and true so that the more our acts conform to these, the more free we become; it’s a kind of moral freedom. But, again, I think this implies more a being set free from an old way of living, and admittedly, the reference to slavery to sin does lend itself to such an interpretation. But I want to explore something more existential, more fundamental, and perhaps, more mystical.
Who is it who is fundamentally Free? God. Only God is so free that he could create things. Only God is so free that he can become Man, and then undergo suffering on the Cross. Only God is so free that he can be Love, and even be sin, taking on our sins in Christ’s flesh. All these paradoxes are signs of God’s utter freedom. God is Free. So, when Jesus says the Truth will make us free, I wonder if this is a reference to our divinization. For Jesus Christ will make us, re-create us in his grace, so that we are one with God. Elsewhere, the language is of becoming sons of God in the Son of God. Hence, Jesus also says in today’s Gospel: “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed”(Jn 8:36). That is to say, if the Son makes you God, you will be God indeed. It sounds almost scandalous, but then, this is what grace does: Through Jesus God divinizes Man.
And an image of this work of divinization is found in the First Reading. The furnace is made seven times hotter, that is perfectly hot. Fire stands for love, and perfect Love is God. So, Mankind, represented by the three young men, are placed in the furnace of divine Love, that is immersed and heated by God’s grace, so that we are purified and perfected and made like the fourth man who is “like a son of the gods”(Dan 3:25). It is Christ, of course, and so, divine grace proves us in the furnace of God’s Love until we become like the Son, made sons of God. Thus the Truth makes us Free.
What does this fiery furnace of divine Love look like? It is the Cross. During Passiontide, we are focussed on the Cross, and reminded, therefore, that every disciple is called to take up the Cross of sacrificial love, and so, follow Jesus into new life, even the divine life of God himself.
The serpent had tempted Adam and Eve to doubt God’s goodness and wisdom, and so, led to Man’s downfall. Refusing to depend on God, Man is cast out of the Garden and has to learn to fend for himself in the wilderness. But God goes in search of them, sending Moses to lead them out of the wilderness and back into a Land, a garden flowing with milk and honey. But in the wilderness Israel has to learn again to trust in God and his goodness and Providence. Adam and Eve had failed to do this when they bit into the fruit at the serpent’s bidding. So, now, when Israel fails again to trust God and they grumble against him, they feel the bite of their sin and unbelief. And this bite is fittingly administered by serpents, the very creature that first tempted Mankind into sin.
This is fitting because it reminds us that sin carries in itself our own punishment. For sin causes the separation of ourselves from God’s friendship, and brings a kind of disorder to one’s emotional life and one’s use of reason so that we find it hard to think clearly and rationally and to choose to do what we reason to be good and true. So, the disordered struggle to live the good life within ourselves and with others is the punishment of sin; we feel the fiery serpent’s bite which leads, ultimately, to death. Hence St Thomas says, we can “call sin punishment by reason of what sin causes, as Augustine says that a disordered soul is its own punishment”.
Notice that it is not so much that God punishes the sinner, but rather that our freely-chosen sinful acts, which reject the Creator’s wisdom and goodness, cause a state of disorder and moral confusion in Man. Hence, sinful acts are punitive because they deprive us of the harmony and peace and order for which we long. Thus we remain outside the Garden and in the wilderness. So, if God were to really want to punish us, he would leave us unrepentant, would abandon us to our sinful ways, and leave us without any help or guidance, nor call us to repentance. This state of being left to remain in unrepented sin, to “die in your sins” (Jn 8:24) as Jesus says today, is what Scripture refers to as “the wrath of God”.
So, when the people of Israel call for God not to be angry, they are calling for him to save them from the bite of sin and its poison. Thus, God’s mercy towards Israel is shown when he moves them by his grace to repent, and when he provides a remedy for their sin, an antidote. He calls them to look at the serpent, which is to say, to recognize their sins so as to repent of them. And as God once provided the solution for Israel and had mercy on them, so God has now provided for all of humanity. Jesus is the one and only Solution to humanity’s fundamental problem of sin.
Thus we need to look to him and, as he says to the Jews, believe that “I am He” (Jn 8:24). For we must learn what Adam and Eve and the grumbling Israelites failed to learn, namely to trust in God’s goodness, to believe that he is faithful to his Word, and provides the Solution.
So, when Good Friday comes and Christ is lifted up, let us look with faith at the antidote. In the Crucified One we see the destruction and violence wrought by sin, we see how Mankind is disfigured, beaten up, left dying because of sin. For thus you and I had been punished by our own sins. But at the same time we see too, on the Cross, our God of mercy and love who comes for our sake and for our salvation to bear the punishment of all Man’s sins – our sins – in his own body. Thus the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.
His Body, risen and glorified, defeating sin and death, thus becomes the medicine for our souls. In the Eucharist we come with faith to receive this Body, the true fruit of the Cross, the Tree of Life. We doubt no longer but taste and see that the Lord is good. In faith we receive the fruit of Mary’s womb, who saves us from the effects of that poisonous fruit of the Tree that Eve had eaten in Eden. And thus, we are restored to Paradise, brought out of the wilderness into the heavenly Promised Land.