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’s first reading is taken from the continuous readings of Jeremiah that we have been following during the week. And it is most fitting at this time. The lamentation of God’s people could well be found on the lips of the countless Christians who are currently being persecuted and ruthlessly murdered all over the world. “Let my eyes run down with tears night and day,
and let them not cease… If I go out into the field, behold, those slain by the sword!… We looked for peace, but no good came; for a time of healing, but behold, terror” (Jer 13:17–19). So, the prophet gives voice to the suffering of the Christians of Iraq, of Nigeria, of Syria, the Central African Republic, Pakistan, China, and many other places.
At the same time, the prophet also lends his voice to the suffering of peoples throughout the world who endure disease, famine, sickness. He says: “If I enter the city, behold, the diseases of famine!… Why hast thou smitten us so that there is no healing for us?” (Jer 13:18f). Death and illness: this is the lot of humanity labouring under the sin of Adam; thus is our mortality. Hence Jeremiah says: “We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, and the iniquity of our fathers, for we have sinned against thee”.
So in the Gospel we see that St Martha and her family have shared in this, the common fate of sinful Man. Her brother has fallen ill and died, and Martha and Mary are grief-stricken. However, Martha knows that God has the cure to Mankind’s mortal condition; Christ is the cure for death.
Thus she goes to him, and she says with faith: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27); she believes that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, that he will put an end to sickness and death. And so, St Martha speaks for us Christians, for every Christian who suffers and grieves, for the Christian martyrs and those who are persecuted, for the sick and for you and me. She says: “Yes, Lord, I believe”.
I believe, you believe, that Jesus will raise us from the dead, so that even “though [we] die, yet shall [we] live” because “whoever lives and believes in [Christ] shall never die” (Jn 11:25). So, today’s faith invites us to renew our faith in Christ, the Resurrection and the Life. Whatever ails us, however we may lament and grieve, we’re invited to share the faith of St Martha, and to trust in Christ, “he who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27). He comes to suffer alongside us. He comes to die with us, and to raise us to new life. He comes to give us a share in his final victory over sin, death, and evil. He is with us now, and feeds us with himself, the Living Bread. He promises: “Whoever eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:51).
So, with St Martha and all the saints and martyrs with whom we are united in one holy communion, we cry out: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Apoc 22:20).
Today hidden things are being revealed through parables. The prophet Jeremiah enacts a parable which shows us the hidden corruption of sin, while Christ tells a parable which speaks of the hidden transformative activity of grace. And both is at work in the human person.
So, in the First Reading the waistcloth stands for God’s people, and so, it represents you and me, who are called into a very intimate union with God through baptism. Just as in the baptismal liturgy a white garment is used as a symbol of one’s Christian dignity, so here a white linen loincloth is that symbol. But that cloth is hidden in a cleft of the rock, where the waters of the Euphrates river run over it. The Euphrates represents Babylon, a symbol of foreign power, idolatry, and sin. And so, hidden and unseen, sin, which is foreign to God, corrupts the human person, weakens our moral character.
This corruption does not come from the actual commissions of sins, as such, but something more subtle, and thus, hidden. It refers, I think, to an attachment to sin. St Francis de Sales explains: “weak and lukewarm penitents… would be very happy if they could sin without being damned; they speak of sin as something regretfully lost, and of sinners as though theirs were the happier lot”. This attachment to sin, St Francis de Sales says, “not only places you in danger of relapsing but is a constant source of weakness and discouragement, preventing you from doing good readily, diligently and frequently”.
I think we can all recognize this attachment to sin; repeated confessions where there is no firm purpose of amendment because we don’t really hate our sins. Rather, we are still hidden in the cleft of the rock, where the waters of the Euphrates run over us and slowly render us weak, discouraged and ultimately “spoiled” (Jer 13:7). Hence, we need to be removed from all attachment to our sins, and this is only possible if we see its disasterous effects, and why particular sinful acts are so harmful. Jeremiah’s actions, then, are meant to show us the effects of sin, rendering one “good for nothing” (Jer 13:7).
On the contrary, that which renders us good is God’s grace. As we said in our Collect, without God, “nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy”. So, we stand in absolute need of him, utterly dependent on his grace to accomplish any good. As such, God brings us to an awareness of our sins in order to spoil our pride (cf Jer 13:9), and so, to turn us back to him in humility so that we learn to cling to him, and to co-operate with his grace.
For God’s grace is not completely absent, even in the heart of sinners. His grace goes before us to move us to repentance, so that, having been forgiven, we can become holy, sanctified by grace. This grace at work in us, moving us to repentance and then to holiness, is also hidden and unseen, like leaven hidden in the flour (cf Mt 13:33). But whereas our hidden attachment to sin corrupts, the grace hidden in us, if we co-operate with it, transforms us for the good. Like yeast in the dough grace causes us to rise up to a new life with Christ who is the Bread of Life. This truth is being enacted now in the Eucharist for we receive here God’s grace, and we pray that we will be so open to the workings of God’s grace that, as we say in the Offertory Prayer, the Eucharist will “sanctify our present way of life and lead us to eternal gladness”.
God marvels that Solomon, although he was “but a little child” (1 Kgs 3:7), did not ask for riches, or the other kinds of things that young men are wont to ask for. But I was a rather typical youth! For when I was a child my annual birthday wish until I stopped believing in birthday wishes was that I would become the richest man in the history of the world. It was a childish wish, but perhaps the kind that is still common today, and not just among the young.
But as St Paul says: “in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rom 8:28), and so, God granted my juvenile prayer in the best way possible, that is, according to his wisdom, to bring about my greatest good. So, at the age of 16, I received baptism as a Catholic Christian. And then at the age of 28 I became a Dominican. On the day of my Solemn Profession in 2009, I recalled my childhood wish and I realized it had come true. Because, given who I am, there is no greater joy than loving and serving God in the consecrated life; no greater treasure than the Gospel of salvation – treasure both ever new and old (cf Mt 13:52) – which I am privileged to bring out and share with others through preaching; no riches better than the grace given to me at baptism and which makes every Christian a child of God, “conformed in the image of his Son” (Rom 8:28). All this sounds rather pious, but it isn’t thereby less true. When my parents and friends ask me if I am happy, I can honestly say I can’t think of anything I’d rather do, and I thank God for the grace of a Dominican vocation. And my friends often remark on how rare a joy it is in this life to have a ‘job’ you enjoy, which I evidently do. So, I am grateful for the joy I have found in having been consecrated to Jesus Christ as a Christian, a Dominican brother, and a priest.
A few months before I entered the Order, people tried to warn me of the many sacrifices I’d have to make, and what a deprivation religious life was. In some sense this is true. There are things we give up, and many people focus on these, especially the giving up of the goods of marriage and family life, material wealth, and self-determination. Initially, I’d focussed on these losses too. And then, I saw the riches I’d gained.
Hence in these parables of the treasure and the pearl the focus isn’t on what the treasure-hunter or the merchant had to sacrifice. What is emphasized is the worth of the Kingdom, that is, the supreme good that comes from knowing and loving Jesus Christ. Once we recognize the riches that Jesus brings we would give up all we owned – everything – to possess him. Or rather we do not possess Christ – it is he who embraces and possesses us with his love but first we have to let go of all the other things we cling on to so that we can hold to him. The key phrase in the Gospel which motivates this letting go of all else is this: “in his joy” (Mt 13:44). For without joy, the man would not have been motivated to sell all for the field and its treasure. So, too, without joy it’s hard to be a Christian, or a poor, chaste and obedient religious, a celibate priest. Without joy, the Christian life becomes drudgery, an obligation, and not worth living or, indeed, dying for.
At this time, this truth becomes ever more apparent. For ours is a time when more Christians are being persecuted and killed for their Faith in Christ than ever before. While I had willingly dispossessed myself of goods, last weekend the Christians of Mosul were forcibly stripped of all they had, and many have lost their lives. They made the ultimate sacrifice. And what motivates someone to offer their lives in Christian martyrdom if not the joy that comes from having been possessed by Christ who is the Resurrection and the Life?
Thus Pope Francis has said, “those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew” (Evangelii Gaudium, 1). This joy comes from being held in God’s love, through a daily personal encounter with Jesus Christ who is our treasure and our pearl of great price. For him, we would joyfully give up all without counting the cost.
The example of the martyrs inspires all Christians to seek this radical joy, and so, too, does the authentic witness of a consecrated life. For as Pope Francis said: “This is the beauty of consecration: it is joy!” Hence the Holy Father followed his letter on the Joy of the Gospel by calling for a Year for Consecrated Life from October 2014. So, today’s Gospel invites all peoples to find anew the joy of loving and serving Christ, but, in particular, perhaps he is calling some of you to the consecrated life, and so to especially enact through your vocation stories the Gospel parables we hear today. Is God calling you, too, to riches beyond your childhood wishes?
If you would like to find out more about the Dominican religious vocation, please visit our website, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s sometimes said that children should be left to decide about their religion when they grow up; anything else, it is polemically said, is tantamount to child abuse. Such nonsense, not least because it utterly fails to grasp what faith is. For such people, religion comes across as a bunch of abstract principles and faith is something private. Today’s feast challenges this.
Faith, as we Christians know it, is relational. As such, faith is rooted in personal relationships; in the histories and stories that people tell especially within families and societies; and it is expressed in social culture, in our human ways of relating and doing things together. Religion, properly understood, then, is the expression of one’s faith, particularly faith in God, who is thus to be worshipped and adored and thanked. But religion, then, is not something one picks up later in life, like a commodity or basket of private practices. Rather, it is directly related to one’s faith, to who God is revealed to be; it is founded on a living relationship with him.
And today’s feast recalls that this relationship with God, especially our incarnate and personal God, is rooted in personal and incarnational ways: in the family, in a community. For today we honour St Anne and St Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, grandparents of our Lord Jesus Christ, and hence, our grandparents too. In honouring them, we also remember and are grateful to all who have handed on the Faith to us: our families, teachers, priests, nuns, religious brothers, and fellow parishioners and friends – the wider family. As Pope Francis has said: “Faith is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion… Faith is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers. It is against this ecclesial backdrop that faith opens the individual Christian towards all others” (Lumen Fidei, 22). In the community, then, we learn that faith is relational and incarnational; that the Word became flesh in a human family, culture, and social network. And, so, faith culminates in love.
Cut off from this relational context, children don’t just decide on a religion when they grow up. Rather, they often don’t decide at all. How can they, when they have no existing relationship with God? When they don’t know Christ? People who have come to know Christ later in life are largely drawn by the friendships they have with other Catholics, which is why we each need to introduce Christ, our greatest and truest Friend, to our friends. But this assumes, of course, that we indeed know and love him. I’ll never forget a best friend of mine who became a Christian several years after she left university, but I’d known her for years, and never really mentioned my faith to her. She asked me: “Was I not enough of a friend to you for you to introduce me to Christ?”
The wisdom of the Catholic Church, then, coming from centuries of lived experience is to baptise children, as I did this morning. We wash children in the sacred waters of baptism not to brainwash them, as some ignorant people think, but to introduce them into a living relationship with Jesus Christ who is the fountain of life; who is the Truth and the Source of human happiness. We do so within the embrace of two families: the natural family from which the child is born, and the supernatural family of the Church into which the child is re-born. Held within the Church and together with one’s grandparents, parents and relatives, our relationship with God – the life of grace – grows and we journey together to our heavenly motherland. We journey as a communion of saints into that holy communion of Love that is God: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Today is, famously, the feast of Spain’s patron saint, whose shrine in the north-western corner of Spain still draws thousands on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, especially in the summer months. On the way there, and indeed, throughout the Spanish peninsula, many will encounter an image of a bearded man with a broad-brimmed pilgrim’s hat decorated with a scallop shell. This tells us that it is St James. And the apostle is depicted charging in on horseback, brandishing a sword. And under the horse’s feet lie several men wearing turbans. This is the image of Santiago Matamoros, the ‘Slayer of the Moors’.
According to tradition, St James appeared at a decisive battle against the Moors in May 844 to help the Christian armies of the Spanish kingdoms to defeat and turn back the Muslim forces which had, until then, steadily conquered the south of Spain and were threatening to conquer the rest of Europe. The south of Spain, forming the kingdom of Andalusia, remained under Muslim rule as an Islamic civilization for 700 years. However, the appearence of St James in 844 is seen as the start of a ‘re-conquest’ of southern Spain and its return to the Christian Faith.
For many today, this image of Santiago Matamoros is somewhat controversial. Its violent stance has been said to be contrary to the Gospel. And yet, it remains meaningful for many people. In Santiago de Compostela in 2004, the cathedral authorities wanted to remove their statue of the Matamoros but there was such a public outcry that they agreed to let it remain. So, we need to wonder, just what does the image of Santiago Matamoros represent? Why did the Spanish Christians appeal to St James for help? Why did they want a heavenly defender to help defeat the Moors?
If we accept the popular mythology of Andalusia as an enlightened civilization led by philosophically sophisticated Muslim rulers then, indeed, this doesn’t make sense. Many people want to believe that Andalusia was a place of toleration and harmony in which Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in peace until the intolerant Christian rulers captured Grenada in 1492 and so ended benign Muslim rule on the Spanish peninsula. But if this is so, why did the people pray for liberation through St James?
If we want to understand why the people of medieval Spain needed a defender, we need only look east to where a new Islamist caliphate, directly inspired by the medieval Moorish caliphate, is trying to take hold in Syria and Iraq. But those who would perpetuate the myth of an Andalusia under benevolent Muslim rule are, by and large, the same people who refused to report what is now happening in Iraq under the ‘Islamic State’. Then, as now, non-Muslims were heavily taxed in exchange for this so-called ‘toleration’. Then, like now in Iraq and Syria, those who preached against the Islamic State were beheaded or crucified. Then, as now, churches were destroyed, and people were forced to flee. Thankfully, prominent Muslim leaders of our times have now rejected the version of Islam currently being imposed by the ‘Islamic State’.
Nevertheless, persecuted Christians then, as now, prayed for deliverance. The Matamoros, therefore, is a sign of God coming in the person of his Apostle to save his people and to vindicate their prayers; God coming to defeat evil-doers and to re-establish justice.
We are right to be uncomfortable with the violent imagery of the Matamoros. For as the Holy Father said last weekend, “Violence isn’t overcome with violence. Violence is conquered with peace”. However, the Matamoros image is still meaningful because it is essentially not so much an incitement to war nor a justification of religious violence – for these can never be pleasing to God – but, rather, a dramatic depiction of divine protection and justice – for God will save us! The Scriptures are full of images and stories of God routing armies and defeating the enemies of Israel; we sing of this in the psalms every day. So, how are we to make sense of these, if not to see in them a promise that God will vindicate his people, that he will judge the wicked, and bring true justice? For there can be “no peace without justice” as Pope St John Paul II has said.
Indeed the Gospels make this point concerning St James and the other apostles too. For while the apostles are called to servant leadership, they are also called to mete out justice. For Christ does answer the mother of Zebedee’s request that her sons sit on heavenly thrones beside him. In the previous chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, he said: “when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (19:28). So, St James will be called to execute judgement with Christ; to rescue persecuted Christians, and to deliver justice, liberation, and peace to all people of good will.
Rightly, then, today do we ask St James to intercede for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Iraq and elsewhere around the world. Rightly do we cry out to God for justice and peace in our world. Thus the medieval Spanish cried out: “Dios ayuda y Santiago”!
Today’s saint was the only woman to have founded a religious Order, that is a family of consecrated life with both men and women. The Bridgittines were established in Vadstena in 1346 which became the heart of Swedish Catholicism. She was a mystic and received revelations of Christ’s Passion known as the ‘Fifteen Prayers of St Bridget’. She was consulted by theologians and kings, and like St Catherine of Siena, wrote to the popes in Avignon to try and persuade them to return the Papacy to Rome. She travelled the breadth of Europe, going on pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, Jerusalem, and finally to Rome where she died in 1373 at the age of 70.
For these reasons, St Bridget is a worthy Patron of Europe; one of six. But most of this St Bridget did in her years of widowhood from 1344, what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “second period” of her life. Today I wish to just draw attention, instead, to the first period of her life, which is no less saintly, no less worthy of emulation by Christians today.
St Bridget had been happily married for 28 years to Ulf Gudmarsson, a governor of an important district of the Kingdom of Sweden. So, she lived a courtly life, and she had been born into the Swedish royal clan. With the wealth and influence at her disposal she built a hospital, engaged in charitable works for the good of the poor, and was invited by the Swedish king to go to court and introduce his French queen to Swedish culture. We often see this pattern of holiness for courtly women of this time. St Margaret of Scotland, St Elizabeth of Hungary and other such royal saints follow the same pattern. What they teach us today is that money and power are not obstacles to holiness. Rather, they can be a means to sanctity if we use what we have for the good of others, for God’s work. I am reminded of Mrs Charlotte Jefferson-Tytus, for example, who in her widowhood was encouraged by fr Bede Jarrett OP to become benefactress to the Order. Together with him she was the foundress of Blackfriars Oxford, and even of this Edinburgh priory.
However, charity begins at home. Hence, St Bridget’s goodness also had a positive effect on her husband and children. Through her influence, Ulf began to take his faith more seriously and with her he became a Franciscan tertiary. They went on pilgrimage to Compostela, and towards the end of his life, he retired to a Cistercian monastery, having agreed with Bridget to live as ‘brother and sister’. In the context of its time, this is seen as a deepening of one’s desire for God, and so St Bridget offers us an example of a Christian wife, who thus helps her husband to grow in holiness. In this way she loves God and her first neighbour, her spouse, and she shows us how the vocation of marriage is a path of sanctification.
St Bridget was also a mother. With Ulf, she had four boys and four girls. One of her daughters, Catherine (Karin) would travel with her to Rome and is also a canonized saint, and this can be seen as a mark of how effective a teacher she was, how positive the influence of this saintly woman. From St Bridget, then, we learn how beautiful and important the work of a mother and a wife is; how vital mothers are for handing on the Faith, for their civilizing effect, and making a domestic Church, a home. We are grateful!
But all this can make St Bridget’s life seem quite charmed and fortunate. However the lady who founded the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, with a special devotion to the Lord in his Passion, and who first received a vision of the Crucified Lord when she was just 7 was no stranger to suffering. At the age of 12 her mother died, so she had to be given into the care of an aunt. Her four sons died young, two of them while on Crusade. And when her husband died, when she was just 41, she grieved deeply for the one whom she said she’d loved “like my own body”. So many wives endure widowhood, and so many mothers know the pain of losing a child. St Bridget, then, shares their experience and sorrow. How did she cope? By abiding in Christ’s love. As we hear in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20). Thus, as the Gospel says, we are filled with Christ’s joy, with faith in the Resurrection which St Bridget knew would follow on after she’d suffered the Cross with Christ.
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.