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.
Jesus truly died, was buried, and rose again from the dead. And the risen Lord Jesus was seen by hundreds of people, individually and in large crowds. Although the actual event of Christ’s resurrection wasn’t seen by anyone, the person of the risen Christ was seen by many including St Paul; he is an eyewitness. Some eyewitnesses had already died but many of these eyewitnesses would go on to become witnesses in another sense: they would become martyrs, a word which comes from the Greek marturia meaning ‘witness’. By willingly suffering and dying rather than to deny the truth they’d seen – the truth that Jesus Christ died and rose again – the eyewitnesses witnessed to the fact of Christ’s Resurrection and their belief in the word of the risen Lord Jesus. For he promised that all who believe in him and receive his Body and Blood will also, at last, rise from the dead and share in the glory of his Resurrection.
This is the Gospel which was preached to the Corinthians, and which was preached to us, and it is for ever true and valid no matter how long ago it happened. Like the Christians of Corinth, we today, and Christians down the ages and in every place, have always needed faith. Faith, as St Thomas says, is belief in the testimony, the witness, of some human being. This means that it requires that we trust what others have told us they’ve seen and experienced. Ultimately, St Paul appeals to the Corinthians to trust in the hundreds of eyewitnesses including himself, which is why he says that some of those eyewitnesses are still alive, implying that if one wanted to one could check with them.
But St Thomas, following St Paul, makes a distinction between believing through faith and knowing by sight. The latter is more certain knowledge, and only some have seen the risen Lord; the rest of us have to believe them, we have to put our faith in what they’ve seen and what they’ve told us. In short, we believe what we receive through the proclamation of the Church, the community of believers who can trace their lineage in unbroken continuity to the apostles, the eyewitnesses of the Resurrection, and also to the saints and martyrs, the witnesses of Christ’s promises.
The Church, therefore, is essentially a community built on trust, on faithfully handing on what we’ve received; this is the dynamic of faith. But we’re not passive recepients of the faith, either. For faith is a divine gift, and the Holy Spirit also stirs up in us charity, which is how our faith in the risen Lord is lived. Charity, after all, is a participation in the vibrancy of the living God, and it is Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, who thus makes it possible for us Christians to rise from the deadliness of sin through forgiveness, through loving our enemies, and to find new life through repentance and good works. Which ever country we come from, or live in, we Christians are called to witness to this; to live our faith.
Today’s saint, John Macias, a Spainiard who travelled to Peru and joined the Dominicans there, is an outstanding example of this. As a lay brother, he was the porter of his convent, and he spent his days welcoming the destitute, feeding the hungry, and praying for the most needy, especially the souls in Purgatory that they might soon enjoy the glory of the Resurrection. As such, St John witnessed to the truth testified by St Paul and the eyewitnesses – he bore witness to the Church’s faith in the Risen One. Through his life, then, and by his works of charity, he witnessed to the fact that the Church is a community built on trust – faith in the word of another –; a community founded on personal relationships of love and kindness, and he added his voice to the countless saints and martyrs of every nation and age who bear witness to the power of the risen Lord.
This is the democracy of the communion of saints; the power of charity that is made available to us through Christ’s Church and her sacraments, the true meaning of freedom which is the choice to love and live as Christ did. Ultimately, this is the only Yes or No choice that matters. With St John Macias and all the saints, let us always bear witness to our faith in the risen Lord and live in the hope of eternal life.
Today’s first reading is probably one of the most well-known of St Paul’s writings; it’s often heard in weddings. And it is most appropriate for today as I offer this anniversary Mass in thanksgiving to God for the grace he’s given me, allowing me, though so unworthy, to serve as a priest of Jesus Christ for the past three years; and I thank you all for your forebearance.
As St Thérèse of Lisieux said, “At last I have found my vocation. In the heart of the Church, I will be Love!” This vocation is common to every Christian who is called to become like Christ who is Love made flesh. Our universal Christian vocation is Love, to be conformed to Christ. But how this vocation is lived out differs according to the state of life to which we’re called. Hence, when St Paul’s words are read in a wedding, it aptly reminds the couple that they have chosen to learn Christ-like, self-giving love through marriage; husband and wife sanctify one another through patient, humble, hopeful, all-enduring love.
The choice to take up the priestly vocation is also like this except that the priest is sanctified with those to whom he ministers, and as a religious he is sanctified with his brothers and sisters in the Order, particularised through the community in which he lives and serves. So, when I am impatient, unkind, boastful, envious, irritable and resentful, then I realize how poorly I love, and how much more I have to learn and grow in order to live my vocation; how much I am in need of God’s sanctifying grace. As St Josemaría Escrivá said: “Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me”.
In a marriage, this loving gift of oneself to the other is expressed in the exchange of vows and in the sign of the wedding ring. In an ordination, this call for the priest to love the Church is expressed in the giving of the Chalice and Paten with the gifts of bread and wine for the Mass. At that point the bishop says to the new priest: “Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s Cross”. Here, then, is the priest’s vocation to sacrificial love lived in service to the Church and to the preaching of the Gospel of salvation – and this call is a profound privilege and joy. Chief among my joys as a priest is the celebration of Holy Mass because it is here that I am conformed to Christ Crucified, here that I learn to love and am shaped by grace, and here that I renew my promise to love the people of God.
So, please pray for me, and let us also pray for one another since we help each other to grow in Love. As Cardinal Merry del Val put it in his ‘Litany of Humility’, I pray that “others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should”. This, indeed, is my prayer at this and every Mass. So, when I return to the sacristy I always say this 9th-century prayer: “May the tribute of my humble ministry be pleasing to Thee, Holy Trinity. Grant that the sacrifice which I, unworthy as I am, have offered in the presence of Thy majesty may be acceptable to Thee. Through Thy mercy may it bring forgiveness to me and to all for whom I have offered it: through Christ our Lord. Amen”.
The sorrowful Mother of God is ever-present in our world. In Gaza, Iraq, Syria her icon comes alive in those images on our screens of hundreds of women veiled in black, their faces contorted with grief at the death of their children. In Nigeria, her sorrowful face is seen again in the anguished faces of those mothers pleading for the return of their girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. In our own community, she stands alongside those mothers who have lost a child, or have a child who is suffering a terminal illness. Sorrow, distress, death – such is the human condition; such is living and loving in a fallen world.
All of us will know or have encountered death and disease. And for some, the experience of having a loved one suffer and die – nursing them and holding them – is extremely hard to endure. One suffers with the one who is sick or dying, and such experiences can shake one’s faith. Such is the pain of human compassion, literally, suffering with the other. So, today we recall that Our Lady is the compassionate mother who suffers with her Son on the Cross. As she is also our mother, so she suffers with us and shares our sorrows and pain.
Because Mary shares in the redemptive suffering and death of Our Lord on the Cross, Our Lady of Sorrows is Queen of Martyrs. Hers is the martyrdom, that share in the Passion of Christ, that comes from the union of love that is uniquely hers: the union of her Immaculate Heart to the Sacred Heart of her Son. But as a martyr she witnesses, also, to how a Christian lives and copes with sorrow and grief; as our mother, she teaches us by her example.
So we see that throughout her martyrdom, as she stands at the foot of the Cross, she looks to Christ and is turned towards him in love and in faith. So, too, in our hard times, in the loneliness of our grief and distress, let us turn to God and not away from him. We look to the Cross and are saved, as we were reminded yesterday. For in turning to Christ who suffers on the Cross with us, we are opened to the grace and strength that he gives us to carry the Cross of our discipleship. And our turning to God is a sign of faith, of confident hope that he will, at last, turn our sorrows into joy, as happened to Our Lady. Hence Catholic tradition tells that Our Lady was the first to see the risen Lord, even before St Mary Magdalene and the other apostles as the Bible recounts, because Our Lady, who shared most deeply in Christ’s sorrow, merited this honour of being the first to experience the joy of the Resurrection.
Countless Christians throughout the world, very many of whom are women and mothers, are themselves mothered by Our Lady of Sorrows. This is the beauty of what Christ does on the Cross: he establishes a relationship of love, compassion and care between his Blessed Mother and all the baptised. So in our suffering and grief – a daily martyrdom for many people – Mary holds us and leads us to to her Son, to hold to Christ in faith and hope. Thus we share in Christ’s redemptive sufferings on the Cross, we share the pain of love and compassion, but Our Lady assures us that we will also share in the joy of Christ’s Resurrection and glory. Today’s feast, then, confirms us in our Christian faith and hope.
Many of you will probably have had your parents come to Edinburgh this week, and I suppose you’ll have been making new friends, and finding your way around the city, and maybe seeing some of its tourist sights. Although this is my fourth Freshers’ Week, I’ve been doing this too. So, my mother came to stay and spent the week with us, and I met a group of French seminarians last Monday. Between taking my mum to see Holyrood Palace and going to the CSU barbeque, I squeezed in a very quick tour that ended up in the National Museum of Scotland. We rushed around from one room to the next but one display made us stop and had us transfixed with morbid fascination.
The Frenchmen thought it was a French invention from the 18th-century. So, they were amazed to discover that some two centuries before the French Revolution, in Edinburgh in 1564, the Scots were using a machine in public executions for beheading people. It’s called ‘The Maiden’, and over 150 people have died by it. And here it was, in the museum, taking centrestage in one of the rooms; we stopped and just looked.
Today’s feast also seems to put at centrestage an instrument of execution and death, and it may appear somewhat gruesome or shocking, or even repulsive, to celebrate the cross. For execution on the cross was shameful, humiliating, the worst kind of death devised by the Roman Empire for those deemed public enemies. And it would indeed be morbid and gruesome to celebrate the cross were it not for who the Victim of the Holy Cross is, and what he accomplished through this instrument of deathly torture.
For Christ Crucified is the Victim of Love, divine love. As St John says: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16a). Have you ever fallen in love and given your heart to someone else? It’s entails a kind of sweet pain, I think. Well, in becoming Man, God gives not just his heart but his whole self, his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity to you and to me. And the agony of sacrificial love is displayed for all to see on the Holy Cross. For when Jesus freely chose to mount the wood of the Cross, he chose to show the world the depths of God’s love for Mankind. His arms are stretched out horizontally to breaking point to embrace sinful humanity, so that in his own Body, Jesus reconciles God and Man, and he also draws us closer to one another. Vertically, he is stretched upwards to the heavens, for he is the Bridge that makes it possible for us to cross over to his Father in heaven, and to be united to God in friendship.
At the same time, Christ’s wounded and bleeding Body on the Cross reminds us of the sufferings and torments of humanity. We have all seen this summer the gruesome and horrific things that Man is capable of inflicting on their fellow Man including crucifixion. So, looking at the Cross, then, we see what our sins do to one another, and also to ourselves, and to God in Christ. For sin not only harms our neighbour but it also wounds and disfigures us; it makes us barely recognizable as rational human beings; it causes human misery and suffering, which Jesus, through his Passion and Death on the Cross, chooses to share in. Indeed, St Paul says that for our sake [God] made [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin (2 Cor 5:21). What this means, I think, is that Jesus on the Cross shows us the effects of sin in his broken body so that when we look at Christ Crucified, we also see sinful Man. We see ourselves, in fact, in the way that God sees us sinners: as wounded, frail, and mortal people in need of mercy, healing, and compassionate love.
Hence, as St John says, “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world” (Jn 3:17) but to save and heal and lift us up. And so, when we look up at the Crucified One, we look not into eyes that accuse us, or condemn us, or make us feel guilty. And if that is what you see, then you need to look again. Today’s feast, then, invites us to stop and just look at the Holy Cross. As Moses said to the people of Israel, we need to look and live (cf Num 21:9). For what we look into are the eyes of the Divine Mercy, and the Victim who we see raised up on the Cross is the Victim of Love. So when St John says that “whoever believes in [Jesus] should not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3:16b), he means, first of all, that we need to believe who the Victim on the Holy Cross is: he is God’s Love and Mercy made visible who has come not to condemn and accuse but to forgive and reconcile us. Jesus is stretched out on the Cross to re-unite heaven and earth; God and Man.
And this is what Jesus accomplished on the Cross. For by reconciling us to God in friendship, Christ makes it possible, as the Gospel says, for us to not perish (as human beings naturally would) but to have eternal life by becoming like him: not just human but also divine; one with God who is Life and Being itself. But how does he do this, and what does this mean?
Well, think of what we do every time we come to Mass, and whenever we receive Holy Communion with the right disposition. The very word, communion speaks of an intimacy and unity with God that is born of love. For in the Mass what happened once and for all on the Cross is made present for us; we stand on Calvary with the Crucified One. Thus, in the Eucharist and in Holy Communion, we experience and taste how “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”; Christ gives himself entirely to you and to me in one great Act of sacrificial love as he once did on the Cross.
This is the Mass, and while you are here in this University you have an opportunity that will be unmatched later in life. You have the chance to come to Mass every day with relative ease and convenience because there are two Masses in this chapel every weekday, and there are at least another four at different times of each weekday in churches within 15 minutes walk from here. If you know the pain of falling in love, do you know, too, the agony of unrequited love or of being distant from your Beloved? Do not let God’s gift of himself – a daily Eucharist – go unwanted and unrequited. But let us do our utmost to come to Mass as often as possible with gratitude, with adoration, and with love. It’s not just the highpoint of your week but should become the centre of your day, of your life.
For it is through the Eucharist that we are made one with God and so receive eternal life; through the Eucharist that the Crucified One is lifted up on high, and we with him. For the Eucharist is Christ who is the “living bread which came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51). And when we receive the Eucharist we receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Risen Lord Jesus so that we, too, may be lifted up with Christ in the Resurrection, and be “highly exalted” into heavenly glory as he was (cf Phil 2:9). As Jesus says to Nicodemus, only he has ascended into heaven (cf Jn 3:13), so we need to be united to him through the Eucharist if we’re to share in his resurrection, ascension, and eternal life; if we’re to be united with God in undying love.
Therefore, we don’t glory in an instrument of torture today, nor are we morbidly fascinated by it. Rather, we rejoice in what Jesus has done for us through the Cross, and is doing for us now in this and in every Holy Mass. As the Entrance Antiphon said: “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered” (cf Gal 6:14).
One of my sisters has spent the past summer working in Berlin, and my mother, who lives in Germany also mentioned Berlin to me this past week. I’ve never been to Berlin, but I am told that while most cities build monuments celebrating their nation’s great deeds in Berlin we see another kind of monument – they erect sculptures and public exhibits that commemorate the sins of past generations, of the Nazi Holocaust, for example. And they do this because it is cathartic, because it is healing to face one’s sins and mistakes, and so, to seek forgiveness and find new life.
Something similar happens with the monument or totem that Moses is told to erect – a serpent mounted on a pole that reminds the people of Israel of their sins. They are to confront their sins, and so, be healed. When Christ is lifted up and mounts the pole of the Cross, sinful humanity is also called to confront its wickedness; you and I are called to look at what our sins do to one another, and also to ourselves, and to God in Christ. For sin wounds and disfigures us, it makes us barely recognizable as human, it causes human misery and suffering which Jesus takes on himself.
But “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world” (Jn 3:17). So, when our God hangs on the Cross and we look at him, it’s not with an accusatory gaze that we’re called to do so. Nor do we look at the Cross to increase our feelings of guilt. Rather, we look at the Cross and acknowledge our sins and our brokenness, and simultaneously we look at Christ who is our forgiveness and our salvation and our healer. Hence, St Paul can say to the Galatians, as we heard in the Entrance antiphon: “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered” (cf Gal 6:14). So, too, so many people hold on to the Cross, or wear it on their bodies, and it is a source of comfort and of hope; we glory in the Cross.
For the suffering Christians of Iraq and Syria, and for countless Christians around the world the Cross is their glory, their hope, their comfort, their boast. Not only because they can see that Christ is with them in their catastrophe and pain and in their dying, but, more importantly, because they know, with Faith, that, as St Paul said, the Cross of Christ is our salvation, life and resurrection.
So, not unlike those monuments in Berlin, a feast like today’s is cathartic. It focusses us on the Cross of Christ so that we can look at the consequences of our sins and be healed and purified of them. But unlike a civic monument, the Cross is not just self-therapy or auto-salvific. It is much more than that because the Cross saves us for it is the instrument with which the God of our salvation acts. For we could not possibly atone for our own sins because they are so grave. Rather, we sinners stand in need of a Saviour. So, when we focus on the Cross, we glory in God’s goodness, his mercy and his forgiveness; we look at the God who became Man, and who lovingly offered himself on the Cross to atone for Mankind’s sins. As St John says, then, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16).
And this is the crux of the Gospel. In this past Fresher’s Week a number of Chinese students have made their way to our CSU Common Room. And we discovered that a few of them had no knowledge of the Gospel at all. So, in the brief time that we had, our students had to summarise the Gospel, to present its joy and its novelty as Pope Francis challenges us all to do. I would suggest that John 3:16 is a good place to start. And that verse continues: “That whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16). This is to say that all anybody needs to do to be saved is to look at the Cross; to see Christ Crucified for Mankind’s salvation, and believe.
It is as simple as that, though faith is not always easy. Nevertheless, like the people of Israel in the desert who looked at the bronze serpent and lived so we, the people of God, need only look at Christ – look to Christ – and live in his grace. Faith and belief in Christ is as simple as that. The rest – our life in Christ – is essentially, then, about being lifted up with Christ following the movement of the great Philippians hymn which we heard in our Second Reading. So, as disciples we are lifted up onto the Cross with Jesus; we take up our crosses and follow Christ, as we heard two Sundays ago. But, following this trajectory, we are also lifted up to heavenly glory with Christ.
And it all begins here at the foot of the Cross, as we look up at it and see on it the Victim of our sins, who dies so that we might live. Here in the Mass, we stand on Calvary. And on this feast, in particular, we come and we “behold the wood of the Cross on which hung the Saviour of the world”; by its lifting-up we, too, are uplifted!
In an age, and particularly at this time, perhaps, when we are enundated by words – by political spin, politically-correct jargon, advertising slogans, and professionally-managed speeches – we can, perhaps, become wary of words and eloquence. The worth of fine words and orations that promise so much is more like pyrite, fool’s gold, than true gold. So, we look for integrity in the speaker – can he live as he preaches, and deliver what he promises?
Hence today we honour a 4th-century bishop of Constantinople who was not only hailed as chrysostom, the golden-mouthed one, because of his eloquence and great sermons, but more importantly he lived a life of integrity and steadfastness to Christ. Thus, we hail him as a saint. For as Christ says in today’s Gospel: “the good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good… for out of the abundance of his heart his mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45).
For beautiful words and clever thoughts are not what brings one closer to the Lord but rather a life lived in obedience to his Word, in conformity with the one who is Good. As we would say, “actions speak louder than words”. So, the integrity of St John’s life is shown in “the experience of suffering” he endured for preaching the truth, and for his “invincible patience” in exercising his duties as a bishop, as today’s Collect says.
So, as Patriarch of Constantinople, the corrupt and lavish imperial capital of the Byzantine empire, St John called on the courtiers and the rich to turn from vanity and ambition and to have a care for the poor. He also reformed the clergy and reprimanded them for their moral laxity, and he disciplined the monks who wandered the streets and made a nuisance of themselves. As bishop, he lived an austere and simple life, and fed the homeless and cared for the sick. But his sermons won him enemies among the powerful and rich – both in the Church and in the court. In particular the Empress Eudoxia was disturbed by his moral exhortations, and so she conspired to have him deposed as bishop, and finally exiled. Despite attempts by the Pope to save him, St John was exiled on a long march to the furthest end of the empire where he finally died of exhaustion in 407, a martyr for preaching and teaching the truth.
But St John never relented, never sought the expedience of keeping his mouth shut even in the face of such formidable opposition. Why? Because his heart was filled with Christ’s Word – this was the good treasure of his heart – and from this abundance he spoke. It was an abundance of love for the salvation of souls that moved him to rebuke clergy and courtiers for their immorality; an abundance of love for the poor that moved him to speak up for the vulnerable and forgotten destitute, but above all, an abundance of love for Jesus Christ and his will. Hence in one of his most famous sermons, St John Chrysostom says: “Let us learn, therefore, to be men of wisdom and to honour Christ as he desires. For a person being honoured finds greatest pleasure in the honour he desires, not in the honour we think best”. Or as Our Lord says in today’s Gospel: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and not do what I tell you?” (Lk 6:46).
So, let us do as Jesus tells us. We do this today by celebrating the Eucharist which he tells us to do in memory of him. As we do so, and receive Communion worthily, we are filled with the abundance of his grace, a great treasure is laid in our hearts. As it did for St John Chrysostom, so too may this grace transform our hearts that it may produce good – both in deed and in word – making us more like Christ who alone is Good.
Did St Paul and the Corinthian Christians believe that Jesus Christ was returning very soon and that the world would end? Apparently so. Hence Paul speaks of an “impending [or present] distress” (1 Cor 7:26) and he says that “the appointed time has grown very short” (1 Cor 7:29). And we might say that as Christ has not returned and the world is still existing, so the parousia was not as imminent as Paul had thought. And so, some surmise, Paul’s teaching on marriage and celibacy which had the coming parousia in view is irrelevent, or even wrong, and so, it doesn’t apply to us today. But that, I think, would be to miss the point of St Paul’s inspired insights.
Consider, to begin with, that Christ’s coming is far more imminent than we realize. In fact, Jesus’ coming is so close that we often miss it. As Ratzinger notes, Christ comes to us and is present with us in the sacred Liturgy; it is a parousia. So, in every Mass as we encounter the Blessed One “who comes in the name of the Lord”, we face our judgement, we are opened out to the life to come, and we receive a “pledge of future glory”. Thus, the Mass holds before us, and focusses us on, and is our foretaste, of the end, that is to say, the goal of this earthly life, which is to be united to God in heaven. Moreover, “the appointed time” before we see Christ in his glory is not very long. It is, in fact, only the duration of our lives – which is not a long time, really – before, upon our deaths, we see Christ and are judged. So, it would be rash to simply dismiss Paul’s notion that Christ was coming soon. For he comes daily in the Eucharist, and after the short span of our lives we shall soon come before the Judgement Seat.
So, what does this say about marriage and celibacy and our relations with one another? Not very much. The key to St Paul’s concerns, rather, is in this saying: “the form of the world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31). Thus he wants us to remain focussed on the life to come, on the eternity that we will spend with God, so we hope, once the few decades of our life is over. Hence, all that we do and experience is subordinated and directed towards heaven, towards eternal beatitude in God’s presence. And this is St Paul’s inspired word for us.
It’s not so much a practical directive on whether or not we should marry, then – after all, Paul’s marital advice is his “opinion”, as he says (1 Cor 7:25). But what is not just opinion but inspiration is his theological insight which is that we should focus on living lives that are pleasing to the Lord, that are devoted to growing in virtue, and in faith, hope, and charity. And this is possible and indeed necessary in every state of life. Hence Paul repeatedly says in this chapter that one should remain as one is. There is no need to make changes in one’s state of life, but rather, whether one is celibate or married, and whatever one’s circumstances – rich or poor, in joy or in sorrow – St Paul is concerned that the Christian should remain focussed on the goal of eternal life with God in heaven through co-operating with grace and increasing in charity. All things, then, are to be directed to this end. Otherwise, the concerns of this life risk becoming ends in themselves that distract and even hinder us from the goal of blessedness with God in heaven.
This same focus on eternal blessedness underlies the Gospel. Christ keeps us trained on heaven (cf Lk 6:23), and he comes to us in the Eucharist to keep us fixed on our goal, and to “keep [us] safe for eternal life” at last with him.
If St Paul were to ask Christians today: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (1 Cor 6:2); “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” (1 Cor 6:3); I suspect the answer would be “No”. Indeed, he’d be told that we’re not to be judgemental. “Who am I to judge?” So, what does St Paul mean?
It seems to me that what Paul is objecting to, most of all, is disunity among the Christian community in Corinth, and a public show of disunity in which Christians charged other Christians before a civil and secular court. For him this is scandalous because it offends against the fundamental unity that binds Christians together in Jesus Christ. As he says: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). For through the grace of baptism, we have become one with Christ; the Holy Trinity dwells in us, and it is a union that only mortal sin – the sins he lists verses 9 to10 – can disrupt. So, St Paul is expressing here the central mystery of our Faith, that we are called to become partakers in the divine life, one with God through sanctifying grace. And the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of unity, expresses this holy communion between God and Man. As we pray in the Third Eucharistic Prayer: “Grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son, and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ”.
And the Spirit, St Paul understands, will give those gifts of prudence, wisdom, and right judgement which should enable us to sort out our differences among ourselves. His worry is essentially theological: as we’ve been given the Spirit of truth, why should we need recourse to those who have not received grace through baptism, and who thus do not have these supernatural gifts and Spirit-filled virtues?
It’s St Paul’s ecclesiology, his theological vision of what God’s grace does for us that also underlies what he says about judgement. For it is precisely a graced union with Christ that enables the saints to judge the world and judge the angels, that is, the earthly and heavenly realms and their inhabitants. Such startling powers are only possible because what grace accomplishes for Christ’s saints is also startling: nothing less than union with God, divinization.
As God is the just Judge of all creation who alone can and will judge truly, so the saints in heaven, who are united to the Godhead in love, and so, share in the divine nature, will also share in God’s just judgements; they will rejoice to see divine justice done.
A decade or so ago, I found it very hard to live with a friend who seemed to delight in annoying me. So, I decided to put today’s Gospel into practice. I asked to see him privately, and I explained how I felt. He laughed and said it wasn’t that he purposely annoyed me but, perhaps, he suggested, I was just too sensitive; too irritable; too easily annoyed. I bristled when I heard this but, with hindsight, he’d turned the tables on me and it was he who had accurately told me my faults. And by doing so, he showed himself to be a friend indeed. For as Aristotle observes, “friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is this mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons”.Today’s Gospel, then, is about friendship, and particularly friendship in Christ and with Christ, which is essentially what the Church is about.
What today’s Gospel doesn’t allow is what I did, which was to self-righteously use it to justify a personal dislike or prejudice. Christ foresaw the danger of this happening, I think, which is why there are several ‘courts of appeal’, so to speak. At first “two or three witnesses” (Lk 18:16) are involved, then the whole church community. Essentially, other friends are being called in to consider if one’s complaint is just; to see if one is indeed behaving as a genuine friend and mirroring a true reflection of the other. In doing so the community is also being called in to make a judgement about whether the accused brother is indeed behaving as a friend of Christ. Or, to use St Paul’s words, the Church has to judge if one has loved his neighbour and so fulfilled the law (Rom 13:8). Has this person loved his neighbour as himself (Rom 13:9), that is, as a friend? For as Aristotle says, “the friend is my other self”.
We probably all know that stage in a budding friendship – and many of our Freshers will be experiencing this – when we dare not really disagree with, or challenge, a new acquaintance for fear of losing his or her friendship. But fear is no basis for genuine friendship, so the friendship has to grow beyond fear as friends learn to trust one another, and as the friendship deepens and becomes secure in mutual love. Hence St Paul exhorts the Romans to “love one another” (13:8) for genuine friendship is about love – about loving my friend for the sake of his good, of her flourishing.
When there is this kind of love between people, then there is trust – trust that my friend is not out to hurt and humiliate me but desires the best for me; he holds up a mirror that helps me to improve as a person. So, only when there is genuine friendship can we speak out and help a brother or sister who is in the wrong because otherwise the likelihood is that the other will not be willing to listen. If this is true on a personal level, then it’s true for us as a Church community too.
What does it means for Jesus to be “lord of the sabbath” (Lk 6:5)? The Sabbath, we know, is God’s gift to Mankind, that he might not become a slave to work. Indeed, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes, for the Sabbath rest to be commanded by God means that “we serve God through work as well as rest”. And this is a beautiful thought. If you’re anything like me, you may feel a little guilty when resting, especially when others are working – I always feel there’s something more ‘productive’ that I ought to be doing, or perhaps I should be working too. And yet, Sabbath means that we can and must serve God through rest as well as our work.
Now, Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath because, of course, he is the One, our God, in whom our restless hearts can rest and find joy, peace, fulfillment. He, the Sabbath personified, comes and calls us who labour and are weary to rest in him. So, it is that on Sundays we rest in God when we come to Holy Mass and at the same time we render him service, for we serve God through rest. The laudable practice of daily Mass, it seems to me, is about finding that necessary rest during the week too, whether at lunchtime as we pause between tasks, or at the eve of the working day; to just come away to church and rest in Christ, with Christ, our Sabbath Lord.
However, as Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, the question this raises is whether he is Lord of our Sabbath? What do we do for rest and relaxation, and do we find God in our rest; do we rest in and with him? It’s not unusual for ‘down’ time and vacations to become time without God, or we neglect our prayer life and so on. Or what we read, and watch, and listen to on the internet, iPlayer, cinema, radio, YouTube etc – what we call media and entertainment – is it the kind of thing that schools us in virtue, leads us closer to Christ and his ways? Or is it rather, a daily indoctrination in worldly ways that thus renders us indifferent or schizophernic about the demands of the Gospel and the way of Christian discipleship?
What do we do with our rest time? That is the question that the term ‘Lord of the Sabbath’ poses for me. Rabbi Sacks has this to say about how to benefit from the Sabbath, from resting with and in God. He says the Sabbath is “the still point in the turning world, the moment at which we renew our attachment to family and community, during which we live the truth that the world is not wholly ours to bend to our will but something given to us in trust to conserve for future generations… The Jewish writer Achad Ha“am was surely correct when he said that more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews. It was and is the one day in seven in which we live out all those values that are in danger of being obscured in the daily rush of events; the day in which we stop making a living and learn instead simply how to live”.
So, I would suggest that Sundays, and also the moments of rest that we take during the week should be treasured and measured in the light of Christ who is its Lord. In our resting, we serve him, we can become more truly who he has called us to be. For in those times of rest, as well as in our work, we can indeed learn how to live – how to live as Christian disciples, and so, how to love God and neighbour and ourselves more deeply.