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.
St Luke’s is the only Gospel that tells of the Supper at Emmaus during which the Risen Lord is recognized in the Breaking of Bread, that is, in the Eucharist (cf Lk 24:31). And it seems that St Luke is giving us still more teaching about the Eucharist in today’s short parable.
The Master has gone for a wedding banquet and, as is typical, the servants are awaiting his return, indeed, an alternative translation of the Greek text would say that they are expecting his return. But does the Master return from the banquet when it’s all over? The Greek text (as well as Syrian and Aramaic texts) carry the sense that the Master has withdrawn from the banquet. So, he’s slipped out before it is over. And this may explain why he rather unusually knocks or taps on the door rather than calls out for the servants to open, as would have been expected – he doesn’t want others to hear that he’s left the party. But why has he returned mid-banquet? Something amazing is going to happen – St Luke alerts us by saying “Truly (or Amen) I say to you” (Lk 12:37). The Master comes back and serves his servants; he has them recline at the banqueting table, and he shares something from with the wedding banquet with them. The Master wants to include his servants in the party. But, of course, only those who are awake and expecting his return can share in the happiness and feasting, and so, be called makarios, blessed.
So, if we apply this to the Eucharist, we can say that Christ our Lord and Master has, as it were, left the wedding feast in heaven to come to serve us his servants on earth. Here in the Mass, he comes to feed us with Bread from Heaven, his own Body and Blood. And he comes because he desires to include us in the heavenly banquet; to share with us the joy and blessedness of the saints; to give us a foretaste of eternal life. Hence the Mass, as St John Paul II says, is “truly a glimpse of heaven appearing on earth. It is a glorious ray of the heavenly Jerusalem which pierces the clouds of our history and lights up our journey”.
Let us ensure, then, that we are awake to this reality, ready to enter into the great mystery of the Liturgy and draw strength and grace from what is objectively taking place in every Mass. The servants of the parable, therefore, are only blessed if they are awake. And how do their remain awake? By expecting the Master’s return, by having their loins girded, and by keeping their lamps lit. To expect or await the Lord’s coming speaks of the virtue of hope. To have one’s loins girded means to be ready for service – this speaks of the virtue of charity. And to keep one’s lamp lit speaks of the light of faith. So, through faith, hope, and charity, we remain awake to the Lord’s return among us especially in the sacred Liturgy; we are prepared and ready to receive Christ in the Eucharist.
Finally, Luke’s parable also says: “If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those servants” (Lk 12:38). The second watch is from about 10pm – 2am; the third from 2am – sunrise. So, here is an exhortation for us to keep faith with Christ in the darkest moments of life; to hope in him and to expect his consoling presence in the Eucharist.
Hence, through the Blessed Sacrament we are blessed for Christ comes to serve us; his Spirit unites us and makes you and me into a “dwelling place of God”, as St Paul says to the Ephesians, and we share some foretaste of the heavenly joy and intimate friendship of the saints. Therefore, let us stand ready to welcome the Lord when he knocks, that is, let us take every opportunity to go to Mass – daily if possible – and so, let us be his blessed servants.
Today’s Gospel might be used to justify the separation of Church and State, or to divide the world into secular and sacred realms, or to induce Christians to pay their taxes. But I don’t think that Jesus is principally commenting on either economic or political issues as such. Rather, his meaning is deeply theological and says something about the world, about humanity, and our place in it. Only then might we derive political or economic principles.
The key sentence is this: “Render to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21). What is it that belongs to God? The psalmist says: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps 24:1). So, whereas Caesar is emperor of all the lands he has conquered and governs, the true Lord is God; all the earth and everything in it is his. So, even if tribute in the form of taxes is paid to Caesar, nevertheless, Caesar himself owes tribute to God; he owes him worship.
And again, another psalm says: “Know that the Lord is God! It is he who made us, and we are his” (Ps 99:3); we belong to God. Hence, humanity is made in God’s image and likeness. As the coin bears the “likeness” of Caesar, so the human person bears the likeness of God, the true Caesar. Implicit in this, I think, is a challenge to the idea that Caesar is divine, and that he is overlord. But in fact, every human person bears the divine imprint, and we are thus all equal in God’s sight whatever our position or wealth or status; everybody is called to acknowledge God’s sovereignty. Thus the Lord says in Isaiah: “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (Isa 45:5).
Hence, there is a hint of irony in the Gospel. The Pharisees and Herodians mock and flatter Jesus when they say that he “does not regard the position of men”. Now, Jesus draws attention to the fact that this is true of God: He, the Maker of us all does not regard our position. Hence, the Pharisees and Herodians had unknowingly spoken truly of Christ and indicated that Jesus is, in fact, Lord and God.
Indeed, Jesus is the true Caesar, heralded by angels as the Prince of Peace at his birth, and so Mankind is to be stamped by his grace so that we bear his likeness. We Christians are inscribed with a cross at our baptism so that we bear the name of Christ, and God’s grace is given to us in baptism to refashion us in the image of Christ, to make us partakers in his divine nature. Thus we are made “sons of God”. Traditionally, kings and rulers like Caesar are called ‘Son of God’, but now through baptism all humanity can become sons of God; kings; made divine. You and I, therefore, are made Caesar because we worship and are graced by the true Caesar, Jesus Christ.
But what does Jesus mean when he says, “Render… to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mt 22:21)? Yes, it suggests that we should pay our lawful taxes and obey civil authorities. St Paul thus says “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom 13:1). But at the same time he still remembers the proper order of things, which is that earthly authorities are themselves subject to God “for there is no authority except from God”.
However, what is it that is rendered to Caesar in the Gospel?
Yesterday we recalled the martyrdom of St Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who died around 107. Today we are reminded once more of the ancient roots of the Church of Antioch as we celebrate the feast of the evangelist, St Luke, who was a Greek Gentile convert from Antioch which, in his time, was the third most important city in the Roman Empire. The diocese of Antioch, which had been founded by St Peter before he went on to Rome and was martyred, was one of the most vibrant centres of early Christianity which had its own liturgical rite. It is called the Syrian rite for Antioch was in the Roman Province of Syria.
Hence, in remembering these saints of Antioch, we recall today the great Christian heritage of the Middle East, especially of the Church in Syria, and we recall how much we owe to their faithful witness to the Truth from the very earliest days of the Church until now.
From the Syrian Christians came the man who would write one of the most beloved of Gospels, thought by many scholars to be authored between 80-90. From St Luke we learn about the Annunciation, the infancy and childhood of Christ, and appearance of the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. From his Gospel too – and only from Luke’s Gospel – do we have the well-known parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. From these unique points alone, consider just how vital St Luke’s Gospel is to our Christian understanding of God and our Catholic practice – there would be no Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, for example! St Luke not only wrote his Gospel but he also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. So, from him we have the accounts of Pentecost, the first Council of the Church in Jerusalem, St Paul’s missionary journeys, and the divine call to preach to the Gentiles – Greek-speaking Gentiles such as St Luke himself.
It is wonderful to consider how St Luke learnt of all these things – who did he meet and speak with? Tradition says that he must have interviewed Our Lady, and as we read today, St Paul had also travelled with Luke. It is also thought that Luke was one of the 72 mentioned in today’s Gospel so he would have known Christ personally. But there must have been many others witnesses to the life of Christ and participants in the first decades of the Church who spoke with him. Like an investigative journalist of sorts, it seemes to me that he ordered their eyewitness acounts into a unified account, into the two precious books of Scripture which are handed down to us.
Thus he says at the start of his Gospel: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed” (Lk 1:1-4).
St Luke, then, was concerned with the Truth concerning Jesus Christ and his Resurrection, and he laboured to make it known to all peoples, to other Gentiles like himself. Some say that St Luke was martyred, thus he gave his life for the truth and witnessed through his death to faith in the Risen Lord.
And this continued to be the witness of St Luke’s fellow Syrian Christians: Antioch itself was beseiged and largely destroyed in 1268 by Muslim Turkish forces. According to Muslim chronicles of the time, every Christian in Antioch was killed or enslaved. And in our time this continues as Islamic aggression and violence against Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere causes new martyrs to rise up and witness to their faith, witness to the truth of Jesus Christ, witness to the Risen Lord whom St Luke wrote about.
May St Luke pray for us our persecuted brothers and sisters and for us that we too will bear faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ day after day.
The great canticle or hymn with which St Paul opens his letter to the Ephesians is sung once a week in the Liturgy, in Vespers. It is very theologically rich, and it presents God’s plan of salvation, a “mystery” (Eph 1:9) that is revealed to us through Jesus Christ, and which it is the duty and privilege of the Church to reveal to all peoples in every generation.
The essence of this mystery is that Jesus Christ, who is both God and Man, unites a universe divided by sin. Whereas the Devil and sin scatters and breaks apart, Jesus unites and gathers together “all things in him[self], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). Hence, unity among peoples, nations, races is a mark of God’s activity and grace. It is to be seen principally in Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, united in one faith and sharing one Eucharist in the one Spirit.
The goal of God’s plan, therefore, is to bring about unity among his creatures, and he does this through his Church in which many members become one body in Christ. The way in which this is accomplished is, as Paul says, through “the riches of [God’s] grace which he [has] lavished upon us” (Eph 1:7f). We are given this grace ordinarily through baptism. It is sometimes called sanctifying grace because it makes us holy, makes us like Christ, the Holy One of God. When we receive sanctifying grace, God is present as divine love, Charity, dwelling in our souls. And if we choose to co-operate with grace so that we choose to love as God loves and love what he loves, then we become more and more like Christ who is Charity made flesh. Thus we say that sanctifying grace makes us holy by refashioning Man in the image and likeness of Christ the Son until we too, in our flesh, show forth the sacrificial love of God, and are like him.
This, then, is how we are united to God in love. So, as St Paul put it, God “destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5). For Charity in our soul makes us like Charity himself, Jesus Christ. Our main work as Christians, therefore, is to grow to love more and more like Jesus does; learn to choose the good things that he commands; will what God wills and so be “holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4). This life-long process, in co-operation with sanctifiying grace, is what we call sanctification.
What can disrupt and destroy this process of sanctification? Mortal sin. For, as the name implies, certain serious sins, deliberately committed, are so contrary to divine love and to God’s vision of love which he wants to teach us, that they kill Charity in our souls. Without Charity, our union with God is lost; sanctifying grace also goes, and there can be no salvation, no eternal life without God.
Hence, we need once more, as St Paul says, “redemption through [Christ’s] blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us” (Eph 1:7f). And this is precisely what happens when we go to Confession. For then we stand again under Christ’s Cross and we are washed in his blood, we receive God’s forgiveness, and so, we are given sanctifying grace once more. Through Christ’s great act of divine love on the Cross, Charity, his divine love, once more is given to us, poured into our hearts, and can work in our souls to shape us and transform us until our whole being, body and soul, learns to love like Jesus loves: sacrificially. So, if we co-operate with sanctifying grace, we will be made holy precisely because we learn to love like the Crucified One, we love and desire what Jesus does instead of what we used to. Thus we heard yesterday in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians these striking words: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24).
This, then, is the mystery of God’s plan of salvation, this is what we are called to, chosen “before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4): that Man should learn Charity in co-operation with grace and so become like Jesus Christ, become one with God. Thus we can live for ever; thus we have limitless bliss; thus we are, as Paul says: “blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3).
St Paul uses this beautiful phrase today: “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). This means that what we believe about Christ and what God has done for sinful humanity through Christ affects what we do, how we behave. Notice that right belief comes first so that our minds are formed and our intellects are focussed on the truth. Consequently, our wills are motivated by right thinking to do the right things, namely, to love as God first loved us. Hence St James also says: “I by my works will show you my faith” (Jas 2:18).
So, to love as God loves means to do certain works, good works. For love is not realized through feelings but through actions. Love for God, then, is shown by doing concrete things for God, whether regular prayer and Mass-going, or serving the homeless and poor, or caring for a sick and elderly person in our community. Each of these good works, if motivated by faith, is thus an expression of love for Jesus Christ. It is, as St Paul says, “faith working through love”. Thus, when Blessed Teresa of Kolkata speaks of serving the poor she says that it is Christ in the “distressing disguise of the poor” whom she serves. When we go out on the streets or to the Mercy Convent to feed the homeless, or even in our ordinary daily encounters with other people, it is Jesus whom we seek and interact with. This is how faith is worked out through love: we see Christ in others and we love him in and through them, in co-operation with God’s grace. Hence, we prayed in the Collect today that God’s grace will “make us always determined to carry out good works”.
The other side of faith motivating our actions is that we will avoid those acts which faith tells us displeases God. Thus Jesus says: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (Jn 14:21). My sins, therefore, reflect how poorly I love God: they are acts which I freely choose to do that are contrary to God’s loving commandments, contrary to God’s wisdom and desire for my truest human flourishing and genuine freedom. Every sin, therefore, implies a lack of faith in God’s Word and a corresponding lack of love for Christ and his commandments. In a contrary manner to good works, sinful acts also show “faith working through love” but they reveal faith in one’s own limited ideas of the good, in what the Media and popular opinion tell us is good, and they reveal a love of self or pleasure or convenience or some lesser good over and above God who is our greatest Good.
This question of what motivates our actions is also at the heart of today’s Gospel. The Pharisees are critcized because their actions, whether of alms-giving or service, are not motivated by genuine love of God and neighbour but by love of self or their status or social conventions. But God’s grace is given to us to free us from these constraints of our culture and of the common mindset (cf Gal 5:1) so that we can love what Jesus Christ loves, and do the good works he commands us. The saint, therefore, as Chesterton says, is “a medicine because he is an antidote” to the poisons of his age. We Christians are called to heal our age, and we do it through our right thinking and our right doing, through orthodox “faith working through [authentic] love”.
One of my favourite lines of Shakespeare comes from Julius Cæsar: “Let me have men about me that are fat”! And this seems to be what God wants too: he prepares “a feast of fat things” and rich wines (cf Isa 25:6), and if we attend God’s marriage feast (cf Lk 22:2) we would become fat things! Perhaps those who refused to go were health conscious – aren’t we always told to not indulge in rich and fatty foods? But in fact if we’re truly conscious of our health and well-being – salus in Latin and hence our salvation – then we would feast on God’s banquet of fat things, that is to say, his grace.
For we have become emaciated by sin; we waste away and have no strength, and so we need to be fattened up on grace, to be strengthened and enlivened with good wine. Hence God calls us up to the mountain of the Lord of hosts (cf Isa 25:6), to the ‘high place’ that is the Altar, and to feast from this sacred table on the Eucharist. By feeding on the Bread of Life, death is swallowed up for ever (cf Isa 25:8a), and by drinking the Chalice of Salvation, a rich and good wine that brings joy to our hearts, God “wipe[s] away tears from all faces” (Isa 25:8b). Thus, as the prophet Isaiah foretold, when we come to the Eucharist and receive Christ’s Body and Blood we shall say: “Lo, this is our God” (Isa 25:9)! A multitude are called to this feast, “both good and bad” (Lk 22:10) and it is a marriage feast because through the Eucharist Man is wedded to God; we become one Body, one Spirit in Christ.
But what are we to make of the wedding garment, and about few being chosen? Yes, many are called to climb the mountain of the Lord, to be baptised and to eat and drink the Eucharist, to feast on God’s banquet. And those who are open to God’s grace and respond to it, who co-operate with it, become fat things. Those who are fattened on God’s grace thus change and are transformed. They become larger people, magnanimous, that is, large-souled, and their hearts expand in love to make room for others. And so they need to change into looser fitting robes, into their wedding garments – just consider how voluminous many wedding dresses are!
However, not everyone who comes to the banquet gets fat. It’s as though some suffer from a kind of spiritual bulimia, gorging on fat things and rich wine and then throwing up. So, they receive the sacraments but do not seem to benefit from them; they remain relatively unchanged. They are still wasted by sin and so, I suppose, are too thin to put on their wedding garments. Why is this?
The sacraments are not magic. God will not force our will. And so we may get baptised and confirmed, we may go to Mass and receive Holy Communion, and we might even go to Confession. But the sacraments benefit us to the extent that we are well-disposed to receive God’s graces. For the sacraments to be fruitful in our lives, and so, to make us fat, we need to approach them with faith, to be in a state of grace, and to receive them with the right intention. It’s as though we need a certain enzyme to unlock the energy in the food we eat. So, we need the right dispositions to unlock its power in us, to remove any obstacles to God’s grace such as attachments to sin or doubt in God’s Word or hatred for our neighbour. The more well-disposed we are, that is to say, the greater our faith, hope, and love when we receive the sacraments, then the more we can be helped and transformed by the sacraments; we become fat on God’s grace and become fat things!
For if God were to say: “Let me have men and women about me that are fat”, he means he wills to be surrounded by saints. Thus he prepares a feast of fat things for you and me; he supplies every need of ours from his riches (cf Phil 4:19); he gives us grace upon grace so that we can become saints. So, today’s Gospel is a check-up for the health conscious, that is, the salvation conscious: Are you getting fat enough?
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is neither male nor female" (Gal 3:28). This verse of Scripture has sometimes been used for modern political purposes, whether to argue against racism or slavery or gender equality. Although these are important concerns and things we should be interested in, Scripture should not be misappropriated and made to say what it doesn’t in fact say. For St Paul is not so much concerned with the temporal and social order, with earthly things but with heavenly things, in particular the question of who has the potential to attain eternal salvation.
He is arguing against certain people who have been telling the Christians in Galatia that they need to become observant Jews who keep the Law. St Paul strongly rejects this, and his concern is to stress that neither the Jewish Law, nor a particular race, or social status, or gender are necessary for access to salvation; the Law and so on do not privilege one in God’s eyes. Rather, all – so long as they are human beings! – have equal access, equal opportunity to salvation. All that is necessary is that one has faith in Jesus Christ and believes that he is the Son of God, the Saviour who rose from the dead so that Mankind need not suffer eternal death anymore but can now share in his divine identity. Hence St Paul says, “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal 3:26).
A similar point is being made in the Gospel. Our Lady isn’t privileged when it comes to eternal salvation because she gave birth to him and nursed him. She, too, has equal access and equal opportunity with every other human person to salvation. It comes through faith in Jesus Christ, that is hearing him, the Word of God and keeping his Word, that is, believing in who he is. Our Lady, of course, is pre-eminent above all other Christians in her faith in God’s Word, and her belief in Christ as her Saviour. However, the point of today’s Gospel, like St Paul’s letter to the Galatians, is not to diminish Our Lady’s holiness but to stress the fundamental equality of every human person for being saved and being made holy. Thanks to Christ, salvation is now possible for all regardless of who one is, or what one has done, or what one’s social and political status is. Thanks to the Holy Spirit and the gift of sanctifying grace, this potential is actualised so that one becomes a saint, can be made holy – one just needs to “hear the Word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:27).
Therefore, let this Gospel, this good news of equal opportunity for all to attain salvation and holiness, be preached and made known to all peoples. And for those of us who have received the Gospel, let us listen to Christ’s Word and live according to his teachings and commandments. Thus shall we become blessed, that is, have eternal happiness in heaven.
If we have this in mind, and have heaven as our goal and prime concern and interest, then earthly and political concerns soon fade away – not because they’re unimportant in themselves, but because they pale in comparison to our quest for holiness and the joy that lasts for ever. This is the proper order of things, for we can otherwise become so preoccupied with earthly temporal matters that we ignore the vital questions concerning our salvation, our eternal life. Thus, St Paul expressed his principal concern when he told the Colossians: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2).
Does all this talk of demons and Satan and unclean spirits trouble you? Whenever I have given talks about angels, people seem more fascinated by demons, and the last time I gave a talk about the Devil, I think the group of young working professionals in Oxford became quite worried – it was all they could talk about at the pub afterwards! And yet, we have nothing to fear or worry about if we just recall Christ’s words to us in yesterday’s Gospel. It ended with this promise: “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:13) It is this promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit, he who is called in today’s Gospel “the finger of God” (Lk 11:20) and “One Stronger than he” (Lk 11:22), that leads us into today’s Gospel passage. And so, we can read it without worry or fear if we recall Jesus’ promise.
But do we ask our loving Father to give us the Spirit? Or maybe, more than our fear for the unclean spirits, we fear the disruption to our lives that the Holy Spirit might bring? It’s stiking, isn’t it, that the palace guarded by the strong man, that is, the devil, has its “goods [ ] in peace”. And again, the unclean spirit returns to a house “swept and put in order” (Lk 11:25). But the peace and order that Jesus refers to here is not a good kind – it is complacency. Here, Jesus depicts a soul that is comfortable but also, it would seem, uninhabited. It is possible that through life we acquire certain habits and ways of thinking; we become comfortable with our behaviour and our attitudes so that we barely question them; we are at peace with our venial sins and content with a sinful world. We may not be bad people, but we’ve just become quite comfortable with being mediocre, lukewarm. “We’re only human”, we say and we’re quite satisfied with that excuse. And yet, in the book of the Apocalypse, the Spirit says to those who are “lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth”! (3:16) The Holy Spirit will not dwell in lukewarm souls; unclean spirits do. So, let us ask our heavenly Father to give us the Holy Spirit!
However, a warning: If we ask God to send the Holy Spirit into our lives and we mean this, then we are asking for our lives to become a lot less comfortable. There will be some disturbance, a struggle against our sinful habits, a fight against our former ways of behaving, a rebellion against the popular assumptions of our contemporary secular society. For the Holy Spirit brings the flaming ardour of God’s love to heat us up and change our lives, and the Holy Spirit comes as a rushing wind to stir things up and to disturb our sleeping consciences. But the Holy Spirit also comes to dwell in us as our Counsellor so that we begin to see things as God does and love what he loves. But his voice is ever so quiet and can only be heart in stillness and silent prayer. The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us as our Advocate so that he defends us against the attacks of the Devil and keeps the unclean spirits evicted. But we have to co-operate with him and be vigilant, examining our consciences daily and going to Confession regularly. And the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us as our Helper. So we need not fear, but let us ask for his help, ask for God’s grace by praying to our heavenly Father and saying: “Lord, send your Holy Spirit into our hearts”. Amen.
Today’s saint, a 16th-century Spanish Dominican who was a missionary in Central and South America and the Caribbean, was quite a transformer. He’s often shown holding a crucifix, but if you look closely you’ll see that this crucifix has the handle and trigger of a gun! It was said that when he was preaching in Spain against the corruption of the conquistadors and their sinful enslavement of the Latin American peoples, someone tried to kill him. A gun was pointed at him, but St Louis prayed and it transformed into a crucifix!
St Louis is also often shown holding a chalice with a snake in it, a symbol of poison. For several attempts were made on his life during his missionary journeys in Latin America and those opposed to his preaching of the Gospel tried to poison him but to no avail. The poison was transformed through his prayers into something sweet and harmless.
A snake, of course, is also one of the striking images used by Jesus in today’s Gospel. But, in fact, the Gospel does not say that faith and prayer transforms things – the so-called “evil” father already knows to give what is good. Rather, Jesus’ emphasis is about an even greater miracle and transformation that grace causes: the conversion of the human heart. Hence the stubborn friend is converted by persistent prayer which calls down God’s transforming grace. And the transformation of the sinful heart so that it becomes good, so that it loves, and so that it has faith in the good God is what Jesus wants to bring about. So, as St Paul said then, God works miracles among us “by hearing with faith” (cf Gal 3:5), and the preacher of the Gospel, the missionary, the saint becomes a collaborator in God’s great work of converting hearts.
Hence St Louis Bertrand was renowned for having converted some 15,000 through his preaching and persistent prayer. But his greatest work of transforming hearts must surely be his 30 years as Master of Dominican novices in his province! Through his prayerful example and patience and perseverance, he transformed novices into Friar Preachers – into men of faith. Loose cannons or guns, so to speak, had to be transformed into crucifixes, images of our loving Saviour.
And so, on his feast day, we pray for our Dominican novices, for their Novice Masters, and ask for his intercession, that God’s grace may transform our hearts, turning the poison in them into sweet love for him.
Who taught you to pray? Often, we can speak about prayer as though it’s something we do intuitively, something we ‘just know’ how to do, and something very personal. So, prayer, as a 13th-century Dominican said, “is such an easy job”. Likewise, St Thérèse of Lisieux said that prayer is just “a simple look turned toward heaven”; the “turning of the heart toward God” says the Catechism. And this is true, of course – prayer is a simply opening up of our heart and our deepest needs and desires before God. It is, as we’ll do after this Mass during Adoration, just being in God’s presence and, as St John Vianney says, looking at God and letting him look at me with love.
And yet the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. Which suggests to me that we can and need to be formed in prayer so that we pray better. And the goal of prayer is summed up in the first word of the Lord’s Prayer, a striking word: “Abba”, Father. For we pray in order that we might learn to trust that God is our loving Father, a good and wise Father who never fails to give us whatever is conducive to our final good, namely our eternal salvation. And we say we “dare” to call God “Abba” in the way that Jesus, the only-begotten Son of the Father, does because this means that we seek to be formed by grace into the image of Jesus Christ, to be obedient sons and daughters of the Father as Jesus is.
All this is implied in our being taught by Jesus to call God “Abba”. Hence in St Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer, the petition that God’s will be done is not made explicit (as it is in St Matthew’s version) until Christ says in Gethsemane: “not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk 22:42). Here we see that sonship, calling God our Father means having the same obedience and trust as Christ who says to the Father that as it is the Father’s will, he chooses to drink the chalice of salvation; Christ wills to endure the Passion and Cross for our salvation.
Christ’s Passion is made present in the Holy Mass, and it is here that we, too, right after we’ve said the Lord’s Prayer, will drink the chalice of salvation. So in the Mass we enact our union with Christ the Son, and show that we, too, desire to be obedient sons and daughters of the Father, trusting in God’s goodness and saving grace.
As such, it is in the Mass that we learn to pray better. As Pope Benedict has said, the Mass “is the greatest and highest act of prayer”, so if we want to learn to pray we should look to the Sacred Liturgy. Here, in the Liturgy, Christ is at work to save us, and he is at prayer, offering himself to the Father. So here in the Mass Jesus is teaching us to pray. Hence, the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are enacted in the Mass as we hallow God’s name by praising him and worshipping him. God’s kingdom comes in the Mass as Christ is present in the Eucharist, and he is the daily bread, the supersubstantial bread from heaven, indeed, that is given to us. In the Mass we pray for forgiveness at the beginning, and then before Communion we forgive one another and exchange a sign of peace. And finally, the Eucharist that we receive fortifies us against sin and temptation. So, if we pray the Mass attentively and with the right disposition, we are living out the Lord’s Prayer; we are being formed by the Liturgy and taught by Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, to share the mind and heart of her Head, Jesus Christ.