HOMILY for St Lawrence of Rome
“Where I am, there shall my servant be also”. But today’s Gospel could also be read as: “where I am, there shall my deacon be also”. And the deacon, the one who serves Christ, must follow Christ.
St Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of Rome, treasurer of the Church, and entrusted (along with his fellow deacons) with the daily diakonia, the daily service of distributing food and money to the poor. For where Christ was, present in the poor, so there was his servant, his deacon, ministering to him. And St Lawrence also followed Christ completely, enduring martyrdom around 258 under the persecution of Valerian, so that, like Christ, he gave himself completely out of love for God and his people. As he was roasted alive, he is said to have quipped: “I’m done on this side; turn me over”. So, he not only gave himself totally, but did so cheerfully.
However, one aspect of St Lawrence’s story has niggled at me. We’re told that after Pope St Sixtus II and four deacons had been killed, the prefect of Rome approached Lawrence, and demanded that he hand over the Church’s treasures. Lawrence asked for three days to gather the Church’s wealth, and then, he famously gathered the handicapped and poor of Rome and said: “Here are the treasures of the Church”. For this joke, he was killed. Of course, it’s profoundly true that people, and especially the poor, are those who matter most. Lawrence witnessed to this truth with his life. As the Entrance Antiphon says: he “gave himself up for the treasure of the Church”.
And yet, I’ve been wondering what did St Lawrence do in those three days? He seems to have been buying time, but was it to hide away the Church’s wealth? Yes and no. It seems he’d already distributed all the money the Church held but there was one treasure that has long been associated with St Lawrence, and it seems that he was responsible for arranging to have it hidden away in safety, taken to his native Spain. This treasure can still be seen in Valencia Cathedral, and it is a small 1st-century agate cup, now richly-mounted in gold. This cup is believed to have been the chalice Christ used at the Last Supper, handed to St Peter, who took it with him to Rome. For over two centuries the bishops of Rome used this chalice until Pope St Sixtus II entrusted it to Lawrence for safekeeping just before his martyrdom. A unique detail in the Roman Canon, the ancient Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Church, suggests that the early popes did indeed use the actual chalice of Christ. For just before the words of consecration, the Roman Canon alone refers to “this precious chalice” whereas other ancient Eucharistic prayers just say: “the chalice”.
In any event, the association of Christ’s chalice with St Lawrence is fitting. Because as St Augustine said in a sermon for today, as a deacon of the church of Rome, Lawrence “administered the sacred chalice of Christ’s blood; [and it was] there [in Rome] that he shed his own blood for the name of Christ”. Hence, there’s an integrity between his liturgical life and ministerial life. But, recalling today’s Entrance Antiphon, one might detect another pun: that Lawrence died not just to protect the people, but also to protect this singular treasure of the Church, a relic of the Lord’s Supper.
In every Mass, we come again to the Lord’s Supper, where our chalice becomes like “this precious chalice” of Valencia, cradling our greatest treasure: Christ himself. Here, Christ gives himself to us so that we become treasures too. So, St Lawrence was able to make another inside joke. For according to the medieval ‘Golden Legend’, he said to the Roman prefect that the Church’s treasure is “divided among these people and is found in all of them”. Indeed, Christ gives himself to us so that we too can become “cheerful givers”, lovers, or indeed, treasurers of our fellow men and women.
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