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.
Daily we are reminded of the powers of death and destruction, of the havoc and horror wrought by wicked people. The evils of the Islamic State; the likelihood that terrorists could strike with similar brutality in our homeland; the threat of the Ebola virus: this has been a summer of death and anxiety. So one line in today’s Gospel, one promise, drew my attention. Jesus assures us: “The powers of death shall not prevail against” his Church.
This is not a promise that life will be easy, or even that we will not suffer or know pain. Nor is it a promise that we will not die. This is impossible since these are essential to our mortal human condition. However, it is a promise that the powers of death shall not prevail. What does this mean? For many death is simply the end; the power of death is precisely its finality. But Jesus assures Peter and thus, his whole Church – you and me – that death is not final. Death has been robbed of its dreadful power. And this is because of who Jesus is and what he has done for Mankind, for you and me, for his Body the Church.
With a divine insight, St Peter acknowledges that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. This is to say that Jesus is Anointed with divine power and authority, and that he is truly the Living One. So, guided by the Holy Spirit, St Peter is able to proclaim faith in the Resurrection. And today we’re being asked if we can do likewise. Indeed, every day we’re being asked to share this faith by affirming in our hearts who Jesus is. For even if the headlines were not as dire as they are, we are still tested by the trials of our frail and changeable human condition – by illness, cancer, emotional anguish, depression, crushing loneliness. Our faith is challenged by these as Peter’s was.
If we look at the next few verses right after today’s Gospel passage, we read that Jesus explains to his disciples that he will need to go to Jerusalem and there “suffer many things… and be killed” (Mt 16:21). Peter takes Jesus aside and says “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Mt 16:22). And Jesus famously rebukes Peter saying: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt 16:23). What does all this mean?
It tells us that like Christ and with Christ we human beings will still need to suffer and die. Peter wants to avoid this, which is why Jesus rebukes him. Why is mortality necessary? Why? We do not know, but as St Paul says to the Romans: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33). That is one response of faith: faith in God’s wisdom and goodness. But faith gives us another more powerful response which we see in the courage and steadfastness of the Christians of Iraq and of countless martyrs over the centuries. It is faith in the Resurrection, faith that Jesus is the “Son of the Living God”. For by his death and resurrection, Jesus has overcome the powers of death; death’s terrible finality shall not prevail against Christ’s Body, the Church. Instead, the Body of Christ – that is, you and me – will be raised from the dead just as Jesus, our Head, was raised to eternal life and unending joy. This is the faith St Peter proclaims today, this is the faith of the Church and her martyrs, and this is our faith through baptism. Hence one of the Memorial Acclamations in the Mass says: “Save us, Saviour of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free”. Yes, Jesus has saved us and freed us from the powers of death. So our faith rests on the rock of who Jesus is: he is the Saviour of the world.
What would it mean if Jesus were not the Living One revealed by the Holy Spirit to St Peter and the Church? What does it imply to think that Jesus was Jeremiah or one of the prophets, or John the Baptist, or Elijah?
On 20 August 1914 – 100 years ago – Pope Pius X died, and he would become the first pope to be canonized since the 16th-century Dominican Pope St Pius V. In his 11 year pontificate, St Pius X set out to “restore all things in Christ” – that was his motto. With his many years of pastoral experience in parishes and seminary, in diocesan offices and finally as bishop and cardinal, Pope Pius X saw the need to reform the Church. So, he initiated reforms in papal elections, seminary life, Eucharistic practice, sacred music, Biblical studies, the breviary, catechesis, the organization of the Roman Curia, and Canon Law.
Now, the work of reforming the Church so that she can more faithfully carry out the mission given her by Christ is a graced work. For what is the task, indeed, the raison d’être of the Church? Pius X said in his first speech as pope in 1903: “The way to reach Christ is not hard to find: it is the Church… It was for this that Christ founded it, gaining it at the price of His blood, and made it the depositary of His doctrine and His laws, bestowing upon it at the same time an inexhaustible treasury of graces for the sanctification and salvation of men”.
Consequently, one can see in the labours of Pope St Pius X, then, a certain fulfillment of Ezekiel’s promise. “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Eze 36:25). So, through his Vicar on earth, Christ is at work, cleansing, reforming, renewing his Church so that she may lead souls to himself. And the reform of spiritual practices, of Canon Law, and liturgical law, as it were, enables what Ezekiel says in verse 27: “I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances”.
St Pius X is often called the ‘Pope of the Eucharist’ because he lowered the age of first Holy Communion to 7 and he promoted frequent and daily Communion for those who were properly disposed, that is to say, “in a state of grace and approaches with a right intention”. Why did he encourage this practice? Because, like Pope Francis in our time, Pope Pius X said that the Eucharist is not a reward but a “remedy for human frailty… an antidote whereby we may be freed from daily faults and be preserved from mortal sins”. Through the worthy reception of Holy Communion, then, we can say with Ezekiel that God puts a new heart and a new spirit in us. Indeed, God takes out of our flesh the heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh (cf Eze 36:26) – the Eucharistic flesh of his own Son, taken from Christ’s Sacred Heart – thus conforming us to Christ and uniting us more closely to him. The human person himself, then, becomes restored in Christ. We can see why the frequent and even daily reception of the Eucharist was such a key part of Pope St Pius X’s vision of reform and restoration.
But even as the soul is renewed, so must the mind be restored in Christ through a sound grasp of divine Truth, of revelation entrusted to the Church and contemplated in theology. Only with a good understanding of right doctrine can one reach Christ in and with his Church. Writing at the time of his death in 1914, The Tablet thus said that “The primary function of St Peter is to confirm his brethren [in the Faith]. It was in this, the highest and most essential of his duties — the defence of the Catholic faith — that Pius X stood before the Christian world as the vigilant and invincible guardian”.
So well did St Pius X carry out his vocation that he was canonized in 1954, and he was said by The Tablet to have been a “singularly lovable personality” who was “a man of God in whom we beheld all the power and the charm of apostolic honesty and simplicity”. May he pray for us, that we may be restored and reformed in the image of Christ and thus come to the eternal marriage feast of the Lamb with our wedding garments, that is, our baptismal faith, unstained (cf Mt 22:11-12).
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.
- preached to the Lay Dominican Fraternity in Edinburgh
Today we speak, rather unusually, of St Thomas and mean, not our brother Aquinas, but the apostle who first brought the Faith to Syria and Persia and then India; to this day Keralan Christians, still happily flourishing, are also called ‘Thomas Christians’. The Church in Syria, too, has survived until now and until recently Syria had, reputedly, the only village to still speak the mother tongue of Christ, Aramaic. But, it seems, no longer. The ancient Christian community in Syria is struggling now for its survival, and in the persecuted Christian communities of the Middle East, the Body of Christ is bleeding, wounded and raw.
We can see, if we choose to look on the internet – or occasionally in the mainstream Media when they’re interested – the wounds in Christ’s Mystical Body, the “print of the nails” (cf Jn 20:25), so to speak, imprinted in Syria and Iraq, as well as the former lands of Persia. These lands, which St Thomas had once evangelized, and so, united to the Body of Christ, are now scarred by persecution.
As Dominicans, we have even more reason to know this pain and suffering because we have family, brothers and sisters in St Dominic, who are trying to live out their Dominican vocation in Syria, in Iraq; indeed, they are trying to survive. You who will make profession tonight as lay Dominicans, or even you who will become a candidate, a ‘novice’, are joined to them.
In the words of St Paul, “you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens” (Eph 2:19) – a fitting enough word, I suppose, given the oft-cited ‘democracy’ of our Order. But if you are no longer strangers, then ‘they’, those around the world who share your profession are no longer just ‘them’, either; not strangers any more but fellow Dominicans, brothers and sisters in St Dominic and, more fundamentally, in Christ. The blood that flows in our veins, as Christians, flows in theirs too: the precious blood of Christ. And Christ’s blood, now, doesn’t just flow but bleeds out from the wounds in his Body the Church, our Body.
The first challenge for us today, then, is to, as it were, see the wound in Christ’s side and put our finger in it (cf Jn 20:27). Many in our world, tired and perplexed, would turn their faces away, but we Dominicans must look and see the suffering of our brothers and sisters; must feel the pain and tragedy of the situation; and we need to be wounded by the injustice and outrage of what is happening to our fellow Christians – and not just in the Middle East but all over the world. As Pope Francis said recently, there are more martyrs and persecuted Christians in our day than at any other time in history. Only when we truly feel the enormity of what is happening can we be moved enough to act for justice and peace, both through socio-political action and through ardent prayer.
And because we pray and are a people of faith, we also believe that nothing is beyond our Lord and God’s power to save and raise up, even if from the grave. The situation in Syria and Iraq is grave, and we may well not see the way forward. But Jesus says: “Do not be faithless, but believing” (Jn 20:27). At this time, then, we Christians are called to join with our persecuted brothers and sisters in a great act of faith and hope: to pray unfailingly. For we believe that although Christ died and was buried, he rose from the dead. For God did not allow the Body of Christ to suffer decay but he was raised to new life. Can not the same be said for Christ’s Mystical Body? God will also vindicate Christ’s Church in Persia, in Iraq, in Syria, and so on. Christ’s Mystical Body will rise from the dead, with the scars from the many wounds inflicted on her members in these places, but she will be, ultimately, victorious, forgiving, and bring peace.
For this is what the apostle St Thomas was a witness to. “Peace be with you”, the Risen Lord said (Jn 20:26). So, this was the Gospel that Thomas first preached in those lands: a Gospel of hope in the resurrection; a Gospel of peace through Christ’s saving death; a Gospel of the final triumph of divine love. May this Gospel sustain our brothers and sisters in faith and hope. May it move us Dominicans to action on their behalf, as a ‘holy preaching’ for the salvation of souls, and may St Thomas – both of them! – pray for us all.
It is by coincidence that today’s Gospel is being read on the eve of the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, but it is a most fitting preparation for this great feast. Because the celebration of the feast of the Sacred Heart actually has two elements: consecration and reparation. So, tomorrow we will hear of the depths of Christ’s love for all humanity, a sacrificial love that redeems us, and we are called to meditate on this saving love made visible in the Eucharist, and to consecrate ourselves to the Christ by acknowledging him as ‘Lord’.
And as today’s Gospel warns us, our consecration to Christ, our calling him ‘Lord’, cannot be just lip service. We need to do the Father’s will, which means that our heart will be transformed by grace until we, too, have a sacrificial heart of love like Christ’s. Because for Christ to do the Father’s will means that he freely offered himself on the Cross, in loving obedience to the Father’s will, for the sake of Mankind’s salvation. So, we are also called to offer our hearts, our lives, our whole will to God in obedience.
But how do we obey God and listen to the Father’s will? Only with Christ’s Church, only by listening to, seeking understanding, and, then, obeying her teachings for, as Pope Francis said yesterday, “to be Christians means belonging to the Church”, and so, we are committed to the faith and teaching of the Church in its entirety. As the Holy Father went on to say: “At times one hears someone say: “I believe in God, I believe in Jesus, but I don’t care about the Church…”. How many times have we heard this? And this is wrong. There are those who believe they can maintain a personal, direct and immediate relationship with Jesus Christ outside the communion and the mediation of the Church. These are dangerous and harmful temptations. These are, as the great Paul VI said, absurd dichotomies.”
So, what we heard in today’s Gospel, from Christ himself can be related to what his Vicar on earth said yesterday. For there are those who call Jesus ‘Lord’, and claim to do great things in his name – even taking ‘prophetic’ stances – but, by setting themselves and their own teachings up against Christ’s Church, they risk having these words from Jesus said to them: “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (Mt 7:23)!
Here, then, is a call to repentance which is a necessary part of consecration to the Sacred Heart. It is a call to genuine reform which is to open our hearts and minds to the fullness of the Christian and Catholic Faith, and to give it our full assent. The one who hears this call to repentance and heeds it, Jesus says, “will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock” (Mt 7:28). It’s not accidental that this image alludes to St Peter who built the house of the Church upon the rock of Christ. So, we Catholics are likewise called to heed the wisdom of Peter and all his successors, to be receptive to “the truth revealed through Scripture and Tradition and articulated by the Church’s Magisterium” (cf Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the Bishops of England & Wales, 2010).
At the same time today’s Gospel can also refer to those of us who are priests and bishops, to the clergy who act in Christ’s name. We are being warned to practice what we preach, and to do the Father’s will faithfully and assiduously, to be close to Jesus and known to him through prayer and through a reverent attention to the sacred Liturgy; through love for the Eucharist. Thus, one of the key reasons for the feast of the Sacred Heart was to make reparation for the indifference and sins against the Eucharist of the clergy and religious especially, and then, more generally, to make reparation for the indifference and neglect of the Christian people towards the Eucharist.
It is this lukewarmness of the Christian heart that the Sacred Heart of Jesus, ablaze with love and mercy, seeks to inflame. May the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus have mercy on us all, and may he stir up in us the grace of repentance and conversion to love him more and more.
It’s the fiftieth and final day of the Easter season today but the Gospel takes us back to the first day, to the evening of Easter Sunday, when the Risen Christ first appeared to his apostles gathered together. So Christ comes to his Church and imparts his peace and mercy by giving the Holy Spirit, the grace of forgiveness for sins. Fifty days later, on Pentecost Sunday, the apostolic Church is gathered together again. Now, the Holy Spirit appears to the apostles, and gives to the Church the gift of tongues.
So, whereas on Easter Sunday, Christ the eternal Word breathes over the apostles, and gives the Holy Spirit, today on Pentecost Sunday, the Holy Spirit breathes over the apostles as they heard a sound “like the rush of a mighty wind” (Acts 2:2), and the Spirit gives them the eternal Word. Hence, as soon as the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles, the Church catholic, in many different languages, begins to preach “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11). For this is what the Church is for: she exists to communicate to all peoples what God has done.
What God has done, his mighty works – this is crucial. Because, very often it can seem that we Christians are here to do good works, to carry out works of social justice, of education, health care and so on. It is true that the Catholic Church is still the single largest charitable organization delivering humanitarian services and aid in the world, and all this good work, we must say, comes ultimately from God as we human beings co-operate with his grace and live out his commandments. As St Paul says: “there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one” (1 Cor 12:6).
But, as we know all too well, the Church – or, really, the Christian people – often also fails to do good works. In fact, we Catholics have been complicit in some very bad works. This week’s news from the recent history of the Irish Church – at least, as the Press widely reported it – shocked and dismayed me, as I am sure it would have horrified you and so many other people too. And so, as we gather today for Pentecost, for this feast which is often called “the birthday of the Church”, some might wonder if we have much cause to celebrate. What do we, a Church of sinners, have to say to our world especially on Pentecost Sunday?
I can never listen to this Gospel without squirming in my seat because it is possible for a priest, with his vestments and a friar, with his distinctive and striking habit, to keep company with the vainglorious scribes and Pharisees. Moreover, as Dominican preachers and teachers, it is all too easy for us to fail to practice what we preach! So, today’s Gospel always has a chastening effect for me, and it calls me to integrity of life, to a more authentic conversion to Christ and a purifying of my motives – and I am grateful for this, especially during Lent.
But, just as those with religious authority are warned not to draw attention to themselves but to God, so there is also a challenge for the rest of God’s people to heed God’s teaching. Jesus explicitly says in today’s Gospel that we are to “practice and observe whatever” is taught by those who “sit on Moses’ seat” (cf Mt 23:1-2) because their teaching comes, ultimately, from God who is the one Teacher. God alone is Rabbi and Christ alone is Master, but his teaching comes to us not in abstraction but is given to us concretely through certain people to whom a teaching office is entrusted. In the Church this teaching office is known by its Latin name, Magisterium. Hence, today’s Gospel has a chastening effect on us all, challenging all Catholics to heed the teaching of Christ that is given by the Magisterium. For as Pope Francis said in Lumen Fidei: “the magisterium ensures our contact with the primordial source and thus provides the certainty of attaining to the word of Christ in all its integrity” (§36).
Yet, a couple of months ago The Tablet said in its Editorial that “the willingness of ordinary Catholics to heed the teachings of the Magisterium has been gravely compromised by various scandals”. But why should the sinfulness of men affect the truth of Christ’s teaching in the Magisterium? Surely, it’s precisely because Christ’s teachings are true and binding that people can be said to sin and fail, and some of those sinners, scandalously, happen to be clergy too. Now, none of this excuses them, but neither does the scandal they cause excuse the rest of us from following Christ’s teachings and heeding the Magisterium. Thus Jesus says today: “practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach” – and the implication is that they do indeed preach God’s truth and teachings – “but [they] do not practice” (Mt 23:3).
Moreover, while it is true that sinful clergy and hypocritical Christians have long been the largest stumbling block for faith, it is also true that the Church’s authority to teach infallibly in matters of faith and morals is not due to man’s worthiness or the fidelity and integrity of the clergy. Rather, the fact that the Church has a teaching authority and that the sacraments objectively confer grace is fundamentally due to God’s faithfulness to Man. For it is because humankind needs God’s grace and truth; because we need to know Christ’s Word and to be saved by it that he promises to teach us through his Church’s Magisterium. And all of us – clergy and laity – are thus united in discipleship as students of the one Teacher, as servants of Christ our Master; all called to be humble hearers and do-ers of his Word.
Hence, today’s Lenten Gospel calls one and all to a more authentic conversion to Christ. Is he truly our Teacher? If so, let us humble ourselves (cf Mt 23:12) and heed his Church’s infallible Magisterium. But if we prefer to listen instead to other teachers in matters of faith and morals; other authorities like academic theologians, journalists, scientists, the Media, or, our own fallible consciences, then let us recall what Jesus also said. Concerning those to whom he had given his authority, that is, those who exercised his Magisterium, Christ says: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Lk 10:16).
"The Gospel of the Lord", I said, which means: This is God’s Good News for us. And you said, "Thanks be to God". But did you mean it? Did what I’ve just read sound like good news to you? Was it something you were thankful for? Or did it sound like a burden, like an impossible demand, like yet more pressure? Should I have said: "The Bad News of the Lord"?!
But of course, the Gospel is not bad news. So, where’s the good news in today’s reading? Today’s passage is actually just part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which takes up three whole chapters of St Matthew’s Gospel; it’s quite significant. And the good news in the Sermon on the Mount is that it holds up a vision of who you and I are called to become.
It’s not surprising if you and I feel greatly challenged and somewhat disturbed by the Gospel today because we haven’t quite lived up to the Sermon on the Mount. Because the only person who has fulfilled the Law perfectly is Jesus Christ himself. Only Christ has loved so perfectly that he doesn’t just fulfill the external demands of the Law but the purity and goodness of heart, the love, that animates the Law. For the Law, ultimately, is fulfilled by Love, and Christ is Love incarnate.
So, when Jesus presents the New Law today, his Law of Love, he is also in effect saying: “Come, follow me” (cf 19:21). For Jesus Christ is who you and I as Christians are called to become. Now, this sounds impossible, and if it were, then today’s reading would be bad news. But in fact it is good news precisely because it isn’t impossible. I grant you it is not easy. It will require sacrifice – we will have to take up our cross and follow him (cf Mk 16:24) – but it is not impossible.
As Our Lady was told, “With God nothing will be impossible” (Lk 1:37). And this is the point; here is the good news. Because of Christ’s Incarnation, God is with us; his grace is given us so that nothing will be impossible. So, if we co-operate with God’s grace then we will be re-made in the image and likeness of Christ; we will learn to love as he does, and so, fulfill Christ’s Law of Love. As St Thomas says: “What is primary in the New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit, shown in faith working through love”. So, the good news today is that the Sermon on the Mount is a possibility because we have been given this grace of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it has become a reality in the lives of so many saints, and of countless other Christians whose lives of grace are still hidden. So, the vision that is held before us today by the Sermon on the Mount is the vision of Christian sanctity; of the triumph of God’s grace in the lives of his saints. As the Dominican moral theologian, Servais Pinckaers says: “The purpose of the Sermon is to show us what the Holy Spirit wishes to accomplish in our lives here and now through his grace, if we respond to him with the Yes of faith, with the eagerness of hope, and with the availability of love”. Hence St Augustine has said that the Sermon on the Mount is “a perfect model for Christian living”.
And yet, to many people – even those who call themselves Christians – the Sermon on the Mount seems too hard, too unrealistic; an unlive-able ideal, especially in the 21st-century. Hence, many pressurize the Church to abandon Christ’s teachings found here and elsewhere, such as his teaching on divorce or the grave sinfulness of lust. But the Church doesn’t invent teachings, and if she did why would she choose such unpopular ones? In truth, the Church’s sole task is to faithfully hand on the Gospel she has received from Jesus Christ even when it is difficult to do so, even when people say these teachings are “irrelevant” or “outmoded” or, in our age, impossible.
But the New Law is only impossible if God’s grace is futile; if the Holy Spirit is powerless; if Christ is without Wisdom and Truth. And the Church can never say this. So, we Christians can never abandon Christ’s teaching.
"In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions" (Col 1:24). But St Paul is not saying here that the Passion of Jesus was somehow incomplete, nor by any means lacking in power to redeem humanity. Rather, St Paul is speaking about the mystery of the Church as the Body of Christ; a body that is always united to her head, Jesus Christ: the totus Christus, "whole Christ" as St Augustine would put it. And this mystery of the Church was first revealed to Paul when he first encountered the risen Lord on the Damascus road. "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4).
Thus Paul learns that Jesus Christ is so close to his Church, so united in the communion of the Holy Spirit to his Church, that, as St Paul says to the Romans: “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (12:5). So, in the Church, we are all united with Christ, and through him, with one another too. We, who are members of the Body of Christ, are held together in the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit”.
This communion between Christ and his Church is such that we each benefit from Christ’s sufferings; the Passion of Christ is redemptive. As Isaiah says: “by his wounds we are healed” (Isa 53:5). But we are not entirely passive in this work of redemption. For, the mystery of our communion with Christ is such that when Christians are suffering or persecuted – like St Paul was, or like so many of the sick and dying in our parishes and communities, for example – then, by God’s grace, they also participate and share in Christ’s redemptive suffering, taking up the cross of discipleship mentioned in yesterday’s Gospel (cf Lk 14:27). This is what St Paul means when he says that he, a persecuted and suffering Christian, a disciple who shares in Christ’s cross, completes “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body”. But this idea of redemptive suffering only makes sense because of who it is that St Paul encounters on the Damascus road: the Risen Christ. So, as the Second Vatican Council says: “Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us” (Gaudium et spes, 22).
Our communion with one another in the Church is such that, as St Paul says to the Corinthians, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor 12:26). This is what Christian solidarity entails. Moreover, Vatican II taught that “the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man [who suffers] the possibility of being associated with [Christ’s] paschal mystery” (Gaudium et spes, 22). So, our solidarity is not just with other Christians but with all men and women of good will who suffer in our world.
Hence in these days we turn again to where St Paul first received this insight; to the Damascus road in Syria. There, the Body of Christ, our fellow men and women, are suffering greatly. So, let us continue to pray and work for peace in Syria and wherever there is violence, suffering, inhumanity, and injustice.
At the climax of today’s well-known parable is this sentence: “When he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him” (Lk 10:33). The Greek word translated as ‘compassion’ is splagnizomai, which is more like ‘gut-wrenching’; being so moved by something that you physically feel it in your depths. ‘Compassion’ doesn’t quite capture the bodily impact of the Greek word, although there is in the word ‘com–passio' the literal meaning of suffering-together-with someone. So, we need to hold in mind both these ideas: that compassion involves a suffering-together-with someone, and that compassion has a physical, bodily impact – it affects us deeply and moves us to act.
The kind of action that compassion elicits is risky, charged with danger, even and, so, reveals a willingness to sacrifice, to suffer with and for the sake of another. Hence, we see the Samaritan sacrificing all the resources available to him to help the wounded man. He uses up oil, wine, cloth, his own riding animal, time, energy and money. But, in addition, the Samaritan risks and endangers his own life. Because, if one’s community is in a vengeful feud with another’s, one is expected (even today in the Middle East) to leave the wounded at the city limits. To enter the city of one’s enemy was to court death even if you’re doing an errand of mercy. But what the compassionate Samaritan does is to take the stranger to an inn in Jericho and spend a night there caring for him. Jesus actually ends the parable with a cliff-hanger because we do not know what happens to the Samaritan after he pays and leaves the inn – there might have been a mob waiting outside to kill him! But it is this very possibility, this real risk of death that shows us the costliness of compassion. It entails being willing to even lay down one’s life for the other, and as Jesus says elsewhere, there is no greater love than this. (cf Jn 15:13).
In comparison, there are many who are unwilling to pay this cost; they just cannot stomach the price of love and mercy, and so, they ignore or avoid the pangs of gut-wrenching compassion. Thus, the priest and Levite both saw the man – just as the Samaritan had – but they both “passed by on the other side”, unwilling to come alongside and suffer-with the wounded man. In the case of the priest, he risked becoming ritually unclean if the man on the street had in fact been dead. Then he would have, at the very least, had to suffer the inconvenience (and waste-of-time) of going back to Jerusalem for a week-long purification ritual, which would, of course, have meant being unable to fulfill other appointments and duties. And had he tried to serve at the altar without being cleansed first, he would have punished by being beaten to death with clubs! In other words, he could have suffered the same fate as the man on the street. Thus, quite literally not wanting to suffer with him, the priest decided to keep a wide berth and hurried past the wounded man.
The Levite, who followed him, was probably the Temple priest’s assistant and follower. And so, he chose also to just follow the latter’s example. Thus the Levite abdicated the role of his own conscience to another and let his ‘superior’ or the ‘expert’ make the hard decisions. As such, he was personally untouched by the wounded man’s plight, not even having had to grapple with his conscience and make an active decision. But this kind of indifference to injustice is something we may be in danger of today. As Pope Francis said recently: “In this world of globalization we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others – it doesn’t concern us, it’s none of our business”. And with just such an excuse the Levite felt justified to pass by on the other side.
But we, Christians, cannot be like the priest or the Levite; not if we are Christians. For the Christian is one who has experienced and knows the compassion of the invisible God, made visible in Christ (cf Col 1:15).