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 of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
"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).
Jesus speaks in very dramatic language, employing hyperbole, to highlight the great damage that scandal does. Our translation of today’s Gospel doesn’t quite convey this, because the phrase translated as “causes you to sin” is really rendered from the Greek skandalon (cf Mk 9:42-47). And this carries the sense of an action or situation that causes another person to stumble or fall, which is what skandalon means. So, Jesus is pointing to the severe damage that sin does to another (and indeed, to ourselves), not least because it is the means by which one stumbles in their faith, or falls away and loses their faith in Christ altogether.
We are all too painfully aware of how true this is. Scandalous behaviour in the Church has affected us all as a body, and our trust in the Church and her teachings are affected, and many people have been put off the Church’s message of salvation, or have even left the Church because of scandal. And scandal, of course, disturbs the peace of the Christian community, and leaves us wounded, hurting, in pain. So, because of scandal, it is the Body of Christ, the Church, that is maimed and wounded. Members have cut themselves off from Christ’s Mystical Body because of scandal, and she is left wounded, bleeding, and open to infection. For if the wound of scandal is not healed, it can spread, leading to gangrene and further amputation.
Hence Jesus says that we need to be “salted with fire” (Mk 9:49). This is a rather arresting phrase, because it’s so odd. But we can apply it to our current situation. Salt, or a saline solution, sterilizes wounds and prevents infection. It purifies and promotes healing. So, the wounded Body of Christ, we, the Church, needs to be salted. We need to be purified and healed; the wound must not infect and spread. To do this, we’re to be salted with fire, meaning that the work of purifying and healing the Church of scandal will be done by the Holy Spirit. It is he who will bring healing and new life by revealing to us our sins, gracing us with true repentance, and leading us deeper into the Truth, i.e., converting us to a more authentic following of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be “salted with fire”.
But salt applied to a wound stings too. Hence the reforming action of the Holy Spirit, by which he purifies and disinfects the Church, will sting. However this salt of true conversion to Christ is necessary for our healing and spiritual health. “Every one”, Jesus says, needs to be “salted with fire”. Thus, we’re each being called, from the Pope down to the catechumen, to reform our life and to be more authentically converted to Christ and alive in the Holy Spirit. For we are all members of this one wounded Body. And it is only through a more perfect union with Christ, through this one Body being animated by the Spirit and drawing grace, life, and strength from Christ the Head, that we shall “have salt in [ourselves], and be at peace with one another” (Mk 9:50).
This conversion to Christ, being salted by fire, is the great call of this Year of Faith. So, let us pray to the Holy Spirit, and ask him to come so that we, the Church, can immerse ourselves in the Spirit’s saline solution and be made whole, indeed, holy.
in St Birinus’, Dorchester-on-Thames on 2 June 2011
Today is a day of paradoxes. It is a day of sorrow at the Lord’s departure from this earth, but also of great joy because he has gone into heaven to prepare a place for us. As the Preface puts it: He “was lifted up into heaven so that He might make us partakers of His divinity”. Today too, we are called to beChrist’s witnesses – something which normally involves firsthand knowledge through the senses – but today he is taken from our sight… That is to say, he is beyond the perceptivity of our senses. But although he is out of sight, he is not absent or unknowable. The Gospel of St Mark told us that after the Ascension, the disciples “went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it” (16:20). And that is what the Lord is doing now in this sacred Liturgy. He is working with his Church, and confirming the Gospel that is being preached with signs, above all, the most sublime Sign of the Blessed Sacrament in which he is present.
If we think about the Eucharist, what the Liturgy calls the Mysterium Fidei, we can understand how we can still be witnesses to Christ, even though he is taken from our sight. Regarding the Eucharist, St Thomas says in the ‘Tantum ergo’: “Faith, for all defects supplying, where the feeble senses fail”. So, we recognize the presence of God, and know divine truth, not by sight, not by the senses, but by faith. As St Paul says: “We walk by faith and not by sight”. For Christ has been taken from our sight, but we can still come to know and love him, and to experience his living presence in the world through Faith. And faith is a power which is given to us only by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Hence in the reading we’ve just heard from Acts, the Lord says: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses…” (1:8) What the virtue of faith gives us is an understanding of divine truth. It is a kind of firsthand knowledge that comes from an opening of the heart and mind to trust in what the Incarnate Word reveals, because Christ is God’s Word of Truth. As St Thomas says: “Truth himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true”. So, with faith in Jesus Christ, the One whom the book of the Apocalypse calls “the faithful witness”, we too can become faithful witnesses to divine truth.
But to be faithful witnesses, our acts of faith have to be directed properly towards true and authentic objects of faith, and our most sure teacher of the Faith is the Church. For she is the Mystical Body of Christ, the visible presence of Christ in time until he returns in glory. United to her Head, she bears faithful witness to the truths he revealed in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
How does the Church bear faithful witness to Jesus Christ? I want to consider just two ways. Firstly, through her sacred Tradition, which is like a living memory of what Christ has done and handed on to his apostles. For the Church not only has her Scriptures, which are a written witness to the mystery of Christ. But the message is confirmed by signs; what the Dominican cardinal Yves Congar referred to as “witnesses of tradition” such as the Fathers and the Magisterium. In particular, he was convinced that “the liturgy is tradition itself at its highest degree of power and solemnity”. Which is why the usus antiquior is such a precious gift to the entire Church. For it is the witness of tradition, an ancient sign which the Church has done in memory of Him, so that we can come to know and love Him, our Lord. So that we can become faithful witnesses ourselves when we partake of sacred Tradition.
The Church bears witness to Christ in another way – one which flows naturally from faith, and from participation in the Liturgy. This is the witness of Christian lives of holiness. The saints are pre-eminent witnesses to Christ, and they are signs of the power of faith, and of divine grace at work in the world. Resplendent in sanctity and charity, the saints are Christ’s work in the world, his signs that confirm the message of the Gospel.
How we behave, then, witnesses to the truth of what we believe in. We heard in St Mark’s Gospel that the disciples are to “preach the gospel to the whole creation”, which is an act of mercy and charity. But they are also to “cast out demons”, and heal the sick. So, the practical things that we might do to alleviate the spiritual and physical suffering of those around us are a sign to the world of Christ‘s presence and activity in the Church. And it is through her charity that the Church is more clearly seen to be a communion of saints, a “cloud of witnesses” (12:1), as the letter to the Hebrews says.
After today’s beautiful, heavenly liturgy, we might be feel like the Men of Galilee, gazing rapt into heaven. Like them, we are asked: “Why do you standlooking into heaven?” (Acts 1:11). Because like them, we have the same mission. Filled with the Holy Spirit, we are to be the witnesses of Christ “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We are to manifest his presence in the world through charity, to attract others to Christ through the beauty of holiness, and through the holiness of beautiful, faithful preaching and signs. Then, enlightened by faith, others too might see - indeed, witness - Christ coming among them, living and acting in his Church…
Christ, our Eucharistic Lord, coming on clouds of incense, for every Liturgy is a Parousia, a coming of Jesus Christ in the midst of his disciples.
“Peace I leave you, my peace I give you” (Jn 14:27), says the Lord in today’s Gospel. And some might say that the pope we remember today, an Italian Dominican friar, wasn’t a man of peace. After all, Pope Pius V is remembered in England for excommunicating Elizabeth I and releasing Catholic subjects of their allegiance to the queen (in 1570), and he is also credited with having rallied the forces of Christendom, the so-called Holy League, in a great naval battle at Lepanto in 1571 against the Muslim Turks who threatened to overrun Europe.
And yet, St Pius V wasn’t really a belligerent man. He had been a shepherd before he joined the Dominicans, and he remained at heart a conscientious, austere and diligent shepherd, eager to maintain the safety and the peace of his flock. Even when he was serving as grand inquisitor under the previous pope, Paul IV, as Eamon Duffy notes, “he had fallen foul of Paul IV for excessive leniency”. And during the battle of Lepanto he had remained in Rome and gathered the people of the city in prayer, saying the Rosary. The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary on 7 October was instituted by Pope Pius V in thanksgiving for the victory at Lepanto, which he ascribed to Mary’s intercession.
For St Pius V’s primary concern wasn’t so much with the peace of the world – perhaps he felt this was not his duty. After all Christ had said: “Not as the world gives do I give [peace] to you” (Jn 14:27). Rather, Pius V’s concern and duty as pope, to whom Christ had entrusted his little flock, was to secure for God’s people the peace that only Jesus Christ could give; the peace that comes through a saving faith in him, through knowledge of the fullness of the Truth he taught, through a loving communion with Christ’s holy Church. So, as far as Pius V could see, Elizabeth I and the other Protestant leaders disrupted the peace and unity of the Church, and would prevent Catholics from practicing the fullness of the Christian faith in peace. This was even more certain with the Turkish forces who threatened the future of Christianity in Europe. Hence, St Pius bravely did what he felt he had to on these two fronts in order to secure peace for the Catholic faithful.
But even among his Catholic flock there was disturbance and turmoil brought about by moral laxity, poor theological formation, and corruption among the clergy. This seems to be a recurring theme in Church history, for the Church was once more in need of reform, and Pius V was elected in 1566 to implement the decrees of the reforming Council of Trent. In his six year pontificate, he radically reformed the Roman curia, reduced its costs, and disciplined wayward cardinals and clergy. Looking to the faith education of the laity and clergy, he published the Roman Catechism and promoted as a solid formation for seminarians the Summa Theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas. He also promoted the unity and renewal of the Liturgy, putting in place an edition of the Roman Missal that remained essentially unchanged until Vatican II. Finally, he upheld the unity of theology in both the Eastern and Western Church.
All these works, which St Pius V laboured over until his death in 1572 were aimed at restoring unity and peace to Christ’s Church so that all within her Body might experience the unity and peace that Christ gave to his disciples. For Christ’s peace is found through the unity of faith, in the one saving Truth that Christ entrusted to his Church, and also in the consolation of her Liturgy and sacraments, for in these we encounter Jesus Christ who is our peace.
So, today, we give thanks to God for Pope St Pius V who shepherded Christ’s flock with such diligence and personal holiness of life, and we ask him to pray for the Church that she may be ever more united in the peace of Christ.
In 1970, Pope Paul VI did an unprecedented thing. He declared not one but two women saints to be Doctors of the universal Church, and we celebrate the feast of one of those women today: the lay Dominican saint and mystic, Catherine of Siena, who is also patroness of Europe.
St Catherine lived in the turbulent 14th-century when there was much warfare among the Christian states of Europe, and under the influence of the powerful French monarchy, the pope no longer lived in Rome but in Avignon. This came to a climax in 1377 when French and Italian factions competed for the papacy and cardinals under their influence ended up electing two popes, thus bringing about the Great Western Schism that lasted until 1417. But this schism could only have happened because the Church was in serious need of reform: the clergy was corrupt, beset by scandals, and the laity were morally and doctrinally lax.
Hence, through deep prayer, penitential austerity and mystical experiences, Catherine was called by God in 1370 to care for the spiritual sickness that was then afflicting the Body of Christ. She was to be a doctor to the Church, called to heal the Church’s disunity and corruption which, in her words, disfigured the beautiful face of Christ’s Bride with leprosy. The disunity of the Church and the sins of her members – lay and clerical alike – were a great wound to Christ’s Body, and St Catherine bore this wound in her own body. For in 1375 she received the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – and she bore these invisibly until her death in 1380, when she would die at the same age as Christ, thirty-three.
For the last decade of her life, Catherine wore herself out travelling throughout Italy and France speaking and pleading with influential people, writing almost 400 letters to urge Christians to seek peace and unity, and imploring the pope to reform the clergy and to return to Rome – the symbol of the Church’s unity – which Gregory XI did in 1377. But his death shortly afterwards led to the schism, which weighed heavily on St Catherine.
So, she’d laboured to heal the Church’s disunity but she seems to have failed at the end of her short life. Yet, she is a Doctor of the Church because in her saintly life she taught us a most important lesson, and one which is ever relevant, especially today.
St Catherine knew that the reform of the Church was not primarily about politics and structures and bureaucracies. Rather, the Church is animated by the Holy Spirit, and so, she has to be healed spiritually, made whole by God’s love first. Hence, St Catherine offered her whole life of austerity, penance, fasting and prayer, as well as her ministries out in the world, for the love of God’s Church. So, Jesus promised her that “With these prayers, sweat and tears, I shall wash the face of my spouse, the holy Church”.
For Catherine knew, too, that reform was not ‘out there’ or the problem of the Roman Curia, or the warring cardinals. There can be much hand-wringing about the need for institutional reform, but St Catherine knew, rather, that the problems were also very much hers. As she put it “I have slept in the bed of negligence. This is why so many evils and ruins have befallen your Church”.
Thus, Doctor saint Catherine’s remedy for the sins of the Church was to look to her own sins, and to repent and change her ways. Because she knew that the only soul she could change and cause to co-operate with God’s grace, to conform to Christ’s will, was her own. So, reform of Christ’s Church comes through each of us as members of the Body of Christ striving to be faithful to Christ and our Christian vocation; each of us allowing Christ the divine Doctor to heal us so that we can play our proper part within his holy Body. Hence, through the “prayers, sweat and tears” of the saints, Christ himself will purify and reform his Bride; it is his Church.
With this fundamental knowledge and faith in Christ, and love for Christ’s Mystical Body, St Catherine became a saint, and so can we today. May she pray for us, for God’s Holy Church, especially in Europe, and for our lay Dominicans for whom she is patroness.
In the Old Testament, God is referred to as the Shepherd of Israel (cf Ps 80:1, Eze 34). But the notion that the one God favours one nation, one people, and sets them aside to make them holy is gradually expanded to include all of humanity, both Jews and non-Jews; Jew and Gentile alike. Hence, in today’s First Reading, St Peter recounts how the Holy Spirit descended on the Gentiles in the same way that he descended on the Jews at Pentecost (cf Acts 2). So, it is clear that people from every nation, of every race, language, people and culture are called into God’s sheepfold, an “Israel of the Spirit” as the great Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac put it, through faith in Jesus Christ.
And Christ is the reason that God’s call to holiness, once given just to Israel now encompasses every human person. For what was initially given through the Law of Moses and the wisdom of the patriarchs is now given to all through Jesus Christ who embodies and perfects the Law, and who is the Wisdom of God made flesh. For in Christ, God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, united himself for ever to our common humanity so that through his Incarnation, Jesus now claims all humanity for God. We belong to him, we are the “sheep of his pasture” (Ps 99:3), and every human person is now called to enjoy “life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). Because if our humanity is united to Jesus Christ, then we also share in his divinity. And God’s divine nature is life itself in its fullest abundance and perfection.
As Jesus alone – and no other – is true God and true Man, so only through Jesus can humankind be united to God. Thus, he alone is the gate to eternal life and the happiness and peace of heaven. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (Jn 10:9). There is no other way to salvation, then, for Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6).
Christ also says that he “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out”. And this is precisely what it means to be Christ’s Church. Because the Greek New Testament word that is translated as ‘church’ or ‘assembly’ is ekklesia, meaning ‘those who are called out’. Hence, we, the Church, are a gathering, an assembly, a calling-together of those have been “brought out” of the world, or even out of other religions, by Christ into a living relationship with him who alone can save us. He “goes before” [us] so that we can follow him, listening to his voice which calls each of us by name (cf Jn 10:4). If we follow Jesus throughout our lives and are not misled by other voices – by the Thief, that is, the devil and his lies – then Christ, our Good Shepherd, will lead us to enter into the living pastures of heaven.
Therefore, as St Ignatius of Antioch put it, Christ is “the door of the Father, through which have entered Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, prophets and apostles and the Church, and all of them to the unity of God”.
The journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus is one we’re all making, and each of us is at a different stage of the journey. It’s a walk from despair, doubt and despondency to a life-giving faith, resurrected hope, and evangelical joy. And at every point along this journey, whether we are lost in sadness and confusion or inflamed with love for the Word of God, Jesus is with us. The difference is whether we recognize him or not. For today’s Gospel reminds us that Christ, the Risen One, is in fact always with us, walking alongside us even when we do not recognize him; he is the Stranger in our midst who calls us his friends. He is present and stays with us, especially in the evening of our days. When the darkness encroaches, and the cold and lonely night is drawing in, as the warm light of faith seems to recede, and we feel too weary to carry on the journey, Jesus remains with us when we just say to him: “Stay with us” (Lk 24:29). Yes, stay with us, Lord!
But if we pray like this, then we must also stay with him, inviting him into our lives, opening up our hearts and minds to be taught and nourished by him. For the journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus is also the journey from the disciples’ own limited notions of how Christ was to redeem Israel, from their false hopes and illusory projections of who Jesus is, to the truth and full reality of Jesus Christ – the truth and reality of the Risen Lord who reveals himself to us, who is really present and makes himself known in his Body, his holy Church, through her Scriptures and her sacraments. Alive and active in his Church for all time, Christ remains with Mankind in order to continue to teach and nourish us, opening to us the Scriptures, and feeding us with his own Body and Blood, so that we can truly know and experience God’s goodness and love, and walk with him on the road to salvation.
So, if we stay with Christ in this house, in his holy Church, we gradually grow in love and understanding of God’s Word and of what Jesus has done for us. Our hearts burn within us, inflamed with the love that is God’s Holy Spirit. But this same Spirit also comes to purify us, refining our personal experiences and expectations, stretching our ways of thinking so that we mature in faith and come to share the mind of Christ; so that we become his friends. This conversion is the journey of a lifetime, an Emmaus journey we need to make again and again, so that we are more authentically and completely converted to Christ.
Thus we are raised from old and deadening ways of thinking and behaving to a new risen life with the Living One. Only then, being alive in the Spirit, can we do as those disciples did. We become missionaries and evangelizers, rushing back to Jerusalem, into the city and world from which we’d come, to witness joyfully to the Risen Lord in both what we say and do.
It is sometimes said that Christianity is a “religion of the book”, that our faith is founded on the Bible, which is the word of God. But this isn’t entirely accurate. The Word of God, properly speaking, is not a book but a person, the Risen One who is thus “living and active” (Heb 4:12). So, Christianity is about following the person of Christ; our faith is founded on Jesus, the eternal Word incarnate. As St Bernard said: “Christianity is the “religion of the word of God”, not of “a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word”.
The very beginning of Hebrews speaks of this incarnation of the Word: “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son” (1:2). The letter then picks this theme up again, speaking of the “good news” spoken to God’s people of Israel and also to us [cf 4:2], but “the Word which they [the people of Israel] heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith” (4:2b). So, we are exhorted to do differently: to believe in the Word, in Jesus Christ, to obey him, and, so, to enter into God’s rest (cf 4:3, 11).
But Hebrews also says that this Word of God judges us, searches us, and knows us intimately; we are “laid bare” before him. This would be frightening were it not that Jesus, because he is just and because he knows us so well, also knows what we long for, what humanity needs. Ultimately, what the restless human heart desires is to rest in God. What the sick need is a doctor; sinners need a Saviour. Hence we’re exhorted to believe in Christ who is the Saviour and Physician given to us by God. We’re exhorted to obey him and take the medicine prescribed, namely, to enter into communion with him, to enter and rest in him, in his “living and active” Body, the Church. For is it not here, through the Church and her sacraments, that we “may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16)?
Recently, I’ve been to watch Les Misérables the movie a second time, and I would recommend it to you. Some words sung by the saintly Bishop seem to sum up the message of God’s Word, and of his holy Church, whose duty is to continue Christ’s mission of healing and mercy so that we can enter into God’s eternal rest. He says: “There is wine here to revive you, there is bread to make you strong, there’s a bed to rest ‘til morning – rest from pain and rest from wrong”.
At this time of year many of us spend time with our families, either visiting them or speaking with them on the telephone or through Skype. Christmas, it’s often said, is a time for families. But because of this, it can also be a time that we dread! Sometimes because we miss our families so much, but sometimes because family-time can also be a time of tension and misunderstanding. As someone said to me recently after visiting his family for Christmas, he was relieved that the visit had been relatively peaceful.
So, we can take comfort, too, I think, that the picture of the Holy Family that is presented to us in today’s Gospel is not idyllic, as such, but “relatively peaceful”. There is misunderstanding, or lack of understanding, some tension between parents and a pre-adolescent child, and anxiety and pain. These are all features of family life which we recognize. But also present is faith, growth and listening, and above all, love which I hope we can also recognize. Because these are essential elements of family life. Hence the family is called the “domestic Church” in the Catechism, since it is in the family – our first community and the one we never really leave behind – that we learn and grow, just as the Christ Child does in the Holy Family of Nazareth. In our families, we learn to trust others, we learn to speak and to behave, we learn about relating to others, and we learn to love both God and neighbour. For love can only be learnt in community, and never in isolation, nor from a book. As an only child, this is something I’m still learning, which is why I think God has placed me in a religious community, in a family with many brothers in which I can learn to love, to “grow in wisdom… and in favour with God and man[kind]”.
For, at baptism, our domestic family broadened, and we are re-born by grace into the family of the Church, God’s own household. Here, too, we learn as a community, as brothers and sisters with as God our Father, to love him, to grow in wisdom and faith, and to love one another. As in our own families, we’ll find in the Church, tension and misunderstanding too. But we’ll also discover, I know, faith, growth through listening to the Word, and to one another, and above all, we’ll find charity, love in the person of Jesus Christ.
In fact, it is love, I think, that makes the family and the Church, places where we can feel such anxiety and pain. We feel this because we care, because we have invested our energies, interests, time, and history in these relationships, and because, ultimately, we struggle to love. Part of the mystery of love is that it entails sacrifice and suffering, and we do love a great injustice when we equate it with merely feeling good and warm so that it becomes self-indulgent. fr Bede Jarrett OP (who was Provincial when this priory was founded in 1931) once said: “Love finds words inadequate to hold all its deep meanings, and can only feel in sacrifice and in self-sacrifice a satisfactory outlet to its desires. Suffering is the only full speech of love…”. So, it seems to me that the suffering we experience, and even the pain we may inflict on one another through human frailty and carelessness speaks of a deep love for one another. The challenge for us in those moments is to listen carefully to that speech of love. When the temptation is to recoil in our lack of understanding and pain, to feel wounded by a reproach or a careless word and, so, to want to isolate ourselves from the other, we’re invited instead to seek dialogue, to listen and maybe to be stretched, to contemplate in silence what is really being said.