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.
Every semester the chaplains devise a programme of catechesis, faith formation and study for the students who come to St Albert’s. And what we present is not arbitrary but based on prayer and an assessment on what we believe, as your pastors, would help you grow in faith and love for Jesus Christ. This semester, we have in mind Pope Francis’ frequent reminders that we should read and become familiar with the Scriptures: Bible study for Catholics! For through the Scriptures, read in and with the Church, we encounter Jesus Christ. Surely this should be a priority for us? As today’s saint, Jerome, wondered: “How could one live without the knowledge of Scripture, by which we come to know Christ himself, who is the life of believers?” Hence, St Jerome is the patron of Scripture scholars – of all who would study and read the Bible and not just academic scholars. And my hope is that many of us this semester would become scholars, readers of God’s written Word. Hence we have a Bible Study group every Monday and a Faith Talk on the Bible and its theology every Tuesday, both at 8pm. Today, then, is the feast day of the saint who we ask to guide and help us this semester, and throughout our lives, I hope.
But he guides and inspires us, not mainly by teaching us the meaning of Scripture, but by his reverence for the Bible, and his desire to read and learn from the Scriptures. And this was something he came to appreciate, you might say, in his university years – although, of course universities didn’t exist in the 5th-century. But he didn’t start off as a Scripture swot.
Around the 450s, Jerome was studying rhetoric and classical literature in Rome. He was from a rich Croatian family, well-educated, and his family were Christians although he wasn’t yet baptized. And during his time in Rome, Jerome lived what we might call a typical student life. He writes that he was tempted by the worldly ways of the big city, by a plethora of ideas, and by the so-called good times that tempt and distract us all in cosmopolitan cities. But there was another side to him.
While in Rome, Jerome would also go with his friends to the catacombs just outside the city walls. There, Christian martyrs are buried, and there in the hush he could reflect on the faith of his family, a living faith that empowered the martyrs to give up their lives as a witness to the truth of the Resurrection. As a student in Rome, Jerome had learnt Latin and Greek, and so, apart from reading the classics, he began to be fascinated by the Gospels which were written in Greek. For a while Jerome was torn between committing to Christ as a disciple, or remaining in the world but distant from Christ. It is a choice that every Christian faces, and it first comes to prominence when one is a student. St Jerome, too, underwent the struggle that so many of you and your peers may be facing, and we ask him to pray for us that we can choose Christ above all others.
For at last, by God’s grace, Jerome chose to be baptised in Rome, and so, he committed to the Christian life. A passionate man (his writings, some of which are very hot-tempered, make this apparent), St Jerome was not one to do things by halves. He changed his entire life. He left Rome and his family and headed East to study the Scriptures with other scholars. He improved his Greek, learnt Hebrew, and finally went to live as a hermit in the desert so that he could read, fast, study, and pray the Bible. And then he translated the entire Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, a translation called the Vulgate. He would eventually return to Rome, but his dream was to head for the Holy Land, and he would eventually die in Bethlehem, the place where the Word of God took flesh.
Whenever we come to Mass, we come to a Bethlehem for here the Word is made flesh for us both in the Scriptures that are read, and in the Eucharist. For as St Jerome says: “for me, the Gospel is the Body of Christ; for me, the holy Scriptures are his teaching… When we approach the [Eucharist], if a crumb falls to the ground we are troubled [because it is the Body and Blood of Christ]. Yet when we are listening to the word of God, and God’s Word and Christ’s flesh and blood are being poured into our ears yet we pay no heed…” Hence, St Jerome calls us to reverence both the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist; to come to Mass recollected and prepared to receive Jesus Christ in both the Gospel and the Blessed Sacrament. The people of Samaria “would not receive him” (Lk 9:53). Let it not be so for us but let the Holy Spirit be the true fire from heaven that comes down to inflame us with a desire to know and love Christ, with the same grace that St Jerome had.
This Gospel passage is sometimes used to argue that Jesus had siblings and it is thus used as a challenge to the dogma of Our Lady’s perpetual virginity. But this apologetic concern can distract us from the central point that Christ was making which is about who he is and how he calls all into a familial relationship with God. The Greek word adelphoi used in Gospel is itself a translation of the Hebrew or, more likely, of the Aramaic used by Our Lord. He would have said akhoon, which means ‘kin’ because this was the one word used for both cousin or brother – there was no distinct word as such. So, Jesus is referring to those who are part of his family, a kinsman.
Through various covenants with the people of Israel, God had made the Jews his kinsmen, members of his family. “You will be my people, and I will be your God”, the Lord says again and again to Israel. However, this covenant is ratified in the flesh of Jesus Christ for by his Incarnation, God has made himself kin to all humanity. Christ has become our brother, our kinsman in a radical way, and through his sacred humanity all peoples and not just the Jewish people are being invited to enter into a covenant with God. So, all who “hear the Word of God”, that is, who listen to Christ and believe in who he is – God’s incarnate Son – can have kinship with God. For it is through baptism, the sacrament of faith, that we become “co-heirs” with Christ, as St Paul says (cf Rom 8:17).
However Jesus doesn’t just say “my brethren are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21), he adds “my mother and my brethren”. Why? Because motherhood implies a flesh and blood relationship and not just adoption. Hence, the new and eternal covenant of Mankind with God is signed and sealed in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Through partaking of the Eucharist, we are made one with God, and we truly become his kin, his own flesh and blood. As St Augustine says: “Christ the Lord willed to entrust to us his body and the blood which he shed for the forgiveness of our sins. If you have received them properly, you yourselves are what you have received”; Christ assimilates us to himself, and we, the Church, become his kin, his family, and his Mystical Body, the Mother Church.
Finally, Christ says that this belonging to God comes not only through hearing and believing the Word of God, but through what we do. This also follows the Old Testament dynamic of covenantal relationships. As Moses says to the people of Israel, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I command you this day for your good?” (Deut 10:12f). Hence, in co-operation with the grace of Christ, we Christians can be transformed so that we not only hear the Word but do it – we do as Jesus does – and so, we become like him. For grace transforms re-creates us in the image and likeness of Christ the Son, so that we become, sons and daughters of the Father, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 1 Pt 4).
Many of you will probably have had your parents come to Edinburgh this week, and I suppose you’ll have been making new friends, and finding your way around the city, and maybe seeing some of its tourist sights. Although this is my fourth Freshers’ Week, I’ve been doing this too. So, my mother came to stay and spent the week with us, and I met a group of French seminarians last Monday. Between taking my mum to see Holyrood Palace and going to the CSU barbeque, I squeezed in a very quick tour that ended up in the National Museum of Scotland. We rushed around from one room to the next but one display made us stop and had us transfixed with morbid fascination.
The Frenchmen thought it was a French invention from the 18th-century. So, they were amazed to discover that some two centuries before the French Revolution, in Edinburgh in 1564, the Scots were using a machine in public executions for beheading people. It’s called ‘The Maiden’, and over 150 people have died by it. And here it was, in the museum, taking centrestage in one of the rooms; we stopped and just looked.
Today’s feast also seems to put at centrestage an instrument of execution and death, and it may appear somewhat gruesome or shocking, or even repulsive, to celebrate the cross. For execution on the cross was shameful, humiliating, the worst kind of death devised by the Roman Empire for those deemed public enemies. And it would indeed be morbid and gruesome to celebrate the cross were it not for who the Victim of the Holy Cross is, and what he accomplished through this instrument of deathly torture.
For Christ Crucified is the Victim of Love, divine love. As St John says: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16a). Have you ever fallen in love and given your heart to someone else? It’s entails a kind of sweet pain, I think. Well, in becoming Man, God gives not just his heart but his whole self, his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity to you and to me. And the agony of sacrificial love is displayed for all to see on the Holy Cross. For when Jesus freely chose to mount the wood of the Cross, he chose to show the world the depths of God’s love for Mankind. His arms are stretched out horizontally to breaking point to embrace sinful humanity, so that in his own Body, Jesus reconciles God and Man, and he also draws us closer to one another. Vertically, he is stretched upwards to the heavens, for he is the Bridge that makes it possible for us to cross over to his Father in heaven, and to be united to God in friendship.
At the same time, Christ’s wounded and bleeding Body on the Cross reminds us of the sufferings and torments of humanity. We have all seen this summer the gruesome and horrific things that Man is capable of inflicting on their fellow Man including crucifixion. So, looking at the Cross, then, we see what our sins do to one another, and also to ourselves, and to God in Christ. For sin not only harms our neighbour but it also wounds and disfigures us; it makes us barely recognizable as rational human beings; it causes human misery and suffering, which Jesus, through his Passion and Death on the Cross, chooses to share in. Indeed, St Paul says that for our sake [God] made [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin (2 Cor 5:21). What this means, I think, is that Jesus on the Cross shows us the effects of sin in his broken body so that when we look at Christ Crucified, we also see sinful Man. We see ourselves, in fact, in the way that God sees us sinners: as wounded, frail, and mortal people in need of mercy, healing, and compassionate love.
Hence, as St John says, “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world” (Jn 3:17) but to save and heal and lift us up. And so, when we look up at the Crucified One, we look not into eyes that accuse us, or condemn us, or make us feel guilty. And if that is what you see, then you need to look again. Today’s feast, then, invites us to stop and just look at the Holy Cross. As Moses said to the people of Israel, we need to look and live (cf Num 21:9). For what we look into are the eyes of the Divine Mercy, and the Victim who we see raised up on the Cross is the Victim of Love. So when St John says that “whoever believes in [Jesus] should not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3:16b), he means, first of all, that we need to believe who the Victim on the Holy Cross is: he is God’s Love and Mercy made visible who has come not to condemn and accuse but to forgive and reconcile us. Jesus is stretched out on the Cross to re-unite heaven and earth; God and Man.
And this is what Jesus accomplished on the Cross. For by reconciling us to God in friendship, Christ makes it possible, as the Gospel says, for us to not perish (as human beings naturally would) but to have eternal life by becoming like him: not just human but also divine; one with God who is Life and Being itself. But how does he do this, and what does this mean?
Well, think of what we do every time we come to Mass, and whenever we receive Holy Communion with the right disposition. The very word, communion speaks of an intimacy and unity with God that is born of love. For in the Mass what happened once and for all on the Cross is made present for us; we stand on Calvary with the Crucified One. Thus, in the Eucharist and in Holy Communion, we experience and taste how “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”; Christ gives himself entirely to you and to me in one great Act of sacrificial love as he once did on the Cross.
This is the Mass, and while you are here in this University you have an opportunity that will be unmatched later in life. You have the chance to come to Mass every day with relative ease and convenience because there are two Masses in this chapel every weekday, and there are at least another four at different times of each weekday in churches within 15 minutes walk from here. If you know the pain of falling in love, do you know, too, the agony of unrequited love or of being distant from your Beloved? Do not let God’s gift of himself – a daily Eucharist – go unwanted and unrequited. But let us do our utmost to come to Mass as often as possible with gratitude, with adoration, and with love. It’s not just the highpoint of your week but should become the centre of your day, of your life.
For it is through the Eucharist that we are made one with God and so receive eternal life; through the Eucharist that the Crucified One is lifted up on high, and we with him. For the Eucharist is Christ who is the “living bread which came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51). And when we receive the Eucharist we receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Risen Lord Jesus so that we, too, may be lifted up with Christ in the Resurrection, and be “highly exalted” into heavenly glory as he was (cf Phil 2:9). As Jesus says to Nicodemus, only he has ascended into heaven (cf Jn 3:13), so we need to be united to him through the Eucharist if we’re to share in his resurrection, ascension, and eternal life; if we’re to be united with God in undying love.
Therefore, we don’t glory in an instrument of torture today, nor are we morbidly fascinated by it. Rather, we rejoice in what Jesus has done for us through the Cross, and is doing for us now in this and in every Holy Mass. As the Entrance Antiphon said: “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered” (cf Gal 6:14).
Did St Paul and the Corinthian Christians believe that Jesus Christ was returning very soon and that the world would end? Apparently so. Hence Paul speaks of an “impending [or present] distress” (1 Cor 7:26) and he says that “the appointed time has grown very short” (1 Cor 7:29). And we might say that as Christ has not returned and the world is still existing, so the parousia was not as imminent as Paul had thought. And so, some surmise, Paul’s teaching on marriage and celibacy which had the coming parousia in view is irrelevent, or even wrong, and so, it doesn’t apply to us today. But that, I think, would be to miss the point of St Paul’s inspired insights.
Consider, to begin with, that Christ’s coming is far more imminent than we realize. In fact, Jesus’ coming is so close that we often miss it. As Ratzinger notes, Christ comes to us and is present with us in the sacred Liturgy; it is a parousia. So, in every Mass as we encounter the Blessed One “who comes in the name of the Lord”, we face our judgement, we are opened out to the life to come, and we receive a “pledge of future glory”. Thus, the Mass holds before us, and focusses us on, and is our foretaste, of the end, that is to say, the goal of this earthly life, which is to be united to God in heaven. Moreover, “the appointed time” before we see Christ in his glory is not very long. It is, in fact, only the duration of our lives – which is not a long time, really – before, upon our deaths, we see Christ and are judged. So, it would be rash to simply dismiss Paul’s notion that Christ was coming soon. For he comes daily in the Eucharist, and after the short span of our lives we shall soon come before the Judgement Seat.
So, what does this say about marriage and celibacy and our relations with one another? Not very much. The key to St Paul’s concerns, rather, is in this saying: “the form of the world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31). Thus he wants us to remain focussed on the life to come, on the eternity that we will spend with God, so we hope, once the few decades of our life is over. Hence, all that we do and experience is subordinated and directed towards heaven, towards eternal beatitude in God’s presence. And this is St Paul’s inspired word for us.
It’s not so much a practical directive on whether or not we should marry, then – after all, Paul’s marital advice is his “opinion”, as he says (1 Cor 7:25). But what is not just opinion but inspiration is his theological insight which is that we should focus on living lives that are pleasing to the Lord, that are devoted to growing in virtue, and in faith, hope, and charity. And this is possible and indeed necessary in every state of life. Hence Paul repeatedly says in this chapter that one should remain as one is. There is no need to make changes in one’s state of life, but rather, whether one is celibate or married, and whatever one’s circumstances – rich or poor, in joy or in sorrow – St Paul is concerned that the Christian should remain focussed on the goal of eternal life with God in heaven through co-operating with grace and increasing in charity. All things, then, are to be directed to this end. Otherwise, the concerns of this life risk becoming ends in themselves that distract and even hinder us from the goal of blessedness with God in heaven.
This same focus on eternal blessedness underlies the Gospel. Christ keeps us trained on heaven (cf Lk 6:23), and he comes to us in the Eucharist to keep us fixed on our goal, and to “keep [us] safe for eternal life” at last with him.
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?
"O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his love has no end" (Ps 106:1). How fitting this response is today as we gather to give thanks for twenty-five years of the Lord’s goodness made visible in the marriage of Mary and Michael – a union that participates even now in the one unending love of God.
And this response of thanksgiving is equally fitting as we celebrate Our Lady’s Queenship, as we give thanks to God for the singular graces given to Our Lady so that she could be Mother of God. And now God crowns those graces which have borne such sweet fruit in Mary by making her Queen of Heaven. So the psalm response, to my mind, also most aptly echoes the words of Our Lady in her Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord… for he who is mighty has done great things for me” (Lk 1:46, 49). And these are words are sung every evening by the Church, the Bride of Christ, to her divine Bridegroom because she is continually thankful, daily offering this Eucharistic sacrifice of thanks for the many great things God does for her and through her.
Each of us, whenever we offer the Mass in union with Christ acting in the person of his Priest, will have our own reasons for giving God thanks. But this evening, we’re especially united with the O’Duffins in giving thanks for the graces that have sustained Mary and Michael’s marriage and caused it to bear, also, such sweet fruit.
It is clear from the thought and effort that has gone into preparing for today’s Mass that the Eucharist is central to Mary and Michael’s lives – and what joy it is to celebrate the Mass with them here in this great Jesuit church, the spiritual home of the O’Duffins, and with us Dominicans, their spiritual confréres, present. Truly, the Eucharist is our sacrament of unity and charity! And the centrality of the Eucharist is thus vital to the vitality and joy of Mary and Michael’s marriage. For Christ himself is the cause of their loving union, and through the Eucharist Jesus draws all ever deeper into the loving embrace of the Holy Trinity: it is here that we are being schooled in unity and charity.
Christ famously sums up the Law as love of God and love of neighbour (cf Mt 22:37-39) as we hear in today’s Gospel. But, so familiar are we with this, that we often neglect the third party: we must also love ourselves (Mt 22:39). Indeed, I would say that this comes first. As St John says: “We love, because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19).
Hence it is in the Mass that we encounter our God who loved us first; who showed the depth of his love by becoming flesh and dying for us; our God who loves us so much that he remains here for us and with us under the humble ordinary forms of bread and wine. So, here we encounter love and we are schooled in this fundamental fact: God loves me. Is this not the one thing that is so lacking in our world today? So many of our contemporaries, made with this God-shaped hole that longs for love, just don’t know that God is here - he is waiting for us. So many, needlessly then, feel unloved. So, let many be called here and drawn here and led here to the Eucharist so that they can be loved. I know that this church is a great centre for ‘Nightfever’ which is well-loved by the O’Duffins – a beautiful way for many to know the love of God present in the Eucharist.
Knowing that God loves me, then, is fundamental. It makes the rest possible, and so, having the Eucharist central to Mary and Michael’s marriage is what makes these past twenty-five years (and, we pray many many more to come) possible! For when we encounter the God of Love here, and when we know we are loved, then we can begin to love God in return. We do this by offering to God the very best we have, exercising our intellects to seek him in Truth, engaging our wills to love him in Obedience, employing our talents and skills in his service. Something like this – a beautiful celebration of the sacred Liturgy – is the culminating expression of this offering of ourselves, our very best, to God. It truly is the “right and just” thing to do, to attend to the Liturgy with reverent and attentive devotion and with a care for its solemn beauty, if we want to love and thank God.
Then from this attention to the Liturgy, from an actual participation in the Eucharistic action of Christ who pours himself out in love for Mankind, we learn what it means to love another. As Pope Benedict XVI said: “The eucharistic mystery thus gives rise to a service of charity towards neighbour” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 88). For Michael and Mary, their first neighbour is one another, and then, of course, their boys and family. But we know that their heart, as a couple, is also opened toward countless others: the boys of St Aloysius’ College, the teachers and pupils they meet, and so many friends as well as strangers and passers-by. And of course, we Dominican friars and other priests are also their ‘boys’! This expansive love is characteristic of a Eucharistic heart; they have been expanded by grace to make room, indeed a home, for others.
Our Lady, by her generous Yes to the angel showed that her immaculate heart was just such a Eucharistic heart. For grace enabled her to not just become Mother of God, but your mother and my mother – Mother of the Church. Because of Our Lady whose immaculate heart beats as the heart of the Church, the Church is a home, a mother, a refuge for all. And this, too, is something our contemporaries long for: a Home in a world which has become such a wilderness. Many hearts have become weary, and life with its many worries and problems has become like the valley of death in which one lies like dry bones.
But here in Christ’s Church where Mary’s heart beats in tandem with the Eucharistic and Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ – here, there is life; new and everlasting life. Here, in the Eucharist, there is rest. Here, there is refreshment and joy. Here, there is Love and the Spirit to raise all up. Hence, “the Spirit and the Bride say: ‘Come’!” (Apoc 22:17)
So, as we come together today to celebrate these twenty-five years of love which the Spirit has raised up, we go again to the Source of Mary and Michael’s love. We come to Love himself, made present and tangible and visible for us in the Most Holy Eucharist. We come to Our Lord Jesus Christ to be loved. By his Mother’s intercession, may our hearts, like Our Lady’s, be filled with love so that we can bring many thirsty souls to Christ, and may we come at last to that eternal marriage feast in heaven where Our Lady reigns with him as Queen.
Therefore, let us “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his love has no end”.
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).
Today hidden things are being revealed through parables. The prophet Jeremiah enacts a parable which shows us the hidden corruption of sin, while Christ tells a parable which speaks of the hidden transformative activity of grace. And both is at work in the human person.
So, in the First Reading the waistcloth stands for God’s people, and so, it represents you and me, who are called into a very intimate union with God through baptism. Just as in the baptismal liturgy a white garment is used as a symbol of one’s Christian dignity, so here a white linen loincloth is that symbol. But that cloth is hidden in a cleft of the rock, where the waters of the Euphrates river run over it. The Euphrates represents Babylon, a symbol of foreign power, idolatry, and sin. And so, hidden and unseen, sin, which is foreign to God, corrupts the human person, weakens our moral character.
This corruption does not come from the actual commissions of sins, as such, but something more subtle, and thus, hidden. It refers, I think, to an attachment to sin. St Francis de Sales explains: “weak and lukewarm penitents… would be very happy if they could sin without being damned; they speak of sin as something regretfully lost, and of sinners as though theirs were the happier lot”. This attachment to sin, St Francis de Sales says, “not only places you in danger of relapsing but is a constant source of weakness and discouragement, preventing you from doing good readily, diligently and frequently”.
I think we can all recognize this attachment to sin; repeated confessions where there is no firm purpose of amendment because we don’t really hate our sins. Rather, we are still hidden in the cleft of the rock, where the waters of the Euphrates run over us and slowly render us weak, discouraged and ultimately “spoiled” (Jer 13:7). Hence, we need to be removed from all attachment to our sins, and this is only possible if we see its disasterous effects, and why particular sinful acts are so harmful. Jeremiah’s actions, then, are meant to show us the effects of sin, rendering one “good for nothing” (Jer 13:7).
On the contrary, that which renders us good is God’s grace. As we said in our Collect, without God, “nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy”. So, we stand in absolute need of him, utterly dependent on his grace to accomplish any good. As such, God brings us to an awareness of our sins in order to spoil our pride (cf Jer 13:9), and so, to turn us back to him in humility so that we learn to cling to him, and to co-operate with his grace.
For God’s grace is not completely absent, even in the heart of sinners. His grace goes before us to move us to repentance, so that, having been forgiven, we can become holy, sanctified by grace. This grace at work in us, moving us to repentance and then to holiness, is also hidden and unseen, like leaven hidden in the flour (cf Mt 13:33). But whereas our hidden attachment to sin corrupts, the grace hidden in us, if we co-operate with it, transforms us for the good. Like yeast in the dough grace causes us to rise up to a new life with Christ who is the Bread of Life. This truth is being enacted now in the Eucharist for we receive here God’s grace, and we pray that we will be so open to the workings of God’s grace that, as we say in the Offertory Prayer, the Eucharist will “sanctify our present way of life and lead us to eternal gladness”.
We celebrate the Eucharist every day, worshipping Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and venerating his Real Presence in every Mass. So why this special Solemnity in honour of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ? In brief, a Norbertine canoness of Liège, in what is now Belgium, received mystical visions in which she recognized that the liturgical calendar was incomplete without a special feast to honour the Mystery of the Eucharist. Several theologians were consulted about this, including eminent Dominicans, and they advised the bishop of Liège to permit a local celebration of Corpus Christi. The first such celebration was in 1246.
Among the Dominicans present and involved was the theologian and famed preacher, Hugh of St Cher, who was then Provincial of France. Hugh was a great supporter of women’s religious movements, and it seems that he saw this feast, coming from the initiative of St Julienne of Liège, as one instance of the sensus fidelium at work in the Church. And he was so impressed by this celebration that he began to promote it far and wide. In 1263, Hugh is in Orvieto where his Dominican confrère St Thomas Aquinas was living and teaching, and one year on in 1264 we find St Thomas working on a new set of liturgical texts for the feast of Corpus Christi. For St Thomas had been commissioned by Pope Urban IV, who had been Archdeacon of Liège, to turn his considerable poetic talent and theological acumen to compiling the Scriptural passages, and writing antiphons, hymns, prayers, and poetry for the Mass and Office of this new feast day. These liturgical texts put together by St Thomas Aquinas are all of a solidly Biblical character, and they still used by us today, in several different contexts apart from this feast day, such as during Benediction or sung in part as motets. As such, I think that they are the most well-known of St Thomas’ work, for few can cite St Thomas’ teaching from the Summa but they can quote the Tantum ergo or have heard the Panis Angelicus.
But of all the texts we find on today’s feast extolling this great Sacrament and expounding the Mystery of our Faith, the finest and most musically exuberant is arguably St Thomas’ Sequence hymn, Lauda Sion Salvatorem, which was sung before today’s Gospel (see video below). It is a wonderful summary by St Thomas of our Catholic faith, drawn from Scripture and Tradition, concerning the Eucharist.
As you may have already noticed, then, it’s been 750 years since St Thomas wrote these texts. And 750 years ago, on 11 August 1264, Pope Urban IV also wrote a text, a document called Transiturus de hoc mundo, in which he encouraged the universal Church, and not just the local church of Liège, to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi. Hence this year is the 750th anniversary of the institution of this beautiful feast; a special celebration, indeed, which is, in the words of fr Paul Murray OP, “a liturgy of the Church prompted by the dream-vision of a young girl, and given final literary shape and form by the greatest theologian of the period”.
So, to return to the question I asked at the beginning – why celebrate a special feast of the Eucharist? – Pope Urban IV gives an answer. He notes in Transiturus that the memorial of institution of the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday takes place at such a busy time when we are otherwise occupied with other activities like “the reconciliation of penitents, blessing the chrism, fulfilling the Commandment about the washing of the feet, and many other things” – you can see that this was a former Archdeacon with much pastoral experience! So, he says, that just as we keep a feast of All Saints when we can gather especially to remember those saints whom we were too busy to celebrate on their proper feast days during the course of the year, so, likewise, he thinks we should keep a special feast of the Eucharist. He says: “This feast must shine with a special festivity and honour so that whatever of solemnity is perhaps omitted in other Masses might be supplied in this feast with diligent devotion”. Again, with a realism that comes from pastoral experience, Pope Urban acknowledges that during the year we may attend Masses, even daily, and do so in a distracted or hurried way, “perhaps from negligence of human frailty”. But today, on the feast of Corpus Christi, Pope Urban exhorts us to “attentively restore what was lacking and do so in humility of spirit and purity of heart”. Thus Pope Francis said that “On Holy Thursday we remember the institution of the Eucharist. On Corpus Christi we adore It”.
Today’s feast, then, is a graced opportunity given to us by Christ’s Church to gather and solemnly adore Our Lord who is really present here for us. We gather today to strengthen our faith in the Mystery of the Eucharist; to increase our loving contemplation of this great Gift of Christ’s Body and Blood; and to publicly give thanks for the marvellous work God is doing as he faithfully comes and walks alongside Mankind – He, who is God-with-us – through this great Sacrament. The simple Procession that we’ll walk after this Mass is an expression of all this. For, as Pope Urban says, this “is the memorial most sweet and salvific in which we gratefully recall the memory of our redemption, in which we are drawn from evil, strengthened in good, and secure an increase in virtues and graces”.
Therefore, on this feast of Corpus Christi, let us, the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, feast on his Body and Blood; feast on God’s goodness and sweet graces; feast on the eternal life and love that comes from Our Lord. For as Jesus promises us: “whoever eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:58). And let us also feast on the teaching of St Thomas embodied in the liturgical texts of this Mass and Office; going home and meditating on what Truth has revealed to him (some texts here). Thus, as Pope Urban IV said, we shall be so overwhelmed with joy and gratitude that we can let “faith sing, hope dance, and charity exult; let devotion applaud, the choir be jubilant, and purity delight; [let us celebrate] the solemnity of so great a feast”!
Today, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, is traditionally kept as the great feast of Corpus et Sanguis Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ; in some places it has been transferred to the coming Sunday.
The Mass on this day has a Sequence hymn written by my saintly confrère, St Thomas Aquinas. The range of this sequence is quite unusual, giving expression to the line of text which exhorts us to do all we dare to do in order to honour the Eucharist.
A non-literal translation for this hymn, the words of which are well worth meditating on as they contain a summary of St Thomas’ Eucharistic theology, can be found here. A talk about this Sequence hymn can also be found here.
In this particular video the music is from the Dominican Gradual, and I am singing it with my confrère fr. Robert Verrill OP; the photos are from my collection.