July 28, 2014

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HOMILY for 17th Mon per annum (II)

Jer 13:1-11; Dt 32:18-21; Matt 13:31-35

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”. 

June 22, 2014

HOMILY for the Solemnity of Corpus et Sanguis Christi

Deut 8:2-3. 14-16; 1 Cor 10:16f; John 6:51-58

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”!

June 19, 2014

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. 

May 29, 2014

HOMILY for the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord

Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47; Eph 1:17-23; Matt 28:16-20

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Forty days ago, very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, two men in white appeared to Mary Magdalene and the other women, and they ask them: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Lk 24:5). And today “two men in white” appear again, this time to the men, and they ask them: “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” (Acts 1:11). And these questions are related by one thing: in both instances, Jesus’ disciples were looking for him. They sought him in the empty tomb, and they sought him in the empty skies. But he is not there. Hence another man in white, the astronaut Yuri Gagarin, is reported to have said, “I went up to space, but I didn’t encounter God”. Indeed, and he ought not to have expected God to be up there in space. As the Gospel’s men in white would have said: “He is not here” (cf Mk 16:6). 

Where, then, is Jesus now that he has been taken up into heaven? Where can God be found if not up in the sky or down in the grave? In St John’s Gospel, Jesus says something to his apostles that points towards an answer: “A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me” (Jn 16:16). This suggests that the way in which we, Jesus’ disciples, can see Jesus is in a different mode, that is to say, not physically as a man standing among us. How, then, can we see God? Where is Jesus?

St Luke gives an answer. In his Gospel, he recounts how Jesus appears to his two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Then, “when he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (Lk 24:30f). And, then, in his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, St Luke recounts what the apostles did after Jesus had ascended into heaven. The men in white had said: “This Jesus… will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). So, what do they do? St Luke says they returned to Jerusalem, and then “went up to the upper room” and prayed with the women (Acts 1:13f). Hence, the Church gathered together in prayer in the upper room. And not just any prayer – they gathered for Liturgy, for the Eucharist, because “the upper room” is where Jesus instituted the Eucharist. Thus, in these two ways, St Luke teaches us that Jesus is with us, and can be seen, albeit not physically as a man, in the Holy Eucharist. As he says, the Risen Lord Jesus “was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:35). Hence, he is not among the dead in an empty tomb, nor in the heavens. Rather, as Our Lord says: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51). 

So, if we seek Christ today, we are in the right place. He is here in the Breaking of Bread, and we see him, we recognize him, we know him through faith in the Eucharist. 

The men in white had said that Jesus will “come in the same way you saw him go”. That is to say, mysteriously, lifted up and hidden from view in the clouds; his divinity is unseen. Thus Jesus comes to us here and now, hidden from plain physical sight under the veil of the Sacraments, mysteriously present under the appearances of bread and wine. As St Thomas says: “as Christ shows us His Godhead invisibly, so also in this sacrament He shows us His flesh in an invisible manner” (ST III, 75, 1). 

But why, then, did Jesus ascend into heaven? The Preface of the Ascension says that Jesus “was taken up to heaven… that he might make us sharers in his divinity”. For St Luke’s language of Jesus being taken up into a cloud is theological language, drawing on Old Testament imagery in which God is present to the people of Israel as a pillar of cloud (cf Ex 13:21-22). Hence, as Pope Benedict explains: “Jesus’ departure [is presented] not as a journey to the stars, but as his entry into the mystery of God… He enters into communion of power and life with the living God”. Jesus, then, is not the first astronaut!

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May 28, 2014

HOMILY for the 6th Wed of Easter

Acts 17:15. 22–18:1; Ps 148; John 16:12-15

The long discourse from St John’s Gospel, which we’ve been listening to these past weeks of Eastertide, is a revelation of God the Son to his disciples during the Last Supper. In fact, it is the apostles, the pillars of his Church, to whom Christ is speaking, and he does so within the context of the Eucharist which is the heart and source of his Church. As such, Jesus is revealing to his holy Church what he will do for her. He says: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:13).

Thus Christ promises that his Church will have the fullness of the revelation of the truth, that is to say, “everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God” (Dei Verbum, §8). 

There is a tendency to think of Jesus like an absentee landlord who, after his Ascension, leaves the Church and her leaders to their own devices, to muddle along. But even if it is true that sinful human beings have often made a muddle of things, it is also true that Jesus promises his Church that he will send the Spirit to be with her, working with and through frail and fallible human instruments to teach Christ’s infallible truths concerning salvation. For as St Paul tells the men of Athens, the “times of ignorance” (Acts 17:30) have passed, and now God no longer wants us to just “feel after [God]” (Acts 17:27) but know God through the revelation that comes from Jesus Christ and his Mystical Body, the Church. 

Hence in these days before the Ascension we hear again and again Jesus’ assurances that he will send “another Counselor” to his apostles, all of whom were such frightened, weak, and sinful men. Yet Jesus teaches us that the Spirit will faithfully “declare” to these apostles and their successors everything that comes from the Father and the Son (cf Jn 13f). Thus, through Christ’s Church, of which Christ is the Head and the Holy Spirit is her soul (see Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis, §57), all humanity until the end of time can be led into the complete truth.

As the Jesuit cardinal, Henri de Lubac, who had been a theological consultant at Vatican II said: “The Holy Spirit who guided the Apostle is the same who still guides the Church, and speaks by the voice of the modern popes. The path to which it commits us is the only safe one. To follow it is neither naïveté, nor syncretism, nor liberalism; it is simply Catholicism”. 

But the path to which this commits us is also the path of faith. It requires that we believe Christ’s Word; that we trust Jesus’ promise that he will give the Spirit; that we have faith that God’s Spirit is actively and surely leading and guiding Christ’s Church into complete truth, despite our human failings. For we know that our God is always faithful even when we are unfaithful (cf 2 Tim 2:13). This is the God we know and worship – not an unknown god as the Athenians did – but One who we know is Risen from the dead, and who is with us now, here, in the Breaking of Bread.

May 21, 2014

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HOMILY for 5th Wed of Easter

Acts 15:1-6; Ps 121; John 15:1-8

Circumcision “according to the custom of Moses” (Acts 15:1), thankfully, is not necessary for salvation. However, this does not mean nothing has to be cut away. For as Jesus points out in today’s Gospel, God the Father will prune; he will cut away whatever keeps us from bearing fruit as Christians. 

The Christian is one who is united to Christ through grace. His precious Blood, which we drink in the Mass, flows in our veins. As sap courses through a plant and gives it life, so we draw our strength and nourishment, our share in the divine life from the true Vine. Apart from him, we can do nothing (cf Jn 15:5); indeed, we are nothing. 

Now, to be fruitful as Christians means, as Pope Francis likes to remind us, that we are filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit. This is not mere external happiness and superficial smiles, but  the deep joy of belonging to God, of being united to Christ in love, of being Christian; the kind of joy that enables countless Christians down the centuries to this day to faithfully endure even suffering and the chalice of martyrdom. For the wine of the Eucharist which comes from the true Vine has intoxicated us and gives true joy. But this wine is Christ’s saving blood. Thus all who drink deeply from Christ’s chalice, who really share in the fruit of the true Vine, will also experience the deep joy of sacrificial love, of being poured out for the good of others. 

In this, in acts of love, we find salvation. Not through circumcision, then, do we find salvation, but through union with Christ who is Love. Then, the fruit of joy is ripened by love so that others can taste and see the sweetness and goodness of God at work in our lives. This, then, is how we are saved – by allowing God’s good grace to sweeten us, and his Love to ripen us so that we abide in Christ, and Christ in us (cf Jn 15:4); his saving Blood flows in our veins.  

But for Christ’s Blood and grace to flow in us so that we are fruitful, so that we can love as he loves, certain things will need to be cut out. St Paul, echoing Deuteronomy, thus speaks of a circumcision, not according to the custom of Moses, but of the heart. St Paul says: “real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (Rom 2:29). Hence, we need to be pruned by the divine Vinedresser, co-operating with God’s grace to cut out of our lives all that separates us from God, all the sinful desires, attitudes and addictions that obstruct the flow of God’s love in our lives. 

So, let us examine our lives and consider: What do we need to cut out? And then, let us offer them to the Father, asking for his mercy and grace. We need to let God prune us and to ask him to give us the courage and generosity to accept the pain of this pruning, so that we will bear fruit in joy and ripen in acts of Christ-like love. For while the circumcision of Moses is not necessary for salvation, this one, the truer spiritual kind which makes us abide in Jesus Christ, is.

April 24, 2014

HOMILY for Easter Thursday

Acts 3:11-26; Ps 8; Luke 24:35-48

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We human beings encounter the reality of the world around us, we know, through the senses; through our sight, touch, hearing, and taste. Hence in today’s Gospel Jesus invites his disciples to encounter the reality of who he is – that he is the Risen One – through the human senses. They hear him speaking to them, and he says, “See my hands and my feet”; “Handle me” (Lk 24:39); and then, he eats a piece of broiled fish. Thus, all four senses of sight, touch, hearing and taste are used to verify the reality, the truth, of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. He invites them to know that “it is I myself”, Jesus himself and not some simulacrum of him. This was how Jesus made himself known to his disciples that first Easter Sunday. 

But now for us, Jesus makes himself known to us, in the way that he once did when he encountered the two disciples in Emmaus. As St Luke says: “they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of bread” (Lk 24:35). Why does Jesus choose this mode of being present to us, his disciples? Because we are on the road too. We, too, are like the Israelites who celebrated the Passover with unleavened bread, prepared for travel. We, too, are like these two disciples, on the road. For we are a pilgrim Church, a people on the road, making our way through life towards our home and destination, which is heaven. Hence, Jesus is present for us, and makes himself known to us as he once did to the disciples in Emmaus: in the breaking of bread; in the Eucharist which becomes our Bread for the journey or, as Tolkien put it, Waybread.  

The Eucharist, though, is truly the Mysterium Fidei, the Mystery or Sacrament of Faith. In it, once more, the Risen Lord Jesus is encountered and not some simulacrum of him. “It is I myself”, Jesus says, which is why the Eucharist is consecrated by Christ’s Priest in the first person: “This is my Body; This is my Blood”. However, unlike the disciples in today’s Gospel, we cannot rely on our senses of sight, touch, or taste to encounter this reality. As St Thomas says, “Seeing, touching, tasting fail to discern Thee”. But rather, we rely purely on the sense of hearing, or to be more precise, we rely on faith, believing in the Word of God whom we hear speaking. So, St Thomas puts it like this: “How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed. What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do; Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true”. Hence, we believe that the Risen Lord is wholly present in the Eucharist; he makes himself known to us in the breaking of Bread because he has promised to do so. “I it is myself”. For we human beings know not just through our senses but through faith in God’s Word.

But this just seems too good to be true, sometimes. St Luke uses a rather strange and unique phrase in today’s Gospel for this. The apostles “disbelieved for joy” (Lk 24:41). So, too, when we encounter the Risen Lord in the Eucharist, we can find ourselves disbelieving for joy. Not because we doubt Christ’s Word or the salvific truth taught by his Church, but rather because the Eucharist is just such a marvel of divine love, such a daily miracle of God’s faithfulness to humanity, such a sign of divine mercy and humility, that we can’t fully grasp the depth of this great Mystery of Faith. As St John Vianney said: “If we really understood the Mass, we would die of joy.” 

What we can do, however, is to just be present here in the Mass, and worship. So, as he once did for the disciples, we ask Jesus to open our minds (cf Lk 24:45), and to make us his witnesses – evangelizers of the joy we have in knowing the risen Lord Jesus Christ through the gift of faith.

April 10, 2014

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HOMILY for Thurs in Week 5 of Lent

Genesis 17:3-9; Psalm 104; John 8:51-59

God’s covenant with Abraham is the bedrock of our faith. For through the incident recounted in today’s First Reading, God takes the initiative to enter into a personal relationship with Mankind; he calls Abraham and his descendants into communion with him. And our faith is founded on this promise of “an everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7). Thus, Abraham is called, in the Roman Canon, our “father in faith”. 

In the covenant, God promises: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful” (17:6), and makes the gift of “all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession” (17:8).  What this means is that communion with God brings life and flourishing. It is a promise, then, of salvation. We need to bear in mind that the word ‘salvation’ comes from the Latin salus which means health, well-being, flourishing. So, in the Old Testament, God is seen to have established a special relationship with Abraham and his descendants, with Israel, that promises to them health, success, and flourishing in this life so long as they are faithful to God and obey his Law. This, it seems, is what salvation entailed. 

But Abraham’s faith shows its mettle when he’s asked to sacrifice his only son, his heir, Isaac. Thus the promise of physical health and material success is jeopardized. We need to wait until the Easter Vigil to hear this story recounted in the Liturgy but we want to keep it in mind today because what this incident shows is the depths of Abraham’s faith. He, our father in faith, shows us that faith encompasses the suffering, sacrifice and the endurance of all earthly sorrows and grief. And Abraham can do this because he believes above all that God is faithful and good, and so, will ultimately bring about life and flourishing. God will be faithful to his Word even in the face of death. 

Hence, Abraham grasped that salvation is not so much about success and power in this earthly life but something deeper and more lasting, transcending even death. The covenant is not just a treaty for worldly gain, then, but something more profound, of spiritual significance and with its promise of rescue beyond the grave. So, when the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is read on Easter night, then we see that Jesus’ resurrection is God’s final and definitive answer to Abraham’s faith in the covenant. Here is the promised salvation, perfectly realized for all Abraham’s descendants. Because, by Christ’s Resurrection, Mankind is rescued from the privation of death, and shares in the everlasting life and health of God himself. Through Christ’s Resurrection the covenant with Abraham is perfected, and the salvation promised him is fully realized. We, who are Abraham’s descendants and heirs because we share his faith in Jesus’ Resurrection, are thus also inheritors of God’s covenant, the “new and eternal covenant” signed with Christ’s blood. 

It seems that Abraham already had a glimpse of all this. For all this is what his faith signifies and anticipates. Hence Jesus says: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad” (Jn 8:56). For the day Abraham saw was the day of God’s salvation, and now, in Jesus Christ, in his saving Passion and Resurrection, that day shines out clearly. So, in the coming Holy Week we will see Abraham’s faith come to fruition so that with him, our father in faith, we can also rejoice and be glad.

April 8, 2014

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HOMILY for Tue in Week 5 of Lent

Numbers 21:4-9; Ps 101; John 8:21-30

The serpent had tempted Adam and Eve to doubt God’s goodness and wisdom, and so, led to Man’s downfall. Refusing to depend on God, Man is cast out of the Garden and has to learn to fend for himself in the wilderness. But God goes in search of them, sending Moses to lead them out of the wilderness and back into a Land, a garden flowing with milk and honey. But in the wilderness Israel has to learn again to trust in God and his goodness and Providence. Adam and Eve had failed to do this when they bit into the fruit at the serpent’s bidding. So, now, when Israel fails again to trust God and they grumble against him, they feel the bite of their sin and unbelief. And this bite is fittingly administered by serpents, the very creature that first tempted Mankind into sin. 

This is fitting because it reminds us that sin carries in itself our own punishment. For sin causes the separation of ourselves from God’s friendship, and brings a kind of disorder to one’s emotional life and one’s use of reason so that we find it hard to think clearly and rationally and to choose to do what we reason to be good and true. So, the disordered struggle to live the good life within ourselves and with others is the punishment of sin; we feel the fiery serpent’s bite which leads, ultimately, to death. Hence St Thomas says, we can “call sin punishment by reason of what sin causes, as Augustine says that a disordered soul is its own punishment”. 

Notice that it is not so much that God punishes the sinner, but rather that our freely-chosen sinful acts, which reject the Creator’s wisdom and goodness, cause a state of disorder and moral confusion in Man. Hence, sinful acts are punitive because they deprive us of the harmony and peace and order for which we long. Thus we remain outside the Garden and in the wilderness. So, if God were to really want to punish us, he would leave us unrepentant, would abandon us to our sinful ways, and leave us without any help or guidance, nor call us to repentance. This state of being left to remain in unrepented sin, to “die in your sins” (Jn 8:24) as Jesus says today, is what Scripture refers to as “the wrath of God”. 

So, when the people of Israel call for God not to be angry, they are calling for him to save them from the bite of sin and its poison. Thus, God’s mercy towards Israel is shown when he moves them by his grace to repent, and when he provides a remedy for their sin, an antidote. He calls them to look at the serpent, which is to say, to recognize their sins so as to repent of them. And as God once provided the solution for Israel and had mercy on them, so God has now provided for all of humanity. Jesus is the one and only Solution to humanity’s fundamental problem of sin.

Thus we need to look to him and, as he says to the Jews, believe that “I am He” (Jn 8:24). For we must learn what Adam and Eve and the grumbling Israelites failed to learn, namely to trust in God’s goodness, to believe that he is faithful to his Word, and provides the Solution. 

So, when Good Friday comes and Christ is lifted up, let us look with faith at the antidote. In the Crucified One we see the destruction and violence wrought by sin, we see how Mankind is disfigured, beaten up, left dying because of sin. For thus you and I had been punished by our own sins. But at the same time we see too, on the Cross, our God of mercy and love who comes for our sake and for our salvation to bear the punishment of all Man’s sins – our sins – in his own body. Thus the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.

His Body, risen and glorified, defeating sin and death, thus becomes the medicine for our souls. In the Eucharist we come with faith to receive this Body, the true fruit of the Cross, the Tree of Life. We doubt no longer but taste and see that the Lord is good. In faith we receive the fruit of Mary’s womb, who saves us from the effects of that poisonous fruit of the Tree that Eve had eaten in Eden. And thus, we are restored to Paradise, brought out of the wilderness into the heavenly Promised Land.

 

March 28, 2014

HOMILY for Fri in Week 3 of Lent

Hos 14:2-10; Ps 80; Mark 12:28-34

With language that is strongly reminiscent of the Song of Songs, the prophet Hosea closes with a love song, a passionate plea from God for Israel to return to him. There is something almost plaintive about the way God appeals to his Beloved people. But God is not just speaking to Israel. Today, he speaks to every human soul, to you and to me. For God is in love with Mankind. 

As such, St Catherine of Siena called God a “mad Lover”, and she said to him: “Are you indeed in need of your creature? It seems to me you are for you behave as if you could not live without her… Why then are you so mad? Because you have fallen in love with what you have made! You are pleased and delighted over her within yourself, as if you were drunk for her salvation. She runs for you and you go looking for her. She strays and you draw closer to her. You clothed yourself in our humanity and nearer than that you could not have come”. So, the ultimate sign of God’s mad love for us is the Incarnation, which we celebrated on Tuesday, the feast of the Annunciation. 

We need to dwell on this beautiful mystery; to marvel in God’s mad love for us, and to know in faith that Christ’s Incarnation is prolonged in the Eucharist. For our “mad Lover” clothes himself not just in our humanity, but even in bread and wine so that he can come so close to us, and be intimately united to us. This is the total love of God for us, that he gives us his whole Self – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – in the holy Eucharist. 

Lent, which comes from the Old English word for Spring, is thus a time for us to listen for God’s love song again; a time to allow the divine Lover to woo us and seduce us; a time to soak up God’s grace, which falls like gentle dew so that we will “blossom as the lily” (Hos 14:5) and “flourish as a garden” (Hos 14:7). Lent is thus an opportune season to revel and grow in God’s love, which is why the feast of the Annunciation fittingly (often) falls in our Lenten springtime, to remind us of this. Praying before the Eucharist, coming to Mass, meditating on the Incarnation: these are ways to contemplate that ours is a God who loves us with his whole heart, his soul, his mind and strength. 

Only when we know this can we love God in return. Only when we know God’s abiding love for us can we love ourselves. And only then can we love our neighbour too. It’s often said that the Lenten exercises of prayer, fasting and almgiving are about loving God, loving ourselves, and loving our neighbour. And this is true. But first of all – and we can never have enough of this – Lent invites us to pray and come here to Mass so that, as Hosea says, God can “heal [our] faithlessness [and] love [us] freely”. We are here to be loved. 

Do you know others who are not here, who long for love? Then call them to come: Come here to Christ in the Eucharist; come here to be loved. As Pope Francis says: “[M]ay this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to… the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ”. For this is how we can love our neighbour as ourselves: by bringing others here so that they can know and experience the love of Jesus Christ too.

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