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.
There can be so many things that trouble and disturb us: exams, job prospects, relationships; worries about the future and about what we’re called to do. Many people wonder about what is the right thing to do, and about their vocation in life. In a sense, Thomas articulates our fears when he asks: “How can we know the way?” How can we know the way forward in a world that seems increasingly complex and fraught with difficulties?
Jesus’ response, if we’re weighed down with worry, is to broaden our horizon so that we can put our worries into perspective. He says to us with tenderness: “Let not your hearts be troubled”. We worry because we’re losing control, or because we feel helpless and lost, or perhaps because we experience a lack of security. But God assures us: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”. For God is our Father, which means that he loves and cares for our final good today. So, he is always providentially guiding all things to a good end, bringing us home to himself today, so that we can dwell securely in him for ever. Thus Jesus says to us, his disciples, his friends: “I go and prepare a place for you [and] I will come again and will take you to myself”. So, when we’re shaken by life’s uncertainties, we’re called to anchor our hope in God’s Word, and to be certain of Christ’s promise. Hence, Jesus says to you and to me: “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me”.
But you might well think, our faith does not take away our needs for finance, food, friends. No, it doesn’t, and we do need to work together and attend to these things, but faith in Christ does alleviate our anxiety over these genuine human needs. For, with faith, our perspective changes so that the ups and downs of life, its many unexpected turns and plateaus can be seen in Truth as part of the journey that we make to the Father, going along the Way to God’s house where Jesus has prepared a room for us. Life’s journey, with its many trials as well as beauty, as such, is a preparation for our homecoming when we shall be united in love to our Father, our God who is love and Life in the fullest.
Hence, Pope Francis said this morning, the Lord is preparing our hearts “with trials, with consolations, with tribulations, with good things”; preparing us and forming us to love God, to trust and believe in him, and to seek him, “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Cor 1:3). This, of course, is how Jesus lived his life among us, with complete trust and obedience in God, enduring all things for the sake of love. Thus, he is “the Way, the Truth and the Life”; he shows us the way forward, he lived the truth as he taught it, and his life gives us hope and new life.
All this is expressed in the simple act of the Mass and especially through Holy Communion. For it is here that we remember how Christ lived and loved; here that we look in hope to the resurrection and eternal life; and here that Christ, our food for the journey, comes to us. And, as he promised, he comes to take us to himself, to dwell in him and he in us. So, here, today, Jesus is saying to us: “Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me”. Then, as we receive him in the Host, let us wholeheartedly say: “Amen”.
It sometimes appears that there are many reasons for one to be fearful. One only needs to read the newspapers, and one can feel the surge of fear, and perhaps, not a little anger, rising – the threat of nuclear aggression from North Korea; the fragile economy and the financial squeeze on millions of people because of welfare ‘reforms’; the terrifying attacks on Christian communities in Pakistan; the strange weather patterns we’ve been experiencing due to climate change. And on a personal level, we might fear for our own health or the well-being of someone we love; worry about unemployment and redundancy; fear for the future, our falling investments, our relationships, and what might happen. So many fears, all legitimate and genuine, can close in on us, locking us in so that we feel helpless, and our efforts futile. Like the disciples huddled together, our doors can be shut for fear of something or someone, and we’re barricaded within, fearful and confined.
But Jesus, too, carries the wounds of all our fears, of all that scourges and torments us. He has endured the terror of the Cross with us, and descended to the dark pit of death for us. And he is risen. Alleluia! And the risen Lord carries his battle scars on his glorified body for ever, as a sign that he is always united to us in our struggles and fears. And because he knows our sufferings and fears, our worries and weaknesses, he can enter through the shut doors and stand beside us. Jesus, having conquered death itself – Man’s greatest enemy and fear – can now transcend all the locked doors of our fears, and say to us – to you and me – “Peace be with you”.
However, the peace that the risen Lord Jesus gives does not secure immunity from life’s problems and pain, as such. Rather, Christ’s peace enables us to face the painful realities of our life, our fears and anxieties, with faith in his resurrection, with hope of finally conquering death and sin, and with secure confidence in God’s saving love. Christ’s peace reconciles sinful humanity to God, safely held in the embrace of God’s divine mercy, from which nothing can separate us. As St Paul says: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”. Nothing. So, because of Christ’s victorious resurrection, we need not fear. As we hear in our Second Reading: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Apoc 1:17b-18).
And yet, how is it that eight days later we find the disciples “again in the house” and again with the doors shut (cf Jn 20:26)? This time the doors are not shut for fear, but closed because of unbelief, shutting out faith. And without faith, there can be no peace. Indeed, as St Augustine says: “There is no love without hope, no hope without love, and neither hope nor love without faith”.
Hence, the risen Christ comes again, standing in the midst of our doubts and fears, entering the ‘Hades’ of our lives where God seems absent and distant, and faith is remote. Thomas, refusing to believe, is in such a situation. But, as we affirm in the Apostles Creed, Jesus “descended into hell”, into the abyss where God is absent, and he has broken the stranglehold of sin and of unbelief. He, the Living One, has the keys of Death and Hades. Thus, with great mercy, the risen Lord comes especially for Thomas, entering through the shut doors, and stands beside him. And again he says: “Peace be with you”. Christ, who is our peace, now offers his wounds to Thomas to touch. So, we see that God puts his faith in Man, entrusts himself to him, so that Man can put his faith in God and find peace. Paraphrasing St John, we could say: ‘we believe, because God has first believed in us’ (cf 1 Jn 4:19).
For this is what the interaction between the risen Lord and St Thomas shows. Christ offers him his forgiveness, his friendship, and his love by inviting him to touch his wounds. And it is this divine initiative that elicits St Thomas’ faith, so that he can say: “My Lord and my God”. Moreover, by placing his hand in Christ’s wounded side – wounds which speak so eloquently of God’s love for humanity – Thomas’ fears and doubts are cast out by this experience of, this contact with, God’s perfect love (cf 1 Jn 4:18b).
Each time we come to Mass, Jesus entrusts himself to us in the Eucharist. We’re invited to touch him, to handle him, to come into intimate contact with the Lord’s Body and Blood, and so, to have faith in him. This sacrament of the Eucharist, as such, is the sacrament of faith par excellence, inviting us to believe in Jesus Christ. And as we receive our Eucharistic Lord with faith, it is he who touches our wounds and fears so that we can be healed, loved, and find peace in God.
As Jesus entrusts himself to us in the Eucharist, he also invites us to entrust ourselves to him; to have no fear, and to go to him in the beautiful and intimate sacrament of Reconciliation. For these two sacraments – Eucharist and Confession – complement each other. It is principally there, in the sacrament of Reconciliation, that we receive God’s divine mercy; there, that Christ offers us again his forgiveness, friendship, and love; there, that the Holy Spirit is sent “among us for the forgiveness of sins” (Formula of Absolution). Through that sacrament of mercy, Christ takes on himself our fears, our sins, and our wounds, and in exchange, he gives us his peace and unites us to himself in love, through the grace of the Holy Spirit. So, as we heard in today’s Gospel, the Spirit is breathed upon the apostles; breathed upon Church so that, through the sacrament of Reconciliation, we may be healed and come to share in the peace, forgiveness, and new life of the Risen One.
So, let us open the doors of our hearts to Christ, let his perfect love transcend our fears, and let us say to him: “Jesus, my Lord and my God, I trust in you”.
Today’s Gospel raised fascinating theological questions for the Fathers of the Church and for medieval theologians concerning whether the risen Jesus really ate, i.e., digested and derived nutrition from the broiled fish. After all, Christ’s resurrected body does not really need nutrition since it is immortal, so why would he need to eat?
These are important and, to my mind, necessary theological questions but I would focus on what I think is most significant about today’s Resurrection appearance. Jesus is not just trying to convince his disciples that he’s not a ghost – he’s already asked them to touch him. Rather, he’s expressing something more profound by eating fish.
Firstly, let’s look at what the risen Lord eats. As true God, Life itself, Jesus doesn’t need to eat immortality-conferring ambrosia like the Greek and Roman false gods. So, he doesn’t eat any extraordinary heavenly food. Instead (and strikingly), as true Man, albeit raised from the dead and glorified, Jesus eats ordinary human food – fish – as a sign of his humanity. For it is not as though the risen Jesus is now just divine and no longer human, as some have been tempted to think. Rather, Jesus’ crucified humanity is for ever united in glory to his divinity. So, the Lord Jesus will always bear the marks of the Cross on his risen body, and he is for ever both divine and human. This is important because it is through Christ’s eternal union with our humanity that Man can forevermore share in his resurrection, and, so, come to share in his divine glory too.
Secondly, let’s look at what eating actually signifies. Human beings don’t just feed to derive nutrition and survive – we also dine. This means that we enjoy conviviality, and meals are socially symbolic events. As the anthropologist Margaret Visser says in her brilliant book, ‘The Rituals of Dinner’, “feasts the world over are given as celebrations of relationship among the diners”. And this, essentially, is what Christ is doing here. He’s eating, feasting, even, with his disciples. The element of festivity and feasting is evident precisely in that Jesus eats when he doesn’t need to, just as we might feast on chocolates and treats. This, as Josef Pieper says, points to “existential richness”. It hints at the existential richness of the risen life, and reminds us of the largesse of God when Jesus multiplied five loaves and two fish to feed the multitudes. In Luke’s Resurrection accounts, Jesus takes up both bread (at Emmaus) and fish again, to remind us that God’s goodness, plenty, and existential richness are realized eternally in the Resurrection.
Finally, as we recall the multiplication of fish and bread, we look to the Eucharist whereby God feeds his people, and enters into a covenant, a familial relationship of love, with you and me. Through this Eucharistic feast, God celebrates and renews his relationship with us, as true God and true Man who unites himself to us for ever in a bond of love. And in this feast we also celebrate the relationship among us, the diners, who are united as organs and cells of the one risen Body of Christ; a communion of saints who are destined to share in his eternal glory.
We, gathered here for the Eucharist, are witnesses to this promise. So, as the psalmist says: “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).
Redemption is allowing ourselves to be found by God. And he can only find us if we’re not hiding from him. Like the women who ran out of the tomb, we too, have to leave the cold dark tomb of doubt, of shame because of sin, of falsehood – all these entomb us and hide us from God. But when the women run out of the tomb, the risen Lord comes to meet them. With faith in our hearts and letting go of our false selves – the facades we build about our lives; letting go of our shame, and our rationalist restrictions, God can find us. God comes in search of us; the Living One comes to meet us.
But notice that although the women are filled with joy and believed the angel’s words, they are also fearful. Faith can be like this: we’re filled with joy, but the questions and fears do not cease. Each year at this time all manner of sceptical theories about the Resurrection of Christ are bandied about. And, as we heard in today’s Gospel, this is nothing new. From the beginning there were rumours that the Resurrection was a hoax, a concoction of the disciples of Jesus, and people still say such things. And perhaps we feel slightly swayed and uncertain ourselves when we’re questioned? We are full of Easter joy, we have faith, but we are a little afraid: what if it’s not true? What does faith in the resurrection demand of me?
Each of these claims against the truth of the Resurrection can be countered rationally and historically. However, what calms the women’s fear is an encounter with the risen Lord Jesus. He says to them: “Do not be afraid” and he says the same to us. This is a call to deepen our trust in him, to experience his divine mercy and forgiveness, to be transformed by his grace, and raised from death to new life, from doubt to faith. And we encounter Jesus – we meet him and he comes to us – in the Mass. Is it not here that we experience his boundless love and mercy? Hence, in the Gospel the women take hold of Jesus’ feet and worship him. We, too, are invited to not be afraid but to take hold of the Lord who gives himself to us in the Eucharist, and to worship him. Here, as we come to the Mass in faith and open our hearts and lives to God, we allow ourselves to be found. He, the Risen Lord, comes to us and finds us as we truly are – sins, fears, and all – and he loves us and redeems us.
Finally, a word about ‘Galilee’. This is the place of origin, of where the apostles had been called from their work and families. The risen Lord tells the women that he will meet the apostles there, which means that Christ comes to find us and meet us not only in the Mass but also in our daily lives as we get on with our work and our ordinary tasks. He is present there, too, in acts of mercy, in forgiveness for one another – relatives, colleagues, friends – and, above all, present in love. For all these works of God’s grace raise us from death to new life. They are a participation in the life of the resurrection. So, when the opportunity arises to love, to be merciful, or to forgive let us not be afraid, and take hold of the risen Lord.
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them…” (Luke 15:3) In response to the murmuring of his detractors, Jesus tells three parables of things lost and found: a sheep, a coin and two sons. Each ends with rejoicing and celebration when the lost is restored, and this is fully expressed in the parable of the lost sons where the father’s joy is shown through feasting, music and dancing.
As we have reached mid-Lent, rejoicing is indeed the keynote of Lætare Sunday: the Liturgy expresses this through the use of distinctive rose vestments and the resounding of the organ, and at the Eucharistic feast we too make music and celebrate. Why do we celebrate and rejoice? Because the Lord has chosen to feast with us sinners and indeed He feeds and restores us to new life with his own Body and Blood. Thus today’s psalm response invites us to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord”.
The Eucharist is the joy-filled celebration in which we experience God’s goodness. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis: “The sacrament of charity, the Holy Eucharist is the gift that Jesus Christ makes of himself, thus revealing to us God’s infinite love for every man and woman … Jesus continues, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, to love us ‘to the end,’ even to offering us his body and his blood” (§1).
In the light of this, we have a choice of either accepting Christ’s offer of love or rejecting it. The prodigal son, after he had repented of his ways and returned to his father, accepted his unconditional love. That is our Lenten and life’s journey in a nutshell: to recognize our sinfulness, to return to God, accepting His loving mercy and rejoicing with Him in the intimacy of the Eucharist.
But even so, some of us can be like the elder son, who observe the Father’s love daily yet do not truly see and taste God’s goodness; we hold ourselves aloof and independent of God’s embrace and take His Eucharistic gift for granted. The Eucharist is thus a challenge to us, for “Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved [by God] and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented” (Sacramentum Caritatis, §82). We may choose to stay outside.
Others may withdraw from the feasting because of unworthiness. While repentance is necessary, just as sorrow comes before joy and Lent before Easter, our fundamental unworthiness is not foremost. Rather, in the Eucharist, Jesus Himself chooses to welcome sinners and eat with us, and because we are unworthy, God takes the initiative. That is the way of love, the gift of the Eucharist, which George Herbert’s poem ‘Love bade me welcome’ expresses so well. This Lætare Sunday, what better cause for rejoicing have we than a realization of God’s love manifest in the Eucharist and the foretaste of eternal life that it offers?
We’re told as children to beware of strangers – not to accept gifts from them, or a ride home, or to associate with them. We’re taught from quite early on to fear strangers, and, by extension, to fear and thus avoid anything that’s ‘strange‘… like haggis! For many, this avoidance of strangers and the strange is a matter of self-preservation, and can be, ultimately, a matter of life and death.
But in the desert places of the Bible, hospitality to strangers was literally a matter of life and death, not for the host, but for the stranger. The stranger travelling through the arid Middle East simple needed access to water, food, and shelter to survive and continue his journey; he relied on another’s hospitality for life. And the host offers this hospitality as an act of trust, of good faith, and ultimately, of love. The example alluded to in our first reading is that of Abraham who offered hospitality to three strangers by the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18:1-8). Those three turned out to be angels; truly strange creatures, so different from our human ways. The author of Hebrews has already held up Abraham as a model of faith, and now, he alludes to him as a model of love.
For as St John says, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). So, it is love that overcomes our reasonable and conditioned fear of the stranger, to reach out in openness and trust, and offer shelter and help. It is love, then, that moved Abraham to offer hospitality, though not without caution. But love is always a risk, and there is always the chance of pain, rejection, and suffering.
Yet, God did not hesitate to take this risk of love. He came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, even though this meant suffering the violence of the Cross, and the hatred and refusal of many. His perfect love overcame his fear of these. So, God came to us as a stranger, so different from our human ways, because Christ was like us in all things except sin. But, whereas Abraham once offered hospitality to the three angels (who are traditionally seen as a symbol of God the Holy Trinity), now, through Jesus Christ, God offers hospitality to us. The tables have been turned. It is we, human beings, who have been estranged by sin; we are the strangers, so different from God and his way of love. But through the hospitality of Jesus Christ, God offers us hospitality at the table of the Eucharist to teach us his ways, to show us love. Here, God gives us shelter from sin, and food and drink for the journey. We’re given Christ’s own Body and Blood, so that we can survive and continue on our journey home to heaven. Such is the divine hospitality to us strangers that we receive again and again in the Eucharist, and this is, fundamentally, a matter of life and death. For because of God’s hospitality, because of the Eucharist, we can have eternal life.
So, today’s reading from Hebrews, and indeed, today’s Eucharist is a challenge to us. They call us to love better – to risk trusting another and putting faith in the other whom we may not yet understand or who is just so different from us. We’re called to “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels”. Because, it may be that when we take the risk to love, to be kind, helpful, and open to another, to the strange, that God has a message for us, something vital – of life and death, even – to teach us.
Those of us with scientific minds will want to inquire: how does water just instantly change into wine? Philosophers and sceptics among us might ask: did this miracle actually happen? We could debate at length over this – as many scholars and thinkers have – but, then, I’m neither a philosopher nor a scientist, so I shan’t! Besides, we’d be missing the Evangelist’s point. St John is a brilliant theologian, deeply familiar with the Old Testament, and his concern is to ask: what is God doing here? Unlike the scientist, the theologian searches for meaning and purpose in things and events; his question is why. And St John calls this incident at Cana “the first of [Jesus’] signs”, so we also need to ask: what does the sign point to?
Traditionally, the feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January celebrated in one feast three manifestations of God’s presence among Mankind: firstly, the wise men are led to the Christ Child in Bethlehem; secondly, Christ is baptised in the Jordan and God confirms that this is his beloved Son; and thirdly, Christ performs the first of his signs at Cana, changing water into wine. Nowadays these three epiphanies have been spaced out over three weeks, but each of them says something about God’s presence and activity in the world.
In the first case, God leads the wise men, representing all the nations of the world, to Christ; they follow a star to Bethlehem. This means that God shines the light of salvation on all humanity. It is no longer just the privileged people of Israel, but all people from all nations who are now invited to Bethlehem, to the place where the Lord feeds us with himself, the Bread of Life. Hence, the Church is catholic – all-embracing and universal – and all who accept her embrace are called the People of God. The Lord’s baptism then shows us, through Christ’s own example, how we accept the embrace of the Church and become members of Christ’s Body. Hence, through baptism, we are not just God’s People but become Sons and Daughters of God. We share in Christ’s life, and, so, we are caught up in the embrace of the Holy Trinity. But this isn’t close enough. Today’s epiphany at Cana takes us one step further, into an even deeper intimacy with God – the intimacy and union of marriage.
- preached in Blackfriars Oxford on 25 December 2010
At the beginning of Advent the prophet Isaiah spoke of “a feast of rich food and choice wines” on the day of the Lord. And so, it would seem, today that day of feasting has come! No doubt many of us are looking forward to our Christmas feast, to indulging in those rich foods that we have at this time of year. And maybe just a glass - or two - of wine perhaps! Thanks to your kindness and generosity, our Dominican community will also be able to celebrate in this way.
But of course, the prophet didn’t quite have our Christmas feast in mind. No… On the day of the Lord, what God provides is not roast turkey, Brussels sprouts, mince pies, and champagne… but something much richer and most indulgent… Bread and Wine. These simple, ordinary ingredients are at the heart of the Christmas feast that God longs to share with us. He is the Host, and we are now gathered around his holy table, so that he can feed us with his “life-giving bread” and “saving cup”. And so, today, our Christmas feasting has its source and summit here at this altar.
Today too, as our songs and carols recite, we recall how the shepherds and Magi made their way to the manger of Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. And the name of that little town of Bethlehem has been interpreted by St Thomas Aquinas and others to mean ‘House of Bread’. So, as we gather today for the Eucharist, we have come to Bethlehem, we have come here to the House of Bread. Because it is here that we will receive Jesus, who is the “living Bread who came down from heaven”. Like those wise men who followed the star to find the Christ Child in Bethlehem, we too have followed the light of faith to come here, where we shall find Jesus lying on the altar.
In Bethlehem in Judea, anyone looking in at the stable would have seen just a newborn baby cradled by his mother; a beautifully human, timeless, and perennial scene. Like any other newborn, the Christ Child was helpless, and utterly reliant on the love, warmth, attention, and care of others. But despite appearances, this was no ordinary Child. As one carol puts it, this “Offspring of a Virgin’s womb veiled in flesh the Godhead”. So, with the eyes of faith… Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men all saw that this needy baby was the Son of God; the one whom the angels worship. Today, in this Bethlehem, although we will look on what appears to be ordinary bread, we too know by faith that the Eucharistic Bread is the Bread of Angels. For beneath the veil of the consecrated bread and wine is the real and living Presence of Jesus himself; it is God’s Word made flesh and dwelling among us. And so, like the angels, shepherds, and Magi, we have come to Bethlehem to adore the Lord who is, so to speak, newly-born in the sacrament of the Eucharist. And the altar becomes the Lord’s manger; our feeding-trough, for from it we are fed with our heavenly food.
The Child at Bethlehem is a profound image of God’s love for us; he entrusts his Son to humanity, who humbles himself to become as vulnerable as a human baby. O great mystery! But the wonder of Christmas is excelled by the mystery of the Eucharist. Because Christ loves and trusts us so much that he humbles himself, and acting through his priest, he becomes utterly vulnerable; he becomes truly present as our real food, and real drink under the form of Bread and Wine. O marvellous sacrament! Through the Blessed Sacrament, Christ entrusts himself to us, and he is united to our flesh, to our humanity. In this way, Christ is eminently Emmanuel - God-with-us - because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… Not just in this church in the tabernacle, but in us, in the tabernacle of our very bodies.
This is a great and marvellous mystery indeed. But why is Jesus given to us in this way? St John says: “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God”. So, Jesus is born, and given to us in Holy Communion, so that we can be partakers of the divine life of God’s Son. As we sing in a popular carol, Christ was “born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth”! So, in the Christmas mystery, God is born as a human child so that we too might be born… re-born, as a divine child of God. O astonishing transaction!
However, St John adds that “from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace”. So, we’re not just given the grace of Christ’s Sonship, like some kind of Christmas gift that we hoard and possess for ourselves alone. No. We’re given grace upon grace… so that we can be possessed by God, transformed by grace to truly be children of God, acting with the “grace and truth” of Jesus himself. And so, as divine children, we’re given heavenly food. For the Eucharist is given to us as our Bread for the Journey of Life. It is food to nourish and strengthen our souls with grace, so that we grow in love as children of God, and mature in the Spirit of God. This Eucharistic feast is the “feast of rich food and choice wines” that we can indulge in - not just once a year, but every single day. Here, in this Bethlehem, every day is Christmas… with the all the anticipation, joy, and wonder that a child has on Christmas day. For we are, by grace, all God’s children.
But be warned. If we indulge in this sacred banquet, we might not gain weight, but we do lose ourselves… What I mean is that we do become what we eat. So, as we eat this Bread, we will gradually ourselves become like Bread, and our lives will become more Eucharistic, poured out for others. Transformed by God’s grace, we become like Bread that God takes, blesses, breaks, and gives to others. This is what is promised us today in God’s Christmas feast of Bread and Wine. So, every time we bring up the bread and wine during Mass, and whenever we receive the Body and Blood of Christ - saying ‘Amen’ - we place ourselves at risk of becoming like Jesus: Bread broken for others.
However it is precisely through this loving gift of ourselves to others that we, as it were, ‘unwrap’ the gift of grace given to us at Christmas, and put it to use. Through love, we become authentic proclaimers of the Good News, and signs to our broken world of God’s salvation and peace. Because the grace of Christmas is a divine gift… not just for today, but for life - eternal life.
“The end is nigh!” The apocalyptic preacher is sometimes caricatured as going around shouting this: “The end is nigh!”. And yet how does this make us feel? Alarmed? Scared? Worried? But why? If, instead, the apocalyptic preacher said: “You have reached your destination”, in a soothing Sat-Nave voice, would that help? Not really, I suspect, even though that is, essentially, what the apocalyptic preacher means to say. It seems to me that what makes the end of the world so frightening, though (leaving aside how it happens), is that it is the end of the world as we know it. So, what we fear, really, is the unknown. And whether we speak of the end of our earthly life in death, or the end of the entire world as we know it, there is a certain unknown about what follows the end, and, it seems to me, our fear stems from this.
Except, we Christians are not left completely in the dark about what happens after the end. On the contrary, what follows after death and the Apocalypse is light. As St John says, in the life to come, there is “no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Apoc 21:23). Or, as Jesus says today: “Heaven and earth may pass away, but my words will not pass away”. And Christ’s words are, as the psalmist says, “a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Ps 118:105). So, what follows after the end is light. And this light is a person, Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the World (cf Jn 8:12); it is He who is the Word of God who endures forever, who will not pass away. For Christ is the Resurrection and the Life (cf Jn 11:25).
Thus, Jesus promises us that after the distress and destruction of death and the end of the world, he is present to call us to himself, to raise us up, to give new life, and to enlighten our paths forward to the heavenly city where God gives us his light and glory. After death, then, is Jesus. And he is only an unknown to be feared if we have not, in this life, now, come to know and love him as our truest friend. But if we use our lifetime well, then we are led through the gateways of death to light, friendship with God, and eternal life in Him. So, as Shakespeare put it: Death is “a consummation devoutly to be wished”. For through death, through the end of all things, we have reached our destination. So, when one says “The end is nigh!”, one doesn’t just mean that things are finished, show’s over, but more significantly, that the goal of our human life is near, that the Lord is at hand. For Jesus is “the Alpha and the Omega… the beginning and the end” (cf Apoc 22:13).
If this is true on the cosmic and the individual human scale, then it is true of the little deaths and ends in our lives, and every moment in between: Jesus is forever Emmanuel, God-with-us. There is an uncertainty and distress that comes, sometimes, at graduation, or with unemployment, or with the end of a relationship. Every now and again, life as we know it ends; our world is shaken, and the future is frightening and unknown; these moments are never easy. But we can know one thing. In these moments, Jesus, our end, is “near, at the very gates”. If we trust him, and so, open our hearts and lives to him, Jesus comes alongside us in our transient troubles to lead us forward with his eternal Word as our light and hope.
The Samaritan leper was regarded by the Jewish people as doubly unclean, and so, he was twice excluded from Jewish society and from the Temple.
But the Samaritans regarded themselves as the faithful remnant, the true Israel descended from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, with priests from the line of Aaron and Levi. Seen from this perspective, Jesus’ ministry without discrimination among the Samaritans is a sign of the Messiah gathering the tribes of Israel back into unity, reconciling them in himself. The Samaritan recognizes this reconciling work of Christ, healing the division, exclusion and separation of God’s people, and he manifests this acknowledgement of who Jesus is, and of what he is doing, by thanking him. Thus he shows himself to be truly representative of the faithful remnant of Israel, having faith in Jesus as the Christ who is healing and making well God’s people, Israel.
But, seen from the Jewish perspective, Jesus’ ministry to the excluded foreigner is an extension of God’s mercy and healing to all peoples, to include all nations, all humanity. And this is where St Paul’s letter to Titus comes in. God, in his mercy, has seen the need of all humanity for his healing and saving grace. For because of sin, humanity was, like the Samaritan leper, doubly excluded. Firstly, on account of our human nature which limits us, so that we don’t naturally have access to heaven and eternal life. Secondly, on account of the leprosy of sin, an illness and suffering which further alienates us from God.
But because God is love, because he is merciful and good, he reaches out to profoundly heal us, even though we do not deserve it; God draws us to himself. So, in Jesus Christ, God comes to us and gives us “grace upon grace”. Because by his Cross, Jesus reconciles sinful humanity to the Father. And, then, through the gift of his Spirit, we are elevated beyond our limited human nature to a new life in Christ, so that we can, at last, share in the divine life of the Trinity. As St Paul puts it, we are “justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life”.
The way in which we receive these double graces of Christ is through baptism, which St Paul calls “the washing of regeneration and renewal”. And baptism, as the Catechism says, “is ‘the sacrament of faith’ (CCC 1236). So, faith, coming through baptism, has made us well. And just as the faith of the Samaritan leads him to thank the Lord, so, too, Baptism, the sacrament of faith, leads us to this Eucharist, to thanksgiving. Like the Samaritan, we acknowledge Jesus as our Saviour, and we recognize the graces he has given us in baptism. And so, with faith, we come and fall at his feet and thank him.
Father Leon Dehon, founder of the Priestly Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Congregatio Sacerdotorum a Sacro Corde Iesu) also known as the Dehonians, celebrating Holy Mass. According to former privilege granted to the missionaries in China,