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.
"O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you?" Jesus asks. It’s quite surprising to hear Jesus speak like this, with such exasperation. And then he adds: "How long am I to bear with you?" (Mk 9:19).
How long? The response I think of is the one which two despondent and confused disciples give Jesus at the end of a long walk to Emmaus on Easter Sunday. In St Luke’s Gospel, the risen Lord is just as exasperated with his disciples; he calls them “foolish men, and slow of heart to believe” (Lk 24:25). And yet when these two respond and say: “Stay with us [Lord] for it is toward evening”, he does (cf Lk 24:29).
Because we are slow to believe, and have so little faith, we need him to stay with us. For it is evening and the light of faith is dim. And so, we need him to stay with us. And because Jesus loves us, because he knows our need, he does; he stays. He stays with us – he is here with us – in the Eucharist. And the Eucharist is called the mysterium fidei, the mystery of faith, because we need faith to recognize that here, in the Most Blessed Sacrament, our request has been granted, that our prayer has been heard: Jesus, our God, is here with us.
But do we really know this? Do we truly believe that Jesus is here, waiting for us in the tabernacle, waiting for us, this faithless generation, to come to believe, and so, to come and adore him? As St Josemaria Escriva said: “When you approach the tabernacle remember that he has been waiting for you for twenty centuries.” I think, in honesty, the only response we can give is that of the man in today’s Gospel. He says: Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24).
Hence, when we approach the Eucharist, we ask Our Lord to help our unbelief, to give us still more faith so that we can believe that he is truly present here – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – and so we kneel, bow, and adore this sacrament. Indeed, we approach him in this sacrament with “prayer and fasting” (Mk 9:29). For as Jesus tells his disciples this casts out certain spirits. As we pray to the Lord in the Eucharist, speaking to him who stays with us here, we cast out the spirits of doubt and unbelief. Jesus is here! And as we fast before we approach the Eucharist, preparing ourselves to receive him in Holy Communion, we cast out the spirits of irreverence and casualness before so great a mystery. Our God is here! This is the Mystery of Faith, that Our Lord is here at our request: “stay with us, Lord; help our unbelief”. And so he does. Jesus stays with us, under the appearances of bread and wine, waiting here in our tabernacles.
Thus, through this Sacrament of his Body and Blood, Jesus teaches us to trust his Word, to have faith in him, to believe. He says to us, as he did to St Thomas the apostle: “Put your finger here… and put out your hand…; do not be faithless, but believing” (Jn 20:27). Then, let us come let us adore this great sacrament, and respond as St Thomas did: “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28).
You’re probably familiar with the phrase “count your blessings”. So, why was David punished for apparently doing this? How had he sinned? In fact, what David did was not to count his blessings, as such, but to count what he believed was his. He thought he’d conquered and owned Israel and all within it, and it was his right to make a census of the resources available to him. And it was certainly an impressive number.
But Israel belongs to God, and so does all in it. Indeed, as the psalm says: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps 24:1). For all being owes its existence to God, so that life itself and everything we have is a gift, a blessing, something we receive from Another.
David’s grave sin, then, was to disregard this and to think that he owed God nothing; he’d earned it all himself. And the temptation to think this, and that we’re therefore independent of God, is always present. The money we have, the things we buy, the achievements we attain, the lives we’ve built – there is the danger of thinking that all this is simply my own, that these are somehow rightly due, or owed, to me and my efforts alone. Then God’s blessings become my entitlements, my property, my rights. As a consequence, life itself is owed to me, taken for granted, and indeed, totally subject to my control. Even grace and salvation can become things that God must give me, that he owes me. Thus many people are so indignant about the notion of hell, as though God owed us heaven no matter what we freely choose to do with our lives. Or people claim it is unfair to be held eternally accountable for our unrepented sins. But something can only be unfair or unjust if what is owed us is not given to us. But does God owe us life? Do we have a right to his mercy and forgiveness? Must he save us and give us eternal life?
God does not owe us anything at all. Not even existence, let alone salvation and eternal life. As God said to St Catherine of Siena: “Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you will have beatitude within your grasp. You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS”.
Beatitude, then, is seeing that despite our nothingness God does give us being. Despite our sinfulness, he is merciful to us. Although we do not deserve it, God does desire to save us and give us a share in his divine life. And he does all this not because he owes them to us. Rather, he owes it to himself, who is Love, to be gracious and merciful to us; to come and heal and save us. So, it is for the sake of his Son, Jesus Christ, and by his merits, that God redeems us and gives us eternal life. Hence, St John says that “from [Christ’s] fulness have we all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16). So, when we truly count our blessings, we realize that everything we have, beginning with life itself, is a gift, a blessing, a grace – undeserved and unearned.
How, then, can we respond? The psalmist says: “What shall I render to the Lord for all that he has given to me? I will lift up the Chalice of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps 116:12f). In the Dominican rite, these words are said just before the Offertory of the Mass because the Eucharist is the only adequate response to all we owe God. But God is so generous with us that even the Mass is his Gift. For it is through Christ’s grace that we can be here; that we are united to Christ in baptism so that, together with the Son, we can offer our whole being to the Father in love, in obedience, and in worship. So, “let us give thanks to the Lord our God” for “it is right and just”.
The opening chapters of St Luke’s Gospel are like a musical, where at high points great liturgical songs are sung by chorus and solo voices. Today we hear the Canticle of Simeon, the Nunc dimittis, which is the last of this cycle of songs. It began in the final days of Advent with the Song of Zechariah, the Benedictus, and culminated with the song of the angels, the Gloria on Christmas night. And today, we hear the last of these songs, thus bringing to a close the Advent and Christmas scenes of the first Act, as it were, of St Luke’s Gospel.
As in a musical, people break forth spontaneously into song when the atmosphere is heightened. So, too, in Luke’s Gospel singing is occasioned by the meeting of heaven and earth, when the presence of God acting in salvation history is made especially manifest. The composer and conductor of each musical outburst is none other than the Holy Spirit, who in each occasion – except in the case of Mary, for she is already full of grace – fills Zechariah and Simeon. So, St Luke says that “inspired by the Spirit [Simeon] came into the Temple… blessed God and said” (Lk 2:27f) the Nunc dimittis.
In each of these incidents where a canticle is sung, the Old and New Testament worlds meet. For St Luke is showing us that God’s promises to his chosen people, Israel – the promises we recalled in Advent – were being fulfilled in the coming of God’s Son, Jesus. He is the Messiah, the longed-for redeemer and leader of Israel. Of note is St Luke’s warmth toward the Jewish laws, customs and people. His portrayal of Simeon makes clear that he was a God-fearing and pious Jew, who was filled with the Holy Spirit. And this same Spirit who acted in the salvation history of Israel, continues to work in the salvation history of the nascent Church. Thus, in the Acts of the Apostles, which is St Luke’s sequel to his Gospel, the Holy Spirit is the main protagonist of the on-going drama of salvation. Therefore, although Luke himself does not write it, he expresses in his Gospel what St John records the Lord as saying: “Salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4:22). Thus, the Messiah comes from the Jewish people, and so, as Simeon says, Jesus is “a light… for glory to [God’s] people Israel” (Lk 2:32b).
But there is a development in the understanding of the role of this infant Messiah if we compare the songs of Zechariah and Simeon. As Zechariah’s song speaks exclusively of the redemption of Israel, and the salvation of the House of David (see Lk 1:68-29). Simeon, on the other hand, is believed to have proclaimed his prophetic song in the Court of the Gentiles, in an area where non-Jews were also present. Thus he reveals that God has prepared his salvation for “all peoples”, and that the Christ is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”.
For the Messiah does not come to deliver just the Jews, but to deliver all humankind. Because, as we celebrated at Christmas, through Christ’s incarnation, God has become Man in order to save humanity. But Jesus doesn’t do this in abstraction. He does so in a particular context and culture, among a chosen people, namely Israel. But it is precisely because Jesus saves all people that Simeon can also say that Jesus is the “glory” of Israel. Because in his very person Jesus perfects the mission first entrusted to the Jewish people, which is to be a sign of God’s presence and saving mercy in the universe; to be a “light to the nations” (Isa 42:6).
A reminder of this universal mission of the Jews was the menorah which burnt in the Temple, and whose eternal lamp was kept constantly alight. So when Christ comes to the Temple, Simeon’s canticle speaks of light and glory; it is reminiscent of the psalms sung as the six lamps of the menorah were kindled in the Temple every evening, perhaps, or of the singing during Sukkoth, the annual Jewish festival of light. For, as Christ enters the Temple, here is the light of the world being kindled in the Temple. He is the physical embodiment of what the menorah symbolized, and of Israel’s mission to the world: the true Light that enlightens all nations.
St Mark clearly wants us to understand that very many people came to Jesus and from all directions, from almost every region surrounding Galilee, and even from great cities outside Israel in Syria. Twice Mark says that a “great multitude” (Mk 3:7f) came to Jesus and trailed after him. So, one gets a sense that Jesus is quite the centre of attention, and he has to keep a boat ready so he can escape to the sea! But one also gets a sense that people are not just curious but desperate. The evangelist says that “all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him” (Mk 3:10); they long for healing. So, there is no preaching as such, or at least, no words are said by the divine Word. Rather, he speaks through his healing touch which tell a sermon of God’s indiscriminate love.
It seems that this busy but wordless scenario sets the scene for what happens next in Mark’s Gospel: Jesus appoints the Twelve, that is, he forms the Church, and he sends them out as apostles. But interestingly, it is they who are sent to preach. Christ’s Church is to speak of the One they have witnessed and lived with, and so, attract the multitudes from all corners of the world to him, the Living Word whose healing touch mediates God’s love and mercy.
So it is that many who come to the Church today by the preaching of Christ’s ministers are touched by Jesus in the sacraments. Here, beneath sacramental signs, the Word of God remains wordless but he is powerfully present and active. The sacred actions of the Liturgy and the Church’s sacraments, her symbols and signs, preach a sermon too, if we are attentive to them. For the Liturgy and sacraments are Christ’s action – not ours. If we are attentive to them, and allow them to speak for themselves, they not only heal us by conferring grace but they preach God’s Word of love, of mercy, of beauty.
But there is something else that is rather striking about this passage from Mark’s Gospel – a certain dramatic irony. Although very many people come to Christ, and a good many are healed, none of them acknowledge who he is. Or at least, no one is said to acclaim him as “Son of God” or to fall down before him in fear or worship. Rather, they just press in on him, even to the point of backing him up against the sea. They make their demands, and then seem to go away when satisfied. We do not hear anything of thanks, or of discipleship as such. In contrast, it is the “unclean spirits” who, ironically, recognize Jesus to be God’s Son, and they fall down before him in fear.
Let it not be so for us who come to Christ and demand and receive so much from him, even his own Body and Blood. As we go to him, here in the Eucharist especially, let us do so with full awareness that the Eucharist we receive is truly “the Son of God”. And therefore, let us fall down before him – but not in fear, as the demons do, nor in servitude. Rather, we kneel and adore the Eucharist in humility, in gratitude, and above all, because we love him. We love him because he has first loved us, humbling himself to take flesh, and be present for us in the Blessed Sacrament. Hence St Augustine said: “No one eats that flesh, without first adoring it… for we sin if we do not adore”.
“Behold, the Lamb of God…” These are such familiar words to us. But, perhaps a better translation would be “Behold, the Kid of God”! Because what St John the Baptist actually called Jesus – in Aramaic, we expect – was talya de ‘laha. And the word talya in Hebrew has a double meaning. It means both ‘boy’ or ‘servant’, and also ‘lamb’ – our word ‘kid’ comes closest, I think, to conveying this.
And this might explain why our First Reading is coupled with today’s Gospel. For the servant whom God is speaking to has now come, as promised. John thus points to Jesus, declaring him to be God’s servant. Last week we recalled how the Father’s voice from heaven had said: “This is my beloved Son”. Or indeed, if we keep the word talya in mind, perhaps the voice said: “This is my beloved boy”. So, the Father declares Jesus to be his talya, his Boy, a rather intimate term. Then, as soon as the Baptizer sees Jesus, he declares that here is God’s talya, his Servant, a term rich in prophetic resonance, reminding us of Isaiah’s prophecies of the Christ who would come to do God’s work of calling God’s beloved people back to him.
However the evangelist, St John, chooses a theologically rich meaning to the word talya, so that Jesus is not just God’s boy or servant, but also the Lamb of God. Thus in the original Greek of John’s Gospel, Jesus is the amnos tou Theou, and the word amnos, which refers to a sheep under one year old, only occurs four times in the New Testament. If we look in the Septuagint, which is the revered Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word is used in Exodus to refer to the lambs offered in sacrifice to God in the Temple. Hence, St John is telling us that Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb of God. More specifically, it is by being the sacrificial lamb, by the complete offering of his life in love, that Jesus carries out the work given to him. Thus, Jesus is tayla de ‘laha in every sense: both boy-servant and lamb.
But it is not just Israel that is being brought back to God but the whole world. Isaiah says: “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6). Notice that even this language is sacrificial since the light burns by consuming oil in the lamp; a candle gives light only by sacrificing itself and being consumed by the fire. Hence St John says that Jesus is the Lamb of God who “takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). Thus we are reminded of the universal mission given to God’s servant in Isaiah, and also of the sacrificial aspect of that mission, whether as the light-giving lamp or sacrificial lamb given for all peoples.
This idea that Christ has come for all is one that the Liturgy has lingered over for a few weeks now. It was made manifest at Epiphany when the Magi, representing the nations of the world, came to the infant Christ. Then, last week we saw how Christ, by descending into the waters of baptism, identifies with and extends his salvation to all of sinful humanity, even those cast out of communities. And today, Christ’s universal mission is being re-iterated. But what is being made more explicit is how Jesus will bring salvation to Mankind. We had a hint of this on the feast of our Lord’s Baptism. It is through baptism, to which all are invited, that we shall be saved. More precisely, we are saved by what baptism symbolizes. As St Paul says: “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (Rom 6:3). So, Christ’s descent into the waters prefigures his descent into death, because it is by Jesus’ death that we are saved.
Here, then, is the full meaning of Jesus being called the Lamb of God. For it is through his sacrificial death that Christ takes away the sin of the whole world. His death on the Cross destroys our death, the death of Adam’s sin. And thus, having overcome sin and death, Jesus makes it possible for us to be with God, walking with him in friendship as Adam once did in Eden. Hence St Paul goes on to say in his letter to the Romans: “We were buried therefore with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).
Thus, Jesus has done the work given to him by the Father. In the words of Isaiah, he has brought Jacob back to God, and raised up the tribes of Jacob (cf Isa 49:5-6), and, of course, this applies to not just Jacob but all God’s children. So, by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, not just Israel but all humanity, has been restored to friendship with God; the Servant’s mission is accomplished.
Now, the goal of the servant’s work is key if we’re to understand what sacrifice is about. For sacrifice is not principally about the killing of something, or placating a bloodthirsty God. Rather, St Augustine says that “a true sacrifice is every work that is done in order that we may cling to God in holy communion, that is to say, [every work] that has a reference to that goal of the good, through which we may be truly blessed”.
As such, sacrifice is ordered to renewed fellowship; reconciliation and union with God. This is the goal of the servant in Isaiah. So, the work that Jesus does to accomplish this is a “true sacrifice” not because he has to die but because of the goal of that sacrificial work, namely, that Man may cling to God in holy communion and, so, be truly blessed. The fact that Jesus accepted the Passion and died a Victim of humanity’s sinful inhumanity serves, at the very least, to show just how far he would go to bring about Mankind’s greatest good: blessedness. Christ’s death on the Cross shows the extent and quality of his divine love. So great was God’s love for Mankind that he became Man, and then even freely offered his life so that Mankind’s rebellion and violence might be broken, and we might be reconciled. Thus, Jesus said: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). For this love is stronger than death, and restores Man to friendship with God.
The result of Christ saving work is that we, women and men, can do this: celebrate the Mass. We come together as God’s friends and in fellowship with one another to eat and drink at this sacred banquet. St Thomas observes that sacrifices often end with a meal because it is a sign that the goal of the sacrifice has been accomplished: friendship is restored. Thus, the Eucharist is both a sacrifice and a meal, for in the Mass we behold Christ, the Lamb of God whose sacrifice, made present in the Mass, makes possible our holy communion with God and one another. Here, Christ, the talya de ‘laha accomplishes his work and raises us to new life with our Father. So here in the Mass we are, as St Paul put it, “called to be saints together with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:2).
St Mark’s Gospel has opened with a very full day’s work for the Lord. Right after calling his first disciples, he enters a synagogue and teaches, and then he casts out demons, and “immediately” after, he heals Simon’s mother-in-law. All this has happened in one day, it seems, and at last we’ve come to the evening and still “the whole city” comes, and Jesus heals many and casts out demons from many. But after all this activity, Mark lets us into a precious glimpse of Jesus’ life.
“And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed” (Mk 1:35). For prayer grounds all the work that Jesus does; it’s not a luxury but a necessity. We see this, too, in the lives of the saints. For example, one of today’s saints, Francis de Capillas, who was a Dominican missionary to China and the first martyr of China, was well-known for being tireless in preaching the Gospel and for his many apostolic works. But even when he was imprisoned before his execution in 1648, he spoke of the necessity of prayer to ground the preaching he did in prison. He said: “I am here with other prisoners and we have developed a fellowship. They ask me about the Gospel of the Lord… They do not let me stay up at night to pray, so I pray in bed before dawn. I live here in great joy without any worry, knowing that I am here because of Jesus Christ”.
This testimony is striking because it reminds us of Christ himself who was kept up the whole evening ministering to the “whole city” who’d come to him. So, he had to rise hours before dawn and find solitude to be with the Father in prayer. And these details from St Mark suggest that silence is vital for prayer. Likewise, the Lord spoke to Samuel in the silence, many hours before dawn. For it is only in the silence that one can hear and listen.
For anyone who wishes to do God’s work and to serve him needs to listen; to do as Samuel says: “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears” (1 Sam 3:10). Very often when we come before God in prayer, our mind is busy with distractions and worries, or we may have so much we want to tell the Lord. And so, we should bring these concerns to God. However, it is vital, too, to quieten our hearts and minds so as to listen, and to allow for an intimate solitude with God in which he can speak. Thus Pope Francis said in Evangelii Gaudium that “Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur” (§171).
As with any relationship, learning to listen to the other takes time and patience. Do we make that time for God, for prayer? And what the Holy Father has in mind is listening to God through a meditative, prayerful reading of the Scriptures. In particular, he points to the Liturgy. He says: “God’s word, listened to and celebrated, above all in the Eucharist, nourishes and inwardly strengthens Christians, enabling them to offer an authentic witness to the Gospel in daily life” (§174).
So, this year, let us make an effort to make time to be with God in silence, and to be patient with him and with ourselves, too, as we pray and listen for his voice. Let us come away from the busy activities of each day, or at the end of our work to listen to God’s Word in the Mass; to find an intimate solitude with our Father, and to spend time with our Lord present in the Eucharist. Here Jesus is present to love us, to heal us, and to silence all that disturbs us. Let us come before him, then, and say: “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears”.
The Prologue of St John’s Gospel was read in the Mass of Christmas day, and today, less than a week later, it is repeated again. And yet, before the reform of the Liturgy, this Gospel was read at the end of every single Mass as a kind of repeated meditation on the sacred action that had preceded it. For in the Mass, do we not behold the glory of God’s Word becoming flesh? Does he not dwell among us, indeed in us, as in living tabernacles? And so, do we not receive from him, from the holy Eucharist, “grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16)?
But just as this was the ‘Last Gospel’ read at the end of every Mass to shed its light on what went before, so it seems fitting that it is read as the last Gospel today at the end of the calendar year. For it makes the whole year like a sacred action; our human dramas unfolding providentially within the economy of salvation. The entire past year thus becomes like a Mass in which all our sorrows and joys are being brought before God to be transformed by his grace.
For 2013 has been a most momentous year. The year of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, of the deaths of leaders like Mandela and Thatcher, and of on-going and, indeed, the intensification of severe persecution against Christians globally, particularly in Syria, Egypt and the Middle East. There have been natural disasters in Pakistan, the USA, China, India, Mexico, and most devastatingly in the Philippines. And there is every sign of rising violence in various African states. But “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5).
This is the light of truth, of the knowledge of faith that enlightens Christ’s anointed ones, as St John suggests in his letter (cf 1 Jn 2:20f). For what we have received from God is this grace: the knowledge and truth that God is with us. It is this faith in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh that is the source of our hope and gives us true joy, even when we are confronted by those things and events which are opposed to Christ – “anti-Christ”, as St John put it. So, Benedict XVI said in his last General Audience in Rome: “In our heart, in the heart of each of you, let there be always the joyous certainty that the Lord is near, that He does not abandon us, that He is near to us and that He surrounds us with His love”.
And how do we know that he, the Word made flesh, is near? Because of the Eucharist. He is here present in our churches, lying on our Altar, and placed in our mouths. God is so near that, through Holy Communion, he unites himself to us and so surrounds us in his love, and takes us up into the life of the Holy Trinity, which is a perfect communion of holy love. For “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). It is here in the Mass, then, that we know that God is with us; here that we are enlightened by the Word of God; and here that we remember God’s abiding presence and love for us.
What comes from the Mass, from this remembering, is the desire to become like St John the Baptist and to “bear witness to the light” (Jn 1:8). As Pope Francis said: “The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance: it is a grace which we constantly need to implore”. So, as we stand on the cusp of 2014, we implore this grace from God. We pray for a truly happy new year, full of the Joy of the Gospel, and may we bring the Light of Faith to all whom we meet.
We saw on Saturday how the story of God and Man is essentially a love song, in which God comes in search of his Beloved, wooing humanity with passionate words, and finally with the eternal Word himself who is God’s love for Man made incarnate and visible. But the image of God as the Lover of humanity, the Bridegroom of the soul, is matched by another Scriptural image today: that of the covenant.
For Malachi prophesies in the name of God, the Lord of hosts, that “the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight… is coming” (Mal 3:1). In other translations, the Greek form for messenger is used, so the “angel of the covenant” is coming. And the messenger, this angel, is understood to be Jesus Christ who bears in his own person and body the message of God’s covenant with humanity.
From the days of Adam, God has desired kinship with Man, and so he entered into a covenant with him. It would be a mistake to think of a covenant as a contract. For contracts exchange goods and property but covenants exchange persons; they establish a family bond. So, God becomes Father to Adam, and then, to Abraham and his descendants, and then, to Moses, and latterly to David and his house – as we have been recalling this past week. In each case, the covenant is renewed, and God promises that Israel will be his people and he will be their God (cf Eze 36:28). So, there is this exchange of persons, and the creation of kinship between God and the descendants of Israel.
But in Christ, the Second Adam, who is both God and Man, that kinship is perfected because it now encompasses not just one people but all of humankind for all time. So, because of Christ, all peoples can enter into a “new and eternal covenant” with God, and truly become members of God’s family. But there is an exchange of persons in a covenant, so it is not just that God receives our humanity through Christ, but also that we receive his divinity. And this is given to us in the Eucharist. Hence, Jesus says: “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant” (cf Lk 22:20), for the Eucharist creates and renews our covenant with God, and we are made “one body, one spirit in Christ”. Through the grace of Christ, the Son, we have become truly God’s kin, indeed, his adopted sons and daughters.
Our kinship with God comes entirely through grace; it is God’s initiative and gift. It is not a birthright, not something passed on by blood or family lineage, but received through faith, which is God’s gift, and given through God’s grace. Today’s Gospel alludes to this. For the neighbours and kinsfolk have gathered for the naming of the baby, and when they hear that he’s to be called ‘John’, they say: “None of your kindred are called by this name” (Lk 1:61). They want something traditional, something handed down. But the fact that a new name is given stresses that something new is taking place, and it is God’s gracious initiative. The miraculous conception of the child already told us this, but the name that the baby is given underlines this fact. For the name ‘John’ means, “God has been gracious”. So, the naming of John stresses God’s initiative, God’s grace and gift, and Zechariah and Elizabeth’s faith in what God accomplishes by his grace. They no longer rely on earthly familial or tribal bonds to maintain a covenantal relationship with God but on his grace, which comes to all peoples through the messenger of the covenant, Jesus Christ.
It is this extension of God’s covenant with Man to all nations, to you and me, that we will celebrate tomorrow night. The saintly Benedictine abbot Ansgar Vonier wrote that “covenant is an alliance between God and man; it is a peace concluded between divine Justice and the sinner; it is a friendship between the Creator and His creature”. And it is this alliance, this peace, this friendship with God that Jesus accomplished for all Mankind when he was born as one of us; when God became one with us.
God has come to feed his people. And there is more than enough to go around. Indeed, there are seven baskets left over. Seven is the Biblical number of completion and perfection, so we’re to see in this a sign that God satisfies our current needs, and still has enough to satisfy the deepest hungers of the human heart completely, perfectly.
And our deepest hungers are not for food and drink, although these are primary human bodily needs that must be met. But once our physical hunger is sated, even when we have had the finest of meals and the rarest of wines, something is still lacking. For human beings do not just feed; we dine. And so, even as we eat, we long for companionship, communion, fellowship; we long for love. The miracle in today’s Gospel and the seven baskets left over thus point to a feeding that goes beyond our natural physical hunger. For we long for something that transcends our human nature, something that only God who is Love can satisfy. Advent reminds of this, and stirs up our fundamental human desire for God.
And here in the Eucharist that desire is, to some extent, being met. For here Jesus comes to feed his people by giving us his love. Here, the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled. For do we not come up to the Altar, the high place, the mountain where God makes for us “a feast of fat things, a feast of wine”? From this mountain, this Altar, the wine of the Eucharist intoxicates us with God’s love and fills us with joy. And the Eucharist is a “fat thing” because it fills us with God’s grace. For we have become emaciated by sin. We are malnourished, having fed on the addictive junk food of worldly pleasures which seemed to satisfy us but never really do. We are starved of love. So, the Eucharist feeds and strengthens us with Christ’s own life; it fattens us up with divine grace, and it fills us with God’s love. Hence, we need it and we pray: “Give us this day our daily bread”.
But although the Eucharist feeds us in body and soul, it is still just a foretaste of heaven, a pledge of future glory; there is something more to come. So, looking at the Eucharist, we say with Isaiah: “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us”. For it is through the Eucharist that Christ comes to save us with his grace. The Eucharist thus sustains the life of grace within us, if we are well-disposed to it, so that we can come at last to the blessedness of eternal life; it is food to sustain us on Life’s journey. This is the central idea in today’s Collect. But the Eucharist also stirs up our desire for our final destination, namely heaven. For it is only when we see God face to face in heaven that the deepest hungers of the human heart shall be perfectly and completely satisfied.
So, the Eucharist is a kind of Advent experience in which Christ does come but in his coming to us in this sacramental way, he whets our appetite for the eternal banquet of heaven when we shall have perfect communion with the Holy Trinity. For only then, on seeing God as he really is, can the saints say at last with Isaiah: “This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation”.
The words of the centurion are significantly placed in the Mass just before we receive Holy Communion. When we hear them in the wider context of today’s Gospel we see just how apt they are. The centurion says Christ need not come personally to heal his servant; just his word will effect the miracle. This is the substance of his faith which caused Jesus to marvel.
This same faith is evident when we approach the Eucharist and repeat the centurion’s words. For we also believe that Jesus need not come personally to heal us, his servants. Rather, he comes to us sacramentally albeit really and entirely through the Eucharist. And, like the centurion, we believe that this happens at Jesus’ word. Thus St Thomas says, “The presence of Christ’s true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority”. Hence, we see that the centurion also appeals to the authority of one’s command to effect an action. Thus we believe that Christ’s Word – the words of institution by which the Eucharist is consecrated – carries a divine authority which effects a divine action, namely, Christ being present under appearances of bread and wine. So, when we repeat the centurion’s words before Holy Communion, we are making the same act of faith as him.
In the Gospel, Jesus then says “not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Mt 8:10b), and he makes a reference to Gentile peoples coming from all over to sit with the Jewish patriarchs at the table of the kingdom of heaven. As such, this is a reference to the Eucharist, which is a sign of the heavenly banquet. So, when we come up for Holy Communion, we are enacting this scene from the Gospel and fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy. For with faith, we have believed that Jesus’ word has authority and that they make him present; with faith, we approach the Eucharistic table, and share in the communion of the prophets, patriarchs and saints.
And what we believe the Eucharist effects in our souls is healing: “only say the word, and my soul shall be healed”. Whereas the centurion asks for healing for his servant’s physical ailments, we ask for spiritual healing for ourselves. And again, with faith, we know that this is what a worthy reception of Holy Communion effects in us since it is Christ the divine Physician who comes to us, and heals us. The Catechism (following St Thomas) thus teaches that “by giving himself to us Christ revives our love and enables us to break from disordered attachments to creatures and root ourselves in him” (CCC §1394). So, through Holy Communion, we are forgiven and healed of our venial sins, and we grow in love for God. Hence, in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis said: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (Evangelii Gaudium, §47).