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.

March 26, 2014

HOMILY for Wed in Week 3 of Lent

Deut 4:1. 5-9; Ps 147; Matt 5:17-19

The word law which comes from ‘lex’ in Latin is derived from ‘ligare’, meaning ‘to bind’. Hence, it is not surprising that laws are often regarded as constraining us. Laws seem to bind us and oblige us to do things we would not necessarily want to do otherwise. St Thomas thus notes that laws induce us to act or restrain us from acting. 

However, the Law of God, which Moses receives and hands on to Israel, is binding in another way. Its purpose is to bind God to his people, and them to their God. More specifically, through the Law, God reveals his wisdom and goodness to Man, so that by observing the Law, Man can partake in God’s wisdom and goodness. The gift of the Law to Israel, then, is a sign of a privileged closeness and intimacy between God and his people. Hence, Moses says: “What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us” (Deut 4:7). As such, the observance of the Law is a mark of belonging and being so near to the good and wise God. Through the living out of the Law, the people of Israel are being bound to God, united to his goodness and wisdom and life. 

But this binding of God to Man and of Man to God reaches its perfection in the person of Jesus Christ. As we recalled in yesterday’s great feast, the eternal Word, God himself, took human flesh in the womb of Mary. Thus, in the person of Jesus Christ the Law is fulfilled. For in him God and Man are inseparably bound together; in him is God’s goodness, wisdom, and life. But it is not enough, of course, for Jesus alone to fulfill the Law and thus be united to God. God’s desire, in coming so near to humanity, is for all peoples and not just the Jewish nation to be united to God, too. So, Mankind is no longer to be bound to God by the Law of Moses but by Jesus Christ. Through the Incarnation, God has bound himself to Man so that we, Mankind, can come near to God, and be united to him. And we do this by co-operating with the grace of Christ given to us so that we keep Jesus’ Law, the law of love. In this way we are bound more closely to God. As Jesus says: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23).

The Eucharist, of course, is the sacrament which signifies and strengthens this loving union with God. Hence we find that the text of Deuteronomy 4:7, which referred to the Law, was often used by the Church to refer to the Eucharist. “What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?”, whenever we call upon him in the Mass. For here is the sacramental presence of Christ who is the Law-made-flesh, as it were; here, God is bound to Man and Man to God in a holy communion. Thus, the Mass brings the Law to fulfillment in our lives. And this great sacrament will remain and not pass away “until all is accomplished” (Mt 5:18), that is, until we have been made holy by its grace, and are lovingly bound to God in the kingdom of heaven.

March 19, 2014

HOMILY for the Solemnity of Saint Joseph 

2 Samuel 7:4-5, 12-14, 16; Psalm 88; Romans 4:13, 16-18, 22; Matt 1:16, 18-21, 24 

Today’s great feast fittingly comes in the midst of Lent, not so much as a respite from its rigours, but as a call to enter even more profoundly into its essence. For as St Joseph and Our Lady went in search of the child Jesus, so, he helps us to seek Our Lord. And as St Joseph would lead Jesus and Mary into the Egyptian desert, so, he leads us more deeply into the desert of Lent. For St Joseph, who is silent throughout the Gospels, shows us by his example that faith invites a silent contemplation so that we can listen to God’s voice and meditate on the mystery of God made visible in Jesus. 

As Joseph Ratzinger, our Pope Emeritus, once said: “Let us allow ourselves to be ‘filled’ with St Joseph’s silence! In a world that is often too noisy, that encourages neither recollection nor listening to God’s voice, we are in such deep need of it”.

Silence can be something that we are initially uncomfortable with, and it can be filled with our many thoughts and worries and anxieties. St Joseph had his share of questions and troubles too, as he pondered Mary’s miraculous pregnancy; as his young family had to flee from Herod as refugees; as he frantically searched for his lost son in Jerusalem. But in all this turmoil he remains silent, strengthened by his steadfast faith in God’s goodness and Providence. Angels direct his actions, by which we can understand that in his silence he listened for God’s Word, and he acted upon it. So silence, which begins with difficulty, eventually takes us, as through a desert, to a place of communion where we can be close to God and be comfortable in his Presence. 

In the silence of deep prayer, which we’re invited into especially during Lent, we encounter Christ; silence gives rise to the eternal Word. This is who St Joseph contemplated in his silence. Tenderly holding the infant Jesus in his arms, as he’s often shown in art, Joseph pondered the wonder of God’s Love made flesh. This kind of silence, when we are with someone we love, is deeply communicative.  As Joseph Ratzinger observed, “It is often in silence that we observe the most authentic communication taking place between people who are in love: gestures, facial expressions, and body language are signs by which they reveal themselves to each other.” This is the kind of loving silence that St Joseph invites us to join him in, if we will stay and adore the Blessed Sacrament after this Mass. 

Finally, St Joseph’s silence, which is not empty but filled with love and faith, teaches us the only possible response, sometimes, when we’re confronted by the mystery of God. Ours is a world which craves words and explanations; comments, and opinions, and analysis. But, God is not a part of our world; he is its Creator, the Source of all being, and thus completely Other from all that is. So, as St Thomas Aquinas said, “This is what is ultimate in the human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know God.” So, St Joseph could only be silent before the great mystery and unknowability of God. As Joseph Pieper said concerning St Thomas, but which can also be said, I think, about St Joseph: “His tongue is stilled by the super-abundance of life in the mystery of God. He is silent, not because he has nothing further to say; he is silent because he has been allowed a glimpse into the expressible depths of that mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech…” Hence, Joseph Ratzinger said, “In speaking of God’s grandeur, our language will always prove inadequate and must make space for silent contemplation”.

So now I must fall silent too. Let us pray.

February 24, 2014

HOMILY for 7th Mon per annum (II)

James 3:13-18; Ps 18; Mark 9:14-29

"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).

February 5, 2014

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HOMILY for 4th Wed per annum (II)

2 Samuel 24:2. 9-17; Ps 31; Mk 6:1-6

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? 

No.

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”.

February 2, 2014

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HOMILY for the Presentation of the Lord

Malachi 3:1-4, Ps 23; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40 

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. 

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January 23, 2014

HOMILY for 2nd Thu per annum (II)

1 Sam 18:6-9; 19:1-7; Ps 55; Mk 3:7-12

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”.

January 19, 2014

HOMILY for the 2nd Sunday (A)

Isa 49:3. 5-6; Ps 39; 1 Cor 1:1-3; John 1:29-34

“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).

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