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.
Pentecost is often called the birthday of the Church, and so, we tend to think of it as commemorating something new, as marking a beginning, a birth. But in fact, if we consider what the Jewish feast of Pentecost, also called the feast of the First Fruits, was about, we can look at it differently. Pentecost was the the completion of a seven-week long celebration begun just after the Passover, and it marked the harvest season, when the first fruits of a new harvest were offered to God in thanksgiving. As such, Pentecost was a day of expectation and a culmination; it marks the kind of ending that harvesting implies rather than the beginning that is implied in sowing.
Hence the great signs of Pentecost when the Spirit descends on the Church are also evocative of harvesting: wind, as from a winnowing fan to separate the wheat from the chaff (cf Mt 3:12), and fire, as in traditional harvesting methods to bring fertility and new life to the harvested land. So, at Pentecost, God the Holy Spirit comes as the harvester and he comes to “renew the face of the earth” (Ps 103:30).
But this Pentecostal harvesting is the culmination of what began fifty days earlier on Easter Sunday. For the risen Christ is, as St Paul says, the “first fruits” of a new creation (cf 1 Cor 15:20). And it is he, as first fruits, who was offered to the Father, being taken up into heaven at his Ascension. And now, on the fiftieth day, the climax of the Paschal celebrations, the Spirit comes to harvest and offer up to the Father those first fruits of Christ’s new creation, namely, Christ’s holy Church who stand for a humanity renewed and transformed by the power of Christ’s resurrection. Thus, the Spirit comes to harvest you and me, we who are baptized into Christ. And, so, we are being offered with Christ as first fruits to the Father; we’re being raised up by the Spirit to new and everlasting life with God. As St Paul put it: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also” (Rom 8:11).
However, if the day of Pentecost was the great moment of God’s harvesting, then this is a moment which continues to this day. For the Church, who is animated by the Holy Spirit, lives ever in the Pentecostal moment, called in every age to renew and transform the whole world through the preaching and living out of the Gospel. Time and again, Christians have failed in this calling, but the Spirit comes as wind and fire to separate wheat from chaff, to burn out impurities with God’s fiery love, and to renew the face of the Church. Thus, the Church, and each of us individually, must call out each day: “Lord, send forth your Spirit, and renew us”.
And the Spirit who comes, and who renews us by bringing to our remembrance all that Jesus has taught us (cf Jn 14:26b), will also send us out as labourers into God’s harvest. This missionary imperative was put into action on Pentecost day. The tongues of flame loosened the tongues of the disciples so that they could preach the Gospel to all nations. It is in this sense that we can speak of the birthday of the Church. Because the Church was born for mission. She exists to “bring to remembrance” before all peoples what Jesus said and did. You and I, as members of the Church, are here for others, for the good of the world; we exist as a Church to be sent out to serve our brothers and sisters by bringing them the Gospel. As Pope Paul VI said: “[The Church] exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection”. Our chapel, which looks out onto the world, and with the Altar of Christ’s sacrifice and the tabernacle of God’s dwelling with us so visible to all passers-by, is a constant reminder of this: that we, the Church, exist to evangelize. We’re here in order to go out into God’s harvest, into the world, as labourers, collaborating with the Holy Spirit to “renew the face of the earth”.
But what does this renewal, this collaboration with God, mean concretely? Let us look again to the Biblical origins of Pentecost.
In 1970, Pope Paul VI did an unprecedented thing. He declared not one but two women saints to be Doctors of the universal Church, and we celebrate the feast of one of those women today: the lay Dominican saint and mystic, Catherine of Siena, who is also patroness of Europe.
St Catherine lived in the turbulent 14th-century when there was much warfare among the Christian states of Europe, and under the influence of the powerful French monarchy, the pope no longer lived in Rome but in Avignon. This came to a climax in 1377 when French and Italian factions competed for the papacy and cardinals under their influence ended up electing two popes, thus bringing about the Great Western Schism that lasted until 1417. But this schism could only have happened because the Church was in serious need of reform: the clergy was corrupt, beset by scandals, and the laity were morally and doctrinally lax.
Hence, through deep prayer, penitential austerity and mystical experiences, Catherine was called by God in 1370 to care for the spiritual sickness that was then afflicting the Body of Christ. She was to be a doctor to the Church, called to heal the Church’s disunity and corruption which, in her words, disfigured the beautiful face of Christ’s Bride with leprosy. The disunity of the Church and the sins of her members – lay and clerical alike – were a great wound to Christ’s Body, and St Catherine bore this wound in her own body. For in 1375 she received the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – and she bore these invisibly until her death in 1380, when she would die at the same age as Christ, thirty-three.
For the last decade of her life, Catherine wore herself out travelling throughout Italy and France speaking and pleading with influential people, writing almost 400 letters to urge Christians to seek peace and unity, and imploring the pope to reform the clergy and to return to Rome – the symbol of the Church’s unity – which Gregory XI did in 1377. But his death shortly afterwards led to the schism, which weighed heavily on St Catherine.
So, she’d laboured to heal the Church’s disunity but she seems to have failed at the end of her short life. Yet, she is a Doctor of the Church because in her saintly life she taught us a most important lesson, and one which is ever relevant, especially today.
St Catherine knew that the reform of the Church was not primarily about politics and structures and bureaucracies. Rather, the Church is animated by the Holy Spirit, and so, she has to be healed spiritually, made whole by God’s love first. Hence, St Catherine offered her whole life of austerity, penance, fasting and prayer, as well as her ministries out in the world, for the love of God’s Church. So, Jesus promised her that “With these prayers, sweat and tears, I shall wash the face of my spouse, the holy Church”.
For Catherine knew, too, that reform was not ‘out there’ or the problem of the Roman Curia, or the warring cardinals. There can be much hand-wringing about the need for institutional reform, but St Catherine knew, rather, that the problems were also very much hers. As she put it “I have slept in the bed of negligence. This is why so many evils and ruins have befallen your Church”.
Thus, Doctor saint Catherine’s remedy for the sins of the Church was to look to her own sins, and to repent and change her ways. Because she knew that the only soul she could change and cause to co-operate with God’s grace, to conform to Christ’s will, was her own. So, reform of Christ’s Church comes through each of us as members of the Body of Christ striving to be faithful to Christ and our Christian vocation; each of us allowing Christ the divine Doctor to heal us so that we can play our proper part within his holy Body. Hence, through the “prayers, sweat and tears” of the saints, Christ himself will purify and reform his Bride; it is his Church.
With this fundamental knowledge and faith in Christ, and love for Christ’s Mystical Body, St Catherine became a saint, and so can we today. May she pray for us, for God’s Holy Church, especially in Europe, and for our lay Dominicans for whom she is patroness.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn 13:34). The last time we would have heard these words in the Liturgy would be on Maundy Thursday in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, just before the Gospel account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. These words, then, re-enforce what was heard in the Gospel of Maundy Thursday: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14). Hence, it is rightly understood that Christ’s commandment that we love one another is borne out in serving one another, in works of social justice.
Therefore, our parish embarked on a charitable project this Lent that sought to serve the needy and poor – not so much to wash their feet as to help provide feet, in the form of prosthetic limbs. We have raised about £3500 for Olivia Giles’ ‘500 Miles’ project through a variety of initiatives. And as Olivia suggested on Friday night when we presented a cheque to her, it is through such acts of generosity and love in a Christian community that we demonstrate that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. For the Lord says: “all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).
But this understanding of love as social justice is not new. It is already found in the Old Testament, and it is rooted in the Jewish prophets. For example, Micah 6:8 says: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” What is different is that the New Testament adds a mystical dimension to this because in serving the marginalized and oppressed it is our poor, naked, hungry God, Jesus Christ himself, whom we serve and love.
However, vital though it is, there is more to Christian love than just social justice. Hence, our Liturgy re-visits these words of Christ, his new commandment to us, in the light of the resurrection. What has changed? Christ has risen from the dead, and so, destroyed death. He has put an end to the hold that sin, evil, and death had over Mankind. He has made “all things new” (Apoc 21:5a), re-creating the heavens and the earth. Because of Christ’s resurrection, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Apoc 21:4). The disciples of Jesus Christ, who touched and saw and heard the risen Lord, knew all this to be true. Through faith, we also experience the risen Lord and know his Word to be true.
With an Easter faith, then, how is Christian love expressed? What more needs to be done in addition to serving one another and doing justice? Love is expressed through bringing hope to others: hope in the resurrection; hope that comes from faith in the new creation brought about by the risen Jesus; hope in God’s mercies that are ever new.
Therefore, the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows us how we’re called to love one another as disciples of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Love impels the first disciples to travel far and wide, risking the perils of the journey, to preach the Gospel. They could have been content to just keep the faith to themselves, or considered it too risky and imprudent to stand up against the Jewish authorities and the mighty Roman empire. And, as we’ve seen in previous weeks, after the Crucifixion, they were full of fear and confusion. But once the Holy Spirit had descended on them there was no stopping them.
The real wonder of today’s Gospel isn’t the staggering catch of fish, but the closeness of God to humanity. Typically, God is holy, indeed thrice-holy, and this meant being distant from the profane world. Hence, the Hebrew word for holy, qadosh, comes from the root qodesh, meaning to ‘cut off’ or ‘separate’. And God is separate from his creatures so that he remains clean and undefiled by sinners. This typically Jewish notion seemed odd to me at first, because I’m so used to the idea of God’s holiness transforming my sinfulness, but in fact, it’s common sense. No one uses a greasy cloth to polish glass, or applies a dirty brush to a clean shirt; the unclean soils the clean. And so, the traditional notion of God and holiness seems to be that God had to be separate and cut off from his creatures in order to be clean, pure and holy.
But this is not the God that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. The beauty of the Incarnation, of our Christian faith, is that we believe that God has become Man, has entered time and space, and walked, eaten and worked with his creatures, with sinful humanity. In the previous chapter of St Luke’s Gospel, an unclean demon acknowledged that Jesus is “the Holy One of God” (Lk 4:34), and he said “Have you come to destroy us?”, and Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to depart. This signals that, contrary to what had been thought, the unclean does not contaminate the clean. Rather, the Holy One drives away sin, evil, the unclean; God’s grace heals, redeems, transforms and purifies.
Thus, in today’s Gospel, the Holy One of God comes to sinners to be their salvation; this is the first time in St Luke’s Gospel that this idea is expressed. So, God is found, not in the Temple, or a designated place, but out and about by the lakeside, in the workplace of these fishermen, where we are. For Jesus shows that our holy God does not separate himself from us, but comes in search of us to make us holy by uniting us with himself and his mission.
God does this because God is love. For only love will impel us out of ourselves and all our self-preoccupied concerns for our own cleanliness, safety, and comfort, driving us out into the world to take risks for those we love. Hence, Christ’s action reveals that God is love, and what he does overturns the traditional notions of God as holy, and who thus stands aloof from his creatures. Rather, God’s holiness is seen in the depths of his love. God thus wills to take on the messiness of humanity, to become a part of his creation and get ‘dirty’, so to speak, and to even embrace a sacrificial death on the Cross.
Today’s readings, which offer a vision of salvation for all the nations, of people from east and west coming into God’s kingdom, is so fitting for today. For we celebrate the feast of the great Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier who is believed to have been the most effective missionary since the apostles, having preached the Gospel in Goa (India), Malacca (Malaysia), Indonesia, and Japan. His goal was to preach in China too, but after ten very fruitful years in the Far East he died from a fever on this day in 1552, and his relics remain in Goa. What motivated this great evangelizer?
In our first reading, Isaiah is confident that God’s Wisdom and teaching is a blessing. And it is this confidence that St Francis shares. As Isaiah put it: “Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord… that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths”. So, the people go to the Lord in order to be taught, to learn from God’s Wisdom, and then, they will to act upon this teaching, to live according to the Lord’s ways. And the vision of Isaiah goes on to suggest that the Lord’s way is a way of peace, of gentle reconciliation, and life; God builds up and cultivates rather than destroys. So, God’s way is a blessing to the whole world, to all of humanity. With firm faith in this truth, St Francis was thus motivated to set out from Spain to preach the Gospel in the Far East, to bring a blessing to those who had never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because he rightly believed that every human person, having a natural desire for Truth and the Good would find in Christ the fulfillment of all their desires. But most of all he also knew that the grace of Christ, coming principally through baptism was necessary for eternal salvation.
So, his work of evangelization was a work of mercy, hoping to bring healing from sin, to bring reconciliation between God and Man, and so, to end the warfare begun by Adam’s original sin. It was also a work of justice, for all people deserve to know the Truth. Above all, St Francis’ missionary work was a labour of love. As he said: “Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: “What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!” The Second Vatican Council made a similar point when it said: “Often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator… Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention” (Lumen Gentium, 16).
Hence, in this Year of Faith in which the Holy Father has also urged us to a new Evangelization, we can learn from St Francis. His example reminds us that we become effective evangelizers only if we have first been evangelized – converted to Christ, changed by his mercy and forgiveness to become peacemakers. We become witnesses to the Gospel if we have really experienced the Gospel as a blessing in our lives. As Pope Benedict XVI has said: “What the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people enlightened in mind and heart by the word of the Lord, and capable of opening the hearts and minds of many to the desire for God and for true life, life without end” (Porta Fidei, 15).
Like St Francis Xavier, will we have the courage and generosity, the charity and zeal to say: “Lord, I am here! What do you want me to do? Send me anywhere you like – even to India”. Or, perhaps in our case today, even to Inverness… or anywhere in Europe?
We say that someone is “single-minded” if that person is determined, purposeful, and has a clear aim that he or she is moving towards. This is why St Paul exhorts the Philippians to be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind”. Because only if we, as a Church, are single-minded will be serve our purpose, and move towards our common goal as one body.
The goal of the Church, our common aim, is salvation, that is, union with God. Our same love, then, is for Christ and his teachings, because he alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life, who unites us to God. And the purpose of the Church is to manifest this union with God in Christ, to make known by example and preaching our “participation in the Spirit”, or, more accurately translated, our communion in the Spirit. This is what we mean by evangelization, and our salvation in Christ is for everyone. Hence, Vatican II said: “[Christ] sent His life-giving Spirit upon His disciples and through Him has established His Body which is the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation” (Lumen Gentium,48) .
Which is why, if we’re to serve our purpose as a Church, if we’re to be effective evangelizers, if we’re to be good disciples of Christ who are alive in the Holy Spirit, then we must first be converted to Christ and become single-minded. We’re called to think with the mind of the whole Christ, that is, the Head always in union with his Body, the Church, so that we truly participate and have communion in the life of Christ. Thus, our whole way of thinking and behaving is transformed. And it will inevitably be different from the world’s; it will involve leaving behind former ways of thinking and acting. If we, as a Church, are good at this, we will transform the world and change whole cultures.
But often, it seems like some Catholics expect things to work the other way round: Christ and the teachings of his Church must change to stay in step with the world’s teachings. Or we lack conviction and conversion to the Truth. And so, we aren’t single-minded and become a Church that is confused and stagnant, too tired by internal squabbling to attract, inspire and evangelize. Who would want to invest time, energy, and indeed give their lives to such a Church?
Prayer is fundamentally an act of faith, and we exercise that faith by praying, that is, by asking, seeking, and knocking. This does not mean simply asking for whatever we want and expecting God to do as he’s told. Rather, it means having persistent confidence in God’s ability to grant whatever we ask, but at the same time, trusting that God is our loving Father, who will always give to us, his children, whatever he chooses for our greatest good. So, we should pray persistently – ask God always for what we need.
But it is likely that God, who knows all things and always wills the best for us, will answer our prayers in ways we don’t expect, that are more creative than our solutions, and that bring about our deepest joy and greater freedom. So, faith means trusting in God’s activity in the world and in our lives, with the sure and certain hope that our God of Love is bringing good to fruition, even when things seem difficult and challenging. For Jesus reveals that ours is a God of the Living, a God who brings Life out of death, and whose creative Love is more powerful and liberating than sin, evil and suffering. There are many questions that we and our contemporaries may have, but faith means that we trust that Jesus Christ is the answer to the deepest longings and questions of humanity. So, we need to seek those answers, seek to understand our faith better to help us make sense of life, and seek its meaning and purpose.
Ultimately, our faith should make our lives better, truer, happier because it has as its object God himself, who is all good, all loving, who is beauty and truth itself. This is what we believe, and, hopefully, this is something we have experienced in our own lives. We may not be saints yet, but our faith should make our lives better and give us a positive direction in life, headed towards Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If so, then, faith in Jesus is not just something relative and private but something universal for everyone, and needing to be shared with those we care for. So, perhaps we can have the mercy, compassion and courage to knock on the hearts, or even the doors, of our friends, colleagues and families, and share the Christian faith with them.
So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus encourages us to ask, seek, and knock, and these three things are just what faith moves us to do: to A-Ask; S-Seek; and K-Knock, – ASK – which means to pray, to learn more about the Faith, and to evangelize. The Year of Faith begins today, and in this year, the Holy Father urges us to do precisely these three things, so, please do consider seriously what concrete things you can do to put A-S-K into action; to pray better, to seek truer answers, and to bear authentic witness to Christ through attractive, joyful lives.
If we do these three things, if we ASK, Jesus promises that his Father will not refuse us the Holy Spirit. With so great a Helper and Friend, how could we possibly fail, and with God’s Spirit of Love in our hearts, what more could we possibly want?
This week we begin what the Holy Father has called a ‘Year of Faith’, to mark the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, which began on 11 October 1962. That Council was experienced by many Catholics as a life-changing event that marked a new epoch for the Church; an era of engagement with the modern world, and the repercussions of that Council are still being worked out today. When Blessed John XXIII called the Council together, his intent was that it should re-invigorate the way we Catholics understood our Faith. As he said: “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary.”
Sometimes it is said that Vatican II was revolutionary, and not a few people have behaved as though the very substance of the faith and not just its presentation had changed. But as St Paul says forcefully today to the Galatians: “If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed”. For the Faith revealed to us by Christ is precious; it is a gift to be treasured and enjoyed, and shared with those we love. Hence, John XXIII said in at the opening of Vatican II: “The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously”.
So, the Council was clearly not about revolution but essentially about conversion, a turning towards Christ until our lives revolve around him. In the words of today’s Gospel, we’re called to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind”. In this anniversary year, then, Pope Benedict has said that “the Year of Faith… is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Saviour of the world. In the mystery of his death and resurrection, God has revealed in its fullness the Love that saves and calls us to conversion of life through the forgiveness of sins (cf. Acts 5:31)”.
However, the Gospel also calls us to love our neighbour, which means in this context that we’re to share our Faith with them. Why? Because we love them and want to share something precious, beautiful and good with them. But first we need to know our Faith better, and be converted so that we experience it as something enriching and life-giving. For to us has been revealed the Good News that God, in his mercy, has seen Mankind stripped, beaten up and wounded by sin. And, so, God has come in Christ to bind up humanity’s wounds, pouring on us the oil of baptismal anointing and the wine of the Eucharist. And Jesus has taken us into his Church, the inn where we recuperate and are healed by his grace. And when he comes again, he will give us even more, namely, a share in his divine life.
Such Good News about God’s compassion and love needs to be shared with our world which longs for mercy, love and peace. It’s the least we could do if we love our families, friends and neighbours.
Yesterday’s Gospel spoke of judgment, of making a decision, a choice for Jesus. By placing our trust in Christ and believing his Word we already have eternal life. With lives founded on faith in who he is, sustained by hope in his promises, and motivated by love for him in our actions, heaven has already begun for those who believe in Christ. For these theological virtues make of our simple lives “something beautiful for God”.
But there are many who are still searching for God, so that, like the Jews in today’s Gospel, they search books, even reading the Scriptures, and they look to great thinkers and leaders for guidance. But somehow, they fail to recognize the One to whom every authentic quest for Truth, Goodness and Beauty points. Why is this?
In part, I think it is because Man is prone to creating images of himself, to glorying in created things, and to trying to conform God to his limited worldview rather than letting the Uncreated One, who is Other than His creation, challenge and expand Man’s horizons. For that is who Jesus is: the One who initiates us into the freedom and expansiveness of God, so that, by his grace, our humanity is elevated beyond natural horizons to the supernatural, making us partakers in his divinity.