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 and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
A few years ago, when I was a younger and even more inexperienced deacon, I was invited to a Catholic comprehensive school in Essex. And I went into a class of 16 year olds, dressed in my full 13th-century habit to take some questions. And all they wanted to ask about was sex: talk about Daniel in the lions’ den… But I survived to tell the tale! It’s fitting, then, that the image of Daniel in the lions’ den is one of the earliest Christian depictions of Resurrection hope, found on sarcophagi in Rome.
But not all the questions were about sexual matters. One boy hoped that I would do his homework for him, and so he asked me: ‘What is the relevance of the doctrine of the resurrection for today’? A good question. As I walked through the Meadows yesterday and watched everybody enjoying the sunshine, seemingly oblivious to what was happening in our little hidden chapel, this question came to mind again: what is the relevance of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection; of these three sacred days, the Triduum, we’ve been celebrating?
And here is, more or less, what I said to that boy. We begin with Christ’s Passion and Death, his suffering on the Cross. So, we think, too, of the suffering of all humanity; of the people of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Central African Republic, and so many other spots forgotten by us and the Media. As I was on my way yesterday to visit the sick of our parish, I considered, too, the pain and suffering around us and in our own lives, so much of which is unseen. Suffering is very immediate and it touches each of us at some time and in some way, directly and indirectly. Then we begin to see how very relevant the resurrection of Jesus Christ is.
For we believe that God became one of a us, a human person who suffered, died, and was buried. In Jesus Christ, our God became present to human suffering, so that when we suffer, God is there. So, ours is not a God who is distant from us, but a God who bore our sins and pains and all that belongs to our human mortality in his own body. He, the Crucified One, bore all that on the Tree (cf 1 Pt 2:24). Each generation is overwhelmed by evil, suffering and sin in our world, and we rightly ask, ‘Where is God’? But the God whom they – we – interrogate is One who we beheld taking up his Cross, struggling under its weight to Calvary, and disfigured by torture and anguish on the Cross. And so, the mystery of sin and evil suffered is given meaning even if we don’t – and I think can never fully – understand it. But it has meaning because of today, the day of Resurrection.
Easter is typically celebrated with loud music and triumphant singing, but if we pay attention to the Gregorian chants given to us by the Church, we note a different mood altogether. There is a certain ambivalence of tone; the musical mode chosen is not triumphant but still hesitant. Why? Because we still live in suffering and witness it around us every day. Nevertheless, the music and text for the Entrance chant of today’s Mass strikes a note of reassurance. “I have risen, and I am with you still, alleluia”. This assurance of Christ’s living Presence, with us in our suffering; with us in the Eucharist which is always a sacred memorial of his Passion; Christ with us still, no matter what happens to us, is the tone for Easter Sunday that the sacred Liturgy wants to teach us.
For it is Christ, risen from the tomb, who gives meaning to all that befalls us. It is his Resurrection and the promise it holds for us that gives meaning to our suffering, our death; to the Cross we carry each day; to the dying in baptism and in daily martyrdom that we endure for the sake of his Name. It is the resurrection that gives meaning to the crucifixion of humanity… in Haiti, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, the Philippines; on our streets where the homeless lie, and in the slums where the poor scavenge for scraps in rubbish dumps, and in our homes torn apart by violence, selfishness, disharmony. And in our hearts too, crucified by the insults, humiliation, and indignity that others mete out to us. All this pain, sadness, and suffering, where Christ is present only makes sense, or has any meaning because he is the Risen One; because he is risen and is with us still.
We’re all on death row. Aren’t we? Every one of us, some day, sooner or later, will die. But the inevitability of death is mitigated by posterity; we can leave behind a legacy that endures through the lives of our children. In some sense, we survive and so, transcend death, through our descendants. This, at least, is the hope that is glimpsed in the First Reading. Abram is promised that his name will be great, and that he will be the patriarch of a great nation. The blessing promised by God is precisely that of having many descendants. Hence in Genesis 22:17, the Lord says to Abraham: “I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven”. Here, then, is a promise of a kind of immortality – enduring through one’s blood line – that mitigates the certitude of death; the evocation of the stars not only denoting how numerous Abraham’s descendants will be, but also hinting at perpetuity.
But this is not the Christian way.
For we are all still on death row. One day you and I will die. And there is no such mitigation particularly for those of us who are childless, or single and celibate. Indeed, one of the signs of consecrated virginity and a freely-chosen life of celibacy is precisely that it counters this kind of hope of immortality. Because it is done in imitation of Jesus Christ who, as St Paul says, “[abolished] death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel” (2 Tim 1:10).
So, the light of immortality is not to be found in the stars but in Christ, the “one Morning Star who never sets” (the Exsultet). Our survival and transcendence of death is not found in our descendants but in the fact that we are descendants of the Risen One. And our name endures for all ages and is made great because our name is Christian. This is our hope, the hope of the resurrection with Christ, that the Gospel proclaims, and which is brought to light today in the Gospel of the Transfiguration.
But why, during Lent, this encounter with the Living One, Jesus Christ, flanked by the two living ones (for Elijah and Moses were regarded to have not died)? Why is the Transfiguration, which is this promise of the Resurrection, always read on the Second Sunday of Lent? I think its positioning here has a symbolic value that sheds light on the whole of our life. For Lent is a time when we are reminded of our mortality. Hence on Ash Wednesday ashes were imposed on our foreheads with these words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. During Lent in the Dominican form of Compline, an 8th-century chant is sung that reminds us of our mortality. It says: “In the midst of life we are in death”; we are all on death row.
But if we consider our mortal lives like this, as a continuous Lent, we know what will follow on after Lent. Easter. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, too, after the Lent of our lives, after death, will come our Easter, our resurrection in Christ. Hence, the positioning of the Transfiguration during Lent is a symbol of the hope of the Resurrection that lights up the Lent of our lives. We are being taught and formed by the Liturgy, therefore, to look to the Living One especially when “in the midst of life we are in death”. Isn’t it the case that there are times when life feels like death? When depression hangs about us, or things get so hard and unmanageable, and we wonder how we will cope with life’s stress and demands? How, some ask, will we survive the daily deaths of this life with its bitter disappointments and pains?
Today our Order celebrates one of my favourite saints, Blessed Jordan of Saxony who is the patron saint of Dominican vocations. And it’s not simply because I am Vocations Promotor that I have a special regard for him. Nor is it because Blessed Jordan struggled with learning the French language – although I feel a certain affinity with him in this regard! Rather, it is the kind of Christian man, a brother in St Dominic, and a saint that he was, and that comes across in what he did, what he said, and what he wrote.
And time permits me to just illustrate this briefly. What he did: Blessed Jordan must have been a remarkable man. He entered the Order in his 40s in 1220 in Paris where he had been teaching Scripture and theology in the University. Within two years he was made, first, Provincial of Lombardy and, then, Master of the Order. When he succeeded St Dominic in 1222, the Order had 40 priories in 8 provinces. By 1227, there were reportedly 404! He was such a charismatic preacher and such an effective recruiter of talented novices for the Order that mothers were said to have locked their sons up when he came to town! So, in 1230, for example, Bl Jordan writes: “I have the hope that God will give us a good catch at the University of Oxford where I am now staying”. It is said that until his death in 1237, Bl Jordan recruited over a thousand novices – one of them was Albert of Lauringen whom we know today as St Albert the Great.
What he said: We do not know precisely what Bl Jordan said since none of his sermons or lectures were recorded; he must have improvised a lot. But more important than what he said, I think, is his own character and temperament that probably made the greatest impression on his listeners. These are the words used by his contemporaries to describe him: “sweet affability”, “tender pity”, “kind and gentle”, “love and mildness itself”, “cheery”, “humble-minded”, “joyful”. And we’re told that he loved music and singing. One of my favourite stories tells of Bl Jordan encouraging the novices to laugh and rejoice, even during the Office of Compline, because they had been saved from the Devil’s clutches!
And it is this simple joy in salvation, in what Jesus has done for us, that comes across in Bl Jordan’s writings. Because although we don’t know what he preached we do, fortunately, have some of his writings, including a unique body of 58 letters to Bl Diana, a Dominican nun in Bologna. Bl Jordan’s letters are tender, warm, and full of affection, and he shows himself to be a wise and moderate spiritual director. In some he shares his hopes for the Order, in others of his fears and pain. For example, in 1235 he writes that “one of my eyes is giving me great pain and I am in danger of losing it”. Indeed, he did become blind in one eye – that was a nickname some gave him! But no matter what happens, Bl Jordan writes with firm faith in Christ, hope in the joys of heaven, and with great love for God. Always fixed on God, he put the troubles and difficulties of this life in its proper perspective. So, Bl Jordan wrote: “By the loss of the grace of God, alone, are the souls of the saints to be troubled”.
In 1237, Bl Jordan went to the Holy Land to visit the newly-founded priory of Acre. On this day in 1237, he boarded a ship bound for Europe but it was shipwrecked off the Syrian coast and he drowned. It is said that a bright light led the brothers to recover his body which had washed ashore. This was fitting for Bl Jordan of Saxony had been a guiding light for so many Dominicans, and even today our Order benefits from with his wisdom and leadership. Hence the early Dominicans said of Bl Jordan: “the grace of the Word which he received was such that no other could be found like him”.
Perhaps one letter, written in 1229, sums up the grace of the Word which he had received, and which inspired his saintly life. May his words help us today too. Bl Jordan wrote:
"I send you a very little word,
the Word made little in the crib,
the Word who was made flesh for us,
the Word of salvation and grace,
of sweetness and glory,
the Word who is good and gentle,
Jesus Christ and him crucified,
Christ raised up on the cross,
raised in praise to the Father’s right hand:
to whom and in whom do you raise up your soul
and find there your rest unending for ever and ever.
Today’s Gospel speaks of Christ’s mission to his apostles, sending them out to preach the Gospel and to bring God’s healing and saving grace to all peoples. From that moment countless others have followed in their footsteps as missionaries, and many have endured hardship and persecution, rejection and even death for the sake of the Gospel. And this is still a reality in these days.
But today we’re honouring the first martyrs of the Far East. In 1549, the great Jesuit missionary, St Francis Xavier had brought the Faith to Japan, and Christianity received a welcome so that by 1587 there were around 200,000 Catholics in Japan. That’s about 5,263 converts a year, or 14 a day! But in that same year the Emperor outlawed the Faith. However, numbers kept increasing so that in 1596 when a violent persecution began there were almost half a million Catholics in Japan. The 5th of February 1597 saw the sacrifice of Japan’s first Christian martyrs: 17 Japanese and Korean catechists, 6 Spanish Franciscans, and 3 Japanese Jesuits; 26 in total. The most prominent among them was St Paul Miki who was aged around 30 and who was being trained as a Jesuit priest.
The martyrs were all executed in Nagasaki, and they were disfigured, then paraded through the streets to terrify the local people into abandoning Christianity. But the 26 sang the Te Deum, an ancient hymn of thanksgiving and victory as they walked to their death. Then they were crucified, and killed with a lance in their sides. Even then, the martyrs continued to sing, and they sang the Benedictus which we sing every morning at Morning Prayer. Thus, they offered to the Christians of their time and to us today a brave witness to their faith in Christ as the Saviour of all; to their hope of his resurrection; and to their love for God and their fellow Japanese.
As St Paul Miki said: “The only reason for my being killed is that I have taught the doctrine of Christ. I thank God it is for this reason that I die. I believe that I am telling the truth before I die. I know you believe me and I want to say to you all once again: Ask Christ to help you become happy. I obey Christ. After Christ’s example, I forgive my persecutors. I do not hate them. I ask God to have pity on all, and I hope my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain”.
In order for the blood of these martyrs to be fruitful, let us today hold fast to the one true Faith they preached: that Christ alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And let us be inspired by them and their love for Jesus, and ask for the grace and courage to preach the Gospel to our fellow countrymen today, and to be faithful in our daily living out of the Faith. It is unlikely that we will be killed for doing this as the Martyrs of Nagasaki were, and as so many other missionaries around the world currently are, but the New Evangelization and being a faithful Christian will involve a sacrifice; it will cost us. So, we look to the martyrs to encourage us and to pray for us.
As Pope Francis says: “We do well to keep in mind the early Christians and our many brothers and sisters throughout history who were filled with joy, unflagging courage and zeal in proclaiming the Gospel… Every period of history is marked by the presence of human weakness, self-absorption, complacency and selfishness… These things are ever present under one guise or another; they are due to our human limits rather than particular situations. Let us not say, then, that things are harder today; they are simply different. But let us learn also from the saints who have gone before us, who confronted the difficulties of their own day.” (Evangelii Gaudium, §264).
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.
These apocalyptic readings continue to be a challenge to our faith. When the centre of our world collapses, and disaster and calamity hits us, when we feel besieged and surrounded by desolation how can we respond?
Many people will wonder where God is. They may feel abandoned by him, or punished by him, or bereft of God’s love and support. Or many will say, in the face of great natural tragedies, that there just is no God, or he doesn’t care. Many will react, as the Gospel says, with perplexity, fear and foreboding (Lk 21:25f).
And what about us? What about you and me?
Today, Jesus assures us that when disaster strikes and our world falls apart, he is coming, and our “redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:28). In other words, when others interpret terrible events as the absence of God, we, who have faith, who rely on his Word, know that God will come, and, indeed, is with us when catastrophes happen. Why? Because our God is Love, and Jesus is for ever, the “Son of man” (cf Lk 21:27), i.e., God-with-us.
Just this kind of faith was expressed by the early Christians in the face of death and persecution. On the ancient sarcophagi in which they buried their dead they carved an image of Daniel in the lion’s den. For them, the story we’ve heard in our first reading was a prefiguration of Christ’s Resurrection. And so, this image was placed on their tombs as a sign of their faith that they could enter the lions den of persecution, enter the pit of death and even stand in the lion’s jaws of death, and yet, they believed that they would not suffer annihilation. Rather, like Daniel, they would emerge victorious and free.
Because the just man in whom they placed their hope and trust was not simply the prophet Daniel but the Just One himself, our God and Redeemer, Jesus Christ. So, when disaster struck; when the jaws of death closed in; and when the world came to an end, they looked to Christ. As Jesus says to his beloved disciples, to you and me, today: “when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:28).
For with faith in the Resurrection and the Just One, we do not look down in despair; nor look wildly around in bewilderment; nor close our eyes in fear. We look up. We look up at Christ. We raise our heads to look at Christ our Head. And we unite ourselves to him in faith, in hope, and in love. We cling to our Redeemer who is ever near, who is “coming… with power and great glory” (Lk 21:27).
With this in mind, we can see why St Martha said what she did when her brother had died; when her world had, in a sense, ended, and Jesus asked if she believed that he is the resurrection and the life. She said: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27). May such faith be ours too. Amen.
The final week of the liturgical year always focuses the mind on what, in the final analysis, really matters. For Nebuchadnezzar learns from the prophet Daniel that earthly kingdoms and temporal power will fall. And Jesus speaks of how even religious institutions and earthly glory will be not last. But so much of our human activity, our energies and time, have been poured into building and organizing. Yet we’re told that every earthly thing will come to an end at some point. What are we to make of this? What is the point of our human activity, then?
The Second Vatican Council says that “the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and that it allow men as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfill it” (Gaudium et spes, 35). In other words, nations, institutions, organizations; degrees, jobs, businesses; are not ends in themselves, but they serve a goal. And not a self-serving, individualistic, finance-driven goal – for all these are temporary and doomed to end – but a goal that transcends time and history.
This goal is relational, it is rooted in our Triune God who is the One relation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God is Love. So, all human activity is directed towards love, and is meant to enable us to love God and to love our neighbour. What this means is that the good things of our world now point to the Good that endures eternally. So, we can begin to build on earth now what will last for ever – not buildings and structures, as such, but relationships, friendships; build up Love. And this can be developed and built even in the midst of great calamities and disasters. As Jesus says in the Gospel, these will come, and temporal things will end. But even in the midst of them faith and hope bring light, and love deepens and brings joy.
Pope Francis released his new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, this morning. And in it he reflects: “I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to. I also think of the real joy shown by others who, even amid pressing professional obligations, were able to preserve, in detachment and simplicity, a heart full of faith. In their own way, all these instances of joy flow from the infinite love of God, who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”.
Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being.” (§7 & 8).
So, as the liturgical (and calendar) year comes to an end; now that the Year of Faith is over; we can take stock of all our activities and attempts and achievements. And we ask: Through them, have I experienced, known, encountered God’s love for me; the friendship of Jesus Christ for me and for all humanity?
For in the final analysis this is the one thing that really matters and that lasts for ever.
Music and singing are integral to any celebration. We see this in today’s first reading where the people of Israel rejoice for eight days “with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals” (1 Macc 4:54). They had endured persecution; the Maccabees had fought and suffered; and now they celebrate their victory with music and song.
This is fitting today as we celebrate the feast of St Cecilia who is the patron saint of music. She was a 4th-century Roman martyr who was killed for the Faith. It is thought that she was beheaded in her family home, and it’s still possible to visit the site under the basilica of St Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome. As she died, Cecilia was said to have sung to God “in her heart”.
So, like the Maccabees, St Cecilia had endured persecution, she’d resisted and suffered – they tried to boil her alive to begin with! – and, then, as she was being killed, she sang. This is quite bizarre if we think about it because Cecilia saw her dying – her martyrdom – as a victory to be celebrated with music and song.
However, the Preface for Martyrs in our Liturgy says the same thing. In the struggle of the martyrs, God gives them “ardour” and “firm resolve” so that they can remain faithful to Christ even to accepting suffering and death, and so, in their death there is “victory” over those who oppose Christ. What is this victory we celebrate, then? It is the triumph of grace, and indeed, the victory of Love. For only love for Jesus Christ can move someone to accept death. So, St Cecilia dies for Truth, for the integrity of her faith, for fidelity to Jesus rather than to renounce him; she dies for love of him.
We find this idea, of dying for love’s sake, quite often in romantic love, especially in what McCartney called “silly love songs”. And St Cecilia’s martyrdom might seem like a version of this kind of love. But is it? Did St Cecilia simply sing a silly love song as she died? Well, the martyr is not just someone totally in love with God and who dies out of fidelity to her conscience, to her love. There is something more, I think, that she witnesses to.
The martyrs’ death is an act of witness to the fundamental Christian belief in the truth that God’s love is stronger than death. This means that we believe and we hope in the final resurrection of our body. We believe that the death of our bodies, even under great suffering, is not the end of life. Because, we believe that the Christian is so united to Christ that even if we die as he did, we will also rise just as he did. Hence the YouCAT says: “Eternal life begins with Baptism. It continues through death and will have no end” (No. 156).
We will rise to eternal life with Christ because Love – God himself – is eternal and Christ, the living Word of God is the final word. His is the song of victory, and so, we too can sing that triumphal song with him. St Cecilia thus died with a song in her heart. Not a silly love song, but a celebratory Easter song. It’s significant that the Jews celebrated their victory for eight days, for Easter is often called the eighth day because it is the day of a new creation, of life after death, of eternal life. So, with Christ, we, who have died with him in baptism, and who have endured the trials and sufferings of this life, shall also rejoice and sing with him for eight days, that is, for all eternity in heaven.
This is what St Cecilia bore witness to. May she pray for us that we may share her faith, her hope, and her love for Christ.
Why do we pray? Is it to get something? Is it to change God’s mind? If we think of God as an unjust judge, then we’re likely to pray like needy widows who will cajole and nag God until he changes his mind and gives us what we want. Prayer, then, is about persistent nagging. But is this why Jesus tells us this parable – to encourage us to wear God down? To keep telling him to do good things? I don’t think so.
A different vision of prayer is offered in the first reading. Following Origen, I think such Scripture readings of historical violence and warfare need to be understood spiritually as a metaphor. This is an image of life, and often we can feel very embattled with skirmishes in our family life, at work, with colleagues, and with our own sins and weaknesses. Life, in short, can be like a battlefield. Hence prayer is necessary so that we prevail and win the final victory. But I think it’s noteworthy that prayer doesn’t change God’s mind, as such, but it is part of God’s loving Providence. Moses’ prayer co-operates with Joshua’s battling so that there is a necessary correlation between the two, and both Moses and Joshua have the same goal and outcome in view.
This is the vision of prayer that St Thomas Aquinas holds out for us. He sees prayer as our learning to co-operate with God’s will so that we broaden our vision of what is good for us, and choose the better outcome that God has planned for us. And God has foreseen from all eternity that this should happen because of our prayers. As such, when we pray it is not God’s mind that we seek to change but ours.
"Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men" (Lk 9:44). But when the disciples heard it, they were afraid and confused. But the remembrance of every martyr confronts us again with these words from the Lord. That he was delivered up to death at the hands of men, and then, in John’s Gospel, we also have these words from Jesus: "Remember the word that I said to you, `A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you…’" (15:20). And so, we may well feel afraid, worried, and confused. Surely this promise of persecution doesn’t apply to me?
This, too, is the story of at least one of the sixteen martyrs whom we remember today: St Lawrence Ruiz of Manila who was martyred in Nagasaki; one of the Dominican group of martyrs persecuted, tortured, and killed in Japan. St Lawrence’s story is, to my mind, the story of the reluctant martyr, the disciple who was understandably scared of Christ’s words to his disciples today: “the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men”.
For in 1636, Lorenzo Ruiz was accused of being involved in some crime in Manila, and if he was found guilty, he would have been delivered into the hands of men and executed. Lorenzo feared that the Spanish authorities would be prejudiced against him since he was born of Chinese and Filipino parents, and so he fled to the Dominicans for help. He had been educated by the Dominicans and hired by them as a scribe, was a member of the Rosary Confraternity, and sacristan at the Dominican church in Binondo, a suburb of Manila. So, he turned to them for help to flee the Philippines, leaving behind his wife and children. Clearly, he was afraid and, I suppose, hoped to come home later on.
But he never did, because he went from the frying pan into the fire. Lorenzo boarded a ship with Dominican missionaries whom he thought were headed for Macao, but instead the missionaries were going to Nagasaki to help the persecuted Christians of Japan. Lorenzo, then, was in the wrong place at the wrong time; he had hoped to escape death, but within days of arriving in Japan he was arrested, delivered into the hands of men, and fourteen months later he died from terrible torture on the 29th of September 1637.
And yet, this frightened refugee, before he died, was able to say with resolute boldness: “Although I did not come to Japan to be a martyr… however, as a Christian and for God I shall give my life….” He was offered a chance to renounce his faith and live, and yet, when faced with the Cross, he embraced it with profound freedom. How come?
St Luke’s Gospel suggests that “did not understand [Christ’s] saying, and it was concealed from them, that they should not perceive it”. But the time will come, when it is necessary, when they, and we, will understand, when the grace of the Holy Spirit acts to give us understanding, and to strengthen us for the grace of martyrdom, of bearing witness to our faith when we’re persecuted for it. This, at least, is what San Lorenzo Ruiz’s life tells us.
And what he understood was that the Son of man “has to be delivered into the hands of men”, so that whenever and wherever this happens to us, his disciples – whether it be Manila, or Nagasaki, Pakistan, Syria, or even Edinburgh – Christ is there with us. And because God is with the martyr, one with the persecuted Christian, so, in faith, he hears in his heart the words of the Lord in Zechariah: “Sing and rejoice… for lo, I come and I will dwell in the midst of you”. Thus, Lorenzo Ruiz was able to say with courage, hope, and joy: “Had I many thousands of lives I would offer them all for him”.
For his faith was also founded on this other promise of the Lord: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore” (Apoc 1:17f). This is the focus and foundation of our Christian faith, the faith of St Lawrence Ruiz and every martyr. May their prayers and example strengthen our faith.