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.
Today’s Gospel is connected to Isaiah’s image of blessing through the seed which is sown. Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God, has been sown by God the Father in the earth; he has taken root in the soil of our humanity, and he has become one with us. This marvellous truth, this wonder of the Incarnation of Christ, is that great thing that prophets and righteous men longed to see and hear but did not. But you and I, we who are baptized in Christ, we are the ones whom Jesus calls ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’ because we have seen and heard him whom so many before us, and so many around us long for. This is the source of our Christian joy for we, because of God’s generous love and the free gift of his grace, have seen and heard God’s divine Word, Jesus Christ his Son. In fact, we not only see and hear the Word but we receive it into our lives just as the seed is embedded in the earth. In the Mass as the Scriptures are read to us and we listen to God’s Word, it is being sown in our hearts. And then, when we receive the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, then we receive into our very bodies what Isaiah calls “bread for the eating”.
Isaiah also says that it is the rain that gives “growth to provide seed for the sower and bread for the eating”. What is this rain? It is the Holy Spirit. Through our baptism, we have all received God’s Holy Spirit who dwells in our hearts, and it is the Spirit who teaches us and leads us into all truth. And so, we perceive the truth of the Gospel and our hearts are opened to receive the Word of God, not by our own efforts, but rather, because of the gift of faith and the gift of understanding which is given by the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is also the Holy Spirit who sanctifies the bread and wine that is offered at Mass so that in Holy Communion we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. However, the rain also causes the earth to yield, that is, to be fruitful. Thus, it is the Holy Spirit who causes us to “hear the Word and understand it” and consequently to “yield a harvest” that produces abundant fruit, each according to the individual gifts and talents God has given us.
Just as a tree bears fruit which is attractive and delicious and offered to all who pass by to receive it and taste its goodness, so too with us. If we draw from God’s grace and live in him, then we will bear fruit that will last and which our world longs for and needs so very much. St Paul tells is that the fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal 5:22f). These fruit render us sweet and attractive to others, as the saints are, so that others may look on us and be drawn to taste and see the goodness of God, the sweetness of his grace. A parish is thus like an orchard, and each of you are a fruit tree, and if you are fruitful by the grace of the Spirit, you will be full of joy, mercy, and love that is deeply attractive.
Our Holy Father has said much about the joy of the Gospel and the mercy we should show to others. At this time, we are faced with a challenge as the Assisted Dying Bill comes before Parliament again on Friday. It is a false sense of mercy that would kill the most vulnerable and dying, and the very real fear is it is the depressed, the weak who would not be helped but rather pressured to die, and so ease our troubles rather than their own. In a society where the right to life and to live is already denied millions of unborn children, this is yet further descent into the “culture of death” that Pope St John Paul II warned against. No. We must strive to build the “civilization of love”, and love doesn’t kill off; it suffers with and finds redemption through suffering love.
Look at that great Cross that hangs above us, and we see Our Lady and St John with the dying Christ, accompanying him with love, compassion, and much care; doing all they can to assist him to die with dignity and grace. This is what ‘assisted dying’ truly means.
For suffering, is a mark of our humanity, just as Christ who became human suffered, and he suffered greatly for his love was so great. So, St Paul says: “all of us who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free”. Imagine the seedling breaking free from the seed-pod, straining towards the light, growing into a fruitful tree. We too are struggling, straining to become more fully who we are called to be, reaching for the light of heaven and that is not a painless process. But it is a process that will come to fruition as we rely on God’s grace and hope in him. For Isaiah rightly says that God’s Word does not return empty but will “succeed in what it was sent to do”. This is to say that God’s Word, Jesus Christ, comes to strengthen the dying, give grace to endure the Cross with him, and sends his Spirit to console the afflicted. Hence it is vital to anoint the sick and dying that they may receive this needful grace.
The witness of Christ, and of his saints and mystics, has been to what is called ‘redemptive suffering’ as Christians, motivated by faith and great love for Christ, suffer with Christ and die with him. But they do so with hope and resurrection joy, confident that they will rise to glory with him. Thus St Paul says: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothingcompared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Rom 8:18). One of the most beautiful deaths I have seen was of a Dominican brother who died with such dignity, surrounded by loving brothers, in the priory in Oxford. And I have been privileged to see Catholics die like this in hospitals too, surrounded by loved ones. And the image that comes to mind is of a seed buried in the ground in the hope of the resurrection. It is perishable but it rises to imperishable life (cf 1 Cor 15:17).
This is our faith and our hope as Christians; the Cross of Christ is our response to suffering, and we love and cherish all life from conception to natural death. For we are confident, and thus joyful, that the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise our mortal bodies too. For God dwells in us – the seed of glory, the Eucharist, has been planted in our bodies, and the grace of his Holy Spirit waters us and makes us flourish and yield the harvest of eternal life. This is the joy that we have to preach to a world gripped by despair and desperation. This is the mercy that truly responds to the needs of our contemporaries. This is the love that only Jesus Christ, Love made flesh, can give us; he fulfills the deepest longings of humanity.
Now, let us share this sweet and good news, and help build a civilization of love and of life.
A ruler, that is, a leader of the local community, one who is in the elite core comes to Jesus. Another who is at the very margins of the community, ostracized by society because she suffered the flow of blood, haemorrhaging for the past 12 years, comes to Jesus. One a man, another a woman. Both come to Jesus for help, and they represent all of humanity, both the powerful and the dispossessed, male and female, young and old. For they come to Jesus bearing the conditions that are common to us all: our mortality. The woman comes to Jesus suffering from a debilitating illness; the man comes to Jesus on behalf of his child who has suffered the last and greatest illness that afflicts Mankind, death itself.
And often it is sickness and death that challenges and tests our faith, isn’t it? So, these people in the Gospel represent us who are prone to the suffering that they have, who sorrow and grieve even as the father does for his dead daughter. What are we to do when we endure these mortal pains? We’re encouraged to go to Jesus.
And this takes courage; faith requires courage, hence Jesus says to the woman, “Take heart” or in other translations, simply “Courage!”. The same Greek word, in fact, is used later on in St Matthew’s Gospel when there is a storm at sea and the apostles cry out in fear. Jesus appears to them, walking on the sea in the midst of the storm, and he says: “Take heart, courage, it is I; have no fear” (Mt 14:27). The storms of the human life are its trials and sufferings: illness, grief, death. These stir us up. But God is Lord of the storms, he is able to reach out in the midst of them, and he comes to us, calling out to us to go to him in faith and hope. And this takes courage.
The woman who is not allowed to come into the city had to overcome her fear of social conventions and customs, of public disapproval and even violence if she was caught, to approach Jesus. And even so, she reaches out to just touch the tassels of his garment from behind, not daring to be seen by others. But this is enough. She has done a very brave thing, risking further social exclusion and harm just to touch his garment. And the man who had rushed out to find Jesus when his daughter had died – he must have risked humiliation. For if the crowd laughed at Jesus, they would also have ridiculed the father of the dead girl. So, he too has done a brave thing, risking reputation and public esteem to go to Christ.
They go – perhaps because they’re desperate, but hope often springs from such conditions – and they go nevertheless because they have faith. And faith takes courage. Because with courage, the man and woman in the Gospel are able to manage their fears and so go to Jesus and ask for what they need: health, well-being; salus in Latin, which becomes also salvation.
Their faith and their courage thus gains for them salus – not just physical health and healing from Christ, but above all, salvation, eternal life in God. And this is promised us too if we keep faith with Christ. So, “Courage! Take heart!”, Jesus says to us too. As a cancer patient I read about said so pithily: “Those who go to Jesus Christ find in him a cure for death”.
- preached to the Lay Dominican Fraternity in Edinburgh
Today we speak, rather unusually, of St Thomas and mean, not our brother Aquinas, but the apostle who first brought the Faith to Syria and Persia and then India; to this day Keralan Christians, still happily flourishing, are also called ‘Thomas Christians’. The Church in Syria, too, has survived until now and until recently Syria had, reputedly, the only village to still speak the mother tongue of Christ, Aramaic. But, it seems, no longer. The ancient Christian community in Syria is struggling now for its survival, and in the persecuted Christian communities of the Middle East, the Body of Christ is bleeding, wounded and raw.
We can see, if we choose to look on the internet – or occasionally in the mainstream Media when they’re interested – the wounds in Christ’s Mystical Body, the “print of the nails” (cf Jn 20:25), so to speak, imprinted in Syria and Iraq, as well as the former lands of Persia. These lands, which St Thomas had once evangelized, and so, united to the Body of Christ, are now scarred by persecution.
As Dominicans, we have even more reason to know this pain and suffering because we have family, brothers and sisters in St Dominic, who are trying to live out their Dominican vocation in Syria, in Iraq; indeed, they are trying to survive. You who will make profession tonight as lay Dominicans, or even you who will become a candidate, a ‘novice’, are joined to them.
In the words of St Paul, “you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens” (Eph 2:19) – a fitting enough word, I suppose, given the oft-cited ‘democracy’ of our Order. But if you are no longer strangers, then ‘they’, those around the world who share your profession are no longer just ‘them’, either; not strangers any more but fellow Dominicans, brothers and sisters in St Dominic and, more fundamentally, in Christ. The blood that flows in our veins, as Christians, flows in theirs too: the precious blood of Christ. And Christ’s blood, now, doesn’t just flow but bleeds out from the wounds in his Body the Church, our Body.
The first challenge for us today, then, is to, as it were, see the wound in Christ’s side and put our finger in it (cf Jn 20:27). Many in our world, tired and perplexed, would turn their faces away, but we Dominicans must look and see the suffering of our brothers and sisters; must feel the pain and tragedy of the situation; and we need to be wounded by the injustice and outrage of what is happening to our fellow Christians – and not just in the Middle East but all over the world. As Pope Francis said recently, there are more martyrs and persecuted Christians in our day than at any other time in history. Only when we truly feel the enormity of what is happening can we be moved enough to act for justice and peace, both through socio-political action and through ardent prayer.
And because we pray and are a people of faith, we also believe that nothing is beyond our Lord and God’s power to save and raise up, even if from the grave. The situation in Syria and Iraq is grave, and we may well not see the way forward. But Jesus says: “Do not be faithless, but believing” (Jn 20:27). At this time, then, we Christians are called to join with our persecuted brothers and sisters in a great act of faith and hope: to pray unfailingly. For we believe that although Christ died and was buried, he rose from the dead. For God did not allow the Body of Christ to suffer decay but he was raised to new life. Can not the same be said for Christ’s Mystical Body? God will also vindicate Christ’s Church in Persia, in Iraq, in Syria, and so on. Christ’s Mystical Body will rise from the dead, with the scars from the many wounds inflicted on her members in these places, but she will be, ultimately, victorious, forgiving, and bring peace.
For this is what the apostle St Thomas was a witness to. “Peace be with you”, the Risen Lord said (Jn 20:26). So, this was the Gospel that Thomas first preached in those lands: a Gospel of hope in the resurrection; a Gospel of peace through Christ’s saving death; a Gospel of the final triumph of divine love. May this Gospel sustain our brothers and sisters in faith and hope. May it move us Dominicans to action on their behalf, as a ‘holy preaching’ for the salvation of souls, and may St Thomas – both of them! – pray for us all.
Every day we hear stories of mounting violence and terror around the world, of grave evils done, particularly against Christians. The terrible story of Naboth who is falsely accused and stoned to death; his inheritance, a vineyard, taken from him is another tale of evil done. And yet, Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “Do not resist one who is evil” (Mt 5:39). How are we to make sense of this?
Our instinct, I think, is to defend ourselves against evil and to seek to prevent evil done. Recently, one of the offices in our chaplaincy was broken into so we have been seeking to secure the building more effectively. But does this mean that we are resisting evil? Does Jesus forbid self-defense and preventative measures against possible evils? One might come to such an erroneous conclusion if we read this teaching in isolation, which is why it is so dangerous to quote Scripture selectively. Rather, we need to read this teaching in its context.
This section of the Sermon on the Mount begins with Jesus saying: “You have heard it said…” So, where have we heard it said “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Mt 5:38)? In the legal codes found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and also in the Code of Hammurabi and in Roman Law. Hence, in Jewish, pagan and Roman law, we have heard this said. This alerts us to the fact, then, that Jesus is addressing the legal practices of his time, and these laws regulated revenge and retaliation for damages suffered. If I am injured, how much compensation does the law allow me to sue for? This is the question being addressed by Christ, and the attitude underlying it is, in part, a desire for justice, but moreover a desire for vengeance and retaliation. And the law allowed this because it sought to limit the degree of vengeance one exacted, to make revenge proportionate. So, the law “an eye for an eye” was seen as an advance in public morality because it put an end, in theory, to an endless cycle of vengeance. In ancient China, by comparison, it was not unheard of for an entire clan to be wiped out for a single harm done.
But Jesus, the divine Lawgiver, comes among us, and in his Sermon on the Mount gives a new law for a new redeemed humanity. It is the law of Love, and the most perfect practitioner of this law is also the one who preaches it: Jesus Christ. Christ’s law of love seeks to put an end to the attitude that underlies the old law; an attitude that could be so destructive, and even consume the person who is wronged. Indeed, the rise of violence in our world in our time can be said to be due to this. This attitude is the human desire not just for justice or self-preservation but for vengeance, revenge and retaliation. And this sinful attitude is in all of us; deep down we want ‘them’ to pay and, at the very least, to suffer as we have suffered. So, St Jerome comments on Christ’s new law of love, saying that “Our Lord, by doing away all retaliation, cuts off the beginnings of sin”. Personal vengeance and vindictiveness, then, is stemmed by love. And this is Our Lord’s first concern, that we should not risk, even for the sake of justice or some other good, falling into sin.
However, we might still ask, is the evil-doer to be simply unchallenged and uncorrected, then? No. The answer is found in God’s response to the evil done to Naboth, which we’ll read tomorrow. But, if I may give away the story, God says to Ahab: “Behold, I will bring evil upon you” (1 Kgs 21:21). Hence, St Paul says: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Rom 12:19). For the Lord is just and will not allow evil and injustice to have the final word.
Rather, it is his Word, risen from the dead, who will vindicate the saints, judge and punish the evil-doers, and conquer evil. Indeed, St Thomas says that the exercise of divine justice is the “direct cause of the joy of the blessed” in heaven. However, this response, in which we wait for God’s justice to be done, calls for faith and hope. Thus Christ’s law schools us in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
It’s the fiftieth and final day of the Easter season today but the Gospel takes us back to the first day, to the evening of Easter Sunday, when the Risen Christ first appeared to his apostles gathered together. So Christ comes to his Church and imparts his peace and mercy by giving the Holy Spirit, the grace of forgiveness for sins. Fifty days later, on Pentecost Sunday, the apostolic Church is gathered together again. Now, the Holy Spirit appears to the apostles, and gives to the Church the gift of tongues.
So, whereas on Easter Sunday, Christ the eternal Word breathes over the apostles, and gives the Holy Spirit, today on Pentecost Sunday, the Holy Spirit breathes over the apostles as they heard a sound “like the rush of a mighty wind” (Acts 2:2), and the Spirit gives them the eternal Word. Hence, as soon as the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles, the Church catholic, in many different languages, begins to preach “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11). For this is what the Church is for: she exists to communicate to all peoples what God has done.
What God has done, his mighty works – this is crucial. Because, very often it can seem that we Christians are here to do good works, to carry out works of social justice, of education, health care and so on. It is true that the Catholic Church is still the single largest charitable organization delivering humanitarian services and aid in the world, and all this good work, we must say, comes ultimately from God as we human beings co-operate with his grace and live out his commandments. As St Paul says: “there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one” (1 Cor 12:6).
But, as we know all too well, the Church – or, really, the Christian people – often also fails to do good works. In fact, we Catholics have been complicit in some very bad works. This week’s news from the recent history of the Irish Church – at least, as the Press widely reported it – shocked and dismayed me, as I am sure it would have horrified you and so many other people too. And so, as we gather today for Pentecost, for this feast which is often called “the birthday of the Church”, some might wonder if we have much cause to celebrate. What do we, a Church of sinners, have to say to our world especially on Pentecost Sunday?
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, pierced 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.