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.
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.
It seems sensible that if we take up a fight, we mean, or indeed, hope to win and defeat our foe. And yet, if we say someone has “put up a good fight”, we don’t necessarily mean that person has won, but that he has battled with integrity and honour; she has fought well. So it is with the martyrs who are killed, and so, seem to suffer the ultimate defeat. And yet, they have fought the good fight. They teach us what this means for a Christian.
For us to fight well, with integrity and honour means that even in the face of violence and integrity we choose what is good and true to being a Christian. That means, we choose to love, and so, are faithful to Christ even to the end. In this way, the martyr makes “the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Tim 6:12), and becomes a marturia, a witness to the hope of eternal life with Christ.
The first among today’s martyrs, St Andrew Kim Tae-Gon once said: “We have received baptism, entrance into the Church, and the honour of being called Christians. Yet what good will this do if we are Christians in name only and not in fact”. For him, and for his 102 companion martyrs of Korea, then, being a Christian in fact meant that when they were persecuted, tortured, and threatened, they chose to fight the good fight by remaining faithful to Christ. Hence, they died for the Faith, and followed Christ to the Cross, confident that they would also rise with Christ to eternal life. Thus, although death seems like a defeat, their faith in the resurrection of Jesus gave them hope of the final victory and vindication of Love over evil.
Every Christian will have these battles to take up, even if they’re not always as dramatic as that of the Korean martyrs. But, as St Paul reminds Timothy, each of us will struggle with temptations, the love of money and prestige, envy and the other addictions and desires of this world. And we will struggle, too, against the powers and politics of our world. Each of these will involve a fight of some kind. In all our fights, may we always be faithful to Christ, acting as Christians not only in name but in fact. That is to say, let us always choose love, and so, to follow Jesus.
For then, we will have fought well, and will have won, even if we have to sacrifice much. For even though St Andrew Kim and his companions lost their lives, they gained unity with Christ, who is “the Resurrection and the Life” (Jn 11:25). Thus, we honour them, and ask them to pray for us and for the Church in Korea.
What a beautiful sunny day it’s been today… and days like this when the sun is shining down on us are a blessing; they lift the spirits. We know that even when dark clouds hide the sun from us for days on end, and when it is raining heavily here below, the sun is still shining strongly beyond the clouds; it’s just that we can’t see and feel it. God’s promises to us is like the sunshine, coming from the Son, Jesus Christ, but we cannot fully feel its warmth, or bathe in the light yet. Not until the troubles and clouds of this life are parted, and the “sanctuary in heaven is opened” to us. But we know the sun is there, we know God, who is always faithful, will fulfill his promises if we are faithful. And we know this because in today’s feast we are offered a vision of a Woman clothed with the sun. Like a sunny day, this feast offers us hope, and lifts our spirits, and encourages us to have faith in God’s promises.
And the promise God made to Mary, and which he fulfilled in her life is not made to her just because she is Mother of God - although, this, of course, is a singular privilege. Rather we celebrate Mary’s Assumption, when “the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory”… because Mary is ‘Mother of Man’, the Mother of Humanity.
What do I mean by this? Well, we’re used to thinking of Jesus as “true God from true God”, but he is also true Man, fully human. And the defining characteristic of the human being is to be a unity of rational soul-and-body. The human body, then, is ensouled, and it is sacred from conception to the grave. And so, when we speak of Christ becoming human, we say that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us”. The eternal Word took his flesh from the Virgin Mary, fashioning a body for himself in her womb, with a human face that is in her image and likeness. And so, although Mary is called ‘Mother of God’, she is also rightly called ‘Mother of Man’, since she is Mother of Jesus Christ who is true Man.
If we look at our first reading, it is interesting to note that the writer of the Apocalypse models Mary after the first Mother of Humanity. Like Eve in Genesis, she is called ‘Woman’, and she is subject to the pangs of childbirth. So, Mary fully shares our human condition. However, she is surrounded by heavenly light: the sun, and stars, and these speak of her union with God through grace, and her heavenly destiny. She stands on the moon - the moon which waxes and wanes is a symbol of unfaithfulness. And so, because she is faithful to God’s Word, she has received the fulfillment of his Word. So, if Christ is the second Adam (as St Paul suggests in the second reading), then the second Eve is Mary, because she is, as I’ve suggested, the Mother of Man. But she is not the Mother of fallen humanity, as Eve was. No. She is the Mother of true Man.
What does it mean to be truly human? It is sometimes said that to err is human, but actually to sin is to be less-than-human because sin de-humanizes us and deforms us, and we fail to be truly made in the image of God. It is Christ, the second Adam who restores the beauty of the image of God in us. By his grace, he remakes us in his image as true Man, and we are made to shine like the Son. The first person to receive this grace in its fullness - and so to be clothed in the Sun, and to be crowned with stars - is Mary, who is thus immaculate, and (as the psalm says) “the king desires her beauty”. This is why she can be called the Mother of true Man: we mean that Mary is the Mother of Redeemed Humanity, of all people who are united to Christ in baptism, and who are promised a share in his divine life. In short, Mary is called ‘Mother of the Church’.
Today, then, we celebrate because Mary, our Mother is the first to rise body and soul into heaven to be with God, where she can pray for us who are still making our way through the clouds of life. When our earthly life is ended, we hope that the promise given to each of us in our baptism will be fulfilled by God’s grace, so that we too will be assumed body and soul into heavenly glory!
Sometimes people speak as if heaven is a place for spirits only, or we might be tempted to think that we are souls trapped in bodies. And it’s easy to see why. For example, someone who has a debilitating disease like motor neurone disease; the body fails, but the mind and spirit are still active… But more perniciously, our society today often shows a contempt for the human body, or treats it as a commodity or sex object. Drug abuse, pornography and prostitution, embryonic research, the sale and trafficking of human organs, and so on, are all examples of the denigration of the body, and ultimately of the human person.
But our Faith believes, and this feast reminds us, that the resurrection of the dead will take place in the flesh, and so we should revere the human body. As the Church Father Tertullian said: Caro cardo salutis: “the flesh is the hinge of salvation”. We believe in God who is creator of the flesh. We believe in the Word made flesh in order to redeem the flesh. We believe in the resurrection of the flesh, which is the fulfillment of both the creation and (the) redemption of the flesh. And so, we celebrate Mary’s Assumption because her assumption is the fulfillment of God’s promise to redeemed humanity. So, because Mary is ‘Mother of Man’, we, her children celebrate this feast, and it is ray of hope in our lives.
In the meantime, we wait for God’s promises to be fulfilled, waiting for the resurrection of our flesh, and we pray that no rainy days or dark clouds will ever diminish our faith that the sun is shining strongly up there. Every evening, in the Prayer of the Church, we repeat the words of Mary. They are a ray of light in our lives, since what God has done for Mary, he will also do for us: “ My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit exults in God my saviour; because he has looked upon his lowly servant. Yes, from this day forward, all generations will call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me”!
- preached at a retreat focussed on the Encyclical, Lumen Fidei
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, asking 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. Or sometimes, we have pray persistently because it is thus that we learn what we truly desire. For what we see in our First Reading is an extraordinary dialogue between God and Abraham. As he seems to bargain with God, there is, in fact, a testing of Abraham’s faith and of his desires, so that, through prayer, Man learns to ask for what humanity truly needs, which is to see God’s justice and mercy, to experience compassion and love. And God does answer humanity’s longing for mercy, not immediately. Not even definitively through Abraham, but through Christ. Because it is when Christ becomes Man, and hangs on the Cross, that we see God acting most perfectly to save the whole world – every sinner. And he does so for the sake of just one righteous Man: Jesus Christ. For Christ is God’s final answer to Abraham’s prayers, and indeed, the prayers of every human person.
As we read in Lumen Fidei: “the life of Jesus now appears as the locus of God’s definitive intervention, the supreme manifestation of his love for us. The word which God speaks to us in Jesus is not simply one word among many, but his eternal Word (cf. Heb 1:1-2). God can give no greater guarantee of his love, as Saint Paul reminds us (cf. Rom 8:31-39)” (§15).
So, when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, they are asking to share in his perfect confidence in God’s love, to enter into that same relationship of love that is between the Son and the Father. Hence, Jesus teaches us that prayer is an act of faith, of trusting in the Father’s love and care for us. And we can rely on God because he has given us his Son, who offered himself on the Cross for the salvation of all. So, Pope Francis says: “Christ’s total self-gift overcomes every suspicion and enables me to entrust myself to him completely [and] Christ’s death discloses the utter reliability of God’s love above all in the light of his resurrection” (Lumen Fidei, §16, 17).
As such, our Christian faith is a resurrection faith. This means that we trust 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 shines a light on these difficulties, and that in him – in his life, death, and resurrection, we find an answer to the deepest longings and questions of humanity. Hence, Lumen Fidei says: “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light” (§57).
So, we need to continue to seek those answers by remaining close to Christ and contemplating his life and words, putting our questions to him, with the confidence that he will bring light to our darkness - not instantly, but in God’s good time. This requires of us a patient endurance, a contemplative hope like Our Lady’s, waiting for God’s to reveal his good plan in time. And as Pope Francis says: “time propels [us] towards the future and encourages us to go forward in hope”.
And we have this hope because of what Jesus, who is Truth and Love, has promised us: “The one who asks always receives; the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will always have the door opened to him”. So, let us turn to him in persistent prayer, asking, seeking, knocking. May the door of Faith be opened even wider for us so that we may enter, through it, into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is called the parakletos, the One-Who-Is-Called-Alongside you and me. He stands beside us, as our friend, but also as our counsellor and advocate. The language being used here is deliberately legal, and one calls to mind a courtroom situation in which we stand accused. Often, many people think that God accuses us of our sins, or we might blame ourselves and feel downcast because of what we’ve done, or it may look like the Church is pointing fingers at people to condemn them as sinners. But this cannot be; it’s diabolical. Because, quite simply, the one who accuses us, the one who blames us, and points fingers at us, and wants us to stand condemned of sin is not God, and not his holy Church, but the Devil. The Devil is the diabolos, the one who hurls his accusations across at us. It is he who attacks you and me with recriminations, and so, causes fear and troubles us. But Jesus says: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27). Because against the prosecution of the Devil stands the parakletos, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in Jesus’ name to defend us, to raise us up through his grace, to restore us to peace.
For the peace that Christ gave us, which he won for us through his death and resurrection, and which we have through baptism, had been disturbed through sin. We experience a kind of disintegration in ourselves when we listen to Christ’s words, hear his teaching and say we love him, but we do not keep his word; we do not love him enough. So, sin splits us apart, and that is what the diabolos, the one who throws things apart, always wants to do – divide, splinter, and disintegrate. Thus, we find that we might know something to be good and true, we want to behave as children of the light, redeemed by Christ, but we don’t. We use our human freedom to choose our older ways – those more familiar and comfortable sins that our wills are too weak to resist. St Paul describes the situation vividly: “ I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…” (Rom 7:15). And then, when we fail and fall, the Devil keeps us down, standing on our backs and telling us how rotten, how guilty, how hypocritical we are. It’s the kind of thing an unforgiving and judgmental Press metes out on public sinners, only far worse.
But in this darkness of sin and despair, as we’re being prosecuted and accused, we need to call out for our defence attorney; we just lack the ability to defend ourselves against so wily an Enemy. The Holy Spirit, we’re assured today, is the parakletos; we just need to call on him, and he will come alongside us as our defender. He comes to plead our case, to counsel and convince us. And what does he say?
“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.