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.
You’re probably familiar with the phrase “count your blessings”. So, why was David punished for apparently doing this? How had he sinned? In fact, what David did was not to count his blessings, as such, but to count what he believed was his. He thought he’d conquered and owned Israel and all within it, and it was his right to make a census of the resources available to him. And it was certainly an impressive number.
But Israel belongs to God, and so does all in it. Indeed, as the psalm says: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps 24:1). For all being owes its existence to God, so that life itself and everything we have is a gift, a blessing, something we receive from Another.
David’s grave sin, then, was to disregard this and to think that he owed God nothing; he’d earned it all himself. And the temptation to think this, and that we’re therefore independent of God, is always present. The money we have, the things we buy, the achievements we attain, the lives we’ve built – there is the danger of thinking that all this is simply my own, that these are somehow rightly due, or owed, to me and my efforts alone. Then God’s blessings become my entitlements, my property, my rights. As a consequence, life itself is owed to me, taken for granted, and indeed, totally subject to my control. Even grace and salvation can become things that God must give me, that he owes me. Thus many people are so indignant about the notion of hell, as though God owed us heaven no matter what we freely choose to do with our lives. Or people claim it is unfair to be held eternally accountable for our unrepented sins. But something can only be unfair or unjust if what is owed us is not given to us. But does God owe us life? Do we have a right to his mercy and forgiveness? Must he save us and give us eternal life?
God does not owe us anything at all. Not even existence, let alone salvation and eternal life. As God said to St Catherine of Siena: “Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you will have beatitude within your grasp. You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS”.
Beatitude, then, is seeing that despite our nothingness God does give us being. Despite our sinfulness, he is merciful to us. Although we do not deserve it, God does desire to save us and give us a share in his divine life. And he does all this not because he owes them to us. Rather, he owes it to himself, who is Love, to be gracious and merciful to us; to come and heal and save us. So, it is for the sake of his Son, Jesus Christ, and by his merits, that God redeems us and gives us eternal life. Hence, St John says that “from [Christ’s] fulness have we all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16). So, when we truly count our blessings, we realize that everything we have, beginning with life itself, is a gift, a blessing, a grace – undeserved and unearned.
How, then, can we respond? The psalmist says: “What shall I render to the Lord for all that he has given to me? I will lift up the Chalice of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps 116:12f). In the Dominican rite, these words are said just before the Offertory of the Mass because the Eucharist is the only adequate response to all we owe God. But God is so generous with us that even the Mass is his Gift. For it is through Christ’s grace that we can be here; that we are united to Christ in baptism so that, together with the Son, we can offer our whole being to the Father in love, in obedience, and in worship. So, “let us give thanks to the Lord our God” for “it is right and just”.
When Jesus raises the only son of the widow of Nain, he does so with his words. God’s Word is creative; it is by his Word that the heavens and the earth were made. So, now, by his Word, Jesus works a new creation, and restores the young man to life. But what is interesting in the Greek text is that Jesus does not use the passive form, “Be raised”, but the active form, “Arise”, or in other translations “Get up”. So, although Christ is the cause of the miracle, the recipient is not entirely passive but co-operative.
It is the same in the Christian life of grace. Although God is the giver of all grace, and the cause of our being alive in the Holy Spirit, even so, we have to be open to his grace and co-operate with it, willing and choosing each day to live the new life that was first given to us in baptism. In baptism, we were raised to a new life, but to get up and live this life, we need to actively be involved and want to live as children of God.
Now, the first thing the young man does is to speak. It is a sign that he is truly alive because he breathes in before he does this distinctively human act. So, too, we who have come to new life in baptism also take in the breath of the Holy Spirit, and then speak the praises of God and profess the true faith, enabled to share the life-giving Gospel with others.
Hence, the words which we speak are meant to build-up, restore order, and secure a better future. For this is what Christ gave to the widow of Nain when her only son was given back to her by Christ’s Word. So, we Christians, and especially bishops, as St Paul suggests today, are called to share in the work of Jesus Christ, using words to bring new life, unity, and peace.
With this in mind, as our diocese prepares for the ordination of her new bishop this coming Saturday, let us pray for Mgr Leo Cushley.
The divine name is given to Moses: “Ehyeh asher ehyeh" (Ex 3:14), often translated as, “I am who I am". Thus, God is revealed to be Being itself, the uncreated Creator from whom all creation receives being and existence. So, as St Paul says to the Greek philosophers, “in him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:24). Thus we can say that all creation depends on God, and so, rests in him.
When St Augustine says, then, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until we rest in you”, he’s saying something fundamental about our creaturely dependence on God. All creation tends toward God who gives it life, and, indeed, relies utterly on God for existence and being itself. Richard Dawkins, drawing on Darwinian evolutionary theory, shares this insight when he anthropomorphizes the gene as “selfish”, and thus, describes it to be something that strives for survival. At essence this biological drive for evolutionary success describes a metaphysical impulse for life and being. It speaks of the fundamental restlessness of every creature to rest, at last, in God. Hence, these evolutionary biologists echo, albeit in their own scientific language, St Paul, who speaks of all creation “groaning” as it awaits redemption, longing for the fullness of life in God (cf Rom 8:22f). There’s nothing selfish in this, but rather, an openness to the Other, the “I Am” who gives us being – this is an openness to Love. So, I would say that both scientist and theologian can agree that creatures long for life, and this means, ultimately, to rest in God.
But St Augustine understands the human heart’s natural desire for God as different from just a pre-rational creaturely longing for life, of course. Our rational nature uniquely gives Mankind the capacity to desire eternal life, and we will not rest, we will not be happy, until our “immortal longings” (as Shakespeare put it) are met. Thus, we are made for God, and we restlessly seek him. But, often, we labour after passing pleasures, seeking restlessly but not finding lasting happiness. Hence God comes in search of us.
Jesus comes that we “might have life and have it in abundance” (Jn 10:10). So, in Christ our God, who is “the Resurrection and the Life” (Jn 11:25), all creation finds the Life on whom all being depends, and the Life towards whom all creatures tend. Moreover, for us human beings, we find, at last, in Christ “life in abundance”, that is, the eternal life for which we long but which Jesus alone can give. We receive a foretaste of this, and our longings are satisfied when we receive him into our hearts during the Mass. For Christ, the Bread of Life, has in himself every sweetness and delight, and so, gives us rest from our labours after more transient joys.
However, as the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, the divine name in Hebrew may not be so much about God’s being but more about God’s providential activity. He asserts that Ehyeh asher ehyeh “means ‘I will be what, where, or who I will be’… God is defining himself as the Lord of history who is about to intervene in an unprecedented way to liberate a group of slaves from the mightiest empire of the ancient world and lead them on a journey towards liberty”. Hence, the divine name is about what God does for our good. It calls us, then, in faith, to rest assured that God will act for us, so we can set down those worries and cares under which we’re heavily laden. For God has intervened definitively to save us. He acts powerfully in Jesus Christ, who is God-with-us. So, when Christ calls us to rest in him, he is inviting us to faith in God’s Providence, to rest assured in who Jesus is. And this, too, is revealed in Christ’s holy name: Yeshua, which means, ‘God saves’.
Christianity, as we know it in the West, is dying. And I think one of the causes is a certain misconception of God and the moral life based principally on laws and obligations. Perhaps you recognize this caricature too? God is a Dictator, his laws and commandments arbitrary and arcane; the Church and her clergy are policemen who enforce God’s laws; and the moral life is about submitting our will to God’s will and laws, and not getting caught out. For from the late medieval period, laws and obligations became paramount, and the moral life became about duty and a gritted-teeth submission to God’s will.
In this worldview, for example, celibacy becomes a legal discipline that is imposed on priests and religious, sexual morality is reduced to what we can do without crossing the line, and religious observance concerned with getting away with the bare minimum.
But where is the charity in any of this, wherein the lover seeks to do the utmost out of a desire for Christ, the divine Lover? Where is the wisdom, whereby we learn from Christ who is Wisdom incarnate? As the Gospel acclamation, quoting the psalmist, says: “Teach me your paths, O God, lead me in your truth” (Ps 24:4f) – lead me in the abundant Way of Love that is Jesus Christ.
So, for centuries, a kind of Christianity preoccupied with laws, duties and moral obligations has, I think, led to a certain death; it has sapped the vitality of the Church. And now, that form of Christianity is dying. Why? Because this legalistic minimalism detaches us from Love, from Christ, who embodies and perfects the wisdom, truth, and goodness of God’s Law. As the Dominican moral theologian, Servais Pinckaers said, “Because of its focus on obligations [we have become] detached… from everything that goes beyond legal imperatives: from the search for perfection…; from the interior mystical movement of the heart so closely linked to love; and from spirituality in general”. Hence, so many Catholics have looked elsewhere for meaning, and for spirituality and mysticism. Thus St Paul rightly says that “the written code kills” (2 Cor 3:6).
But, notice: it’s not that the Law is bad in itself. It’s our attitude to the Law that harms us. It’s a mere formal observance of the Law; empty lip-service; ritualistic going-through-the-motions that deadens us and kills the good in the Law. Many have forgotten what the Law is for. As the Code of Canon Law says: “the supreme law is the salvation of souls” (CIC 1752).
Hence, today’s Gospel reminds us that the Law will not pass away because it remains to accomplish in us a Christ-like love which saves us. The problem isn’t with the Law, as such, but with a minimalist attitude to the Law such that we don’t embrace the wisdom and good it expresses; so that it can’t lead to the generosity and magnanimity of love which always seeks more than the bare minimum formal requirements. If we seek to do the least, then we shall be “called least in the kingdom” (Mt 5:19). So, we’re challenged by the Gospel to embrace the fullness of the Law as Christ does, and so, “have life… abundantly”. (Jn 10:10)
However, with the coming of Christ, the Law is no longer principally found in a “written code” but in the person of Jesus Christ who is Love incarnate. So, we Christians learn to love, not from any book or text, as such, but from the living Word made flesh; from the communion of saints that is Christ’s Mystical Body; and from the Spirit whose grace teaches us Christ’s Law of Love (cf CCC 1972), and forms us in virtue. This Way, as St Paul says, “gives life” (cf 2 Cor 3:6) because we participate, through charity, in the eternal life of Jesus Christ.
So, as a certain form of Christianity dies, we hope for the resurrection promised by the New Evangelization which strives to convert our hearts so that we love and follow the person of Jesus Christ more perfectly. As Pope Benedict XVI said: “May this Year of Faith make our relationship with Christ the Lord increasingly firm, since only in him is there the certitude for looking to the future and the guarantee of an authentic and lasting love”.
“Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (Jn 14:13f). For many people there can be something disturbing about this statement. Because how often have we asked, begged, and prayed for something, and nothing seems to happen? Our prayer, it appears, is unheard and unanswered. And this issue can lead to one’s falling away from God and the loss of faith. So, it seems to me that how we understand Jesus’ words is crucial.
Much, I think, depends on our perspective of life and its purpose. This life, as yesterday’s Gospel says, is a journey and we are on our way home to the Father’s house where Christ has prepared a room for us. So, we are preparing now to live with God, to share his deathless life, to have the endless joy of communion with Him. Life, then, is a preparation for eternal love, and Christ has come to show us the Way and teach us the Truth on how we might have Life, and have it in abundance; eternal life. So, this life is, in a sense, the journey, the preparation, the anticipation of something far greater to come: Life itself – being one with God through Love. And this, we might term ‘salvation’.
This perspective isn’t intuitive. Because the prevailing view is to think that this life is all that there is, and you get one stab at it, so we should enjoy it to the fullest and have life in abundance now. Or some might propose the idea of re-incarnation, in which case we have many chances at life until we learn and evolve into a higher state. But Christ who is the Truth teaches us that there is just one life – this one, right now – which is why every free choice we make, every human act, matters. And what road we take today affects where we shall go. Jesus is the Way to Life, so the Christian follows in his footsteps, desiring to make the same journey as Christ. This journeying we might also call ‘sanctification’.
Now, if this is our perspective, what might be the aim of all prayer? If we are on a plane travelling to a nice sunny destination, what do we hope for? That we get there safely. And this, I believe, is what prayer is fundamentally about. We pray, ultimately, that we might be saved by God’s grace. This is why Jesus says: “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it”. And Jesus’ name literally means ‘God is salvation’, or ‘God saves’. Hence the angel Gabriel says at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).
And Jesus adds that what we pray for, that is, salvation, is brought about so that “the Father may be glorified in the Son”. As St Irenaeus says, “the glory of God is a living Man”, that is to say, a person who enjoys eternal life in heaven. So, the Father is glorified in the triumph of his grace when a sinner becomes a saint through following in the Son’s footsteps. And Irenaeus adds: “the life of Man consists in beholding God”, for it is only in heaven that Man can see God’s face.
This, of course, is what Philip asks for at the start of our Gospel passage. He wants to see the Father. And Jesus’ response is to exhort Philip to have faith in him, to co-operate with the Spirit so that even now in this life he can begin, practice, prepare to live the life of heaven through works of love, and to pray, in faith, for salvation at last in Christ’s name.
Everything else that we pray for is ordered to this end – our final salvation. And we should pray to God for salvation because this is the one thing that only God alone can grant; we can never earn it or win it. On the other hand, bodily healing, material goods, world peace, and so on, are works which can be brought about by Man in partnership with God’s grace, or sometimes through some miracle. So we may certainly also pray about these things. However, in praying, let us not forget that the lives of the apostles and saints, and of Christ himself, tell us that we will not necessarily be spared illness, pain, suffering, humiliation, and death. Hence, we pray in Jesus’ name that we may endure these trials, which are part of our human condition, with Christ in faith so that finally we may see God face to face, and rest in Love. Now, about this kind of prayer, Jesus answers: “I will do it” (Jn 14:14).
Three things happen to Abraham in today’s First Reading. Firstly, God chooses him, and makes a covenant with him. We might say that God gives Abraham his word. But, the tendency is to think of a covenant as just a contract. After all, when we make a contract we give someone our word, we promise to fulfill a certain obligation in return for a certain remuneration. But contracts usually (and ought to) exchange just property, goods, and services, not people. Rather, what God exchanges with Abraham is a covenant. It is something personal and relational. A covenant is an exchange of love between people. And this covenant that God made with Abraham and his people is extended to all humanity through the gift of baptism. In baptism, God gives us his Word, Jesus Christ and pours his Spirit of love into our hearts. Through baptism, we become one with Christ and share in his Sonship; a family bond, a covenant and exchange of love is created between God our Father and each of us.
Two other things that happen to Abraham in today’s reading points towards baptism. Abraham is given a new name by God. The gift of a name is a sign of a new state of life or vocation. Abram had been called by God to be the father of his people, and because he had entered into a covenant with God, he was given a new name, a family name, you might say, to indicate this. So, too, when we are baptised (or sometimes, at Confirmation), we receive a new name as a sign of our new birth and calling as God’s children. Our Christian name is a mark of our covenant with God.
Thirdly, Abraham is given a royal dignity and the promise of land, a kingdom. So, too, at our baptism we were anointed just as the kings of Israel were anointed; indeed, just as Christ, the Anointed One was anointed. This is a reminder that because we share in Christ’s kingship through our baptismal covenant with God, we are meant to reign with Christ in heaven, to “inherit the kingdom prepared for [us] from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34).
Hence, Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “If any one keeps my word, he will never see death” (Jn 8:51). For any one who is baptised into Christ, the living Word, and remains in the Word; any one who keeps Christ’s sanctifying grace in his soul, will never see death but will have eternal life. This grace, which can be lost through mortal sin – deadly sin – is restored to us through the gift of the sacrament of reconciliation. In confession, there is once more this covenantal exchange between us and God’s living Word. He speaks his re-creating Word of mercy and healing, his Spirit of love restores us to grace, renewing our covenant with God. And God’s Word is given to us again, coming to dwell in our soul, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Heaven is restored to our souls. But even if we had not broken our covenant with God through mortal sin, we are still being strengthened with God’s grace in this sacrament, healed by his love from the wounds that every little sin inflicts on us, and we’re being embraced by Christ.
So, tonight, I invite you again to come to the Reconciliation Service, beginning at 8pm, to sunbathe in the Presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar, and to renew our covenant with God. As Pope Francis reminds us: “Never tire of asking forgiveness, because [God] never tires of forgiving us”.
God, who is pure Act, does not ever rest because he sustains the universe, and holds all that is in being. If God ever rested, so to speak, all existence would cease! Hence, the rabbis understood that the language in Genesis about God resting on the Sabbath is just a figure of speech; an encouragement for humanity to rest so that we are not enslaved to our work but are mindful to take time to maintain our relationship with God and neighbour. But, fundamentally speaking, God is always at work, acting to sustain all that is. Only God is exempt from keeping the Sabbath.
This doctrine of creation, and this divine exemption from the Sabbath rest is what Jesus has in mind when he says: “My Father is working still, and I am working” (Jn 5:17). It’s a breathtaking statement of his divinity, his equality with God. No wonder the Jews are shocked.
Moreover, as evidence that God worked on the Sabbath, the rabbis pointed to the fact that people were born and died on the Sabbath. This is to say that God gave life and he gave judgement on the Sabbath. Jesus claims that he, as Son, also does these divine works. Hence, “the Son gives life to whom he will” and the Father “has given all judgement to the Son” (Jn 5:21f). These claims further intensify Jesus’ identification with the Father; Jesus is God.
But today’s discourse, of course, has to be seen in relation to yesterday’s Gospel, to the healing of the man who had been lame for thirty-eight years. It is this work that Jesus likens to the Father’s work on the Sabbath of giving life and judgement. For it is the work of the Son to bring life, too, but not in the same way as the Father does. Rather, the Son brings life by healing all that excludes us from communion, from life and love in community. So, after that lame man was healed, Jesus later found him in the Temple, in the hub of the Jewish community where he is reclaiming his place in society in relation to God and to his fellow Man. Indeed, that man was healed and freed by Christ so that he can do what the Sabbath demands, namely establish and maintain a just and good relationship with God and neighbour. As St Paul says: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).
Like pregnant mothers we’ve been awaiting a birth; invited by the liturgy into the silence expectation of Advent. But the incarnation of the divine Word has already happened. God has taken human flesh – Mary’s flesh – and already dwells among us, tabernacled in the Virgin Mother’s womb. Christ is not yet born, but he is from the moment of his conception, Emmanuel, God-with-us in the person of Jesus Christ. By uniting himself to our humanity at his incarnation in Mary’s womb, God has “united himself in some fashion with every human being” (Gaudium et spes, 22). Because of this, we believe that every human life is sacred: loved into being by God, and so, worthy of our love, respect, and reverence.
This truth is underlined today by St Luke’s Gospel account of the Visitation, as we call it. For the first two people to recognize the presence of Emmanuel in Our Lady’s womb are Elizabeth and John. These two, in fact, represent the most vulnerable in our society today, those whose divine right to life is often challenged, and, not infrequently, simply for reasons of convenience. For Elizabeth and John stand for the elderly and the unborn child; they stand for the vulnerable whom we are called to protect, cherish, and ‘visit’ with our love.
In a recent lecture in Oxford, the Dominican bishop Anthony Fisher noted that economic pressures on public healthcare have led to so-called “age rationing”, whereby the elderly are isolated and intentionally deprived of medical care to hasten their death, and so, reduce their economic burden. This hastening of death contrasts sharply with today’s Gospel, in which Our Lady hastens to Elizabeth, bearing in her womb the Author of Life himself. So, too, we are called to be bearers of life, and hasten to bring life, human flourishing, and true respect for human dignity to all people.
In our reverence for the sanctity of human life, and in our care for human dignity at every stage, we recognize with faith that God is Emmanuel, present and with us in our humanity.
“The end is nigh!” The apocalyptic preacher is sometimes caricatured as going around shouting this: “The end is nigh!”. And yet how does this make us feel? Alarmed? Scared? Worried? But why? If, instead, the apocalyptic preacher said: “You have reached your destination”, in a soothing Sat-Nave voice, would that help? Not really, I suspect, even though that is, essentially, what the apocalyptic preacher means to say. It seems to me that what makes the end of the world so frightening, though (leaving aside how it happens), is that it is the end of the world as we know it. So, what we fear, really, is the unknown. And whether we speak of the end of our earthly life in death, or the end of the entire world as we know it, there is a certain unknown about what follows the end, and, it seems to me, our fear stems from this.
Except, we Christians are not left completely in the dark about what happens after the end. On the contrary, what follows after death and the Apocalypse is light. As St John says, in the life to come, there is “no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Apoc 21:23). Or, as Jesus says today: “Heaven and earth may pass away, but my words will not pass away”. And Christ’s words are, as the psalmist says, “a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Ps 118:105). So, what follows after the end is light. And this light is a person, Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the World (cf Jn 8:12); it is He who is the Word of God who endures forever, who will not pass away. For Christ is the Resurrection and the Life (cf Jn 11:25).
Thus, Jesus promises us that after the distress and destruction of death and the end of the world, he is present to call us to himself, to raise us up, to give new life, and to enlighten our paths forward to the heavenly city where God gives us his light and glory. After death, then, is Jesus. And he is only an unknown to be feared if we have not, in this life, now, come to know and love him as our truest friend. But if we use our lifetime well, then we are led through the gateways of death to light, friendship with God, and eternal life in Him. So, as Shakespeare put it: Death is “a consummation devoutly to be wished”. For through death, through the end of all things, we have reached our destination. So, when one says “The end is nigh!”, one doesn’t just mean that things are finished, show’s over, but more significantly, that the goal of our human life is near, that the Lord is at hand. For Jesus is “the Alpha and the Omega… the beginning and the end” (cf Apoc 22:13).
If this is true on the cosmic and the individual human scale, then it is true of the little deaths and ends in our lives, and every moment in between: Jesus is forever Emmanuel, God-with-us. There is an uncertainty and distress that comes, sometimes, at graduation, or with unemployment, or with the end of a relationship. Every now and again, life as we know it ends; our world is shaken, and the future is frightening and unknown; these moments are never easy. But we can know one thing. In these moments, Jesus, our end, is “near, at the very gates”. If we trust him, and so, open our hearts and lives to him, Jesus comes alongside us in our transient troubles to lead us forward with his eternal Word as our light and hope.
Jesus reveals the kind of Christ he is: one who “must suffer many things”, and in every age and every place, those who are called Christians must follow him in this, in the hope of being raised with Christ.
Today we recall sixteen Christians who followed the king of martyrs to the Cross in Japan. These sixteen, both ordained and lay, are predominantly Dominican saints, but the saint I want to remember especially is one Lawrence Ruiz, the first Filipino martyr after whom I have taken my religious name.
Lorenzo was born in Manila, the Philippines, and he was educated by the Dominicans and hired by them as a scribe. He was married with children, was a member of the Rosary Confraternity, and sacristan at the Dominican church - a church you can still visit - in Binondo, a suburb of Manila.
In 1636, he was accused of being involved in a crime, and if he was found guilty, he would have been killed. 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. They put him on a ship with Dominican missionaries so that he could escape the Philippines. Lorenzo thought they were headed for Macao, but instead the missionaries were bound for Nagasaki to help the fiercely 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, and 14 months later he died from terrible torture on 29th September 1637. But “for everything there is a season and a time”, and in God’s Providence, this was Lorenzo’s time, and so, he was given the grace to embrace his death at Nagasaki. But there was a crucial difference between the death that awaited him in Manila, and what he endured in Japan.