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.
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.
A friend and I visited the National Museum of Scotland recently and there were so many things to see that we rushed around from one exhibit to another. But one display had us transfixed with morbid fascination. It was called ‘The Maiden’, a beheading machine made in Scotland in 1564, some two centuries before the French Revolution and the guillotine, and over 150 people had been executed by it. Today’s feast also seems to have at its centre an instrument of torture and execution, and it may appear somewhat gruesome or shocking, or even repulsive, to celebrate the cross. And it would be so, were it not for who the Victim of the Holy Cross is, and what he accomplished through it.
For God chose to mount the wood of the Cross as his means of showing the world the depths of his love for Mankind: a sacrificial love that is stronger than death, that conquers human violence, and that ends the reign of sin. The vertical and horizontal arms of the Cross thus remind us of God’s love that reconciles Man with God, and unites us to one another, through Christ who is our peace and reconciliation. At the same time, the Cross reminds us of the sufferings of humanity and of the wicked deeds we’re capable of inflicting on one another; a reminder of the wickedness of sin that Christ overcame on the Cross, and also that God is with us in our pain and suffering. Hence, the Cross reveals on the one hand the goodness of God and, on the other hand, the evil of sin.
Thus, the Cross becomes the true Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Eden, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit of that tree, greedy for the devil’s false promise of divinity, and so, by choosing to trust in another than God, their friendship with God was ruptured. But now, through Christ’s obedience and perfect trust in God, that dynamic is overturned. For, on the Cross, Jesus restores mankind to friendship with God and becomes the health-giving fruit of the Tree of Life, so that, whoever looks at it shall live. But we’re not invited to just look at the Cross but, moreover, to take up our Cross and to follow Christ: to follow him by learning to conquer sin in our hearts, to master our selfish desires, and above all, by learning to love.
The temptation in reading today’s Gospel is to say that only the intention and motivation matters, and that external matters are unimportant. But that would be true only if we were angels, that is, purely spiritual beings; pure intellect. The other temptation we often face is to resort to just the performance of the act, going through the motions for the sake of due observance, but our heart is not in it; the external act is stripped of it’s interior meaning and significance. Just as animals feed but don’t dine, the merely meaningless performance of an act inclines us towards our animal natures. But we’re not beasts either. We human beings are rational animals, a combination of the angelic and animal, being a unity of body and spirit, of external physical acts and the willed intellect.
But this tug towards one extreme or the other, this temptation to divide body and spirit, mind and matter, to dichotomize rather than unite, is nothing new – one of the oldest heresies of dualism, indeed. For one of the lasting effects of original sin is precisely this dis-integration of the human person so that we constantly struggle to hold the internal and the external together. For all too often our acts become routine, and our mind wanders. Many times, I have sung the Divine Office, and not noticed it. Or we can sit at Mass and the familiar actions and words wash over us without our hearts ever engaging in it. Conscious of this, the Second Vatican Council called for “full, conscious, and actual participation” in the Liturgy. Not “active participation” as it’s often been mistranslated, because we can make an idol of just actively doing things, but participatio actuosa, actual participation. In other words, we’re reminded to put our hearts into what we do, and to do what our hearts incline us to. Hence, for example, we sing because our hearts are full of love and joy, but at the same time, that very act of singing stirs up our love and joy.
This is what it means to be a sacramental people, for meaningful –significant – actions best suit our human natures. God could just have used words to appeal to our minds and just communicated with us spiritually, but because we’re a union of body and soul, Christ affirms the goodness of material things, and uses these outward signs to communicate his grace to us. And, so, in a similar way, external acts can be said to reveal an inner disposition and also actualize what they reveal.
The danger of our ‘sacramentality’ is that we risk concentrating just on the externals, obsessing over the details to the extent that we forget why we’re doing these things. Then, our deeds become heartless, and we are prone to behaving unjustly, or even uncharitably for the sake of such externalities. But the other extreme is to react against this legalism by ignoring and neglecting all externalities, their proper rules and details, and to think that in doing so, we’re being simple and pure and concentrating on what really matters. But we can’t do this by neglecting matter. Both these approaches are dangerous and, because they are dualistic, they’re unnatural to the human person. The human way is to pay attention to both inward and outward matters, and to hold both external and internal in tension, so that one mutually enriches the other. So, where the temptation is often to dichotomize and say “either–or”, the Catholic way, which appeals to our body–soul human nature, is to unite, re-integrate, and say “both–and”.
We see this being expressed in today’s readings which exhort us both to observe the external demands of the Law and to examine the heart that underlies our actions, so that the two come together gracefully. As St Augustine said: “The law was given that grace might be sought; and grace was given, that the law might be fulfilled”.
Much is put forward in the name of human rights, and it would seem that we live in a world, which, as Blessed John Paul II says, has “a growing moral sensitivity, more alert to acknowledging the value and dignity of every individual as a human being, without any distinction of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or social class”. But while much is said and done about human rights and human dignity, some of the so-called rights being asserted in the name of humanity fail to take care of what is truly fundamental.
For the dignity due to Man, the reason individual human beings have inherent rights at all, is because of who Man is. Man is made in the image and likeness of God, and so he is capable of knowing and loving God, and by Christ’s grace, of being elevated to friendship with God. It is this relationship with the Creator that gives Man an inherent dignity, so that we human beings become temples of the Holy Spirit. Man is a “temple of the Lord”. So, when there is so much talk of human rights these days, it is as if one were saying: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jer 7:4).
But, as Jeremiah says, these words become “deceptive” if we do not behave accordingly; if we do not act and put forward laws that underline the dignity of every human person, especially the weakest and voiceless in society. Jeremiah’s words challenge us to consider: is our society just to the stranger and refugee, to those so-called “aliens” at our borders? Do we respect our elderly – the “fatherless and the widow” – and love and care for them with real compassion and dignity until their natural death? Is ours a society that condones the shedding of “innocent blood”, the most innocent of all being the unborn child?