The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
Today’s first reading is taken from the continuous readings of Jeremiah that we have been following during the week. And it is most fitting at this time. The lamentation of God’s people could well be found on the lips of the countless Christians who are currently being persecuted and ruthlessly murdered all over the world. “Let my eyes run down with tears night and day,
and let them not cease… If I go out into the field, behold, those slain by the sword!… We looked for peace, but no good came; for a time of healing, but behold, terror” (Jer 13:17–19). So, the prophet gives voice to the suffering of the Christians of Iraq, of Nigeria, of Syria, the Central African Republic, Pakistan, China, and many other places.
At the same time, the prophet also lends his voice to the suffering of peoples throughout the world who endure disease, famine, sickness. He says: “If I enter the city, behold, the diseases of famine!… Why hast thou smitten us so that there is no healing for us?” (Jer 13:18f). Death and illness: this is the lot of humanity labouring under the sin of Adam; thus is our mortality. Hence Jeremiah says: “We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, and the iniquity of our fathers, for we have sinned against thee”.
So in the Gospel we see that St Martha and her family have shared in this, the common fate of sinful Man. Her brother has fallen ill and died, and Martha and Mary are grief-stricken. However, Martha knows that God has the cure to Mankind’s mortal condition; Christ is the cure for death.
Thus she goes to him, and she says with faith: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27); she believes that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, that he will put an end to sickness and death. And so, St Martha speaks for us Christians, for every Christian who suffers and grieves, for the Christian martyrs and those who are persecuted, for the sick and for you and me. She says: “Yes, Lord, I believe”.
I believe, you believe, that Jesus will raise us from the dead, so that even “though [we] die, yet shall [we] live” because “whoever lives and believes in [Christ] shall never die” (Jn 11:25). So, today’s Gospel and this feast invites us to renew our faith in Christ, the Resurrection and the Life. Whatever ails us, however we may lament and grieve, we’re invited to share the faith of St Martha, and to trust in Christ, “he who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27). He comes to suffer alongside us. He comes to die with us, and to raise us to new life. He comes to give us a share in his final victory over sin, death, and evil. He is with us now, and feeds us with himself, the Living Bread. He promises: “Whoever eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:51).
So, with St Martha and all the saints and martyrs with whom we are united in one holy communion, we cry out: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Apoc 22:20).
Today’s Gospel is connected to Isaiah’s image of blessing through the seed which is sown. Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God, has been sown by God the Father in the earth; he has taken root in the soil of our humanity, and he has become one with us. This marvellous truth, this wonder of the Incarnation of Christ, is that great thing that prophets and righteous men longed to see and hear but did not. But you and I, we who are baptized in Christ, we are the ones whom Jesus calls ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’ because we have seen and heard him whom so many before us, and so many around us long for. This is the source of our Christian joy for we, because of God’s generous love and the free gift of his grace, have seen and heard God’s divine Word, Jesus Christ his Son. In fact, we not only see and hear the Word but we receive it into our lives just as the seed is embedded in the earth. In the Mass as the Scriptures are read to us and we listen to God’s Word, it is being sown in our hearts. And then, when we receive the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, then we receive into our very bodies what Isaiah calls “bread for the eating”.
Isaiah also says that it is the rain that gives “growth to provide seed for the sower and bread for the eating”. What is this rain? It is the Holy Spirit. Through our baptism, we have all received God’s Holy Spirit who dwells in our hearts, and it is the Spirit who teaches us and leads us into all truth. And so, we perceive the truth of the Gospel and our hearts are opened to receive the Word of God, not by our own efforts, but rather, because of the gift of faith and the gift of understanding which is given by the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is also the Holy Spirit who sanctifies the bread and wine that is offered at Mass so that in Holy Communion we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. However, the rain also causes the earth to yield, that is, to be fruitful. Thus, it is the Holy Spirit who causes us to “hear the Word and understand it” and consequently to “yield a harvest” that produces abundant fruit, each according to the individual gifts and talents God has given us.
Just as a tree bears fruit which is attractive and delicious and offered to all who pass by to receive it and taste its goodness, so too with us. If we draw from God’s grace and live in him, then we will bear fruit that will last and which our world longs for and needs so very much. St Paul tells is that the fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal 5:22f). These fruit render us sweet and attractive to others, as the saints are, so that others may look on us and be drawn to taste and see the goodness of God, the sweetness of his grace. A parish is thus like an orchard, and each of you are a fruit tree, and if you are fruitful by the grace of the Spirit, you will be full of joy, mercy, and love that is deeply attractive.
Our Holy Father has said much about the joy of the Gospel and the mercy we should show to others. At this time, we are faced with a challenge as the Assisted Dying Bill comes before Parliament again on Friday. It is a false sense of mercy that would kill the most vulnerable and dying, and the very real fear is it is the depressed, the weak who would not be helped but rather pressured to die, and so ease our troubles rather than their own. In a society where the right to life and to live is already denied millions of unborn children, this is yet further descent into the “culture of death” that Pope St John Paul II warned against. No. We must strive to build the “civilization of love”, and love doesn’t kill off; it suffers with and finds redemption through suffering love.
Look at that great Cross that hangs above us, and we see Our Lady and St John with the dying Christ, accompanying him with love, compassion, and much care; doing all they can to assist him to die with dignity and grace. This is what ‘assisted dying’ truly means.
For suffering, is a mark of our humanity, just as Christ who became human suffered, and he suffered greatly for his love was so great. So, St Paul says: “all of us who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free”. Imagine the seedling breaking free from the seed-pod, straining towards the light, growing into a fruitful tree. We too are struggling, straining to become more fully who we are called to be, reaching for the light of heaven and that is not a painless process. But it is a process that will come to fruition as we rely on God’s grace and hope in him. For Isaiah rightly says that God’s Word does not return empty but will “succeed in what it was sent to do”. This is to say that God’s Word, Jesus Christ, comes to strengthen the dying, give grace to endure the Cross with him, and sends his Spirit to console the afflicted. Hence it is vital to anoint the sick and dying that they may receive this needful grace.
The witness of Christ, and of his saints and mystics, has been to what is called ‘redemptive suffering’ as Christians, motivated by faith and great love for Christ, suffer with Christ and die with him. But they do so with hope and resurrection joy, confident that they will rise to glory with him. Thus St Paul says: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothingcompared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Rom 8:18). One of the most beautiful deaths I have seen was of a Dominican brother who died with such dignity, surrounded by loving brothers, in the priory in Oxford. And I have been privileged to see Catholics die like this in hospitals too, surrounded by loved ones. And the image that comes to mind is of a seed buried in the ground in the hope of the resurrection. It is perishable but it rises to imperishable life (cf 1 Cor 15:17).
This is our faith and our hope as Christians; the Cross of Christ is our response to suffering, and we love and cherish all life from conception to natural death. For we are confident, and thus joyful, that the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise our mortal bodies too. For God dwells in us – the seed of glory, the Eucharist, has been planted in our bodies, and the grace of his Holy Spirit waters us and makes us flourish and yield the harvest of eternal life. This is the joy that we have to preach to a world gripped by despair and desperation. This is the mercy that truly responds to the needs of our contemporaries. This is the love that only Jesus Christ, Love made flesh, can give us; he fulfills the deepest longings of humanity.
Now, let us share this sweet and good news, and help build a civilization of love and of life.
Looking out onto our Spring garden behind this chapel, we are reminded that water and light are vital for life. And as this is true of nature, so it is true too of super-nature, of the human soul; for our full human flourishing in body and soul, we need not just material things but spiritual gifts that only God can give. Hence, the Gospels we’ve heard over these three Sundays have spoken of water, light, and life. For as in Spring we are made aware of these elemental gifts that are necessary for those plants to flourish and grow, so in Lent (which is an old English word for Spring) we are being reminded of what humanity needs for its fullest flourishing and growth.
We need the living waters of the Holy Spirit which wells up to eternal life (cf Jn 4:14). We need the light of Christ so we can see God (cf Jn 9:4). And both are given to Mankind in the sacrament of baptism so that we can have Life – divine life – from God the Father. So through baptism humanity becomes fully alive in the Holy Trinity. And being fully alive is what we mean by being in a state of grace. It means that we, the baptized, now live and move and have our being in the Holy Trinity. As St Paul says: “your spirits are alive because of righteousness” (Rom 8:10b).
Thus, these Gospels, with their great elemental images of water, light, and life, are read at this time of year especially for those who are preparing to receive the Easter sacraments. It stirs up in them a longing for what they will receive. But they are read for us, too, who are already baptized, to remind us of what we have received and what we still need. We need to remain alive in the Holy Spirit. Hence, Lent is our Spring-time too. Lent calls us out of the winter of our sins to receive again the water and light we need so that we can flourish and grow and become more fully alive in God. So Lent is a time of grace, inviting us to become more fully alive in God’s grace.
Just as those who are not yet baptized will come to new life in God through baptism at Easter, so, at this time, we who are already baptized are also being called to a new life in Christ. Often our sins, our weaknesses, frailties, anxieties and addictions entomb us – we are like Lazarus. Indeed, to be in a state of sin is worse: it is to be buried alive. For although our bodies live, we are already spiritually dead if we are in a state of mortal sin.
But Lent is our Spring, and new life springs forth, with God’s water and light, with the grace that comes from the sacrament of Confession. Lent is this graced time in which we examine our consciences, we do some Spring cleaning, and consider what needs changing and repenting in our lives. That charity and kindness and gentleness which is dead can be brought to new life; dry bones and dry hearts can be watered and revived; deeds hidden in the darkness of shame and guilt can be brought into the light of God’s forgiveness and mercy. And even if we’re not in a state of grave sin, Confession is still needful because it gives us grace which, like water and light for the plants, helps our souls to flourish and grow and become more fully alive in the Holy Spirit.
The Press marvelled recently when Pope Francis publicly went to confession in St Peter’s Basilica before a Reconciliation Service last week. But every bishop and priest does this, just as every Catholic must. It’s a perfectly normal and healthy part of the Christian life, and the more regularly we do it, the better! It makes us more fully alive in Christ, not least because the sacrament of Confession is a participation in the grace of Jesus’ Resurrection. If we think about it, the confessional is like the empty tomb and, having been absolved and filled with the Holy Spirit in this sacrament, we come forth full of grace like the Risen Lord bursting out of the Easter tomb. St Paul put it this way in the second reading: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8:11). So, the sacrament of Confession anticipates and is a promise of our final Resurrection in body and soul at the end of time.
We say in the Creed that through the Word of God, Jesus Christ, “all things are made”. For God’s Word is ever-creative, bringing life and vigour to God’s creation. We see the creative power of God’s Word in today’s Gospel, for Jesus only has to speak the word, and the official’s child is healed. Hence, new life and healing is effective by God’s all-creative Word.
The English Dominican theologian, fr. Herbert McCabe OP says that the sacraments are “signs of the Word of God in history”. Following St Thomas Aquinas, he says that the sacraments reveal God’s eternal Word at work in our whole human history. As such, they point to the past, when God’s creative Word was at work in the Old Testament or in the Gospels, as we hear in today’s reading. And they also point to the future, when God will “create new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17) and Man will have vigorous health, as Isaiah promises. This promise comes to pass when Christ returns in glory. But the sacraments are especially, in McCabe’s words, “the ways in which the Word of God is present to us in our present era”.
Hence, the sacraments are the means in this time, in our lives, by which God’s Word is at work, bringing about a new creation through his grace. In the sacraments, God’s Word brings healing and new life, as he did in the past. And in the sacraments, God’s Word promises a perfection that will be fulfilled at the end of time. And because God’s Word is truth, his promises can be relied upon. Therefore, the sacraments are the means by which God’s grace transforms and renews the heavens and the earth, and this new creation by God’s Word begins with you and me.
For the grace of God given to us in the sacraments makes you and me a new creation. God’s Word is spoken into our lives through the sacraments, so that we are made anew. But not as new creatures. Rather, as McCabe says, “it is extremely important to realize that a creature with grace is not just a higher kind of creature - in the sense, for example, that a creature with intelligence is a higher kind of creature than one without. Grace does not make man a better kind of creature, it raises him beyond creaturehood, it makes him share in divinity. This share in divinity is first of all expressed by the fact that we are not merely things created, we are creatures who are on speaking terms with God”.
So, the Word of God is spoken in us, through the sacraments, so that we can speak to God as his friends. This is the joyful thing that those who will receive the Easter sacraments long for, and it is what already belongs to us as Christians. Thus we rejoiced yesterday on Lætare Sunday, and today’s first reading calls us to rejoice again; we’re called to marvel in the new creation that God’s Word is making. As today’s Collect says, God renews the world “through mysteries beyond all telling”, that is to say, as the Latin text has it, through the sacraments.
Indeed, through our participation in the Mass now, we believe that God’s Word is at work, renewing us and sanctifying us, and hence, the heavens and the earth too.
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”.