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.
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.
“One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see” (Jn 9:25). St Paul also describes coming to faith with stark simplicity: “Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph 5:8). But we know that faith in Christ is not a once and for all event, nor is it without difficulty and struggle. Because of Jesus the man born blind could now see… But, he was also placed in conflict with those around him, including his own parents. We may have each experienced moments when following Christ puts such demands on us that it seems more like a burden or even an imposition, and faith is an inconvenience. For some, its light has faded to become just a cultural tradition, something we keep up for our parents’ sake. But the blind man remained firm despite the difficulties because he experienced the sheer goodness of what Jesus had done for him in such a direct, life-changing way.
A few years ago a BBC programme that purported to reveal the secrets of the Bible said that Christians believe that Mankind is “fundamentally bad”. But that’s just wrong. If it were true then faith would be a pointless burden. We begin with the deprivation of sin and evil, just as today’s Gospel begins with the reality of the blind man’s condition, but we don’t end there. Our human reality continues with the good news of what God does for Mankind, and what he wants to accomplishes in every human person. Seeing the blind man, Jesus goes and gives him sight, showing the gratuitous love and goodness of God. Without our asking, God freely comes to us to give us what we lack. Faith is not imposed; it is a gift as necessary and obviously desirable as water, or sight, or life itself, but which we can either reject or accept.
The blind man chooses to accept, and he stands for those who would be baptized, especially at Easter. So, Jesus, who is the One Sent, asks us to wash in the pool which (we’re told) means ‘Sent’; we’re called to be baptized in him. And as Adam was created from the clay, so Christ anoints the blind man with clay as a sign of the new creation he is working, for grace re-fashions us in the image of the new Adam; we are a new creation. But it is the first words spoken by the man born blind that hint at something more. The blind man’s words are somewhat obscured in the English translations, but in Greek it stands out. “Ego eimi” - “I am” (Jn 9:9); the divine name. For baptismal grace fashions us in the beauty of the Son of God, and so we are adopted as sons of God; we become partakers in the divine nature. God is so gracious and bountiful to humanity that he doesn’t just restore to Man what he lacks, God freely gives what Man could never attain for himself. Only God can give sight to a man born blind; only God can give eternal life and divinity to mankind. Hence Jesus says that it is through the redeemed sinner, through giving sight to the man born blind, that “the works of God might be made manifest”.
So although we begin with the abasement of man in original sin, the Christian journey of faith continues with man’s healing by Christ, his transformation in grace, and his exaltation to the lofty inheritance of divine life itself; eternal joy and light in the Blessed Trinity. This sublime goal, this gift, is why the journey of sanctification, indeed, divinization, is worth taking despite the difficulties, struggles, and sacrifices we may have to endure. So countless saints, whose lives show the triumph of God’s grace at work in them, have shown this.
God’s work, however, is not completed with baptism. If I were blind from birth, suddenly being given sight does not mean that I would be can actually see. The brain needs to learn to interpret what the eye takes in. So too, when we’re moved from the blindness of sin to the light of faith, we also need to learn to live as “children of light” (Eph 5:8), to grow in grace and virtue, and live as sons and daughters of God. We need to see what this means.
And this is where the demands and hardship of faith and life in Christ comes in. As the blind man grew in understanding of what Jesus had given him with each challenge that he faced, so his relationship with Christ deepened. In fact, as the blind man preached his faith, and suffered for it, becoming increasingly isolated, and finally “cast out”, so that his life was shaped in the image of Christ Crucified. His life became closely identified to that of God’s Son. After he is cast out, Jesus finds him again, and says: “You have seen [the Son of Man], and it is he who speaks to you”(Jn 9:37). But how has the man born blind seen Jesus before? Notice that earlier on, Jesus had left before he’d gone and washed in the pool. So, how have we seen Jesus, the Son of Man?
Have you heard of Belle Knox? Apparently her story has gained more searches on Google this past fortnight than ‘Pope Francis’ and ‘Justin Bieber’ combined. She is an 18-year-old girl, raised a Catholic, majoring in women’s studies at Duke University. She has fees of $60,000 per year, so she has to work to pay off her debt. She works as a porn star; her real name is Miriam Weeks.
I bring this up because I think someone like Miriam can give us a sense of the kind of person Jesus was speaking to in today’s Gospel. The Samaritan woman comes to the well alone and in the heat of noon because she is avoided by ‘polite society’; the subject of the town gossips – the Google of her day. And she comes to the well daily to fetch water for her work and living; this is a routine, part of the daily grind of life and her survival. In a similar way, Miriam Weeks engages in so-called adult entertainment as her work; it’s part of her daily grind for life and survival.
But it’s precisely people like Miriam that Jesus waits for. “Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28); “I will give you living water” (cf Jn 4:10). So Jesus is waiting for sinners; for notorious people; for the subjects of hypocritical gossip wrung dry and exploited by a sinful world. Because he is here for those whom society rejects, for those who are deeply wounded and in dire need, for those desperate to just survive this life.
Don’t we all know people like this? Maybe ourselves? Then, Jesus is waiting for them, for you. Go to him. He has come that we might “have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). So he is seated beside the well with its waters of life; of cleansing and refreshment. This well is the font of baptism. This well is also the sacrament of confession which opens up the fountain of divine mercy, gushing forth from Christ’s side.
Hence, Jesus’ first words are not ones of accusation or moralism. Rather, God reaches out in mercy. He asks for something from us. This is the same dynamic of the Incarnation, when Jesus comes to humanity as a baby in need of love and care. So, now, Jesus waits for the sinner and asks: “Give me a drink” (Jn 4:8). He needs something from us. Jesus thirsts for our love. He desires that we care that he has died for us; one of Jesus’ last words on the Cross is “I thirst”. Blessed Teresa of Kolkata spent her life reflecting on this and said: “‘I Thirst’ is something much deeper than just Jesus saying ‘I love you.’ Until you know deep inside that Jesus thirsts for you—you can’t begin to know who He wants to be for you”.
What unfolds in this Gospel, then, is the Samaritan woman’s growing realization of who Jesus wants to be for her. We see this development in the way she addresses him. First he’s just “a Jew”, meaning a stranger and someone who she is, perhaps, a little suspicious of. Then he’s “sir” – someone whom she shows respect and courtesy, but her interest is piqued. Next, he’s a “prophet”. So, she recognizes that Jesus speaks with insight and authority, and this is heightened when she wonders if he is “the Christ”, that is, one sent to save and liberate God’s people. But the culmination comes when Jesus is finally acknowledged to be “Saviour of the world”. This is what Jesus wants to be for you, for me: Saviour. More specifically, what does he save us from? Death. Hence, he tells the Samaritan woman that if she asks he would give her living water that becomes a “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14). Eternal life, ultimately, is what Jesus desires to give us. But first he needs us to desire this, too, and to ask it from him. He thirsts for us to realize that we need him as Saviour; to repent, and so to turn to him and ask for mercy and grace.
The Word that proceeds from the mouth of God is Jesus Christ, and as Isaiah says, he “shall accomplish that which [God] purposes, and prosper in the thing for which [He] sent it”. That ‘thing’ for which God sent the Son is you and me, it is Mankind. And he came that we might prosper and flourish and live. The task which Jesus was sent to accomplish was our salvation, which he does through his death on the Cross. So we say in the Nicene Creed that “for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven”.
If we return to the image that Isaiah uses, then God’s Word is like water falling from the heavens, and sinful humanity is the dry earth. Without Christ, the soul remains dry and unfruitful. Hence, we are all in need of Jesus, whose grace is like water from the heavens. Christ’s grace, given to us in the waters of baptism, brings new life to the human soul so that it can prosper and be fruitful in good works, in true charity.
Through baptism, we receive the grace of Christ and so we come to share in his divine Sonship so that we can even call God ‘Our Father’. Indeed, we have the audacity to do so because Jesus has commanded us to. But, as we say in the Mass, we “dare” to call God our Father not only because Jesus tells us to but also because we have been “formed by divine teaching”. What does this mean?
Because we’re God’s little children, Jesus, God himself, has taught us how we are to behave. We are being formed by his grace to love as Jesus loves; shown how to be truly sons and daughters of God who are ready to forgive and do God’s will. This is why we say that we “dare” to say the Lord’s Prayer because it means that we have the courage and the grace to truly become like Christ. For the ‘Our Father’ is not our prayer but, primarily, the prayer of the Son, and only those who live and move in the grace and likeness of Christ the Son, thanks to baptism, can dare to say this prayer with him.
During Lent, we pray, fast and engage in good works of charity because we are training ourselves to love more; to become like the Son so that we can more truly call God our Father. So, like St John the Baptist in the desert we, too, enter the desert of Lent and say: “I must decease and He, Jesus, must increase” (Jn 3:30). But here in the Lenten desert, we recognize how dry we still are, and how much we need the water of God’s grace if we’re to grow in love. Hence we cry out like the psalmist: “O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting” (Ps 62:1). And as Isaiah says, God sends his Word into our hearts to accomplish his work of salvation; the waters of grace are poured into our thirsty souls to revive us, give us new life, and bear the fruit of good works.
So, let us be open to God’s grace and co-operate with it. For we say: “Thy will be done on earth…” Which is to say: let God’s grace seep into our being, into the dry earth of our souls, and empower us to do God’s will, meaning that we will grow to love and forgive and serve as Jesus does.
Perhaps we can begin by considering what Jesus did not say in today’s Gospel. He does not say: “He who is not against us is with us”. So, there is still a distinction between those who are explicitly following Christ such as the Twelve, and those who are not.
Rather what Jesus says is: “He that is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40), and that the lone exorcist has been doing “a mighty work in my name” (Mk 9:39). This suggests that God’s grace is not limited to the Twelve, who stand for the Church. Rather God is free to grant his good gifts to all people, whether or not they are explicitly following Christ; whether or not they are Christians, therefore. As we were reminded in last Sunday’s Gospel, our Father in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). Hence, the Second Vatican Council could teach that “Divine Providence [does not] deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life” (Lumen Gentium, §16).
So, Jesus says in today’s Gospel that the apostles should not forbid the good that the man is doing in his name. For any goodness and truth comes from God. As we heard in St James’ letter last week: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (1:17).
But because there is still a distinction between those who do explicitly follow Christ and those who don’t, it doesn’t follow that the man who does mighty works in Christ’s name should not subsequently become a follower of Jesus Christ. Indeed, if the Church is to encourage all good and truth, and bring forth still more graces, then it needs to lead all men and women of good will to an explicit faith in Christ. Hence Vatican II goes on to say: “Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel” (ibid.).
It is in this light that the Holy Father said in Evangelii Gaudium, that “frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators” (§47). For this was what the apostles wanted to do: forbid the good being done, and thus control God’s grace. We’re not to do this. Rather, Christ’s Church has to facilitate God’s grace, that is to say, make it easier for people to grow in grace and virtue, to find the truth and good that every human heart naturally desires and seeks after. As such, the Church must evangelize, must bring all from merely being “for us” to being “with us” as explicit followers of Jesus Christ, visible members of his Body, the Church. Why? Because united with Christ in the Church we have easier ‘access’, so to speak, to God’s grace; more ready and sure means of growing in knowledge and love of God, and so, of being intimately united to One who alone satisfies the deepest desires of the human heart.
Thus, Pope Francis also said: “It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize” (EG, §266).
Today’s Gospel continues on from yesterday’s passage, and we wondered yesterday if Jesus was somehow saying that he spoke in riddles so as to hide the secrets of the kingdom from some people. Today, it is clear that Jesus’ parables are not riddles to exclude anyone but, rather, they are used to shed light; to illuminate the secrets of the kingdom. Thus “nothing is hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light” (Mk 4:22).
For Jesus has come to reveal the hidden life of God himself; he has revealed the blessed Trinity to Mankind, showing us by his works and his words that God is love, a holy communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And the way in which we come to know this intimately is through the sacrament of baptism which is also called the sacrament of enlightenment, of illumination. For through this sacrament, that which is secret – the hidden inner life of God himself – comes to light for Man is initiated into the life of God. So, Jesus says in St John’s Gospel: “O righteous Father… I made known to them your name, and I will make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn 17:26).
Hence, when we are baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity, God’s name is made known to us, and the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us. This is the effect of sanctifying grace which is first given to us in baptism.
Now, again in today’s Gospel, Jesus repeats a phrase which we also heard yesterday: “If any man has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mk 4:9, 23). This refrain is the key to unlocking the parables and the gifts of grace given to us. “Let him hear”: this means that we have to co-operate with God; we have to be receptive to Christ’s Word, and open to his teaching, and freely choose to say ‘yes’ to God’s grace. Then, the parables do not become riddles that confuse us but shed light on our lives to teach us to live as Christ lived; then the sacraments do not become mere empty rituals but become a source of mercy and new life for me. So, let us hear; let us be open to God’s grace, and seek to do his will. In other words, let us love God. For as Jesus says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn 14:15).
Finally, Jesus says: “the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you” (Mk 4:24). St Thomas comments that “the measure of charity is the measure of one’s union with God” so the more we love God and keep his commandments, the closer we will grow to God. Indeed, we will grow so close to God that we shall partake in God’s divine nature, and share the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. This is the “still more” that will be given us: divinity itself which is what the saints enjoy in heaven. Hence, sanctifying grace which makes us saints over the course of our lives is also called deifying or divinizing grace: grace that makes us divine!
But why does Jesus say: “from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”? I think this warns us that if we will not “take heed” to hear his Word (cf Mk 4:24), if we will not be receptive to his grace and if we do not keep God’s commands, then we will fall into mortal sin, and so, lose sanctifying grace. And the sad result of this is the death of sin and of being without God. Hence Jesus says to each of us, to you and to me: “Take heed what you hear” (Mk 4:24). That is to say, let us be sure to hear Christ’s teaching, listen to his Word of life, and obey him. For God’s Word is “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 118:105), revealing to us the hidden life of the Triune God.
Yesterday we celebrated the feast of the Lord’s baptism, and we recalled how through the sacrament of baptism men and women are transformed by the grace of Christ, the beloved Son, so that sinners become beloved sons and daughters of God. So today, the Church in Scotland rejoices in one of her beloved sons, St Kentigern, who is often known by an affectionate name given to him by the monk who raised him: Mungo, which means ‘dear one’; beloved one.
He was born around 518, the son of a British princess called Teneu, and he ended up in a monastery in Fife where he was raised and probably ordained a priest. At the age of 25 he begins his missionary activity on the river Clyde and establishes a base by the banks of the river. Just as Christ came to the waterside to call his apostles to become fishers of men, so St Mungo, apostle of Strathclyde was also called from the waterside to preach the Gospel of salvation to the people of this region, and, no doubt, he baptised them in the river. So it was that a community of Christian converts grew up around his little church which became known as ‘Clasgu’ meaning ‘dear family’. For here were the newly-baptised, the dear family of Christ; the beloved sons and daughters of God gathered around their dear bishop Mungo. For around 540 St Kentigern had been ordained a bishop – the first bishop of Glasgow.
However, his missionary activities met with strong and violent opposition around 553, so he was forced to retreat to Wales where he founded a monastery, but around 581 he was able to return to his dear family in Glasgow when a Christian king had gained power of that region. St Mungo died on this day in 603 and over the site where he is buried rose a great cathedral named after him. His relics are believed to still rest there in a 13th-century crypt, and his words have, in part, become the motto of Scotland’s largest city: “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the Word”.
Hence today we celebrate one of Scotland’s apostles, a true fisher of men who responded to Christ’s call to preach his Gospel and baptize many into God’s dear family of the Church. Each of us, in fact, is a Mungo, a dear one of God, who is likewise sent out on a mission to call the people around us to join God’s dear family here in this chaplaincy. Let us keep this mission in our hearts this new year and this semester.
But there is another mission which today’s feast day calls to mind. There are few other details about St Mungo’s life, but one thing gave me pause for thought. Many sources say that St Mungo was an illegitimate child. And the earliest account of his life reports that his mother Teneu had been raped. Despite the trauma attached to this, and the horrible fact that her father then threw her down a cliff, she survived. And, by God’s grace, she bravely and heroically carried the child in her womb to birth; she, rightly, chose to give him life. Thus Teneu herself is venerated as a saint, and she became the mother of one of Scotland’s greatest saints. So, St Mungo’s mother offers us a saintly witness for our time, inspiring us to support unwed mothers, and to speak up in defense of all God’s dear ones, particularly the innocent unborn child.
May St Teneu and St Kentigern pray for us as this new semester begins.
The next time St Matthew tells of a voice from heaven, it declares: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (17:5). We hear the exact same declaration today, but there is an interesting difference. Today, we’re not explicitly being told to listen to Christ. Rather, we’re presented today with Christ, our God, who comes to listen to us.
For at Christmas, we celebrated the Incarnation of Christ; God’s eternal Word taking flesh, being born as a baby. And as such, the Word is helpless, needy, and wordless if not silent. Thus, God humbled himself to share in our humanity; he comes to listen to us. And today, on the last day of Christmas, we see the depths to which Christ shares in our humanity. By descending into the waters, a symbol of death, we see a prefiguration of the death that Jesus will choose to undergo in order to ‘listen’ to what it is to be mortal. And also, in humbling himself even to accepting John’s baptism of repentance, Christ shows that he chooses to identify himself with sinful humanity. So, our God chooses to humble himself to become Man, and not just to stand apart from us as a perfect human being, but to stand alongside us sinners; standing with sinful humanity in the Jordan, joining us in the waters of repentance.
Hence St Paul says: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21). For our sake. So, it seems that Christ is “made to be sin”, descending into the waters of baptism with sinners, so that he can listen to us as sinners; to understand our weakness, see our struggles, and to experience the strong allure of sin. So, Christ identifies with sinners for our sake, in order to do justice to our common human experience. But he also does this in order to save us from sin. For as St Gregory Nazianzen says: “What has not been assumed has not been healed”.
However, we note that Jesus also says to John, more specifically, that he comes to be baptised in order to “fulfil all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). So, it is for God’s sake, for the sake of his justice, in other words, that he comes to the Jordan. For the just Judge wishes to know just what it is we undergo as human beings who struggle with sin and who are victims of sin. Thus, right after his baptism, Jesus is led into the wilderness to be tempted, and throughout his ministry he associates with notorious sinners, and at last he suffers the effects and reality of sin by dying on the Cross, crucified by sinful Man. Thus God listens so attentively to sinful humanity, to all that afflicts us, and in doing so Jesus reveals the depths of God’s saving love. For by being born and dying for our sake, Jesus also does justice to who God is. He bears witness to the fact that God is love – a love that is “patient and kind”, that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” as St Paul put it (1 Cor 13:4-7).
Hence we hear in Isaiah that God’s faithful servant comes to fulfill God’s righteousness; to “bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42:1). So when Christ comes to the Jordan he does this, not by sitting in judgement, but by lowering himself into the river and listening to us, to our experience.
For, as Isaiah says, the reed has been bruised by sin, the wick burns dimly. And so Christ doesn’t come to break us or extinguish the light. On the contrary, God’s justice and holiness is served when he comes to heal the wounds of sin and to fan our love into a flame. And this, too, is why Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptised.
For Jesus comes, like the doctor, to listen to us and to observe our symptoms. But he also comes to cure our disease; to heal and vivify. And what he prescribes is baptism. Or, to be more, precise, Christ himself is the cure. Today, Christ descends into the waters and dies alongside sinners. But he also rises out of the waters, and we, too, with him to a new life; the sinner becomes a beloved son or daughter of God. Hence when Jesus goes up from the water, St Matthew says that “the heavens were opened”, the Spirit descends, and a divine voice is heard (Mt 3:16f). So, too, in the sacrament of baptism we die with Christ and rise to new life in him; we are healed of sin and filled with the Spirit of God’s love; heaven is opened to us, and we hear this declaration said about each of us individually: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased”. Therefore, when Jesus comes to the Jordan and says “thus it is fitting to for us to fulfil all righteousness” (Mt 3:18), he is speaking of the righteousness he will bring about in us, in all peoples, through baptism and the other sacraments of his Church.
So, although we’re not told explicitly to listen to Christ, in fact, if we’re attentive, there is something we’re being called to listen to today: Christ’s example.
As we stand on the eve of the feast of the Lord’s baptism we recall how we were baptized into Christ. And the Catechism, following St Paul, says that “Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God” (CCC 1213). As such, we who are baptised are sinless, aren’t we? After all, St John says: “we know that anyone born of God does not sin” (1 Jn 5:18). And yet, John also says that there is “wrongdoing” committed by brothers, that is, by fellow Christians, and he distinguishes between mortal and non-mortal sins. So, it would appear that the baptized can and do sin, as we know all too well. And sometimes, we can sin in a way that even mortally ends the life of grace and of communion with God. So, how do we reconcile this with St John’s statement that “any one born of God does not sin”? Is he contradicting himself?
Well, there are two sides to any relationship. And the relationship of being a child of God, reborn of the Father, and in communion with the Holy Trinity tells us what God does for us. The Father freely causes and sustains our filial relationship with him because we are baptized into Christ. So St John says: “this is the confidence we have in [Christ]” (1 Jn 5:14). But at the same time, while God is always faithful to us, giving us his grace and love, we have to be faithful to him; relationship is a two-way process. So, whether or not we sin depends on our free response to God’s grace; on our being open to his plentiful grace, and co-operating with it every day of our lives.
Now, God’s grace is always sufficient to help and enable us to love him and become saints. So, God is always working, St John says, to “keep [us in Christ], and the evil one does not touch [us]” (1 Jn 5:18). So, if we do sin, it is not the result of external influences, whether it is the devil or our genes or the world we live in. Neither is it because God has withheld the grace of Sonship from us. In fact, one Mass alone would more than suffice because we are given all of God’s love and saving power, and are united to his Son, here in the Eucharist. For God’s grace is always sufficient. But it is not always efficacious in us because we are not receptive or well-disposed to receive God’s graces. Indeed, sometimes we behave like we don’t want him or his grace. We resist his graces because we are drawn by other goods, and choose pleasures and ends apart from God.
Thus we find ourselves not infrequently still chasing after idols – false images of God, or of ourselves; we falsely think that lasting happiness comes from material wealth, or place so many lesser goods before God who alone is good. This is why St John’s final word in this letter is “keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn 5:21). For idolatry, that is, lies and falsehood and our being seduced by them, is the one thing that keeps us from God who is all truth. Idolatry leads us into sin because it is not the true God we love but false gods. And so, we are no longer born “of God” but of false gods.
What are we to do, then? St John the Baptist says: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). So, we must, daily, let the untruth in us decrease, and let Truth, that is Christ, increase in us. This is the process that began for us in baptism. For that sacrament is not just something done to us; now over and done with. Rather, it starts a relationship that must grow, develop, and mature. We need to come to know Christ, the “Son of God [who] has come and has given us understanding” so that we can “know him who is true”, that is, God (cf 1 Jn 5:20). How? Through prayer, familiarity with the Scriptures, and a lively interest in good theology.
For as St Thomas says, you cannot love what you do not know. So, knowledge of Christ and the true God must increase, so that our idols and falsehoods can decrease. Only then will we love God more and love sin, our false gods, less. Thus we shall see God’s grace gradually transforming Man as he freely co-operates with the grace first given in baptism until he becomes a saint, someone who is, like Christ, truly “born of God”. Every saint, then, is clearly an epiphany, for in him God’s glory is revealed.
We saw yesterday that Jesus was born of the surviving branch, the nezer in Hebrew, of David’s royal stock. And so, he was called a Nazarene as the prophets foretold. But today’s readings draw our attention, not to a Nazarene but a Nazirite, from the Hebrew word nazir, meaning ‘consecrated’ or ‘set apart’. And the one who follows in Samson’s footsteps as a Nazirite is St John, the Baptizer.
St Luke wants us to understand that John is from an impeccable priestly lineage; both his parents are from the priestly tribes of Aaron and Levi. So, his ancestry alone would set him apart for the Lord’s service as a priest. When a priest ministered in the Sanctuary, such as Zechariah was doing, he had to abstain from wine and strong drink. But the Nazirite did so for the duration of his vow, and we’re told that St John is to abstain for the whole of his life. So, there is a very strong sense of John being consecrated for priestly service not just by blood but by oath; ministering not just for short durations of service but for his entire life. John is always serving in the Lord’s presence.
And, in an emphasis typical of St Luke, he adds that John “will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Lk 1:15b). This, and the angel’s description of John’s role as one of turning hearts, indicate that John is not just a priest but also a prophet. For the prophets are those who have a particular intimacy with God, who are in friendship with him, and so, are familiar with God’s ways, and can see far and deeply into God’s activity in the world. Again, this stresses that John is always in God’s presence, continually serving him.
Hence, when Jesus draws near, even in the womb, St John leaps for joy and recognizes his presence. And, again, when Jesus comes down to the Jordan, St John sees immediately that it is the Lord who approaches him. Such sensitivity to the divine comes from his being constantly in God’s service; set apart to be ready for when the Lord comes. Hence he is such a central figure for Advent as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s coming. However, it seems to me that John is also a reminder of who we are as Christians, not just at Advent but always.
For last Sunday we heard Jesus say in the Gospel: “He who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than [John]” (Mt 11:11). How? Because of the grace of Christ. So, as John the Baptist was set apart for God, so you and I have been consecrated to Christ through baptism; we belong to Jesus and are held in his love. As John was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, so were we from the womb of our Mother, the Church, that is, the baptismal font. Hence baptism makes us friends of God like the prophets, and also priests of God. But, like John,we’re not just called to serve God in certain times in the Temple and Liturgy, but constantly and everywhere. Thus we’re called recognize and serve Christ our God in the poor and needy, in those who mourn, and hunger for justice, in those who long for mercy and compassion.
Like John, such prophetic familiarity and priestly service attunes us to God’s presence among us. Thus, grace moves us to leap for joy when Christ comes to us – not hidden in the Virgin Mother’s womb, but hidden under the sacramental forms of bread and wine here in the Eucharist. God’s Spirit, the gift of faith in us, has prepared us for his coming. For Jesus the Nazarene is here with us now, the living Branch who brings new life and hope; he’s with us now to comfort us and brighten our darkness. So today’s Communion antiphon says: “The Dawn from on high will visit us, guiding our feet in the way of peace”.