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.
Today is a day of beginnings. It’s the first Sunday of Advent – the beginning of a new liturgical year. And today we also rejoice with Victoria and Sascha at another signifiant beginning – the baptism of their son Emil Louis-Christophe. And, so, it is fitting that at the start of the Church’s year we are reminded of the start of our Christian journey. It is fitting, too, in Advent that we rejoice. For this is not so much a penitential season as a quiet season of joyful expectation; a time in which we hope to “go rejoicing into the house of the Lord”, not just on Christmas day, together with the shepherds and wise men, but also on the final day, at the end of Life’s journey. We hope to go rejoicing, with the angels and saints, into the eternal house of the Lord, into eternal life with God in heaven. For this is the destination of the Christian journey, and it begins for each one of us with baptism. Hence, when Victoria and Sascha was asked what they wanted for Emil in asking for him to be baptised, they said: “Eternal life”.
The Christian journey is depicted by the prophet Isaiah in our first reading as a pilgrimage up a mountain, up to the “house of the God of Jacob”. The rite of baptism tries to give this sense of journeying too, as we move from the entrance of the church towards the lectern, where God’s Word is read, then to the font, where we are re-born to new life, and finally to the Altar. This is literally the ‘high place’, the mountain of the Lord, where we come to dwell with God and he abides with us through the Eucharist.
Our Christian life is, therefore, never static but is marked by this kind of movement towards God. Inasmuch as it is a journey up a high mountain, so, the Christian life has its struggles and difficulties. We may battle against high winds, occasionally wander off the path, or be distracted by various sights. But, we must move ever upward. In the words of the Dominican saint, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, the patron of our scouts, and patron of youth: “Verso l’alto”. We must move ever onwards “toward the top”, to the summit where God awaits us.
But, we do not struggle alone on this journey. Some of us may recall a recent climb up Arthurs Seat, where the wind was so strong that you could lean back into it and it supported one from falling. God’s Holy Spirit, the divine Wind or Breath of God, is like this. He supports us on our Christian journey if we would lean into him, and we are supported, too, by a host of saints and fellow pilgrims, by God’s holy Church. This is the reason Emil is baptised during Mass, so that we can all pray for him, and support him. No one is a Christian alone, and nobody journeys to heaven alone. We do so as members of Christ’s Body surrounded by a crowd of friends and family, by parents and godparents, by brothers and sisters in Christ.
Isaiah says: “Come, let us go up… that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isa 2:3). So, on our Christian journey, we will need not just the prayers and support of one another, but we can also learn from one another, especially from the saints. This is why we invoke their prayers in the rite of baptism. The saints have reached the summit of the Christian life, and so, they can show us the way up and help us with their prayers. In this journey, Emil can look to one of his name saints, Christopher, who is patron saint of travellers, for help. The paths that the saints have trodden before us are well-worn but arduous. We may need to lighten our load, and shed unneeded burdens and worldly attachments if we want to walk in their paths. Because the path they take is the Way of the Cross; the mountain they have climbed is Calvary. So, too, each of us can learn from the saints how to walk this way too. It is the way of our Lord Jesus Christ; it is the way of Love.
In modern times, one saint stands out for the way he sacrificed himself for the love of his fellow Man, and in doing so, he clearly reached the summit of the Christian life. His baptism found its goal, its perfection, in his martyr’s death. As he offered his life in exchange for the life of another fellow prisoner in Auschwitz, St Maximilian Kolbe, patron of the pro-life cause, shows us what it costs to reach the summit of the Christian life. It costs us love.
St Maximilian, who is Emil’s special patron because he was born on his feast day (14 August), teaches us the costliness of walking in Christ’s way of love. For love demands sacrifice. But it is precisely this Christ-like love that “shall judge between the nations… so that “nation shall not life up sword against nation [nor] shall they learn war any more” (Isa 2:4). Love heals violence, hatred and strife. And the one who follows Christ’s way of love shall “walk in the light of the Lord” (Isa 2:5). This is to say, he will share in Christ’s glory and be raised up to reign with Christ in heaven. For Love endures for ever and is stronger than death.
For many of us, the Christian life may not be so dramatic, but if we are to learn to love, then it will still be costly and demanding. Every day, situations arise which demand a sacrifice, which ask for love, or mercy, or compassion from us. These may be small instances, but many will be unexpected. Hence Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel to “be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Mt 24:44). We’re to be vigilant, then, in our Christian life. Or perhaps, we should think of it in an Advent mode. Let us be full of joyful expectation that the Lord could come at any time, and give us opportunities to love, to be kind, to be tender-hearted to him. For Christ is with us in the “distressing disguise of the poor”, as Blessed Mother Teresa said. He is all around us waiting to be recognized, served, and loved. Another of Emil’s name saints, Louis, was thus always attentive to care for the homeless and poor.
Hence, it is here in the Church, which we can truly call “the house of the Lord”, that we learn from the saints how we can walk in the Lord’s paths and find him. It is here in the Church that we support one another with prayer, friendship and love on our Christian journey. It is here in the Church that Man finds his way home to God. So, as Emil is baptised today, he indeed goes “rejoicing into the house of the Lord”!
The socio-political allegory of Suzanne Collins’ ‘The Hunger Games’ have been mentionedoftenenough. This (and indeed, ours) is a world where the multitudes are brutally oppressed to support a grossly indulgent few, where the life and death horror of (ritualised) war is treated like a spectator sport, where the ruling class is distracted by the superficialities of celebrity culture, media sensationalism, fashion and food. Such is the world of bread (Panem) and Games.
However, in this world there is hope, but not in Katniss the reluctant figure of resistance and revolution, as such. Rather, the hope of a more humane future has to be navigated by Katniss. Does she go with Gale or Peeta? Is it the way of counter-violence and revenge that gives us hope, or the way of sacrificial love? This was a question faced by the oppressed People of Israel under Roman rule; the Twelve Districts of Panem, perhaps, echo the Twelve Tribes of Israel. When Christ was born, many expected a warrior Messiah and King who would lead his people to freedom. Instead, the Messiah was crucified, tortured by the State, just as Peeta Mellark was.
And it is this that intrigues me. Is Peeta Mellark an allegory of Jesus Christ? And what other Catholic resonances might one find in ‘The Hunger Games’?
I had been fascinated by the first movie of ‘The Hunger Games’, and proceeded to read the three books avidly. They had a certain je ne sais quoi. There was, it seemed to me, much of the Christian and even Catholic imagination beneath the surface. So, I was not surprised that Suzanne Collins was named as a Catholic, and I soon found other online articles that also saw Christian allegory in ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy. Having just watched the ‘Catching Fire’ movie, I feel it is worth registering a few ideas on the Catholic allegory I saw in the movie, notably about Peeta.
Peeta Mellark is, in the books and also in the movies, known as ‘The Boy With The Bread’; the baker’s son. In the first movie, he saves a starving Katniss and her family by throwing her some bread. The book tells us that he suffered punishment from his family as a result of this. It is his first sacrificial act, and it involves bread. In the second movie, we’re reminded of this. The first thing Peeta does is to cut bread and offer it to Katniss, but this time she turns it down.
Is it not in the humble form of bread that Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice of his Body and Blood to us? And Katniss’ ambivalence towards this reflects our own (sometimes) indifference to the Eucharist that Jesus always offers to us generously and unstintingly.
Indeed, Peeta is always portrayed as one who unhesitatingly gives his all for Katniss’ sake. She is an allegory, I suppose of the Everyman, whom Christ lays down his life for again and again, even when the Human Soul vacillates in its relationship with him. We see this in the way Katniss flits between Pete and Gale, and we are never sure whom she truly loves. In many ways, neither are we as we seem to love both Christ and the world (cf Rom 7:23f).
In ‘Catching Fire’, after Peeta walks into the force field and is stunned and then revives, Katniss says: “You were dead! Your heart stopped!”. This moment struck me in the film because to add to Peeta’s Eucharistic self-giving, there was a sense, too, that Peeta was one who (in all three books) seems to die and rise again; another Christ-like allegory.
Finally, the ‘Catching Fire’ movie conveys an idea that is not as apparent in the book. After Katniss and her companions are poisoned, she discovers a pool of water, and this leaches away the poison and heals her. She then says something like “Get into the water; the water heals”. This is not found in the book, and in the book it is the sea water around the Cornucopia that removes the poison rather than a pool of water.
It seemed to me that this was an image of baptism. We have been poisoned by sin, and we must get into the waters of baptism to be healed of sin. This healing stings - we see Katniss writhing in pain but she plunges into the pool nevertheless. So, too, baptism is called by St Paul “dying with Christ”. There is necessarily a dying of our old self, and this will sting in some way. But we get into the water anyway because it heals us and restores our life and strength to carry on.
There are probably many other images and allegorical resonances but these are the ones that come to mind (for now), and which I wanted to share!
Today’s celebration is one of twelve great feasts in the liturgical calendar of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and is called by them: The Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple. Nothing of Our Lady’s childhood is recorded in Scripture, of course, so what we know about her early life comes to us from tradition. An account of Mary being dedicated to God by her parents when she was three first appears in the 1st-century Protoevangelium of James. And this finds a Scriptural parallel in the dedication of the prophet Samuel by Hannah; he would grow up in the Temple, serving God under the care of the priest Eli. So, too, the tradition is handed down that Our Lady lived in the Temple during her infancy where, like Samuel, she is ready to say ‘Yes’ when God calls.
In the Eastern Church, today’s feast is a correlation to the Immaculate Conception. It celebrates the truth that Mary was set apart by God’s grace to become the Most Holy Theotokos, the God-bearer, Mother of God. And this truth is presented through this beautiful image of Our Lady, as an infant, coming to dwell in God’s Temple in Jerusalem so that, “in the fullness of time”, she would become God’s Temple, the earthly dwelling place of the Word-made-flesh. So, Mary dwells in God’s Temple; she lives with God, so that God will dwell and live in her.
As such, today’s feast shows outwardly, through an occurrence in Our Lady’s life, what the feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates concerning Our Lady’s interior life: that from the beginning, the Blessed Virgin Mary was dedicated to God through a special grace; consecrated to become Mother of God.
But Our Lady is also Mother of the Church; she is our mother. So, what she receives is also communicated in some way to us her children. Hence, it seems to me that today’s feast also points to a great Christian truth: that we, too, have been presented in God’s Temple, set apart for him, so that he comes and abides in us, making us his temples. This is what happens in baptism. Through baptism we are brought to live in God’s living Temple; presented to God in his Holy Church. And then, through baptism, the Holy Trinity comes to dwell, abide, live in us, here and now through the gift of sanctifying grace. So, as Jesus says: “Abide in me, and I in you… He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:4f).
So, today’s feast reminds us that we - many of us from our infancy - have also been presented to God. We have been set apart as his, consecrated to him in baptism, and he is the divine Guest in our souls; only mortal sin can cast him out. St Teresa of Avila thus says: “Remember how important it is for you to have understood this truth - that the Lord is within us and that we should be there with him”. Hence, holiness is not something extrinsic to the Christian, but rather, it entails responding to the divine presence within us so that we are motivated from within to do the Father’s will.
This, essentially, is what Our Lady did her whole life as she co-operated with the fullness of grace given to her from the moment of her conception. Through her intercession, we pray that we, too, will serve God all the days of our life, will also co-operate with the grace given us in baptism, and so, be ready to say ‘Yes’ whenever God calls.
The question asked of Jesus today, really, is “who will be saved”? And Jesus, who in St John’s Gospel says, “I am the door” (Jn 10:9), says in St Luke’s Gospel that he is the “narrow door” (Lk 13:24). Why narrow? Because elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus affirms that “no one comes to the Father except by me” (Jn 14:6). So, Jesus alone is the universal Saviour of Mankind, and today’s Gospel suggests that “many” will seek salvation by some other means, or even by some other religion, but Jesus says they “will not be able” to enter God’s kingdom without going through him, the “narrow door”, indeed, the one and only door to salvation. Ordinarily, entry through this door into the life of Christ is through baptism. Thus the Second Vatican Council said that “through baptism as through a door men enter the Church” (Lumen Gentium, §14), the Mystical Body of Christ. Hence, we believe that “outside the Church there is no salvation” because without Christ, without entering into his life and being united to his Body in some way, one cannot be saved.
But why is it that Jesus then says that “men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God” (Lk 13:29)? Does this not suggest that some people, who are not visibly part of Christ’s Church, who may not even be baptised, may yet find eternal communion with God, and so, be saved? How is this possible? The Second Vatican Council taught that those who “through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will” by following their conscience may possibly “attain salvation” (Lumen Gentium, §16). So, salvation may be broader than the visible membership of the Church. Nevertheless, salvation is granted to the non-baptised only through the grace of Christ, so that such people are somehow still associated with the Church spiritually without visibly and formally being members of the Church. Somehow, “through no fault of their own”, they have not been able to be baptised or are ignorant of the need for baptism, and so, God in his mercy may yet save them if they live good lives. But this is really an extraordinary work of God’s mercy and grace. The ordinary means of salvation is still through baptism, which opens the door to the grace of following Christ, and, through the sacramental life, gives us the most sure access to God’s grace so that we can grow in friendship with Christ, as part of his Body, the Church.
However, today’s Gospel also has a warning for us who are baptised Christians. Jesus says that not all who “ate and drank in [his] presence”, or call him ‘Lord’, will necessarily be admitted into the kingdom of heaven (Lk 13:26f). So, merely being visible members of the Church through baptism and, even receiving the Eucharist, does not guarantee that the Lord will recognise us at the Last Day. Why? Because it is possible for someone to outwardly receive the sacraments but inwardly not be transformed by grace because of a sinful resistance to God’s grace. This is why it is vital that we examine our consciences and ensure that we receive the sacraments worthily, in a state of grace, and that we “strive” (Lk 13:24) to co-operate with grace so that we live loving and good lives. When Jesus says he does not recognise the unrepentant sinner, this is because sin defaces one, whereas sanctifying grace remakes one in Christ’s image so that when Jesus looks at the face of a saint, i.e., someone who has repented of sin and co-operated with grace, Jesus sees himself; he sees love.
But this should not lead us to despair or worry about our salvation. Rather, St Paul counsels us to pray with humility, trusting in the Holy Spirit who “helps us in our weakness” (Rom 8:26). For since God has chosen us and called us “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29), he will bring to perfection the good he has put into our hearts. As St Paul says, “in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rom 8:28). So, let us strive to truly love God, and thus, to co-operate with his grace so that we become like Christ, become Love. For this, ultimately, is what saves us: that we should enter into the Trinitarian communion of love through Love, that is, through Jesus Christ. There is no other way, no other door than Love by which one can be saved.
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.
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”.
On this day in 1858, 155 years ago, a poor girl living in a town at the foot of the Pyrenees in the south of France first saw a most beautiful lady. She held a golden rosary and had golden roses on her feet, and she appeared to Bernadette Soubirous another seventeen times. On 25 March 1858, the lady announced who she was: “I am the Immaculate Conception”.
With Our Lady’s immaculate conception, God was bringing about a new creation which was even more glorious than the first, as told in Genesis. As God separated the waters in the first creation and brought forth life, so, in his new creation of our redemption in Jesus Christ, God brings about eternal life and healing from the living waters of baptism. The miraculous spring at Lourdes, which Our Lady revealed to St Bernadette on 25 February 1858, points to this new life of grace that began with Our Lady’s immaculate conception, and that is ours through baptism. The waters of Lourdes, then, are a reminder of our baptism in Christ, which heals us of the wounds of sin, and takes away its sickness.
Moreover, the living waters of Lourdes, flowing from the Rock of Massabielle, is also an image of the Holy Spirit. Our Lady calls St Bernadette to drink the waters and wash with it. So, our baptism is not just a washing away of sin, but an indwelling of the Spirit. We drink the living waters of the Spirit, so that God comes to live in us, to heal and transform us with his sanctifying grace, and to strengthen us in sorrow, and in times of physical sickness and suffering. So, too, many have gone to Lourdes, and drunk from Our Lady’s spring, and received healing in spirit and in soul, and sometimes, also, miraculous healings of the body.
Today’s Gospel recounts how people flocked to Christ for healing, and the Lord acted through material things, such as the fringe of his garment. It is still the same today. Every year, over 6 million people flock to Christ, present and active at Lourdes, for healing. And the Lord acts through material things like the waters of Lourdes, but also through the very act of going on pilgrimage, an act of prayer and penance. For this is what Our Lady desired. She told St Bernadette “Penance! Penance! Penance!” and she asked for a chapel to be build in Lourdes so that people could go there in procession and pray.
So, in this Year of Faith, we Dominicans are going to Lourdes on pilgrimage, choosing to celebrate the feast of our founder St Dominic, in that holy shrine. We go with the sick of our parishes, bringing them to Christ, as the people of today’s Gospel did. And we invite you to join us; to go there in prayer and penance, as Our Lady of Lourdes desires. Through the immaculate Virgin’s intercession, Lourdes has become a truly unique place, a sign of the new creation in Christ, a place of baptismal joy and of tangible grace, where the divine is experienced with an intensity unlike any other place I’ve known.
As our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, said: “the primary purpose of the shrine at Lourdes is to be a place of encounter with God in prayer and a place of service to our brothers and sisters, notably through the welcome given to the sick, the poor and all who suffer. In this place, Mary comes to us as a mother, always open to the needs of her children… Let us allow ourselves to be touched by her gaze, which tells us that we are all loved by God and never abandoned by him!”
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For more information about the English Dominican Pilgrimage to Lourdes from 5-9 August 2013, contact <email@example.com>
Those of us with scientific minds will want to inquire: how does water just instantly change into wine? Philosophers and sceptics among us might ask: did this miracle actually happen? We could debate at length over this – as many scholars and thinkers have – but, then, I’m neither a philosopher nor a scientist, so I shan’t! Besides, we’d be missing the Evangelist’s point. St John is a brilliant theologian, deeply familiar with the Old Testament, and his concern is to ask: what is God doing here? Unlike the scientist, the theologian searches for meaning and purpose in things and events; his question is why. And St John calls this incident at Cana “the first of [Jesus’] signs”, so we also need to ask: what does the sign point to?
Traditionally, the feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January celebrated in one feast three manifestations of God’s presence among Mankind: firstly, the wise men are led to the Christ Child in Bethlehem; secondly, Christ is baptised in the Jordan and God confirms that this is his beloved Son; and thirdly, Christ performs the first of his signs at Cana, changing water into wine. Nowadays these three epiphanies have been spaced out over three weeks, but each of them says something about God’s presence and activity in the world.
In the first case, God leads the wise men, representing all the nations of the world, to Christ; they follow a star to Bethlehem. This means that God shines the light of salvation on all humanity. It is no longer just the privileged people of Israel, but all people from all nations who are now invited to Bethlehem, to the place where the Lord feeds us with himself, the Bread of Life. Hence, the Church is catholic – all-embracing and universal – and all who accept her embrace are called the People of God. The Lord’s baptism then shows us, through Christ’s own example, how we accept the embrace of the Church and become members of Christ’s Body. Hence, through baptism, we are not just God’s People but become Sons and Daughters of God. We share in Christ’s life, and, so, we are caught up in the embrace of the Holy Trinity. But this isn’t close enough. Today’s epiphany at Cana takes us one step further, into an even deeper intimacy with God – the intimacy and union of marriage.
On the first day of Christmas, the 25th of December, we celebrated Jesus’ birthday, and since then, throughout Christmastide, which lasts until today, the Church’s Liturgy has been meditating upon, and slowly disclosing to all, who it is that was born in Bethlehem and what his birth means for Mankind? In the Middle Ages this wonderment was dramatized – Before the Mass of Christmas day, clerics dressed as midwives asked: “Whom do you seek in the crib, shepherds, tell us?” And the shepherds replied: “The Saviour, Christ, the Lord, the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, as the angel said”. And so, on the first day of Christmas, our true love, that is, God, gave to us, a baby; the Saviour, Christ, the Lord.
On Christmas day, we marvelled at this gift, the Word made flesh. And the Liturgy focussed on the wonder of Jesus Christ being born in time and space, born with a mortal human nature like ours, born of a woman. The Liturgy lingered over this beautiful human relationship of Mother and Child on the feast of Mary, Mother of God. But it never forgot the significance of Christ’s birth for humanity, that through him, our true love gave to us the gift of divine life. So, one of the antiphons for that feast says: “O wonderful exchange! The Creator of human nature took on a human body and was born of the Virgin. He became man without having a human father and has bestowed on us his divine nature”.
But every child, rightly, naturally, has a father and a mother. So, on the feast of the Holy Family, our perspective widens from looking at just the Mother and Child to consider, who, really, is this Child’s father. The Gospel stresses that it’s not St Joseph. Because although in the Gospel of St Luke, Mary says “your father [i.e., Joseph] and I have been looking for you” (Lk 2:48), the boy Jesus points quite clearly to God as his Father. Hence, in Spain the name José is typically nick-named Pepe, which comes from ‘padre putativo’: the ‘putative father’, or, we might say, foster-father. For that is who St Joseph is to Jesus. So, on the feast of the Holy Family, the Child Jesus claims God as his Father. But, so far, it’s just a one-sided claim.
Nevertheless, beginning with the Epiphany when wise men arrived from the East to worship the Christ Child, the Liturgy presents a series of signs that back up Jesus’ claim to divinity. Hence the past week has seen one Gospel account after another pointing to Old Testament manifestations of God in the work of Christ – he heals, walks on water, and feeds the hungry in the wilderness. And this series of epiphanies culminates today with the Baptism of Christ. We have, in fact, a theophany – a revelation to Mankind of God’s own self. For Jesus’ claim of divine Sonship is confirmed by the Father’s voice from heaven and by the descent of the Holy Spirit: “This is my beloved Son”. And so, Father, Son and Spirit – God the Most Holy Trinity – is revealed to us all.
Whereas at the beginning of Christmastide we marked the birth of Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, in time and space as true Man, so now, at the end of Christmastide, we celebrate the revelation that Jesus Christ is also true God. Thus, he is eternally Son, eternally begotten in love of the Father, and of the same divine ‘substance’ as God his Father. And it is because Jesus Christ is true God and true Man that he can share his divinity with us. Hence, during the Mass when I prepare the chalice and mix a little water with the wine, this prayer is given to the priest to say: “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity”.
But how do we come to share in Christ’s divinity? How does that wonderful exchange of God becoming Man so that Man can become God take place? It takes place in a way suited to our human nature, through visible material tangible signs. Notice that the Holy Spirit takes bodily form, “as a dove”. So, too, in the sacraments, God can be said to take bodily form, and he is present and active, objectively giving us his grace, through the visible material tangible signs of water, oil, bread, wine.
The Samaritan leper was regarded by the Jewish people as doubly unclean, and so, he was twice excluded from Jewish society and from the Temple.
But the Samaritans regarded themselves as the faithful remnant, the true Israel descended from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, with priests from the line of Aaron and Levi. Seen from this perspective, Jesus’ ministry without discrimination among the Samaritans is a sign of the Messiah gathering the tribes of Israel back into unity, reconciling them in himself. The Samaritan recognizes this reconciling work of Christ, healing the division, exclusion and separation of God’s people, and he manifests this acknowledgement of who Jesus is, and of what he is doing, by thanking him. Thus he shows himself to be truly representative of the faithful remnant of Israel, having faith in Jesus as the Christ who is healing and making well God’s people, Israel.
But, seen from the Jewish perspective, Jesus’ ministry to the excluded foreigner is an extension of God’s mercy and healing to all peoples, to include all nations, all humanity. And this is where St Paul’s letter to Titus comes in. God, in his mercy, has seen the need of all humanity for his healing and saving grace. For because of sin, humanity was, like the Samaritan leper, doubly excluded. Firstly, on account of our human nature which limits us, so that we don’t naturally have access to heaven and eternal life. Secondly, on account of the leprosy of sin, an illness and suffering which further alienates us from God.
But because God is love, because he is merciful and good, he reaches out to profoundly heal us, even though we do not deserve it; God draws us to himself. So, in Jesus Christ, God comes to us and gives us “grace upon grace”. Because by his Cross, Jesus reconciles sinful humanity to the Father. And, then, through the gift of his Spirit, we are elevated beyond our limited human nature to a new life in Christ, so that we can, at last, share in the divine life of the Trinity. As St Paul puts it, we are “justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life”.
The way in which we receive these double graces of Christ is through baptism, which St Paul calls “the washing of regeneration and renewal”. And baptism, as the Catechism says, “is ‘the sacrament of faith’ (CCC 1236). So, faith, coming through baptism, has made us well. And just as the faith of the Samaritan leads him to thank the Lord, so, too, Baptism, the sacrament of faith, leads us to this Eucharist, to thanksgiving. Like the Samaritan, we acknowledge Jesus as our Saviour, and we recognize the graces he has given us in baptism. And so, with faith, we come and fall at his feet and thank him.