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.
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”.
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.