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.
“Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth”! (Apoc 3:16). These words had a great impact on my life over a decade ago. I was in my final year in university, and one day after Mass, I bought a book in the Catholic bookshop opposite the cathedral, and my thought was that the book could help me explain my faith to my friends. But, rather complacently, I didn’t think it would change my life much. After all, I said to myself with pride, I already knew my faith and read a lot of theology!
But knowing the faith is not the same as knowing and loving Christ, and through this book, Christ came knocking on the door of my heart. And he used these words, cited on page 25 of that book, to knock me out of my complacency: “Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth”. And this is how the author went on to explain the passage: God “wants us on fire for Him. He wants us to love Him. How do you act when you’re in love? Do you do only what you absolutely have to in order to hang on to the relationship? Not if you really love. This person is constantly on your mind. You constantly want to please him, to communicate, and you both want to get to know each other better. You don’t say, “I spent last Sunday with you. Again now? How long do I have to stay? Is an hour enough?” God wants us to be in love with Him. He wants us to be on fire for Him. He wants to be on our minds. He wants to be central in our hearts.”
Why? Because he wants us to be truly happy and fulfilled in this life and to enjoy eternal life with him. This is why God comes in search of us, “to seek and save the lost” – especially when we don’t even know we’re lost – and his living Word is spoken to us at the right time and in the right place. These are moments of actual graces, in which God is acting and speaking, and his Spirit is already at work to prepare our hearts to listen to Christ, to be open to God’s grace. And my experience is that God uses even our most simple human motivations, and can transform that with his grace into a miraculous moment of conversion.
So it was that the Spirit moved Zacchaeus in the Gospel to look for Jesus. He wasn’t even moved by faith, as such, but merely simple curiosity. But this spurred him to make the effort to climb a tree and seek Jesus, and this is enough for the Lord. For Jesus immediately calls Zacchaeus by name, and asks to go to his house. Effectively, Christ knocks on the door of Zacchaeus’ heart; a moment of grace. But Zacchaeus is given the freedom to respond to Christ’s request, just as each of us are. And what Zacchaeus does is to say ‘Yes’ to the Lord, to receive the Lord joyfully into his home, into his life.
So, as St John put it: “If any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me”. Each day, we’re called to let Christ into our lives, to gradually become more in love with him, and this is what our daily Eucharistic communion expresses and fosters. When we say ‘Amen’ at Communion, we invite Christ into our lives, so that we can be united to God in love and he can truly say to us: “Today salvation has come to this house”, indeed, under our ‘roof’.
In many countries tonight people will come “from east and west, and from north and south”, from all over the place, dressed in all kinds of costumes and guises, of figures both dead and alive. And they will knock on doors in search of a sweet treat. And in a strange way, this popular secular ritual, which is often just a bit of fun, can point to some important lessons found in today’s Gospel. For, if you think about it, pretending to be one of the dead and going ‘trick or treating’ is like acting out today’s parable. On that Day after our death, each of us, wherever we come from, shall knock on the door of heaven. And we hope that the Lord will open the door to us, and give us admission to the sweet feast of heaven – an eternal ‘treat’, so to speak, with all the saints.
But in fact, we rehearse for this great Day every day of our lives and not just on Halloween’s. Except that here in the land of the living, in our lives right now, the roles are reversed. It is not we who knock on heaven’s door, but rather it is the Lord who stands at the door of our hearts, knocking, and asking to be admitted. Each day of our lives, Jesus invites us to open our hearts to him, so that he can come in and have communion with us. As the book of Apocalypse says: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Apoc 3:20). So, we are being invited each and every day to open our hearts to Love.
If we do open our hearts to Christ, to Love, then we receive, already in this life, the sweetest treat of all. For the Holy Trinity comes to dwell in our hearts, filling us with the sweetness of divine grace; it is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet and the enjoyment of the saints. So, we don’t just eat and drink in Christ’s presence, but, most importantly, because we have opened our hearts to him, Christ enters in to eat and drink with us, and we with him; we have holy communion with the Lord, and are united to him in love.
This is what we do each day in the Mass. Here, in the Liturgy, we have a foretaste of the heavenly feast of the prophets and saints. Here, today, the Lord comes to us, and he knocks at the door of our hearts. In saying ‘Amen’, we let him in and have communion with him; we allow his grace to transform us, so that we don’t just put on the guise of Love and the costume of a Christian, but we become Love.
For our hope is that, when we knock on the Lord’s door after death, he will thus open heaven to us, and say: “I do know where you come from. I recognize you because you have my face – the face of one who loves”. Hence the Catechism reminds us that “at the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love” (CCC 1022), on whether we have let Christ in and allowed his grace to transform and re-fashion us in his own image, the image of Incarnate Love.
Today’s readings remind us that we are created for communion with God for that is why God restored us to friendship with him through Christ; that is why he gives us his grace. As the Catechism says: “Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life” (CCC 1997). And because we have this communion with God, so we are also called into communion with one another.
The problem with the rich man in the Gospel isn’t that he was prudent and worked hard, earned a living, and invested things away for a rainy day. These are important and necessary. However, he became so caught up in his work, in making money and managing his investments, that he became self-obsessed with himself and his things, in seeking pleasure just for himself. Thus, his possession didn’t build communion, but cut him off from others. He was no longer in communion with others, and the implication is, neither was he in communion with God. He simply hadn’t the time for them, and so he couldn’t love God or neighbour, for the two come together. Instead he loved himself and his stuff.
How often do we find ourselves in that situation, with little of no time for our families, our friends, housemates, and for God, rushing from one thing to another? Or perhaps we’re in danger of focussing so much on our work and its goals that we neglect the vital relationships in our life? We’re meant to love people and use things to help us build relationships and communion with others. But instead we often seem to use people and love things. So, Blessed John Paul II who is commemorated today, said that “however true it may be that man is destined for work and called to it, in the first place work is ‘for man’ and not man ‘for work’”.
For everything we do, and the things we own and earn, are to serve a reason and a purpose. Not just survival, or to maximize our own selfish pleasures, but, to improve our relationships with one another, to enable us to spend time together and communicate better so that our lives are more gracious and loving. For it is in relationship with others, in love for another, that our truest pleasure and lasting good lies. And our greatest good, of course, is found in God, in a living relationship with him who is Love itself.
But I suppose you already know this, for isn’t that why we’re here? We take time out of our busy days to find some quiet, to make time for communion with God and our neighbour. For this opportunity, and for the grace that has brought us here, we give God thanks and praise.
At the end of the Ordination rite of a priest, the bishop says these awesome and solemn words to the newly-ordained: “Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s Cross”. It’s been precisely one year since those words were said to me, and it seems fitting today to recall them in conjunction with today’s First Reading.
“Know what you are doing”. St Paul’s account of the Lord’s words which instituted the Eucharist tells us that what the priest is doing in the Mass is proclaiming the Lord’s death. So, in the words of the Ordination rite, the priest is said to celebrate “the mystery of the Lord’s Cross”. As such, the Mass makes present the one sacrificial death of Christ on the Cross. It is, therefore, a visible sign of God’s sacrificial love for humankind, and of his total gift of himself to us in Jesus Christ. When the priest is told to “model [his] life on the mystery of the Lord’s Cross”, then, he is being told to fashion his life and ministry according to the sacrificial love of Christ. Thus, the priest is ordained to make Christ’s love visible to his people, not just in the Mass in which Christ’s Body and Blood is made present at his hands for us, but also in his own flesh. The priest’s own Body and Blood – his energies, efforts, whole self – is given up for the Church too. So, the priest is sometimes called ‘another Christ‘ because of what he does sacramentally for us, and in his own person.
“No man is an island”, it’s said. And how true that is. This was so evident as we recalled last night the centuries of benefactors, collaborators and friends who have worked and prayed together with us friars to bring us to this day, to the building of this chapel with this Altar, now duly dedicated, at its heart. In a sense, this chapel reminds us of the debt of gratitude that we owe to those who have gone before us, to those who make up our community today, and above all, to God.
But one thing I increasingly realize, especially living in community, is that because none of us is an island, nobody is self-sufficient and in-dependent of another. We need one another, and we rely on one another to work, build, and celebrate together. And this is to be expected because as human persons we are essentially relational, born into a family community, and then, gradually joining other communities and networks. It is from these communities, from our relationship with others and our dependence on them that we find meaning, and also find ourselves. So, we are each indebted to the other, closely knitted in community by bonds of mutual need and trust, by bonds of love.
In every Mass we pray after the Our Father for “peace and unity” to be granted to God’s holy Church, and today we celebrate a saint and martyr whose life was devoted to safeguarding the unity and peace of the Church. In this way, he was true to his name, Irenaeus, which means ‘peace’.
Born around 135-40 in Smyrna, which is now called Izmir in Turkey, Irenaeus was mentored by bishop Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle St John. By 177 he had moved to Lyons in Gaul, where he is one of the priests ministering to the Greek-speaking Christian community there. That community sent him to Rome to take a letter to the pope, and while he was in Rome, the church in Lyons was attacked by Marcus Aurelius. 48 were martyred including the bishop. So, when Irenaeus returned to Lyons he was appointed bishop, and he taught the Faith, and defended it against the Gnosticism – a dualist heresy that set a good spiritual God against a negative Principle that produced all matter, that was thus, evil, in the world. The Gnostics believed that Jesus was sent to liberate Man from matter, setting his spirit free, but this superior and secret knowledge (gnosis) was only given to some Christians called the spirituals. This heresy was prevalent throughout the 2nd century and it divided the Church. These dualistic ideas probably sound familiar since versions of it crop up repeatedly, and St Dominic and his Order arose to respond to the 13th-century version of it called Catharism. So, St Irenaeus arose in the 2nd century to counteract Gnosticism, and he laboured until his death around 202-3 during another wave of persecution by the Emperor Septimus Severus.
Given the violence and persecution in Irenaeus’ lifetime and his own martyrdom, evidently, the peace that he is credited with bringing to the Church is not temporal peace. Rather, it is a peace that comes from being built upon the rock that is our one true Faith in Jesus Christ. As bishop and teacher of this Faith, then, St Irenaeus defended the people of God from the violence and divisiveness of heretical ideas, and united the Church in Lyons to the wider Church of his mentor St Polycarp: the Church of St John and the apostles, who, unlike the Gnostics, openly taught the common faith and knowledge of salvation that comes from Jesus Christ. So, in an unbroken line, the Apostolic Fathers taught with Christ’s authority, and their successors continue to do so today.
As St Irenaeus wrote in his book, Against Heresies, “The Church, though dispersed throughout the world… having received [this faith from the Apostles]… as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world” (1, 10, 1-2).
It is this unity and peace, coming from an adherence to the one Faith in the one Lord that we pray for in the Mass. For it is this unity and peace that is signified when we receive the one Bread and the one Cup that makes us “one body, one spirit in Christ”.
Sometimes people seem to think that assertions about doctrinal truth, or that Jesus is the only way to salvation is limiting and restrictive. So some people tend to buck against doctrine, and refer to the teaching of the ‘institutional Church’ as merely about authority and power, as something that restricts my personal freedom. Instead, they would opt for ‘spirituality’ and their own spiritual intuitions.
And yet, the Truth is not restrictive because only Truth brings freedom. As Christ says elsewhere in St John’s Gospel: “The truth will set you free”. Because Truth is none other than God himself, so Truth is more spacious, more expansive, more free than we can ever imagine or inhabit. This, I think, is what Jesus’ image of the many-roomed mansion is getting at because heaven, of course, is not a place, but is union with God himself, living and being in God, sharing the expansiveness and freedom of his divine Life.
But some people are tempted to read this Gospel in a pluralistic way, as though to say there are many roads to God, so that it doesn’t really matter what we believe, or they might posit that every religion is somehow a valid means of salvation. But it’s clear from what Christ says in today’s Gospel that this doesn’t follow.
What does it mean to say that something is good? In the first instance, we’d probably think of moral excellence. But if I say that Cecilia is a good singer, we’re more likely to mean that she can sing well, and so possesses a talent or skill to a high degree of excellence. And what if I say that this wine is good? This probably means that it is exemplary, a fine specimen of its type; it is properly what it is meant to be. But each of these meanings of good is in some way pleasant, attractive, and enjoyable. Hence we also speak of a good time, or a good night out, and we are naturally drawn to good things.
It is this sense of the attractiveness of the good that underlies how we should understand Jesus as the “good shepherd”. The Greek word being used here that is translated as ‘good’ is kalos. And its primary meaning is beautiful. But not a kind of superficial, skin-deep, cosmetic beauty, nor the debased sense of beauty we often have today which sees beauty as something purely subjective, but rather, beauty as something more essential and objective, that is independent of us, which belongs to a person or thing, and which we encounter and appreciate in another.
At first glance this Gospel seems very similar to last Sunday’s in that Jesus is proving to his disciples the physicality of his risen body. He’d asked Thomas to reach out and touch his wounds, and today, it seems, Jesus asks for some food to eat as an indication that he’s not a ghost. However, today’s Gospel is like last Sunday’s in another more important way. Last week, I suggested that being invited to touch Christ’s wounds is an expression of his trust, of forgiveness, and renewed friendship. And this week, we see yet another expression of reconciliation and divine mercy: Jesus shares a meal with his disciples.
For the Greek phrase enopion auton that is literally translated as “he took it [the fish] and ate before them” can also be translated idiomatically as he ate ‘at their table’. And, as this scene immediately follows on from St Luke’s account of Christ’s appearance to his disciples at Emmaus, the theme of table fellowship is continued. At Emmaus, Christ was known “in the breaking of the bread”, and here, back in Jerusalem, the risen Christ is known through the eating of fish. And the use of bread and fish is not accidental but is full of symbolism because, earlier on in the Gospel, Christ had fed five thousand with just five loaves and two fish. So bread and fish are signs of God’s providence for his people, for his miraculous presence among us, creating a new world in which all “ate and were satisfied”. Moreover, bread and fish were early Christian symbols of the Eucharist, the table fellowship at which all are fed and satisfied by Christ himself. So, just as the Emmaus account points to Christ’s abiding presence in the Eucharist, so today’s Gospel continues Luke’s point about being able to recognize the risen Lord in the Eucharist. And as Jesus eats the fish at the table of the disciples as a sign of friendship, forgiveness, and reconciliation, so St Luke is reminding us that the Eucharist is our Christian sacred meal of friendship, forgiveness, and communion with God and one another.
Father Leon Dehon, founder of the Priestly Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Congregatio Sacerdotorum a Sacro Corde Iesu) also known as the Dehonians, celebrating Holy Mass. According to former privilege granted to the missionaries in China,