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.
It sometimes appears that there are many reasons for one to be fearful. One only needs to read the newspapers, and one can feel the surge of fear, and perhaps, not a little anger, rising – the threat of nuclear aggression from North Korea; the fragile economy and the financial squeeze on millions of people because of welfare ‘reforms’; the terrifying attacks on Christian communities in Pakistan; the strange weather patterns we’ve been experiencing due to climate change. And on a personal level, we might fear for our own health or the well-being of someone we love; worry about unemployment and redundancy; fear for the future, our falling investments, our relationships, and what might happen. So many fears, all legitimate and genuine, can close in on us, locking us in so that we feel helpless, and our efforts futile. Like the disciples huddled together, our doors can be shut for fear of something or someone, and we’re barricaded within, fearful and confined.
But Jesus, too, carries the wounds of all our fears, of all that scourges and torments us. He has endured the terror of the Cross with us, and descended to the dark pit of death for us. And he is risen. Alleluia! And the risen Lord carries his battle scars on his glorified body for ever, as a sign that he is always united to us in our struggles and fears. And because he knows our sufferings and fears, our worries and weaknesses, he can enter through the shut doors and stand beside us. Jesus, having conquered death itself – Man’s greatest enemy and fear – can now transcend all the locked doors of our fears, and say to us – to you and me – “Peace be with you”.
However, the peace that the risen Lord Jesus gives does not secure immunity from life’s problems and pain, as such. Rather, Christ’s peace enables us to face the painful realities of our life, our fears and anxieties, with faith in his resurrection, with hope of finally conquering death and sin, and with secure confidence in God’s saving love. Christ’s peace reconciles sinful humanity to God, safely held in the embrace of God’s divine mercy, from which nothing can separate us. As St Paul says: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”. Nothing. So, because of Christ’s victorious resurrection, we need not fear. As we hear in our Second Reading: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Apoc 1:17b-18).
And yet, how is it that eight days later we find the disciples “again in the house” and again with the doors shut (cf Jn 20:26)? This time the doors are not shut for fear, but closed because of unbelief, shutting out faith. And without faith, there can be no peace. Indeed, as St Augustine says: “There is no love without hope, no hope without love, and neither hope nor love without faith”.
Hence, the risen Christ comes again, standing in the midst of our doubts and fears, entering the ‘Hades’ of our lives where God seems absent and distant, and faith is remote. Thomas, refusing to believe, is in such a situation. But, as we affirm in the Apostles Creed, Jesus “descended into hell”, into the abyss where God is absent, and he has broken the stranglehold of sin and of unbelief. He, the Living One, has the keys of Death and Hades. Thus, with great mercy, the risen Lord comes especially for Thomas, entering through the shut doors, and stands beside him. And again he says: “Peace be with you”. Christ, who is our peace, now offers his wounds to Thomas to touch. So, we see that God puts his faith in Man, entrusts himself to him, so that Man can put his faith in God and find peace. Paraphrasing St John, we could say: ‘we believe, because God has first believed in us’ (cf 1 Jn 4:19).
For this is what the interaction between the risen Lord and St Thomas shows. Christ offers him his forgiveness, his friendship, and his love by inviting him to touch his wounds. And it is this divine initiative that elicits St Thomas’ faith, so that he can say: “My Lord and my God”. Moreover, by placing his hand in Christ’s wounded side – wounds which speak so eloquently of God’s love for humanity – Thomas’ fears and doubts are cast out by this experience of, this contact with, God’s perfect love (cf 1 Jn 4:18b).
Each time we come to Mass, Jesus entrusts himself to us in the Eucharist. We’re invited to touch him, to handle him, to come into intimate contact with the Lord’s Body and Blood, and so, to have faith in him. This sacrament of the Eucharist, as such, is the sacrament of faith par excellence, inviting us to believe in Jesus Christ. And as we receive our Eucharistic Lord with faith, it is he who touches our wounds and fears so that we can be healed, loved, and find peace in God.
As Jesus entrusts himself to us in the Eucharist, he also invites us to entrust ourselves to him; to have no fear, and to go to him in the beautiful and intimate sacrament of Reconciliation. For these two sacraments – Eucharist and Confession – complement each other. It is principally there, in the sacrament of Reconciliation, that we receive God’s divine mercy; there, that Christ offers us again his forgiveness, friendship, and love; there, that the Holy Spirit is sent “among us for the forgiveness of sins” (Formula of Absolution). Through that sacrament of mercy, Christ takes on himself our fears, our sins, and our wounds, and in exchange, he gives us his peace and unites us to himself in love, through the grace of the Holy Spirit. So, as we heard in today’s Gospel, the Spirit is breathed upon the apostles; breathed upon Church so that, through the sacrament of Reconciliation, we may be healed and come to share in the peace, forgiveness, and new life of the Risen One.
So, let us open the doors of our hearts to Christ, let his perfect love transcend our fears, and let us say to him: “Jesus, my Lord and my God, I trust in you”.
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”.
In our trek across the Lenten desert today, we encounter not just one but two bushes. For the parable in today’s Gospel can be juxtaposed with our First Reading, which recounts Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. For the early Christians, the burning bush came to be seen as a symbol of the Virgin Mary, who was consumed by the fire of the Holy Spirit but whose virginity remained untouched. But, by co-operating with God’s grace, Our Lady became most fruitful, and she bore the most beautiful fruit of all: Jesus Christ.
In contrast, the parable presents a tree or bush which is barren; for three years it has produced no fruit at all. As such, it is fit only to be cut down and burnt up. This bush, I think, could well stand for us sinners if we do not co-operate with God’s grace. For although our loving God is ever-ready to save us from the barrenness of sin, God can only do so with us, and never without us. This means we have to engage our human freedom and act; we need to choose to co-operate with God’s grace.
This involves a change of heart, acknowledging our need of God’s forgiveness. Co-operating with grace entails repentance and willing a conversion of life that is made concrete in the sacramental means that God has chosen. And for some, this means will be as strange and as startling as the burning bush! But, it is the way that God has established. So, it is ordinarily in the sacrament of Confession that we truly encounter the living God (as Moses did), and we come into contact with God’s purifying fire; we are opened to his transforming grace, and receive his mercy and forgiveness. In the holy ground of the confessional, God says to each of us: “I have seen your affliction and heard your cry, and I am here to deliver you”. And, like Moses, we can choose to go to the Lord. Or we can choose to turn away and not co-operate with God’s grace, remaining fruitless. But if we go as Moses did, then we will see a great sight, and experience the wonders of God.
But the transforming work of God’s grace is often slow and gradual, and sometimes hard and messy, too. It is like gardening, and we have to repeatedly return to the confessional just as we repeatedly dig up and weed our gardens, and even, pile on the manure. So, in the Gospel parable, a gardener asks for a year’s reprieve for the barren tree. Here, I’d suggest that the gardener is the divine Vinedresser, God himself, and the year given for the barren tree to bear fruit is our lifetime. As such, each day of our lives is God’s grace-filled time, in which he patiently cares for us and coaxes fruit from our barren, sinful state.
God’s desire and plan is that, over a lifetime’s co-operation with his grace through repeatedly using the sacrament of reconciliation, we, the barren bush would become a burning bush. For, as we co-operate with grace, the Holy Spirit will inflame us with charity, divine love. And God’s grace is a holy fire that does not consume and destroy our human nature. Rather, grace perfects us and elevates our humanity. The result of co-operating with God’s grace is that we will flourish as human beings and flower in virtue, so that, we too, like Our Lady, will bear that most wonderful fruit, Jesus Christ. For grace transforms us so that we become Christ-like, partakers in the beauty and being of God.
Spring is a time for gardening, so, Lent (coming from the Old English word for spring) focuses our minds on God’s cultivation of grace in our hearts, and the vital role of confession in that, so that we are fruitful. The journey towards holiness, of course, takes not just forty days but the entire ‘year’ of our lives. But none of us knows how long that – our lifespan – will be. So, in the time we have, each precious day, let us make good use of the means God gives us, the sacraments, to receive his mercy and forgiveness, and to grow in his love.
I recently mentioned in conversation that someone I knew refused to have medical check-ups or see the GP (General Practitioner); he hadn’t seen one for almost 20 years. I know someone else – a family member, actually – who refuses to see the dentist, preferring tooth decay, and waiting for his tooth to fall out rather than to seek medical help! Both these approaches, I think we’d agree, are somewhat irresponsible but perhaps we can be sympathetic and accept that they stem from some kind of irrational fear. Nevertheless, such fear needs to be confronted and gently and gradually overcome, for the sake of a greater good, namely, bodily health and dental hygiene. But if this is advisable for our bodily health, what about our spiritual health?
In the Sacrament of Confession, Christ is our healer; the confessional is his clinic and surgery. He invites us to come to him, and he desires that we should go to him in Confession, like those crowds in the Gospel, for his healing and forgiveness. In Christ’s response to the mother-in-law of Simon, we see how he treats us if we go to him. At once, he stretches out his hand to lift us up. This is a hand of friendship, of compassion, and of mercy; he wants to help us up. And then, when we are raised up from sin, completely forgiven in the sacrament of anything we confess, we are empowered by God’s grace to serve others, that is, to love and obey Christ, and to love our neighbour.
But even if we’re not sick, not suffering because of serious, or mortal sin, we’re encouraged by the Church to go regularly, as we would for medical check-ups, and confess our everyday faults. As the Catechism says: “The regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit” (CCC 1458). So, regular and frequent Confession keeps us spiritually healthy, and I would recommend at least once a month.
However, it may be that some people are still reluctant to use this Sacrament. It cannot be because of impeccability. Because as St Paul says: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Hence, St John says: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8). So, perhaps, it is because of some previous bad experience, or fear of the sacrament. This is perfectly understandable; I feel a little worried, too, sometimes, when I go to Confession as a penitent. But, as with the fear of the GP or the dentist, this fear (or whatever the obstacle is) has to be confronted and gently and gradually overcome, for the sake of a greater good, namely, our spiritual health and our eternal salvation.
And today’s reading from Hebrews offers us some perspective and encouragement. It tells us that “because [Christ] himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” (2:18). This is what he longs to do for us in the sacrament of Confession: to help us, to heal us of sin’s fever, and innoculate us with his grace. And if Christ has been tempted so that he can be sympathetic, this is even more true for the priest who is not only tempted but is in fact, like everyone else also a poor sinner, also in need of Christ’s forgiveness, and who also finds himself, often, on the other side of the confessional as a penitent. The Catechism reminds the priest, as such, that he is “not the master of God’s forgiveness, but its servant” (CCC 1466). Thus, like Simon’s mother-in-law, we priests have also been given Christ’s hand of friendship, raised up by God’s mercy from sin, so that we can serve God and serve you, our brothers and sisters, by being instruments of “God’s merciful love for the sinner” (CCC 1465) in the sacrament of Confession.
“The end is nigh!” The apocalyptic preacher is sometimes caricatured as going around shouting this: “The end is nigh!”. And yet how does this make us feel? Alarmed? Scared? Worried? But why? If, instead, the apocalyptic preacher said: “You have reached your destination”, in a soothing Sat-Nave voice, would that help? Not really, I suspect, even though that is, essentially, what the apocalyptic preacher means to say. It seems to me that what makes the end of the world so frightening, though (leaving aside how it happens), is that it is the end of the world as we know it. So, what we fear, really, is the unknown. And whether we speak of the end of our earthly life in death, or the end of the entire world as we know it, there is a certain unknown about what follows the end, and, it seems to me, our fear stems from this.
Except, we Christians are not left completely in the dark about what happens after the end. On the contrary, what follows after death and the Apocalypse is light. As St John says, in the life to come, there is “no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Apoc 21:23). Or, as Jesus says today: “Heaven and earth may pass away, but my words will not pass away”. And Christ’s words are, as the psalmist says, “a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Ps 118:105). So, what follows after the end is light. And this light is a person, Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the World (cf Jn 8:12); it is He who is the Word of God who endures forever, who will not pass away. For Christ is the Resurrection and the Life (cf Jn 11:25).
Thus, Jesus promises us that after the distress and destruction of death and the end of the world, he is present to call us to himself, to raise us up, to give new life, and to enlighten our paths forward to the heavenly city where God gives us his light and glory. After death, then, is Jesus. And he is only an unknown to be feared if we have not, in this life, now, come to know and love him as our truest friend. But if we use our lifetime well, then we are led through the gateways of death to light, friendship with God, and eternal life in Him. So, as Shakespeare put it: Death is “a consummation devoutly to be wished”. For through death, through the end of all things, we have reached our destination. So, when one says “The end is nigh!”, one doesn’t just mean that things are finished, show’s over, but more significantly, that the goal of our human life is near, that the Lord is at hand. For Jesus is “the Alpha and the Omega… the beginning and the end” (cf Apoc 22:13).
If this is true on the cosmic and the individual human scale, then it is true of the little deaths and ends in our lives, and every moment in between: Jesus is forever Emmanuel, God-with-us. There is an uncertainty and distress that comes, sometimes, at graduation, or with unemployment, or with the end of a relationship. Every now and again, life as we know it ends; our world is shaken, and the future is frightening and unknown; these moments are never easy. But we can know one thing. In these moments, Jesus, our end, is “near, at the very gates”. If we trust him, and so, open our hearts and lives to him, Jesus comes alongside us in our transient troubles to lead us forward with his eternal Word as our light and hope.
Whoever thinks that Jesus’ teachings are all sweetness and light; simply peace and love; or thinks that Jesus doesn’t mention hell haven’t read today’s Gospel. Or whoever thinks that the Gospel is simple to understand but complicated by theologians just hasn’t grappled with today’s text. It isn’t easy, nor is it peaceable and comforting, but challenging – especially to those who would preach about it. For I shall be the first to be judged by my own words. However, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, especially when it is challenging, is full of love. Hence it teaches us saving truth: all that is necessary for our eternal happiness with God.
St Jerome’s feast day is usually kept today, and I want to recount a story from his life which is relevant to our Gospel. One day, Christ appeared to St Jerome in a vision, and he asked him “What have you to offer me”. And St Jerome, the great translator of the Bible and Doctor of the Church, said: “I can offer you my writings, Lord”. But Christ said that was not enough. So Jerome said: “I offer you my life of penance and mortification”. But the Lord said that wasn’t enough, either. So, Jerome said: “What, then, is left for me to offer? What do you want me to give you?” And Jesus immediately said: “You can offer me your sins, Jerome”.
Because Jesus takes our sins seriously. So seriously, in fact, that he offered his whole person on the Cross, and gave up his own body to be scourged and crucified, because of our sins. And, so, he wants us to take our sins seriously too; to recognize what it does to ourselves and to him. This is why he uses such strong language, such vivid and shocking images in today’s Gospel. And if we’re offended by them, then consider how offended God is by sin – my sin, your sin.
Yes, Christ’s words may be an instance of Semitic exaggeration, but people don’t generally exaggerate unless they want to emphasize a point. And the Lord’s point today is that sin does matter; that grave sin is utterly serious, and that it is deeply harmful to our selves, to the body of the Church, and to the body of the wider human community.
St Augustine calls these past Octave days of Easter “days of pardon and mercy”. For when the risen Lord appears to his disciples gathered as a group for the first time, he immediately offers them his forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation. And this is summed up in the phrase, “Peace be with you”. For peace is the first gift of Easter. Not peace in the sense of the absence of military conflict, as such, but something of greater cosmic significance. The peace the risen Christ speaks of is primarily the reconciliation between sinful humanity and God; it is God’s loving mercy and his forgiveness.
And this reconciliation brought about by Christ’s death and resurrection, by his obedience and loving self-offering, effects a new creation. Like the first (old) creation, God accomplishes the new through his Word and the Holy Spirit. So, on that Easter evening, “the first day of the week”, the incarnate Word speaks the new creation into being, breathing forth the Holy Spirit, and the whole universe is renewed through being reconciled to God. Indeed, God’s Spirit of Love, is, as St Augustine says, “its very self the forgiveness of sins”. So, when Christ gives the Spirit to his disciples, and thus, pours his love into their hearts, he is forgiving them their sins, giving them his peace, and hence, bringing about his new creation – a creation in which God’s own love and peace is given to humanity, and dwells in their hearts; a creation in which we are offered God’s mercy and friendship. This is what we mean by the life of grace, which is initiated in every Christian by the sacrament of baptism.
Our God who creates the entire universe – all that is – out of nothing is the God who does great things with the little that we offer him. We’re so accustomed to the way of the world by which often a lot of effort has to be expended for very little result – just think of how difficult it is to lose weight! But God’s way is different. Big results come from doing comparatively small, ordinary things on our part. And through these simple humble signs God performs his marvels which are often at least as tremendous as creating the universe out of nothing.
So, the mundane act of washing and bathing – which is what the Greek word ‘baptizo’ means – becomes the sacramental sign by which we are washed of our sins, purified by the grace of Christ so that we, like Naaman, come forth from the font, fresh and clean, like a newborn child. What is essentially a conversation – so that as Isaiah says, we come to God and “talk things over” – about our mistakes, our misjudgments, our weaknesses becomes the sacramental matter for the sacrament of confession. And through this simple admission of who we are as sinners, God again makes something out of our nothingness. He makes us his adopted sons and daughters, and restores us to baptismal innocence, becoming like newborns again. And he equips us with his grace so that we can grow as his children. We look to Jesus, the Son of God, as our model and example so that we can learn how to behave and act as a son and daughter of God. And, here in the Mass, the humble household consumables of bread and wine becomes Christ’s Body and Blood. In each case, God takes the simple and ordinary of our world, the little things we offer him, and he transforms it into something extraordinary, tremendous, and divine.
Occasionally I’ve had to hang things on the wall using a nail and hammer. And I’m not particularly good at this… Imagine me trying to hammer a nail into the wall, and I find the wall is somewhat unyielding, and my aim slips. So, I make a small indentation below the point that I wanted. I’ve missed the mark, and in fact, I find that I’ve made an indentation in a softer part of the plaster. So, I keep hitting that point, deciding to settle for that lower position instead. The picture, when it’s hung here, isn’t quite where it should be, but I convince myself it’s fine. And in fact, if I’m to live with myself and my weakness, I soon convince myself that it’s what I wanted in the first place, and indeed, everyone else should think so too.
I use this to illustrate how sin affects us as individuals, and also its effect on society. Sin is missing the mark, and when we find that the good and true is a little hard, somewhat unyielding, our aim slips. Instead of persevering, and finding the right tools to hit the hard spot, we may take the easier way, and persist in missing the mark. So, we persist in sin. And then we soon convince ourselves that perhaps that is the best way forward anyway – there’s no such thing as the right place to hang the picture, or no better way of behaving, and so on. So, truth is relativized, such that I become the sole arbiter of right and wrong. And anyone who disagrees has to be convinced otherwise, or silenced.