The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
Last night at the Chrism Mass, Archbishop Leo Cushley of St Andrews and Edinburgh led us priests in renewing our commitment to the priestly ministry. I’d entered the cathedral, preoccupied by thoughts of preparing for the Triduum, so I had forgotten about this key aspect of the Chrism Mass. It came as a pleasant surprise especially after a beautiful and inspiring sermon from the Archbishop encouraging us by reminding us that we were given the grace of ordination to be “faithful, not successful”. So, with joy, I recalled my Ordination in September 2011, and thanked God for the grace of being called to minister as a priest of Jesus Christ.
Christ is ever faithful.
Hence, the very next day, that is, today, I was given reminders of just how joyful and beautiful the priestly vocation is.
A letter arrived from Dublin; the address incomplete but it was sufficient for it to find its way to me. And the content surprised me but moved me to tears of gratitude and joy.
The previous August I had been in Lourdes on the Dominican Pilgrimage, and I’d been to the shrine’s Reconciliation Chapel in search of a confessor. The queues were long and I waited some time. After I made my confession to the priest in charge of English-language confessors, I asked him if he could do with some more help since there were still quite a few English-speaking pilgrims waiting and I had a few hours to spare. He readily agreed, and I settled into the confessional.
Christ is ever faithful.
So, he gave me the words to minister to his beloved flock, to the wounded and lost, to those who sought consolation and healing mercy. One confession in particular opened the way for reconciliation between estranged persons, and today I received a letter explaining to me how reluctant the person who’d been to confession had been to go to Confession that day. But that person did, moved by Our Lady of Lourdes, and what happened after that confession, since that grace-filled day has brought such peace and reconciliation to a personal situation. The letter I received this afternoon recounting all this simply moved me to tears, and I thanked God for his mercy and justice.
Subsequently, this person looked for me online, only knowing my first name, that I was from Scotland, and my face. And then, on the same day, this person saw me on EWTN giving my reflection for the Annunciation.
Christ is ever faithful.
So, we can be sure that if we are faithful to him, if we’re open to his grace, he will do beautiful things. It’s just so amazing, as a priest, to be used by God in this way; to be an instrument cause of his grace.
And so, this Holy Week, this final day of Lent, I offer this testimony as a song of love to the divine Lover who calls us and keeps faith with us.
“My song is of mercy and justice; I sing to you, O Lord…” (Ps 101:1)
Looking out onto our Spring garden behind this chapel, we are reminded that water and light are vital for life. And as this is true of nature, so it is true too of super-nature, of the human soul; for our full human flourishing in body and soul, we need not just material things but spiritual gifts that only God can give. Hence, the Gospels we’ve heard over these three Sundays have spoken of water, light, and life. For as in Spring we are made aware of these elemental gifts that are necessary for those plants to flourish and grow, so in Lent (which is an old English word for Spring) we are being reminded of what humanity needs for its fullest flourishing and growth.
We need the living waters of the Holy Spirit which wells up to eternal life (cf Jn 4:14). We need the light of Christ so we can see God (cf Jn 9:4). And both are given to Mankind in the sacrament of baptism so that we can have Life – divine life – from God the Father. So through baptism humanity becomes fully alive in the Holy Trinity. And being fully alive is what we mean by being in a state of grace. It means that we, the baptized, now live and move and have our being in the Holy Trinity. As St Paul says: “your spirits are alive because of righteousness” (Rom 8:10b).
Thus, these Gospels, with their great elemental images of water, light, and life, are read at this time of year especially for those who are preparing to receive the Easter sacraments. It stirs up in them a longing for what they will receive. But they are read for us, too, who are already baptized, to remind us of what we have received and what we still need. We need to remain alive in the Holy Spirit. Hence, Lent is our Spring-time too. Lent calls us out of the winter of our sins to receive again the water and light we need so that we can flourish and grow and become more fully alive in God. So Lent is a time of grace, inviting us to become more fully alive in God’s grace.
Just as those who are not yet baptized will come to new life in God through baptism at Easter, so, at this time, we who are already baptized are also being called to a new life in Christ. Often our sins, our weaknesses, frailties, anxieties and addictions entomb us – we are like Lazarus. Indeed, to be in a state of sin is worse: it is to be buried alive. For although our bodies live, we are already spiritually dead if we are in a state of mortal sin.
But Lent is our Spring, and new life springs forth, with God’s water and light, with the grace that comes from the sacrament of Confession. Lent is this graced time in which we examine our consciences, we do some Spring cleaning, and consider what needs changing and repenting in our lives. That charity and kindness and gentleness which is dead can be brought to new life; dry bones and dry hearts can be watered and revived; deeds hidden in the darkness of shame and guilt can be brought into the light of God’s forgiveness and mercy. And even if we’re not in a state of grave sin, Confession is still needful because it gives us grace which, like water and light for the plants, helps our souls to flourish and grow and become more fully alive in the Holy Spirit.
The Press marvelled recently when Pope Francis publicly went to confession in St Peter’s Basilica before a Reconciliation Service last week. But every bishop and priest does this, just as every Catholic must. It’s a perfectly normal and healthy part of the Christian life, and the more regularly we do it, the better! It makes us more fully alive in Christ, not least because the sacrament of Confession is a participation in the grace of Jesus’ Resurrection. If we think about it, the confessional is like the empty tomb and, having been absolved and filled with the Holy Spirit in this sacrament, we come forth full of grace like the Risen Lord bursting out of the Easter tomb. St Paul put it this way in the second reading: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8:11). So, the sacrament of Confession anticipates and is a promise of our final Resurrection in body and soul at the end of time.
Have you heard of Belle Knox? Apparently her story has gained more searches on Google this past fortnight than ‘Pope Francis’ and ‘Justin Bieber’ combined. She is an 18-year-old girl, raised a Catholic, majoring in women’s studies at Duke University. She has fees of $60,000 per year, so she has to work to pay off her debt. She works as a porn star; her real name is Miriam Weeks.
I bring this up because I think someone like Miriam can give us a sense of the kind of person Jesus was speaking to in today’s Gospel. The Samaritan woman comes to the well alone and in the heat of noon because she is avoided by ‘polite society’; the subject of the town gossips – the Google of her day. And she comes to the well daily to fetch water for her work and living; this is a routine, part of the daily grind of life and her survival. In a similar way, Miriam Weeks engages in so-called adult entertainment as her work; it’s part of her daily grind for life and survival.
But it’s precisely people like Miriam that Jesus waits for. “Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28); “I will give you living water” (cf Jn 4:10). So Jesus is waiting for sinners; for notorious people; for the subjects of hypocritical gossip wrung dry and exploited by a sinful world. Because he is here for those whom society rejects, for those who are deeply wounded and in dire need, for those desperate to just survive this life.
Don’t we all know people like this? Maybe ourselves? Then, Jesus is waiting for them, for you. Go to him. He has come that we might “have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). So he is seated beside the well with its waters of life; of cleansing and refreshment. This well is the font of baptism. This well is also the sacrament of confession which opens up the fountain of divine mercy, gushing forth from Christ’s side.
Hence, Jesus’ first words are not ones of accusation or moralism. Rather, God reaches out in mercy. He asks for something from us. This is the same dynamic of the Incarnation, when Jesus comes to humanity as a baby in need of love and care. So, now, Jesus waits for the sinner and asks: “Give me a drink” (Jn 4:8). He needs something from us. Jesus thirsts for our love. He desires that we care that he has died for us; one of Jesus’ last words on the Cross is “I thirst”. Blessed Teresa of Kolkata spent her life reflecting on this and said: “‘I Thirst’ is something much deeper than just Jesus saying ‘I love you.’ Until you know deep inside that Jesus thirsts for you—you can’t begin to know who He wants to be for you”.
What unfolds in this Gospel, then, is the Samaritan woman’s growing realization of who Jesus wants to be for her. We see this development in the way she addresses him. First he’s just “a Jew”, meaning a stranger and someone who she is, perhaps, a little suspicious of. Then he’s “sir” – someone whom she shows respect and courtesy, but her interest is piqued. Next, he’s a “prophet”. So, she recognizes that Jesus speaks with insight and authority, and this is heightened when she wonders if he is “the Christ”, that is, one sent to save and liberate God’s people. But the culmination comes when Jesus is finally acknowledged to be “Saviour of the world”. This is what Jesus wants to be for you, for me: Saviour. More specifically, what does he save us from? Death. Hence, he tells the Samaritan woman that if she asks he would give her living water that becomes a “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14). Eternal life, ultimately, is what Jesus desires to give us. But first he needs us to desire this, too, and to ask it from him. He thirsts for us to realize that we need him as Saviour; to repent, and so to turn to him and ask for mercy and grace.
Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you… when the elders laid their hands upon you” (1 Tim 4:14). This practice of laying hands on another, to give a blessing or set something or someone aside for the Lord dates to the Old Testament patriarchs. This practice is continued in the New Testament, particularly when the Holy Spirit is being invoked and given. For the Spirit is, as an ancient hymn put it, the “gift of God Most High”, given to empower us for the Lord’s service.
Hence on Saturday our new archbishop, Mgr Leo Cushley will be ordained a bishop through this same action. Three co-consecrating bishops (followed by other bishops present) will lay hands on his head as a sign of consecration, of setting him apart for service. And then, the gift of the Holy Spirit is invoked to empower him for his “duties”, as St Paul says to St Timothy, namely, the public proclamation of God’s Word, preaching, and teaching the Faith (cf 1 Tim 4:13).
The laying on of hands is most often associated with ordinations, but, in fact, it is done in other sacraments, too. For example, in the Mass, the priests invoke the Holy Spirit and perform this gesture over the bread and wine, setting them aside for God’s service and calling down the Holy Spirit to make them holy; transformed into Christ’s Body and Blood at his Word to give us life.
But hands are also laid on each of us as Christians, as a priestly people. The most notable is Confirmation, when the bishop laid hands on your head, conferring the gift of the Holy Spirit. In this sacrament, we’re also set aside for the Lord’s service, and empowered by the Spirit to be a witness of Christ’s Gospel in the world. For every Christian disciple has been called by the Lord to preach and teach the Gospel “in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity”, as St Paul said to Timothy (1 Tim 4:12).
At the Anointing of the Sick, too, hands are laid on us. This, again, sets the Christian aside for the Lord’s service. Because the sick are united in a special way with the Lord in his suffering on the Cross. Priests are called to “model their lives on the Lord’s cross”, and they are empowered with the gift of the Spirit to do this. So, too, the sick are empowered by the Holy Spirit in their illness so that they, too, can model their lives on the Lord’s cross in such an immediate and powerful way.
Finally, in Confession, the priest extends his hands over the penitent’s head, and calls down the Holy Spirit who has “been sent into the world for the forgiveness of sins”. Once again, through this action, the Christian is being set aside for the Lord’s service, and is given the grace of the Spirit to empower us for our duties as Christians. And our duty is to “love God and love your neighbour”; to love much for we have been forgiven our many sins.
So, as St Paul says, let us “not neglect the gift [we] have, which was given [us] when the [priests] laid their hands upon [us]”, but let us live in the grace of that gift, who is the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit of Love.
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.