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.
This Gospel passage is sometimes used to argue that Jesus had siblings and it is thus used as a challenge to the dogma of Our Lady’s perpetual virginity. But this apologetic concern can distract us from the central point that Christ was making which is about who he is and how he calls all into a familial relationship with God. The Greek word adelphoi used in Gospel is itself a translation of the Hebrew or, more likely, of the Aramaic used by Our Lord. He would have said akhoon, which means ‘kin’ because this was the one word used for both cousin or brother – there was no distinct word as such. So, Jesus is referring to those who are part of his family, a kinsman.
Through various covenants with the people of Israel, God had made the Jews his kinsmen, members of his family. “You will be my people, and I will be your God”, the Lord says again and again to Israel. However, this covenant is ratified in the flesh of Jesus Christ for by his Incarnation, God has made himself kin to all humanity. Christ has become our brother, our kinsman in a radical way, and through his sacred humanity all peoples and not just the Jewish people are being invited to enter into a covenant with God. So, all who “hear the Word of God”, that is, who listen to Christ and believe in who he is – God’s incarnate Son – can have kinship with God. For it is through baptism, the sacrament of faith, that we become “co-heirs” with Christ, as St Paul says (cf Rom 8:17).
However Jesus doesn’t just say “my brethren are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21), he adds “my mother and my brethren”. Why? Because motherhood implies a flesh and blood relationship and not just adoption. Hence, the new and eternal covenant of Mankind with God is signed and sealed in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Through partaking of the Eucharist, we are made one with God, and we truly become his kin, his own flesh and blood. As St Augustine says: “Christ the Lord willed to entrust to us his body and the blood which he shed for the forgiveness of our sins. If you have received them properly, you yourselves are what you have received”; Christ assimilates us to himself, and we, the Church, become his kin, his family, and his Mystical Body, the Mother Church.
Finally, Christ says that this belonging to God comes not only through hearing and believing the Word of God, but through what we do. This also follows the Old Testament dynamic of covenantal relationships. As Moses says to the people of Israel, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I command you this day for your good?” (Deut 10:12f). Hence, in co-operation with the grace of Christ, we Christians can be transformed so that we not only hear the Word but do it – we do as Jesus does – and so, we become like him. For grace transforms re-creates us in the image and likeness of Christ the Son, so that we become, sons and daughters of the Father, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 1 Pt 4).
God’s covenant with Abraham is the bedrock of our faith. For through the incident recounted in today’s First Reading, God takes the initiative to enter into a personal relationship with Mankind; he calls Abraham and his descendants into communion with him. And our faith is founded on this promise of “an everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7). Thus, Abraham is called, in the Roman Canon, our “father in faith”.
In the covenant, God promises: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful” (17:6), and makes the gift of “all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession” (17:8). What this means is that communion with God brings life and flourishing. It is a promise, then, of salvation. We need to bear in mind that the word ‘salvation’ comes from the Latin salus which means health, well-being, flourishing. So, in the Old Testament, God is seen to have established a special relationship with Abraham and his descendants, with Israel, that promises to them health, success, and flourishing in this life so long as they are faithful to God and obey his Law. This, it seems, is what salvation entailed.
But Abraham’s faith shows its mettle when he’s asked to sacrifice his only son, his heir, Isaac. Thus the promise of physical health and material success is jeopardized. We need to wait until the Easter Vigil to hear this story recounted in the Liturgy but we want to keep it in mind today because what this incident shows is the depths of Abraham’s faith. He, our father in faith, shows us that faith encompasses the suffering, sacrifice and the endurance of all earthly sorrows and grief. And Abraham can do this because he believes above all that God is faithful and good, and so, will ultimately bring about life and flourishing. God will be faithful to his Word even in the face of death.
Hence, Abraham grasped that salvation is not so much about success and power in this earthly life but something deeper and more lasting, transcending even death. The covenant is not just a treaty for worldly gain, then, but something more profound, of spiritual significance and with its promise of rescue beyond the grave. So, when the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is read on Easter night, then we see that Jesus’ resurrection is God’s final and definitive answer to Abraham’s faith in the covenant. Here is the promised salvation, perfectly realized for all Abraham’s descendants. Because, by Christ’s Resurrection, Mankind is rescued from the privation of death, and shares in the everlasting life and health of God himself. Through Christ’s Resurrection the covenant with Abraham is perfected, and the salvation promised him is fully realized. We, who are Abraham’s descendants and heirs because we share his faith in Jesus’ Resurrection, are thus also inheritors of God’s covenant, the “new and eternal covenant” signed with Christ’s blood.
It seems that Abraham already had a glimpse of all this. For all this is what his faith signifies and anticipates. Hence Jesus says: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad” (Jn 8:56). For the day Abraham saw was the day of God’s salvation, and now, in Jesus Christ, in his saving Passion and Resurrection, that day shines out clearly. So, in the coming Holy Week we will see Abraham’s faith come to fruition so that with him, our father in faith, we can also rejoice and be glad.
We saw on Saturday how the story of God and Man is essentially a love song, in which God comes in search of his Beloved, wooing humanity with passionate words, and finally with the eternal Word himself who is God’s love for Man made incarnate and visible. But the image of God as the Lover of humanity, the Bridegroom of the soul, is matched by another Scriptural image today: that of the covenant.
For Malachi prophesies in the name of God, the Lord of hosts, that “the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight… is coming” (Mal 3:1). In other translations, the Greek form for messenger is used, so the “angel of the covenant” is coming. And the messenger, this angel, is understood to be Jesus Christ who bears in his own person and body the message of God’s covenant with humanity.
From the days of Adam, God has desired kinship with Man, and so he entered into a covenant with him. It would be a mistake to think of a covenant as a contract. For contracts exchange goods and property but covenants exchange persons; they establish a family bond. So, God becomes Father to Adam, and then, to Abraham and his descendants, and then, to Moses, and latterly to David and his house – as we have been recalling this past week. In each case, the covenant is renewed, and God promises that Israel will be his people and he will be their God (cf Eze 36:28). So, there is this exchange of persons, and the creation of kinship between God and the descendants of Israel.
But in Christ, the Second Adam, who is both God and Man, that kinship is perfected because it now encompasses not just one people but all of humankind for all time. So, because of Christ, all peoples can enter into a “new and eternal covenant” with God, and truly become members of God’s family. But there is an exchange of persons in a covenant, so it is not just that God receives our humanity through Christ, but also that we receive his divinity. And this is given to us in the Eucharist. Hence, Jesus says: “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant” (cf Lk 22:20), for the Eucharist creates and renews our covenant with God, and we are made “one body, one spirit in Christ”. Through the grace of Christ, the Son, we have become truly God’s kin, indeed, his adopted sons and daughters.
Our kinship with God comes entirely through grace; it is God’s initiative and gift. It is not a birthright, not something passed on by blood or family lineage, but received through faith, which is God’s gift, and given through God’s grace. Today’s Gospel alludes to this. For the neighbours and kinsfolk have gathered for the naming of the baby, and when they hear that he’s to be called ‘John’, they say: “None of your kindred are called by this name” (Lk 1:61). They want something traditional, something handed down. But the fact that a new name is given stresses that something new is taking place, and it is God’s gracious initiative. The miraculous conception of the child already told us this, but the name that the baby is given underlines this fact. For the name ‘John’ means, “God has been gracious”. So, the naming of John stresses God’s initiative, God’s grace and gift, and Zechariah and Elizabeth’s faith in what God accomplishes by his grace. They no longer rely on earthly familial or tribal bonds to maintain a covenantal relationship with God but on his grace, which comes to all peoples through the messenger of the covenant, Jesus Christ.
It is this extension of God’s covenant with Man to all nations, to you and me, that we will celebrate tomorrow night. The saintly Benedictine abbot Ansgar Vonier wrote that “covenant is an alliance between God and man; it is a peace concluded between divine Justice and the sinner; it is a friendship between the Creator and His creature”. And it is this alliance, this peace, this friendship with God that Jesus accomplished for all Mankind when he was born as one of us; when God became one with us.
A couple of years ago, I spent a day with my grandmother in Kuala Lumpur. It was a special time – just the two of us, as it had been for so many years when I was growing up. And she fell into her customary role, fretting about what I wanted to do and eat, where we should go, and basically wanting, as usual, to make the day just perfect for me. She could barely sit down to talk because she would be trying to plan what we’d do next. But I wasn’t really interested in doing anything in particular. To my mind what we were doing was already perfect, which was to just betogether. It mattered little to me where we did this, or what we ate, but I knew then that I just wanted to spend time with her, and enjoy her company, and for us to share something of ourselves with each other – what, in Scriptural and ecclesiastical language, we call ‘communion’. And what makes this day especially precious, now, is that it was the last time I would see her in this world.
I think this deep desire for communion comes across in what Jesus says to Martha. Today’s Gospel could be said, as so many of the Fathers of the Church have done, to be about the goodness of the contemplative life over the active life. Or it could be about women being equally called to discipleship. Notice that Mary’s brother Lazarus is not even mentioned because it’s expected that the men would be in Jesus’ company. But Mary is singled out for attention because she’s doing something unusual for her time. In effect, she’s broken social conventions by behaving like a man, seated at the feet of Jesus, listening and learning from the Master. So, Martha is reminding her of where Middle Eastern society expected (and maybe, still expects) her to be – in the kitchen! But I don’t think today’s Gospel is primarily about these things. Rather, today’s readings are about God’s desire for communion with Mankind, a passionate love for us that is so profound that it moves God to act in a way that ‘gods’ normally do not.
As the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ, is celebrated in these days, and today is the Marian feast of Our Lady’s Visitation, the following reflection which I gave in May 2012 in St Columba’s, Glasgow, is offered here.
May is traditionally the month of Mary, and [today] we celebrate the feast of the Visitation, when the Virgin Mary, carrying Jesus in her womb, went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. This event, which we know well because we commemorate it as the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary, is rich in Old Testament symbolism, and can help us think about Our Lady’s relationship to the Lord who is present – body, blood, soul and divinity – in the Eucharist.
A beautiful Eucharistic text from the 14th-century, the Ave Verum Corpus, runs along the length of the Blessed Sacrament aisle in Glasgow Cathedral. It begins: “Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary”. This underlines just how close Mary is to the Eucharist because the body and blood of Christ that we adore and receive in Holy Communion is the flesh and blood that Christ took from the Virgin Mary’s womb. So, in a sense, it is Mary who gives us the Bread of Life. As the Dominican saint Albert the Great, after whom my priory in Edinburgh is named, said: “Mary has given us what is Flesh of her flesh and Bone of her bone, and in the Eucharist she continues to give us this sweet, virginal, heavenly banquet”.
Each day the Church, in the Angelus, marvels at the mystery of the Incarnation, by which God took flesh from Mary’s. And that same flesh and blood is given to us to eat and drink in the Mass. As always, Mary’s relationship to the Lord reminds us of his sacred humanity, it grounds us in the bodily-ness of the Eucharist lest we spiritualize the Eucharist and make it just a symbol. What our belief in the Real Presence demands of us is an act of faith, of trust in God’s Word. Indeed, Pope Blessed John Paul II reminds us that “there is a profound analogy between the Fiat which Mary said in reply to the angel, and the Amen which every believer says when receiving the body of the Lord. Mary was asked to believe that the One whom she conceived “through the Holy Spirit” was “the Son of God” (Lk 1:30-35). In continuity with the Virgin’s faith, in the Eucharistic mystery we are asked to believe that the same Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, becomes present in his full humanity and divinity under the signs of bread and wine”.
When the divine Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us, Jesus began his time with humanity, his time of dwelling among us, in the Virgin Mary’s womb. For those blessed nine months of her pregnancy she was the holy dwelling place of God. So, as the Catechism says: “Mary, in whom the Lord himself has just made his dwelling, is… the Ark of the Covenant, the place where the glory of God dwells”.
The Ark of the Covenant was the most sacred object in ancient Israel. It was enshrined in the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem, and it was the glorious seat of God’s presence on earth; his earthly dwelling place. In Exodus, the sign of God’s presence in the Ark was shown by a cloud overshadowing the tent of meeting, the tabernacle, and God’s glory filled the tabernacle. St Luke picks up on this imagery when Gabriel says at the Annunciation to Our Lady that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”. So, Mary becomes the living Ark of the Covenant because the divine Word dwells in her womb.
The correlation continues in St Luke’s Gospel, for Our Lady with Christ in her womb then travelled to the hill country of Judea, and Elizabeth cries out, saying: “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”. Many generations earlier, the Ark of the Covenant was taken into the hill country of Judah too, and David cries out: “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” And just as John the Baptist greeted Our Lady’s arrival by leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, so when the Ark arrived in Judah, David danced. And the Ark remained in Judah with David for three months. And how many months did Our Lady remain in Judah with Elizabeth? Three months. All these details point out that St Luke intended to say that God was now present and dwelling among mankind, not as objects of the Covenant, but in the flesh. Flesh taken from Mary’s flesh, and so she, the mother of the incarnate Word, became the fulfillment of the Ark of the Covenant, the most holy dwelling place of God on earth. And Mary, the living Ark, brings Christ, the Covenantal Word of God made flesh, to all people.
Pope Blessed John Paul II, reflects on this, and says that “when, at the Visitation, [Mary] bore in her womb the Word made flesh, she became in some way a ‘tabernacle’ – the first ‘tabernacle’ in history – in which the Son of God, still invisible to our human gaze, allowed himself to be adored by Elizabeth, radiating his light as it were through the eyes and the voice of Mary. So, Mary reveals the Lord, for us to adore and worship him. In a sense then, she is also like this Monstrance here on the Altar. She does not draw attention to herself but points to Christ, reveals him, and supports his Real Presence.
Finally, the Second Vatican Council holds out Our Lady as the model and exemplar of the Church, of each of us Christians. Our Lady bore Christ in her womb, and gave him to the whole world. So, too, we are called to do this. When we say our Amen and receive Christ in Holy Communion, that is our Annunciation moment, and the Word made flesh dwells in us; he lives in our hearts, and we share in his divine life. So, I often feel at Holy Communion that I am especially close to Our Lady and can really share in Mary’s song of joy, the song she sang on the day of the Visitation, the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…” But, like Mary, the incarnate Word is not given to us as our own possession. The Word has to be sown in the world, given to others. Christ has to be preached. And Christ, present in our lives, has to transform our hearts by his grace and empower us to transform the world and our communities. As Our Lady says in her Magnificat, the proud shall be humbled, the lowly lifted up, the hungry fed. And that work of transformation, a work of love that is deeply rooted in the Eucharist, begins with you and me.
May our adoration of the Lord in the Eucharist find its fruition in the grace-filled lives we lead, so that, like Our Lady we can also become bearers of God’s love to a world that hungers and thirsts for him.
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”.
NB: Names have been changed for the sake of the privacy of the family
Three things happen to Abraham in today’s First Reading. Firstly, God chooses him, and makes a covenant with him. The tendency is to think of a covenant as a contract, but contracts usually exchange property, goods, and services, not people. But what we have here is something personal and relational. For a covenant is an exchange of love between people. Marriage is a covenant, and so too is baptism, which is an exchange of love between God and his child. God says to us, the spiritual children of Abraham, that he will be our God; he gives himself to us. In exchange, we give ourselves to him in love, and so, we create a family bond with God. Relationship, love, and faith or trust, are all hallmarks of any family. Just as you, Laura and Mike, will help Rose to grow in your family, to form relationships with her grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and to increase in love and trust, so, too, you will need to help Rose to grow in love for God, introduce her to him through your own example, so that she too may have faith and trust in him; so that she will have a living relationship with him.
Secondly, 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 entered into a covenant with God, he was given a new name, a family name, you might say, to indicate this. So, too, Rose Elizabeth has been given names – family names, of course, but also names drawn from the wider family of the Church, from the saints. For, in baptism, she will share the universal Christian calling, which is to become a saint through openness to God’s grace. In particular, I am delighted that she is called Rose, which is the name of the first saint of the Americas, the Dominican St Rose of Lima.
Finally, Abraham is given a royal dignity and the promise of land, a kingdom. So, too, Rose will be anointed just as the kings of Israel were anointed, just as Christ, the Anointed One was. And so, she will become another Christ, an anointed one, who shares in Christ’s royal, prophetic, and priestly dignity. But, moreover, through baptism, Rose will be adopted into God’s own family. So, she will have the dignity of a child of God, a divine dignity, as God enters into a covenant with her, and gives himself to her entirely so that, through grace, the Holy Trinity dwells within her soul, making her a temple of God’s holy presence, filled with his love. And this is the promise that he makes to her today. That she will inherit, not just any kingdom, but the kingdom of God. She will inherit eternal life with God.
This is the greatest gift anyone can receive because union with God is the only thing that will satisfy the longings of the human heart. By bringing Rose here today, you, Laura and Mike, who have already co-operated with God in giving her the precious gift of life, are also rightly thinking of her deepest happiness, and so, labouring with God to plant the seed of eternal life. May what God has begun this day be brought to perfection through our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the working of all his saints – by which I mean not just those in heaven, but also us in the Church who all share in God’s covenant of love.