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 summer I was taken on a private tour of the Vatican Museum and the highlight was to have an uninterrupted hour in the Sistine chapel looking up at its famous ceiling and its Last Judgement. Among the many thoughts and emotions I had, this one struck me: there are so many naked bodies! In this sacred place, the human body predominates; more figures than in a Greek temple. And of course, when it’s open to the public, the chapel is crammed with real human bodies. The Sistine chapel in Rome, then, is a monument to the human body. And this is especially fitting for us Christians.
Because the body is truly central to our Christian Faith. Just consider: we gather as members of the Body of Christ, and we worship as God one who was born of a woman with a human body. He lived, breathed, walked, ate, suffered and died and his body was buried. But this body did not remain entombed, but Jesus rose from the dead with his body still bearing the wounds of the Cross. And in his risen body he was seen by many others before his body ascended into heaven and he was taken from the sight of his Church. But not before he promised to remain with us in the Eucharist. So we gather as his Body to be fed with Christ’s own Body and Blood. As fr Timothy Radcliffe OP rightly observes, then, “it is in the body that we encounter God”. God comes into contact with us through the sacraments, using the interface, so to speak, of our bodily-ness, and also through our encounters with other people. As Tertullian put it so pithily and well: “Caro cardo salutis”, that is, the flesh or the body is the hinge of salvation.
In our history, problems always arise when we forget this and the body is trivialized or abused. We Dominicans, for example, were founded in the 13th-century to combat a dualistic heresy that believed that only the spiritual and immaterial was good and created by God; the body and all matter was evil. But this kind of dualistic heresy still persists and recurs in every age, whether in the so-called ‘mind-body problem’ of modern philosophy, or in the abuse of sex. As examples of the latter, consider the endemic problem of pornography, the shocking systemic sex abuse in Rotherham which we’ve been hearing about this week, and something The Guardian calls ‘everyday sexism’.
Except that it isn’t sexism at all. This project which calls on women to report their daily encounters with people who sexually harass them is actually about the age old vice of lust. And The Guardian can’t bring itself to recognize the cause of the problem which isn’t sexism, as such, but a lack of the virtue of chastity in our society. And yet, chastity is vital and indeed was a central hallmark of the Christian society and of how we lived as Christians from the very beginning. Because chastity is consistent with the Christian reverence for the human body, seeing the body as the locus of salvation, and seeing the human person, who is redeemed by Christ, as a temple of the Holy Spirit. As such, St Thomas observed that chastity is fundamentally linked to justice, about the dignity and reverence that is due another human being, and chastity affects the common good because it is about our relationships with one another as human beings in society.
With this in mind, we can look at today’s reading. St Paul says: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1). It’s sometimes said that when Paul speaks of bodies he means the whole person, which in a sense he does, after all, the human person is essentially and always a unity of body and soul. So, when we speak of the human body we refer to the whole person. Nevertheless, if we look at the way St Paul writes, he means here very specifically the body, and he means that what we do with our bodies matters, and he wants us to present our bodies to God as a living sacrifice.
From the earliest commentaries on this passage by Christians literate in Greek, this has been understood as a reference to chastity and virginity. St Jerome, for example, who translated the Bible from Greek into Latin said: “Our body, too, is a sacrifice when we chasten it by temperance, if we do so as we ought, for God’s sake”. Chastity, then, is the virtue of using our sexual faculties appropriately, about loving another person justly and well, about using our human reason to order our sexual desires and the enjoyment of its pleasures. It’s important to remember that chastity is not prudishness, not a fear or hatred of the body and sex – that would be a heresy. Rather, chastity is about a proper reverence for the body, for the power of human sexuality, which, as fr Herbert McCabe OP says is “dangerous [not because it is bad but] because it is sacred, powerful, capable if it is divorced from the world of love of destroying the personality as effectively as a drug, and equally capable of bringing us, through the power of Christ’s passion, to eternal union with God”.
The Sistine chapel, therefore, is not a pornographic exhibition but a sacred place in which we can delight in the beauty of the human person, in the human body as the hinge of salvation. But chastity is that virtue we need to allow us to see that beauty, to truly love a person as a temple of the Holy Spirit, and not to use him or her – or rather their bodies – for our pleasure. Chastity, therefore, enables us to love our neighbour rightly and to appreciate their beauty without the agitation of lust. Thus I once read online that the problem with pornography is not that we see too much of the naked person but that we don’t see enough of the human person. Therefore, as St Thomas said, chastity is the ordering of our sexuality according to reason, by which he meant “in accordance with the truth of real things”, the truth of the other as beloved by God. The Christian view of sex and the human person does differ from the prevailing culture just as it did in St Paul’s time. Hence he calls us to a “renewal of [our] mind” so that we are conformed to the mind of Christ and God’s will rather than to the world’s (cf Rom 12:2).
We can now begin to understand, I think, why St Paul says that presenting our bodies to God as a living sacrifice is a “reasonable service” (Rom 12:1). Now, our translation says “spiritual worship”, but I think this confuses the meaning of the Greek term ‘logikan latrian’. The latter word is clearly about praise and worship offered to God, but the word logikan means ‘according to the logos’, so, logical, or rational or reasoned-out, reasonable. What St Paul means, then (I think) is that he appeals to us to live chaste lives, that is to have our sexual desires and loves ordered by right reason, by a renewed mind. In this way, we offer our bodies, chastened by temperance, as a living sacrifice, a lived-out act of worship to God. This, then, is the Christian way of worshipping God “in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:24): not just through Liturgy and ritual actions, but also through how we live our daily and especially our moral lives.
Many struggle with chastity and fail. So, what are we to do? St Paul rightly encourages us to depend on the “mercies of God” (Rom 12:1). As Pope Francis has said, God never tires of forgiving us, but it is we who tire of asking for mercy; we despair or give up. St Augustine, whose feast we celebrated last Thursday struggled with chastity for many years, and in his Confessions he speaks of the misery that his sins caused him. But his frailty and sin is what moves him to turn to Christ Crucified; chastity is only possible with much prayer and God’s grace. So, we look to the Cross where Christ in his wounded body has redeemed our bodies from all sin; he is victorious. With his grace, we can be victorious too, we can learn to love chastely and offer the sacrifice of a chaste life – and this applies to us whether we’re married or single – and so, do as he says in the Gospel: “Let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
In today’s parable we see that everything that the servants have comes from the Master – without him they have nothing. Likewise, without God we have nothing and are nothing; every good thing that we have and do come from him as the fruit of his grace given to us. So, when the Master entrusts his property to his servants, he is giving them a share in something that is properly speaking his own. So, too, at our baptism, God entrusts to us his grace, giving each of us a share in his divine life. And God’s grace is so courteous, so gentle that it doesn’t destroy our human nature but perfects it if we choose to co-operate with it and use it. Hence the Master in the parable gives “to each according to his ability” (Mt 25:15).
Now, God’s grace is given to us so that we can belong to God as his adopted children, and he belongs to us. God, so to speak, invests his grace in us in order that we are no longer his servants but his friends (cf Jn 15:15) and, even, his co-heirs with Christ (cf Rom 8:17). And he does this not because we deserve it but because he loves us and wants us to enjoy true love in heaven.
However, one thing prevents us from acting as sons and daughters of God; one thing keeps us from using the grace God has given us: fear. Hence the servant who did not invest or use his talents says: “I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground” (Mt 25:30). For where there is fear, then love cannot flourish. Conversely, as St John put it, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18).
Because I think that the image of investment in today’s parable is about love. Financial investments are risky, and they can cost us; they require a sacrifice. So too do acts of love. Love is a risky business: it makes us vulnerable and there is a high likelihood that we will be hurt if we love. As C. S. Lewis said: “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken”. Herbert McCabe went even further and said that if we love we will be killed because we’ll be taken to the Cross with Christ.
The servant fears all this, then, and we might well be sympathetic. However, today’s Gospel calls us to something greater that goes beyond our natural fears. We are called to something supernatural which is why divine grace is given to human hearts. God gives us his grace so that we can behave not like a servant but a friend, indeed like an heir, like a son; we’re called to become like the Son.
He, the Crucified One, bears the wounds of love and he chose to become lowly, weak, and foolish in the eyes of the world. And he has chosen to share his love with us, that is, to teach us with his grace to love as he does: sacrificially, selflessly, courageously. His perfect love casts out our fear, so let us trust in God’s mercy and goodness and love. He cares for us, and he satisfies our deepest longings; he shows us the way of love. If we co-operate with grace, using what is given us in the sacraments, so that we truly love then we who are poor are rich, the humble are exalted, and the unlearned are wise. For such sacrificial love makes people become like Jesus. And he is, as St Paul says, “our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30).
We can all think of ways in which knowing the truth about some situation sets us free. Think, for example, of the Oscar Pistorius trial: people, and especially the parents of the dead woman want to know the truth about their daughter’s fate. The truth doesn’t raise the dead but it does bring some closure, and so, some relief; a kind of freedom. A similar phenomenon is observed in the hunt for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. The relatives of the missing are bound up by uncertainty, tormented by a lack of knowledge of what happened to their loved ones. Finding the truth, again, wouldn’t end the grief, but it does bring a certain freedom to move on with one’s life. So, it seems right to say “the truth will set you free”.
And this is what I thought Jesus had said in John’s Gospel. But on closer examination, he says: “The truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). Because Jesus isn’t talking about a psychological state, nor is he making a political point, as the Jews seemed to have thought. Rather, Jesus is saying that the Truth transforms us and does something to our very being; Truth changes us. In John’s Gospel, we know that Jesus is the Truth, so we’re being told that Jesus is going to transform us. The all-creative Word of God will re-create us, make something new of us: we will be “made free”.
Now, it’s often said that what this means is that Jesus will make us free by causing us to choose what is good and true so that the more our acts conform to these, the more free we become; it’s a kind of moral freedom. But, again, I think this implies more a being set free from an old way of living, and admittedly, the reference to slavery to sin does lend itself to such an interpretation. But I want to explore something more existential, more fundamental, and perhaps, more mystical.
Who is it who is fundamentally Free? God. Only God is so free that he could create things. Only God is so free that he can become Man, and then undergo suffering on the Cross. Only God is so free that he can be Love, and even be sin, taking on our sins in Christ’s flesh. All these paradoxes are signs of God’s utter freedom. God is Free. So, when Jesus says the Truth will make us free, I wonder if this is a reference to our divinization. For Jesus Christ will make us, re-create us in his grace, so that we are one with God. Elsewhere, the language is of becoming sons of God in the Son of God. Hence, Jesus also says in today’s Gospel: “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed”(Jn 8:36). That is to say, if the Son makes you God, you will be God indeed. It sounds almost scandalous, but then, this is what grace does: Through Jesus God divinizes Man.
And an image of this work of divinization is found in the First Reading. The furnace is made seven times hotter, that is perfectly hot. Fire stands for love, and perfect Love is God. So, Mankind, represented by the three young men, are placed in the furnace of divine Love, that is immersed and heated by God’s grace, so that we are purified and perfected and made like the fourth man who is “like a son of the gods”(Dan 3:25). It is Christ, of course, and so, divine grace proves us in the furnace of God’s Love until we become like the Son, made sons of God. Thus the Truth makes us Free.
What does this fiery furnace of divine Love look like? It is the Cross. During Passiontide, we are focussed on the Cross, and reminded, therefore, that every disciple is called to take up the Cross of sacrificial love, and so, follow Jesus into new life, even the divine life of God himself.
The serpent had tempted Adam and Eve to doubt God’s goodness and wisdom, and so, led to Man’s downfall. Refusing to depend on God, Man is cast out of the Garden and has to learn to fend for himself in the wilderness. But God goes in search of them, sending Moses to lead them out of the wilderness and back into a Land, a garden flowing with milk and honey. But in the wilderness Israel has to learn again to trust in God and his goodness and Providence. Adam and Eve had failed to do this when they bit into the fruit at the serpent’s bidding. So, now, when Israel fails again to trust God and they grumble against him, they feel the bite of their sin and unbelief. And this bite is fittingly administered by serpents, the very creature that first tempted Mankind into sin.
This is fitting because it reminds us that sin carries in itself our own punishment. For sin causes the separation of ourselves from God’s friendship, and brings a kind of disorder to one’s emotional life and one’s use of reason so that we find it hard to think clearly and rationally and to choose to do what we reason to be good and true. So, the disordered struggle to live the good life within ourselves and with others is the punishment of sin; we feel the fiery serpent’s bite which leads, ultimately, to death. Hence St Thomas says, we can “call sin punishment by reason of what sin causes, as Augustine says that a disordered soul is its own punishment”.
Notice that it is not so much that God punishes the sinner, but rather that our freely-chosen sinful acts, which reject the Creator’s wisdom and goodness, cause a state of disorder and moral confusion in Man. Hence, sinful acts are punitive because they deprive us of the harmony and peace and order for which we long. Thus we remain outside the Garden and in the wilderness. So, if God were to really want to punish us, he would leave us unrepentant, would abandon us to our sinful ways, and leave us without any help or guidance, nor call us to repentance. This state of being left to remain in unrepented sin, to “die in your sins” (Jn 8:24) as Jesus says today, is what Scripture refers to as “the wrath of God”.
So, when the people of Israel call for God not to be angry, they are calling for him to save them from the bite of sin and its poison. Thus, God’s mercy towards Israel is shown when he moves them by his grace to repent, and when he provides a remedy for their sin, an antidote. He calls them to look at the serpent, which is to say, to recognize their sins so as to repent of them. And as God once provided the solution for Israel and had mercy on them, so God has now provided for all of humanity. Jesus is the one and only Solution to humanity’s fundamental problem of sin.
Thus we need to look to him and, as he says to the Jews, believe that “I am He” (Jn 8:24). For we must learn what Adam and Eve and the grumbling Israelites failed to learn, namely to trust in God’s goodness, to believe that he is faithful to his Word, and provides the Solution.
So, when Good Friday comes and Christ is lifted up, let us look with faith at the antidote. In the Crucified One we see the destruction and violence wrought by sin, we see how Mankind is disfigured, beaten up, left dying because of sin. For thus you and I had been punished by our own sins. But at the same time we see too, on the Cross, our God of mercy and love who comes for our sake and for our salvation to bear the punishment of all Man’s sins – our sins – in his own body. Thus the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.
His Body, risen and glorified, defeating sin and death, thus becomes the medicine for our souls. In the Eucharist we come with faith to receive this Body, the true fruit of the Cross, the Tree of Life. We doubt no longer but taste and see that the Lord is good. In faith we receive the fruit of Mary’s womb, who saves us from the effects of that poisonous fruit of the Tree that Eve had eaten in Eden. And thus, we are restored to Paradise, brought out of the wilderness into the heavenly Promised Land.
Passiontide, the time when we turn our minds to Christ’s final weeks, begins on Sunday, and so the mood in the Gospels has been changing; they are menacing. For we heard earlier this week that the Jews wanted to kill Jesus, and this is heightened today: “Is not this the man whom they seek to kill?” (Jn 7:25). Today’s first reading gives us an insight into the real motivations behind this murderous hatred for Christ. It is because he is the Truth, and he shines the light of truth on Man’s sinful hearts.
Often people kill off God in their lives, and they can use the state of the Church, or the behaviour of the clergy, or the popular claim of some scientist or writer or even an entertainer as the purported reason to do this. And perhaps they believe at the time that this is the reason. But in fact, the true reason is a moral reason. For God; Jesus; his Gospel; Christ’s Church “is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God… He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us” (Wis 2:12-15).
And so, just as Adam and Eve after their sin hide their faces from God, for “the very sight of him is a burden”, so when we sin we too hide our faces from God. Or rather, we hide God’s face from ourselves because we cannot bear the look of Truth. For our sins reveal the truth about who we are and what we really desire; it’s an inconvenient truth for us sinners. For as Rowan Williams says, sin is “the state of revolt against truth”.
So, we find that many would kill God off: saying God does not exist, or that his Church has no authority to teach in this or that arena, or that there is no such thing as absolute Truth and certainly not in matters of spirituality and religion. Because Truth, if we admit it exists, is such that he would possess us, convert us, change us. And this requires humility. As Pope Francis said, “truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us” (Lumen Fidei, 34).
The journey of Lent is a journey from falsehood to the Truth. Hence, it is a journey towards the Cross. Those who sought to kill Jesus do so because, as Wisdom says, “Let us see if his words are true and let us test what will happen at the end of his life” (2:17). And these words are ironic. Because Truth is being put to the test to see if it is true. So, they crucify Jesus, and thus, on the Cross, he shows that his words are true. As Rowan Williams says: “Jesus, hanging on the cross, says to us, ‘This is what your untruth means”; we would kill Truth.
But what else happens on the Cross? Scruton says: “In the moment of sacrifice people come face to face with God”. So, at the end of his life, Jesus the innocent Victim of our sins shows that God is Love. And the one from whom we had hidden our faces is revealed to us. We see the truth. But not just the truth of Man’s sinfulness but the truth of God’s nature. God is mercy and love, long-suffering in patience and compassion, ever-ready to forgive. God is with us, sinful humanity.
And this truth, if we dare to see it, if we dare to allow it to embrace and possess us, will redeem us and save us from all our untruth, from our sinful revolt against Truth. Thus we enter into Passiontide and prepare for the new life that Easter promises.
In medieval English parish churches, two great images faced you as you looked from the nave towards the sanctuary and altar: a Rood Screen with the Crucifixion, and painted on the archway above that, the Last Judgement, or the Doom. So, the medieval parishioner would have had the Cross and the Final Judgement in sight whenever they came to church to worship. And so should we today.
What does it mean to have these images, these eternal realities, in mind? In looking at the Cross, we contemplate God’s mercy and the depths of his saving love. But the Cross is also our judgement. For as Jesus’ enters his Passion and takes up his Cross, he says: “Now is the judgement of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out” (Jn 12:31). For the Cross reveals the cruelty and violence that sinful humanity inflicts on Man; it also shows the suffering and torment borne by all those who are victims of this sinful world. Hence, the world is judged, that is, to say that our world is faced with the stark truth of its sinful choices. For we are judged by the truth of what we do. Hence, Christ who is Truth itself, hangs on the Cross. Very often, people cannot bear to look at the Crucified One and contemplate the Cross, because we just cannot face up to the Truth. This, too, is why so many fear the thought of judgement, fear even confession, because they cannot face up to the truth of who they are and what they have freely chosen to do.
But to be only filled with fear or shame would be to forget that the Cross is also proof of God’s undying love and mercy for sinners; a Love who seeks us in order to raise us up to new life. I was in the Sistine Chapel last summer, and I was able to stand at the High Altar, looking up at Michelangelo’s great depiction of the Last Judgement. But as I stood there I noticed that the huge Crucifix on the Altar stands right in front of the painting of the Gates of Hell. So, the Cross of Christ literally blocked the way to Hell. But for it to do this I had to look and see the Crucified One. This is to say, I have to own up to the truth of my sins, to be judged by the reality of my sinful acts. But at the same time, as I acknowledge my sins, then I experience, too, God’s mercy and his saving love on the Cross. But we can’t just have love and mercy without the truth of our sinfulness. This is what judgement means.
Thus, in a poem on the Last Judgement, Pope Bl John Paul II (whose 9th anniversary of death is today) wrote: “It is granted man once to die, and thereafter, the judgement! Final transparency and light. The clarity of the events – The clarity of consciences –”. Judgement brings clarity; the light and transparency of truth to shine on what we have done but that light which shines on our deeds is also the light of love. The Doom, or Last Judgment painted on the walls of our churches were a reminder, then, of this final judgement, and St John speaks of it in today’s Gospel: “the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice” (5:28). It is the voice of Truth.
However, St John’s Gospel, unlike the other Gospels, also has a more imminent view of judgement. We hear today: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (Jn 5:25). So, the Doom painted in the medieval church, or in the Sistine Chapel, is a perpetual reminder of our daily judgement. For every day, in the deliberate acts and moral choices we make, we are making judgements which reveal the truth of who we are; what we truly love in life, and where we’re headed.
Do we listen to Christ’s Word? Do we honour him by obeying his teachings? Ultimately, do we act with love? If we do, then we rise from the deadliness of sin and move towards Jesus. If not, then as the Catechism put it: “By rejecting grace in this life, one already judges oneself [and] receives according to one’s works” (CCC 679). Thus the Crucifixion scene, too, was a daily judgement because it reminded us of Christ’s sacrificial love, and called us as disciples to do likewise every day until, as St John of the Cross says, “in the evening of life we will be judged on love alone”.
At the start of Lent we were told to remember that we would return to dust and ashes, that is, that we will die and be judged. So, today, in mid-Lent, we’re reminded again of judgement; of Christ’s Truth but also of God’s eternal mercy and love. So, if you have sinned, don’t let fear or shame keep you from going to him in Confession. For God’s judgement is always also one of mercy and forgiveness, and his Love raises us from sin’s death to grace’s new life.
“One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see” (Jn 9:25). St Paul also describes coming to faith with stark simplicity: “Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph 5:8). But we know that faith in Christ is not a once and for all event, nor is it without difficulty and struggle. Because of Jesus the man born blind could now see… But, he was also placed in conflict with those around him, including his own parents. We may have each experienced moments when following Christ puts such demands on us that it seems more like a burden or even an imposition, and faith is an inconvenience. For some, its light has faded to become just a cultural tradition, something we keep up for our parents’ sake. But the blind man remained firm despite the difficulties because he experienced the sheer goodness of what Jesus had done for him in such a direct, life-changing way.
A few years ago a BBC programme that purported to reveal the secrets of the Bible said that Christians believe that Mankind is “fundamentally bad”. But that’s just wrong. If it were true then faith would be a pointless burden. We begin with the deprivation of sin and evil, just as today’s Gospel begins with the reality of the blind man’s condition, but we don’t end there. Our human reality continues with the good news of what God does for Mankind, and what he wants to accomplishes in every human person. Seeing the blind man, Jesus goes and gives him sight, showing the gratuitous love and goodness of God. Without our asking, God freely comes to us to give us what we lack. Faith is not imposed; it is a gift as necessary and obviously desirable as water, or sight, or life itself, but which we can either reject or accept.
The blind man chooses to accept, and he stands for those who would be baptized, especially at Easter. So, Jesus, who is the One Sent, asks us to wash in the pool which (we’re told) means ‘Sent’; we’re called to be baptized in him. And as Adam was created from the clay, so Christ anoints the blind man with clay as a sign of the new creation he is working, for grace re-fashions us in the image of the new Adam; we are a new creation. But it is the first words spoken by the man born blind that hint at something more. The blind man’s words are somewhat obscured in the English translations, but in Greek it stands out. “Ego eimi” - “I am” (Jn 9:9); the divine name. For baptismal grace fashions us in the beauty of the Son of God, and so we are adopted as sons of God; we become partakers in the divine nature. God is so gracious and bountiful to humanity that he doesn’t just restore to Man what he lacks, God freely gives what Man could never attain for himself. Only God can give sight to a man born blind; only God can give eternal life and divinity to mankind. Hence Jesus says that it is through the redeemed sinner, through giving sight to the man born blind, that “the works of God might be made manifest”.
So although we begin with the abasement of man in original sin, the Christian journey of faith continues with man’s healing by Christ, his transformation in grace, and his exaltation to the lofty inheritance of divine life itself; eternal joy and light in the Blessed Trinity. This sublime goal, this gift, is why the journey of sanctification, indeed, divinization, is worth taking despite the difficulties, struggles, and sacrifices we may have to endure. So countless saints, whose lives show the triumph of God’s grace at work in them, have shown this.
God’s work, however, is not completed with baptism. If I were blind from birth, suddenly being given sight does not mean that I would be can actually see. The brain needs to learn to interpret what the eye takes in. So too, when we’re moved from the blindness of sin to the light of faith, we also need to learn to live as “children of light” (Eph 5:8), to grow in grace and virtue, and live as sons and daughters of God. We need to see what this means.
And this is where the demands and hardship of faith and life in Christ comes in. As the blind man grew in understanding of what Jesus had given him with each challenge that he faced, so his relationship with Christ deepened. In fact, as the blind man preached his faith, and suffered for it, becoming increasingly isolated, and finally “cast out”, so that his life was shaped in the image of Christ Crucified. His life became closely identified to that of God’s Son. After he is cast out, Jesus finds him again, and says: “You have seen [the Son of Man], and it is he who speaks to you”(Jn 9:37). But how has the man born blind seen Jesus before? Notice that earlier on, Jesus had left before he’d gone and washed in the pool. So, how have we seen Jesus, the Son of Man?
In medieval images of the Temptation of Christ, the Tempter is often depicted as a monk. But if we look closely, beneath his habit are the clawed feet of the Devil. What is the meaning of this? The artist, I think, wants to express the fact that every temptation appears good and wise, reasonable and just, and therefore, desireable to Mankind. Hence George Bernard Shaw once said: “I never resist temptation, because I have found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me”. This is precisely the point. Only those things that seem good and right and justifiable to us can tempt us. If they did not appear good and attractive we would not even begin to think of choosing them. Hence, the Genesis account we’ve just heard, which has such insight into the psychology of sin and temptation, makes this observation: Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired" (Gen 3:6).
However, as St Thomas says: “the good in view of which one acts is not always a true good [but] sometimes an apparent good”. For we can become so focussed on a particular good, so obsessed with getting what we desire that we lack perspective about the true good. It is as though we have had blinkers put on us so that we do not see the bigger picture. Every sin, therefore, involves a certain myopia because we can only see the transient good immediately in front of us but not the broader vision of the good as God knows it.
Thus every sin also involves a certain forgetfulness of God’s goodness and love. In the Genesis account, it is as though Eve forgets that God has loved her into being from nothing and has given her all that is. Instead, when prompted by the Tempter, she doubts God’s goodness and questions his Word, seeing God as a kind of restriction on her human freedom. But God is the source of all our being including our freedom; he could never be a threat to Man’s good but is, in fact, our highest Good and the Giver of every good gift.
But the tragedy of sin is that we forget this, and so we choose lesser, transient, material goods. Hence, Eve is so overcome by her desire for the good she sees in the fruit of the tree that she reaches out for it in spite of what God had said. In doing so, we’re shown by the Genesis account that every sin, at some level, involves a preference for my own vision of the good over and above God’s vision. Every sinful act, effectively says that we know better than God what is good for us and what makes us truly happy; we’d rather trust ourselves and put our faith in Man’s reasoning, Man’s knowledge than in God and his Word.
And, so, temptation leads us to choose some good, but only a partial good. We’re led to some truth, but only a half-truth. For this is the Tempter’s tactic – temptations come to us under the guise of a monk, and so, they appear wise or good. Hence Soloviev said: “Such temptations are not produced by a simple or direct denial of truth: a naked lie can be attractive, yet is tempting only in hell and not in the world of humanity. Here it is required to cover it with something attractive, to connect it to something true in order to captivate” us.
Therefore, when the Devil appears to Christ, he tempts him by appealing to something attractive, namely, bread to sate his physical hunger. Then, he appeals to something true: Jesus is the Son of God, so why not reveal his true glory to all people, lifted up by God’s angels before all in the Temple? And finally, he appeals to some apparent good, which is that Jesus should be given the whole world. Would it not be good for all peoples to be subject to Christ?
But as we can see, each of these goods are superficial. For as Jesus himself says: “What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:26). Moreover, the Devil tempts Jesus with a way to carry out his mission which would have avoided the Cross. In a similar way, Adam and Eve are tempted to attain divinity, to snatch at it, without the Cross, without having to learn to Love sacrificially. But whereas our first parents were deceived by the Devil, Jesus is not. For despite the attractiveness of the Devil’s temptations, Jesus rejects them because, ultimately, he chooses the true good which comes from God alone. He places his trust in God’s Word, and he remembers God’s unfailing goodness and love. Hence in his reply to the Devil we see Jesus’ faith in God’s goodness, his embrace of God’s wise plan, and his placing of himself at God’s service. Thus, Jesus chooses the Cross because, as St Paul says, it reveals the “power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).
Therefore, like Eve, Jesus sees that “the tree was to be desired”, but not the tree in the centre of Eden, but the Tree of the Cross on the summit of Calvary; the centre of the world. This is the Tree of Life that Jesus desired: it delighted his eyes and he saw that it was good because from it came salvation for the whole world. From the Cross, God the Father revealed the depths of his love for all humanity in the person of his Son. And from the Cross, humanity is taught to “be like God, knowing good and evil”.
Every Lent sets this lesson before us as we are invited to follow Jesus to Calvary and beyond to the risen life of Easter. But every Lent, and perhaps each day of our lives too, the Tempter also stands before us with half-truths and truncated versions of the good. With God’s grace, may we respond as Jesus does, saying, “Begone, Satan!” (Mt 4:10).
The prayer Actiones nostras, which was prayed as the ‘Collect’ today, is an ancient prayer of the Roman church. In the Dominican rite, it was said just before Mass began for it is a prayer fittingly said at the beginning of any task or good work. So, as we embark on our Lenten journey, taking up our Cross with Christ and following Jesus, it is fitting that we begin this task of Lent, the good work of these 40 days, with this prayer.
A more literal rendering of this prayer might be: ”Prompt – or go before – our actions with your inspiration, we pray, O Lord, and further them – or continue them – with your constant help, that every one of our works – or our service – may always begin from you, and through you be brought to completion”.
The truth being expressed in this prayer is that God’s grace is necessary for every good work, every holy action. It is God’s grace that prompts Man to act, his grace that accompanies and sustains the good act, and his grace that brings it to completion. Hence, as we begin the season of Lent with God’s grace, we do well to pray that God will give us the grace to persevere over the next six weeks, and that all our actions, all the good resolutions we’ve made this Lent, will end well and be perfected by God’s grace. Thus, prayer, which teaches us to rely on God’s goodness and mercy, is a vital and foundational part of Lent.
As Pope Francis said yesterday: “Lent is a time of prayer, a more intense, more diligent prayer… In the face of so many wounds that hurt us and that could harden the heart, we are called to dive into the sea of prayer, which is the sea of God’s boundless love, to enjoy its tenderness”.
There is this sense in today’s Collect, too, of our every action being immersed in God’s love and goodness. There is no angst and gritted-teeth violence against our wills, but rather, we allow God’s grace to support and sustain our good actions; we turn to him and rely on his goodness, mercy, and love to bring our good works to completion. If we’re immersed in God’s love and mercy like this, then even our failures and falls are not fatal but are forgiven, and we can be picked up by God’s grace to continue on our Lenten journey.
At the same time, today’s First Reading reminds us that we do need to use our human freedom to choose the good, and to will it, to desire it. So, prayer helps form our choices, and stirs up in us a desire for that which is good and true so that we can freely choose life and blessing, as Moses says (cf Deut 30:19). For God’s grace will not do violence to the human will – there must be a graced co-operation between God and Man.
Hence, Jesus calls us to “take up [your] cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). Because if we follow Christ; if we remain close to him through prayer as we carry our Cross each day – whether in Lent or throughout our lives – then we do not struggle alone. Lent, and indeed, the entire Christian path of discipleship is not a lonely journey, not simply a matter of my human will power. Rather we are called to walk with Christ, co-operating with his grace which goes before, sustains, and completes our good actions. Thus Jesus is with us, carrying our Cross with us. But it doesn’t end at Calvary. As the ‘Prayer over the People’ for today says, Jesus leads us along “the ways of eternal life” to God himself, who is “the unfading light”.
Today’s readings challenge us to see things from God’s perspective, from the perspective of Love. For the human way is to judge purely by appearances, to be impressed by status, wealth, and power. This is the worldly perspective that James point out, and it follows a conventional Jewish idea that the righteous are blessed with riches and power, and that poverty was a curse on the sinful. But Jesus overturns this.
So, in the Gospel, there is a comparison between how men – the world – understands Jesus, and how his disciples are to understand him. The world sees Jesus like just one of the prophets, a fairly conventional perspective, I suppose. But Peter speaks rightly when he says that Jesus is not just any prophet but the Messiah. However, the conventional Jewish idea of the Messiah was that he would topple empires, fight for Israel’s liberation from Rome, and restore power to the Jewish nation. And it’s clear from Peter’s reaction that although he knew Jesus was the Christ, he was unwilling to let go of this conventional vision of the Christ. It comes from a worldly perspective that is allied with power, violence, and riches.
And it is this perspective that Jesus rebukes and overturns. Because the divine perspective is one of Love, so that the Messiah comes in humility to serve, to teach, and, above all, to suffer. That is the way of Love, and it leads to the Cross. And it is this perspective that we – Christ’s disciples, the Church to whom James’ letter is addressed today – are to learn. And so it is that we’re ultimately judged by Love. Not by our riches or lack, which do not matter much to God, but by whether or not we have learnt to love as Christ loves, to see the world and other persons from God’s perspective of Love. If we do love, we will be led to the Cross, where we are united to Christ in suffering, but we can take heart because we will also have the promise of rising to a new and divine life.