The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
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.
“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” In the grief and lamentation of king David for his rebellious son, we catch a glimpse of the mystery of salvation. Because, artists and theologians have looked on this incident as an allegorical image of the grief of God over the rebellion of his son, Adam, and so, all of humanity. For Adam, like Absolom, was also caught up in a tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and through his rebellion and disobedience, he died; he suffered the death of original sin.
So, God is said to mourn for sinful humanity like David mourned for his rebellious son. And he says: “Would I have died instead of you, O my son”! And, of course, God does die for us. Because he comes to sinful humanity in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. And so, another son is caught up in a tree. But this time, it is the Jesus, the obedient Son who is hangs “between heaven and earth” on another great Tree, the Cross. And on the Tree of Life, the obedient Son of God dies for God’s disobedient sons. So, by his obedience, the second Adam overturns the rebellion of the first Adam. In the person of Jesus Christ, then, God does what David can’t do, which is to die instead of his rebellious son.
And because it is God who undergoes the Cross, death is not the last word. For he is the Resurrection and the Life. So, for all who believe in Christ; who have the kind of simple, humble – even needy and desperate faith – that the haemorrhaging woman had, God will do for us what he does for Jairus’ daughter. God makes our death into a sleep, so that all who “sleep in Christ” will be raised by his power to the joy of eternal life.
Today’s first reading is well-known: David, who we heard yesterday has been anointed by Samuel, goes to meet Goliath in battle, and armed with just a sling and a stone, he defeats him. David, then, is the anointed one, a christus and will also be king. Thus the Fathers of the Church saw him as an important representative figure of the Christ, who would also rule as a king of David’s royal line. In this way of reading the Scriptures, which is called typology, what David does points to what Jesus Christ will do and perfect. Or as St Augustine put it: “The New Testament is hidden in the Old: the Old is made clear by the New”. The Scriptures, then, are read in the light of Christ as we do on Easter night, reading the Old Testament in the light of the Paschal candle.
Goliath, then, stands for sin and death. Because he comes to threaten and destroy God’s people. So too, sin destroys our life with God, which can only be restored by grace and repentance. Like the people of Israel and Saul’s army, we are in need of a champion, a Saviour to rescue us from sin and death.
David is described as handsome and youthful, a shepherd called from the fields to lead God’s flock. So too, Christ calls himself the good shepherd, although the word kalos in Greek means more than just ‘good’. It means beautiful and attractive. Hence, many early Christian images of Christ often portrayed Jesus as a youthful and handsome shepherd in the image of David the shepherd king. For Jesus is the king who comes to shepherd us, and to draw us by the beauty of his life, his teaching and his person to the eternal youthfulness of life in heaven.
The sling that David uses is, typically made of wood, shaped as a Y with two arms. So, too, Jesus uses the wood of the Cross, shaped like a Y with two arms, to defeat sin and death. The five stones that David has points to the five wounds of Christ crucified, for as Isaiah says “by his wounds we are healed” (Isa 53:5). And the one stone that stuck and killed Goliath is Christ himself, for many places in Scripture refer to him as our rock (such as today’s responsorial psalm, Ps 143:1), or as the stone on which our lives can be built.
So, by his Passion and Death on the Cross, Jesus has conquered sin and death, and he rises victorious from the battle as the Champion of humanity and gives us eternal life. We find this language of battle in the Sequence hymn for Easter week, for example, which says: “Death and life contended in a spectacular battle: the Prince of life, who died, reigns alive”.
Some also say that David buried Goliath’s head near Jerusalem, and the place became known as Golgotha, which means ‘the place of the skull’. And, of course, it is on Golgotha that Jesus was crucified; there, above Goliath’s skull that the son of David comes to definitively conquer sin and death, and so, win the victory for God’s people, and indeed, for all humanity. Because of Christ, then, we can “have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
This, then, is what Christ has accomplished, and we who are baptised and anointed as christus, too, will share in his victory through grace and repentance. And this, repentance, is important. For it is not just that Christ has won the victory – we need to make it our own too. We do this by repenting of our sins, which means we turn to God as David did. We turn to God in all our little skirmishes and battles against our sins. We turn to him in humility, disarmed and inexperienced as David was; we rely on his mercy and strength, as David does; and we say what David said: “the battle is the Lord’s” (1 Sam 17:47), and Jesus is our rock on which my life is founded.
"Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men" (Lk 9:44). But when the disciples heard it, they were afraid and confused. But the remembrance of every martyr confronts us again with these words from the Lord. That he was delivered up to death at the hands of men, and then, in John’s Gospel, we also have these words from Jesus: "Remember the word that I said to you, `A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you…’" (15:20). And so, we may well feel afraid, worried, and confused. Surely this promise of persecution doesn’t apply to me?
This, too, is the story of at least one of the sixteen martyrs whom we remember today: St Lawrence Ruiz of Manila who was martyred in Nagasaki; one of the Dominican group of martyrs persecuted, tortured, and killed in Japan. St Lawrence’s story is, to my mind, the story of the reluctant martyr, the disciple who was understandably scared of Christ’s words to his disciples today: “the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men”.
For in 1636, Lorenzo Ruiz was accused of being involved in some crime in Manila, and if he was found guilty, he would have been delivered into the hands of men and executed. Lorenzo feared that the Spanish authorities would be prejudiced against him since he was born of Chinese and Filipino parents, and so he fled to the Dominicans for help. He had been educated by the Dominicans and hired by them as a scribe, was a member of the Rosary Confraternity, and sacristan at the Dominican church in Binondo, a suburb of Manila. So, he turned to them for help to flee the Philippines, leaving behind his wife and children. Clearly, he was afraid and, I suppose, hoped to come home later on.
But he never did, because he went from the frying pan into the fire. Lorenzo boarded a ship with Dominican missionaries whom he thought were headed for Macao, but instead the missionaries were going to Nagasaki to help the persecuted Christians of Japan. Lorenzo, then, was in the wrong place at the wrong time; he had hoped to escape death, but within days of arriving in Japan he was arrested, delivered into the hands of men, and fourteen months later he died from terrible torture on the 29th of September 1637.
And yet, this frightened refugee, before he died, was able to say with resolute boldness: “Although I did not come to Japan to be a martyr… however, as a Christian and for God I shall give my life….” He was offered a chance to renounce his faith and live, and yet, when faced with the Cross, he embraced it with profound freedom. How come?
St Luke’s Gospel suggests that “did not understand [Christ’s] saying, and it was concealed from them, that they should not perceive it”. But the time will come, when it is necessary, when they, and we, will understand, when the grace of the Holy Spirit acts to give us understanding, and to strengthen us for the grace of martyrdom, of bearing witness to our faith when we’re persecuted for it. This, at least, is what San Lorenzo Ruiz’s life tells us.
And what he understood was that the Son of man “has to be delivered into the hands of men”, so that whenever and wherever this happens to us, his disciples – whether it be Manila, or Nagasaki, Pakistan, Syria, or even Edinburgh – Christ is there with us. And because God is with the martyr, one with the persecuted Christian, so, in faith, he hears in his heart the words of the Lord in Zechariah: “Sing and rejoice… for lo, I come and I will dwell in the midst of you”. Thus, Lorenzo Ruiz was able to say with courage, hope, and joy: “Had I many thousands of lives I would offer them all for him”.
For his faith was also founded on this other promise of the Lord: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore” (Apoc 1:17f). This is the focus and foundation of our Christian faith, the faith of St Lawrence Ruiz and every martyr. May their prayers and example strengthen our faith.
Christ’s words in today’s Gospel could well apply to today’s popular saint, Pius of Pietrelcina, a Capuchin Franciscan who is commonly known as ‘Padre Pio’.
Jesus says: “No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a vessel, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, that those who enter may see the light” (Lk 8:16). And so, it seems that Padre Pio was lit up like a lamp to draw many souls to Christ, the true light. For many miracles are connected with St Pius, notably the miracle of the stigmata which conformed him to the Crucified Lord in a unique way.
St Pius was the first priest to ever receive the sacred stigmata, the five wounds of Christ. On the 20th of September 1918, he had celebrated Mass, and was praying in church when the Crucified Lord appeared to him, and then, St Pius says: “I became aware that my hands, feet and side were pierced and were dripping with blood”. He bore these wounds for fifty years until his death in 1968 in the Franciscan friary of San Giovanni Rotondo in southern Italy. And for him, the stigmata were a great source of embarassment, misunderstanding even from the Pope and the Vatican, and suffering which he tried to hide. But, as we heard in today’s Gospel, “nothing is hid that shall not be made manifest” (Lk 8:17), and, so, many flocked to him and performed scientific tests on him because of these wounds which emitted a fragrance like violets. Apparently someone once asked him if the wounds hurt, and he replied: “Do you think that the Lord gave them to me for a decoration?”
But why did the Lord give St Pius the stigmata? We return to today’s Gospel which says that the lamp is lit to shed light, to be seen. And so, it seems, that God worked wonders through St Pius so that Christ, the suffering merciful Christ, might be seen in him; so that the light of Christ’s love could be manifest. Hence, throughout his life, thousands flocked to Padre Pio for confession, to receive the Eucharist, and came for healing. Today, his shrine is the second most visited Catholic shrine in the world. And because of his acquaintance with suffering, Padre Pio established a hospital in 1956 called the ‘House for the Relief of Suffering’. 60,000 patients a year are served by this hospital, and it is considered one of the most efficient in Europe. So, this man was lit up like a lamp for God’s glory and to bring souls to Christ.
However, we might wonder why God chose Padre Pio? Today’s Gospel says: “to him who has will more be given” (Lk 8:18). So, it would appear that there was something already in Padre Pio, in his openness to God’s grace, that prepared him to be given even more. He was born to a poor family who had very little. Thus, as is so often the case with the poor, St Pius learnt to depend entirely on God’s goodness, to be thankful for what he had, and to be rich in faith and love. At 5 he dedicated his life to God, and he loved to pray, especially the Rosary. But he was also a sickly boy, often ill, and he once said “I am fully convinced that my illness is due to a special permission of God”. Such faith, such openness to God’s grace and the mystery of our mortal suffering, must have prepared him for the grace of the stigmata. At 15 he joined the Capuchin Franciscan friars, and after his ordination was noted for the deep piety and contemplation with which he said Mass - sometimes it would take him hours to say one Mass. Again, such prayerful union with Christ Crucified in the Mass, in his priesthood, and in his religious life (for St Francis of Assisi had also received the stigmata), prepared him to be visibly marked as a living image of Jesus on the Cross. Thus, to him who had more was given.
So, we pray today for St Pius’ intercession, that we, who are also lit up by God’s grace and given so much, may also draw others to Jesus through our imitation of Christ in works of love and mercy.
Today, the Lectionary begins its reading of St Paul’s first letter to St Timothy. But for some reason the readings omit all of chapter 5. As it happens, today is also the feast day of the great 4th-century Patriarch of Constantinople, St John Chrysostom, and one of his most memorable sermons commented on that missing chapter 5 of 1 Timothy. Basically, St Paul was giving advice to Timothy that for the sake of his health he should “no longer drink only water, but use a little wine” (1 Tim 5:23). And so, St John Chrysostom said that only heretics would say that drinking wine was shameful, or that wine was bad for us, or wrong, or evil. Indeed, he even said that if anyone said such things, we should smack them on the mouth for blasphemy! So, I notice that that the CSU has happily organized a drinks evening tonight, no doubt to celebrate St John Chrysostom. After all, we wouldn’t want to be deemed heretics here at St Albert’s, would we? Notice, though, that St Paul says: “use a little wine”…
But why did St John have such esteem for wine? Is it not because wine is one of the elements for the Eucharist? As he says: “What is in the chalice is the same as that which flowed from Christ’s side”. It is the precious blood of Jesus Christ, given to us to drink, which heals us and takes away our sins. And this, perhaps, is why Jesus is so insistent in today’s Gospel that we should look firstly at our own many sins rather than focus on the faults of others. Because it is only when we recognize our own sinfulness that we also realize our need of Christ, our Saviour; that we can benefit and be transformed in grace by the blood of Christ; that this wine can bring joy to our hearts (cf Ps 104:15).
Moreover, there is a sense that if we are concentrated on the failings of another, then we have begun to judge them, or think ourselves superior to them (cf James 4:11). Jesus warns against this because this attitude harms Christian charity. St John Chrysostom’s antidote to such a problem is, again, the wine of the Eucharist. As he says: “our Father, desiring to lead us to a kindly affection, has devised this also, that we should drink out of one cup; a thing which belongs to intense love.” Because when we come for Holy Communion conscientiously, we realize that we express not only our unity as sinners in need of God’s mercy, but we also make a sign of our “intense love” love for one another – a love that forgives, that is “patient and kind… [that] “is not irritable or resentful… [that] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (cf 1 Cor 13:4-7).
This, surely, is Christ-like love, the same love poured into our hearts in the Eucharist, given to us under the appearance of bread and wine. It’s a demanding love if we’re to become what we consume in the Mass. For what Love requires is that I “take the log out of [my] own eye” and fashion it into a cross. Only united with Christ Crucified, seeing with his eyes of sacrificial love, can I then, “see clearly to take out the speck that is in [my] brother’s eye”.
In many ways St Bridget seems an obvious candidate for one of Europe’s six patron saints. She was born into a Swedish noble family, happily married with eight children. She and her husband were both Franciscan tertiaries, thus aligning themselves with one of the great movements of 14th-century Europe, and she would work tirelessly for the unity of Europe and the reform of the Church. During her lifetime she travelled from the edge of Europe to what was regarded as the centre of the world, Jerusalem, and she also made pilgrimages to Europe’s most popular shrines: Santiago de Compostela, Rome, and Assisi. If not patroness of Europe, she could certainly be patron saint of religious tourism!
But there is a more poignant side to St Bridget’s biography. She was widowed at the age of 31, and, like so many women of her time, experienced the sorrow of seeing two of her children die in infancy. No wonder she had a special devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows, and she found consolation in Christ, sharing deeply in his Passion, and being “crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20) as St Paul said. At the age of 41, she was called by Christ in a vision to found a new religious congregation primarily of women to revive the Church. She dedicated it to the Most Holy Saviour, and, with support from the Swedish king, began to establish a monastery in Vadstena. But she never saw this monastery completed. Neither did she see a single nun clothed in the distinctive habit shown her by Christ in a vision. She herself longed to be a nun, but she was never consecrated as one.
Because in 1349, her share in Christ’s Passion meant that she was told by the Lord to go to Rome and stay there until the Pope returned from Avignon. She arrived on time for the Holy Year of 1350, and her plan was to seek papal approval for the Rule of her budding congregation. Little did she expect to stay for over two decades until her death today in 1373, never again to see Sweden, nor almost all her children, nor her religious congregation. Moreover, the pope returned to Rome in 1367 but quit for Avignon again in 1370. The Avignon papacy would only end 4 years after St Bridget’s death, a task seen to completion by another patron of Europe, the Dominican saint Catherine of Siena.
So, some have noted that St Bridget could well also be patron saint of failures or disappointments. For much of what she’d set out to do remained unfulfilled. But, if so, she has an especially relevant message for us today. Many of us are defined by what we achieve and what we do in our lives. We’re so defined by our work that, with so many in Europe and especially among the youth currently going jobless, millions have lost their sense of identity, of direction, belonging, and of self-worth. St Bridget, stranded in a desolate non-papal Rome, left without husband, family or cloister, never quite accomplishing her mission, could be said to share in this too; in some sense, ‘jobless’ and even ‘failed’ at the one task she had.
But hers can only be called failure in the way the world might regard the Crucifixion of Christ a failure. For St Bridget spent her life in Rome urging all to conversion to Christ; he was her goal and direction. At her death, she was renown for her kindness and love, and this is what defined her – not what she did, or accomplished, as such, but who she became by the grace of Christ. St Bridget was defined by Love – the divine love that took Christ to the Cross. And because we’re made for love, St Bridget was fulfilled, and most gainfully employed in loving others. Thus, she was sanctified, and declared a saint in 1391.
Hence, today’s patron saint has a particular resonance for contemporary Europe, I think. She reminds us that our worth and our dignity comes not so much from what society makes of us, or what we accomplish in terms of worldly success, or what jobs we have. Employment is vital and necessary, of course, but for those who feel lost, uprooted and far from home, for the many economic migrants throughout Europe, St Bridget’s witness is that wherever we find ourselves, we can abide in a lasting home and bear everlasting fruit if we are rooted in Christ. For his grace produces in us the sweet fruit of charity, and leads us to our eternal home with God.
Last week, I had the joy of being part of a pilgrimage of thousands of seminarians and novices and young people discerning a religious vocation, who, together with Vocations Promoters/Directors and formators, had converged on Rome for a special Year of Faith pilgrimage. We’d come at the invitation of the Holy Father, and last Saturday Pope Francis specifically asked the organizers to let him address us. His 45-minute address, full of practical wisdom but also very challenging, is well-worth looking up online, whether one is a seminarian or not. But these words in particular seem apt given today’s Gospel. The Holy Father said: “I would like to say to you: go out of yourselves to proclaim the Gospel, but to do this you must go out of yourselves to encounter Jesus. There are two ways out: one towards the encounter with Jesus, towards transcendence; the other towards others to proclaim Jesus”.
There is a sense here that Jesus is first encountered in the intimacy of prayer and of contemplation. In the secret of our heart, and in the tranquil moments of the morning, as we often find in this chapel, we have to “go out of [ourselves]”, taking time out from our busy lives and our old habits, to be with the Lord. This is how discipleship begins, in being with the Lord so that he can come and speak to us of his love and passion in the dark; the Word whispers to us the mysteries of his grace and mercy. But from this intimate encounter, this hidden friendship, comes a missionary impetus. The use of the passive form: “Nothing is covered that will not be revealed… that will not be known” (Mt 10:26) suggests a divine imperative. It is the movement of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that will drive us to proclaim the Gospel because God’s love and friendship and mercy and grace is not meant for just us. It’s not a exclusive friendship or a jealously-hidden secret love but a passion for all humanity. So, we impassioned by the Spirit to “go out of [ourselves]” and proclaim Christ to the world, to proclaim him “in the light” of the Resurrection, and “upon the housetops” (Mt 10:27) of God’s household, which is his holy Church.
Hence, last Saturday, Pope Francis said: “I would like a more missionary Church, one that is not so tranquil. A beautiful Church that goes forward”.
And these words from the Holy Father carry this sense that the missionary impetus does disturb us – as indeed, all actions motivated by genuine love does – which is possibly why we find it so hard. But to be a missionary Church, to be disciples of Christ, and to be learners of divine love means that we will need to take risks. Love takes risks and even willingly suffers the Cross. So, in preaching the Gospel, will we even risk persecution, misunderstanding from the world, and humiliation? After all, “a disciple is not above his teacher” (Mt 10:24). This, in essence, was what Pope Francis was reminding us last week when he also said: “Don’t be afraid to go against the current”.
But perhaps we still hesitate because of fear: fear of discomfort, fear of sacrifice, fear to love. Christ thus exhorts his disciples today to fear not “those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Mt 10:28), that is, fear God. But this isn’t a threat but rather an invitation to trust in God’s love, Fatherly care and goodness, as the following verses make clear, and then to love God in turn by proclaiming his Gospel to all people. We’re called to be, you might say, like those sparrows (cf Mt 10:29) – filled with a humble ‘bird-like’ trust in God’s love, and tweeting it to the whole world! For the fear of God being spoken of here is not the fear of punishment but the fear of letting down the One whom we love, the fear of not responding to the Spirit’s promptings, the fear of not loving God and neighbour enough so that we must make known to all the love and mercy that was first whispered to us in the darkness of our hearts.
But if we’re to have this good fear of the Lord, we must first have listened to the Lord in silent prayer and been loved by him in the sacraments. Only then can we become what Pope Francis asked us to be last Saturday: “contemplatives and missionaries”, or in the words of today’s Gospel, “disciples” and “servants” (cf Mt 10:25).
Pope Francis’ address of 6 July 2013 can be read here: