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.
James and John do not know what they’re asking for because, of course, the Lord’s glory is not manifest on a golden throne or even in heavenly splendour, as the apostles might be thinking, but, rather, in what he’s just described to them: his Passion (cf Jn 12:23). As such, the apostles are unknowingly asking to be seated on either side of Christ when he reigns from the Cross. But those places, as we know, have already been granted to the two thieves. Hence Jesus says: “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared” (Mk 10:40).
Instead, what Jesus grants to his apostles, and indeed, to each of us, is another way of sharing in his Passion: we are baptized into Christ’s death, and we drink the Eucharistic chalice of his blood. Just as Christ asked his apostles if they are “able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” (Mk 10:38), so, too Christ asks us this. And each time we enter the church, and make the sign of the Cross with the holy water, and say “Amen” before receiving Holy Communion, we are saying “Yes” to Christ’s invitation to share in his glorious Passion.
This sacramental sharing in Christ’s Passion, which leads us to final glory, when our bodies are raised with Christ to reign with him in heaven, is God’s great act of mercy towards us. For in the First Reading, God’s people ask him for mercy (cf Sir 36:1). Hence, God, in response, spares us the bloody anguish of the Cross, and institutes a sacramental means by which we too can, like the good thief, stand on either side of Christ in his glory. For this is what we do when we approach the Altar of the Eucharist, this most sacred banquet in which, as St Thomas Aquinas put it, “the memory of Christ’s Passion is renewed”.
Those of us with scientific minds will want to inquire: how does water just instantly change into wine? Philosophers and sceptics among us might ask: did this miracle actually happen? We could debate at length over this – as many scholars and thinkers have – but, then, I’m neither a philosopher nor a scientist, so I shan’t! Besides, we’d be missing the Evangelist’s point. St John is a brilliant theologian, deeply familiar with the Old Testament, and his concern is to ask: what is God doing here? Unlike the scientist, the theologian searches for meaning and purpose in things and events; his question is why. And St John calls this incident at Cana “the first of [Jesus’] signs”, so we also need to ask: what does the sign point to?
Traditionally, the feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January celebrated in one feast three manifestations of God’s presence among Mankind: firstly, the wise men are led to the Christ Child in Bethlehem; secondly, Christ is baptised in the Jordan and God confirms that this is his beloved Son; and thirdly, Christ performs the first of his signs at Cana, changing water into wine. Nowadays these three epiphanies have been spaced out over three weeks, but each of them says something about God’s presence and activity in the world.
In the first case, God leads the wise men, representing all the nations of the world, to Christ; they follow a star to Bethlehem. This means that God shines the light of salvation on all humanity. It is no longer just the privileged people of Israel, but all people from all nations who are now invited to Bethlehem, to the place where the Lord feeds us with himself, the Bread of Life. Hence, the Church is catholic – all-embracing and universal – and all who accept her embrace are called the People of God. The Lord’s baptism then shows us, through Christ’s own example, how we accept the embrace of the Church and become members of Christ’s Body. Hence, through baptism, we are not just God’s People but become Sons and Daughters of God. We share in Christ’s life, and, so, we are caught up in the embrace of the Holy Trinity. But this isn’t close enough. Today’s epiphany at Cana takes us one step further, into an even deeper intimacy with God – the intimacy and union of marriage.
In the surprising event of the Incarnation, and in the unexpectedness of the All-Powerful God becoming a helpless baby at Christmas, something is revealed about God. That ours is a God who does extraordinary things through the ordinary; the divine working alongside the human. And also that ours is a God who comes to us, who seeks his beloved people because he has seen our need of him, of Jesus, whose name means ‘God saves’. For that is why he is born and calls us to follow him: for the sake of our salvation.
Nathaniel, it seems, understands this in a moment of infused grace, of divine insight, when Jesus says he saw him under a fig tree. For, as St Augustine explains, the fig tree stands for Adam’s sin, since our first parents hid themselves with fig leaves after they’d sinned. Hence, Christ “saw the whole human race under the fig tree”, which is to say that God saw, he understood our plight and had compassion on us in our sinful condition. Hence he comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ who is God’s mercy and love incarnate. And he comes to lift us up from under the fig tree, from under the shadow of sin. This is what Nathaniel recognizes – that here is the God of mercy and compassion coming to save him. And he realizes, too, that God comes in ordinary and unexpected ways, “from Nazareth”.
So, too, God comes to us in real and active works of love, in kindness and generosity to the stranger, in the speaking of truth in charity, in acts of goodness, of reconciliation and forgiveness. Hence St John asks: “If any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” For it is through little, ordinary but often unnoticed and taken-for-granted good and genuinely human ways of acting, of opening our hearts to another, in seeing one’s need and responding generously that God becomes present. He takes flesh in us, and he acts through love to heal us of sin’s wounds, and restore us to friendship with him and our fellow man.
However, in this ordinary way, God also does extraordinary things. Because the more we love in deed and the truth, in fact, the more we resemble our Father, who is Love; the more we become like Christ as we bear in our own flesh the marks of love. So, through love and our grace-prompted openness to love, God will not only save us from sin, but he will give us something even greater. Jesus promises us that we will “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man”. Because by the gift of grace, which is first given to us in baptism, we are not only forgiven of our sins but are promised a share in divine life when we shall see God as he really is (cf 1 Jn 3:2). And this is the supernatural divine end to which our works of love lead us. Because, following Christ who is love incarnate, we are moved by the Spirit to walk along his way of the Cross, of self-sacrificial love, and, so, share in Christ’s glory.
Elijah comes to “turn the heart”, to “restore the tribes”. These words from Sirach are an allusion to the prophecy of Malachi who said that the Elijah would be sent “before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (4:5), and that he would “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (4:6).
So, the people of Israel expected Elijah to return in earthly power and might, in judgement and wrath. However, the conversion of the human heart just cannot be forced. Anger and violence, shock and awe, divine power and might does not turn the heart. Rather, God knows that the only way that the human heart is turned, converted, is through love. And it is love that restores us to friendship with God. Which is why God sends his Son, to show us the depths of His love for humanity. For “greater love has no man than this, that he should die for his friends”.
But Mankind does not see his coming, they do not recognize him. Why? Because we are often so focussed on what we expect, on what we want to see, that we often miss seeing what’s there; we overlook God’s active presence among us. For God’s ways are not our ways, and so, they are often unexpected and surprising. People often ask, especially when terrible things happen, “Where is God?”, and underlying this question is a certain expectation of what God should be doing. But, as Christ reveals to his disciples in today’s Gospel, God is present on the Cross, in the suffering of humanity, as the Victim of sin. His violent and bloody Crucifixion is the consequence of Mankind doing as they please, and he bears the burden of our sins; Christ, in his own body, suffers the effects of all our sins. This is where God is in the most terrible moments of human iniquity, and it comes to us as a judgement of sorts because, through his pure and humble sacrificial love, Christ reveals the inhumanity and lovelessness of Mankind.
Likewise, the people did not recognize Elijah in John the Baptist because they did not see the forceful, vengeful prophet they expected. Because John came with a call to repentance – not force and violence but conversion. John calls us to open our hearts to grace, to turn again in contrition to God, to seek God’s ways, and, so, to be ready for the birth of God’s mercy and love, made visible in the person of Jesus Christ. It is in this way that he “restores all things”, by first calling humanity to be turned to God, and opened to God’s truth.
Hence, in these weeks of Advent, we’re called to conversion, to look for the Lord’s ways, to turn to face him. In doing so, we learn to turn away from our own false expectations, or from doing what just pleases us. This is a conversion of faith from a false God to the living God. Otherwise, we might miss his coming among us. Indeed, without this faith in his Word, we might miss his quiet, unexpected, humble, and real presence among us; his gentle and unforceful Love made manifest that embraces us into the communion of the Triune God.
Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor”, and I had never really understood this, or I had a rather romantic notion of poverty. Truth be told, this is because I’d never really seen the poor, or shared their experience of want.
Which is why when the opportunity arose in 2003, I decided to spend a year working in the slums of Manila. I wanted to meet with the poor and share their poverty, even if only in a small way. Only then, I thought, could I actually promise voluntary poverty as a mendicant friar with a modicum of realism. Many people engage in voluntary work, take gap years to work in economically-depressed areas, and schools offer opportunities to take part in social development projects. In each case, we often think we’re bringing something of value, and we’re helping the poor. That is true, and I was no different in thinking mainly of what I had to give, what I could do for the poor.
But, in fact, the most lasting effect of my year in Manila is what the poor gave me, what they showed me and taught me. Most significantly, they opened my eyes to what Jesus meant by “Blessed are the poor”; they taught me to see what Jesus sees.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is sat down opposite the trumpet-shaped collection or offertory boxes of the Temple. People make voluntary contributions to them for the upkeep of the Temple, like the kind of boxes we see today at the entrances of museums and some cathedrals. Jesus is sat opposite these collection trumpets, watching and observing; he is people-watching. But, as the Lord God said to Samuel, “the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7b). It is this insight that motivates Jesus’ condemnation of the ostentatious scribes because their hearts are set on their own wealth, honour and status rather than on honouring God and loving the poor. For as Jesus told the good scribe only a few verses previously, to love God with our whole being, and to love our neighbour as ourselves are the greatest commandments.
And so, today in the Temple, Jesus notices how a poor widow exemplifies these commandments. She is not just near to the kingdom of God as the good scribe was, but rather, as Jesus says elsewhere: “Blessed are you poor: for yours is the kingdom of God”. For the poor widow’s whole-hearted offering, although it appears outwardly small, is in truth, inwardly far greater. And God recognizes this truth because he sees not as we do: the Lord looks on the heart.
We often fail to notice these inward things, as we find it easier to rely on outward appearances. So, Jesus calls his disciples to him; he calls you and me. Because he wants to teach us to see as he sees, so he draws our attention to the widow and explains the greatness, indeed, the blessedness he sees in her. Hence, becoming a disciple of Jesus means that we must learn to see as God sees, to see people, things, and situations with his eyes.
Freshers’ Week can be such a blur of activities, with countless people and things vying for your attention.Special discounts, music, parties and free food are all part of the arsenal of Freshers’ Week lobbied at us to entice us to sign up. And of course, our own CSU has had its share of these including tonight’s wine and cheese event!
But Jesus just wouldn’t fit into this Freshers’ Week mentality of free food and free revelry, and, it seems, he might not have been too successful at the Societies Fair. Because, when asked what he offers if we’re to join him, he says: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”. No free food, no parties, but deny yourself and take up your cross. Perhaps this honesty is refreshing… but Jesus’ offer of the Cross, of his suffering, death, and rising, shocks even his disciples. But that’s because Peter, like so many of us, fails to look beyond the merely superficial, beyond our current human experiences, and to broaden our thinking so that we begin to glimpse the expansiveness and freedom of God’s thinking. For what is it, really, that Jesus is offering us?
“Deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me”, he says. What he’s offering us is that one thing we all long for, the one thing that will satisfy our restless cravings for something more, the only thing that will fill the void in the human heart. Love. Jesus is offering us love, and he wants to widen our hearts so that we can receive God’s infinite love, and we can learn to love.
Because, contrary to what we’re often told, we don’t love ourselves by indulging ourselves, and giving in to whatever we want. We love when we deny ourselves, when we sacrifice and give ourselves for a greater good. We often realize how much we really desire something only when we’re willing to make sacrifices for it. So, mothers give up sleep for their baby’s well-being, athletes discipline themselves for Olympic success, and students will have to study diligently for that First Class degree. Each of these, in a certain way, show a measure of love because we’re stretched and widened for something greater, for love. But Jesus says that we can have no greater love than to die for a friend. In other words, to sacrifice one’s life for another is the greatest love. Which is why, if we want to learn to love, Jesus invites us to deny ourselves, and to pick up our cross, and follow him; to learn the way of total self-gift. For Jesus shows us through his Cross, where he gave up his life for us, the greatest love of all: the free unconditional love of God, the most true Friend of humanity, for you and me.
It’s well-known that the Second Vatican Council refers to the Church as the pilgrim People of God. For many this image of the Church connotes a more ‘democratic’ spirit, is said to be “less militant and triumphalistic” than “the Church Militant”, and speaks of humble openness to change, learning, and discovery; a certain openness to the world. There is a little truth to this, but it’s not the principal feature that the phrase ‘pilgrim Church’ actually wants to draw out.
The opening sentence of today’s Gospel may be closer to what the Council Fathers had in mind: “And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid” (Mk 10:32). So, in the first place, the pilgrim road heads straight to Jerusalem where Jesus leads the way to his passion and death on Calvary.
Which explains why the disciples are amazed – the word is ethambounto, which other translations render as “in a daze”, or “astounded” – because Christ was doing the unexpected. The conquering Messiah was to be the suffering slave, a shepherd king who died for the many. And, so, the Gospel says that “those who followed were afraid”. I think this more often typifies our Christian pilgrimage. The demands of discipleship are often unexpected and can sometimes leave us in a daze trying to cope with life’s struggles, fighting to keep our heads above the water, sometimes, uncertain of where we’re headed, and afraid.
But it seems that the disciples were scared because they seem not to have realized what Christ’s true destination was, or how to get there.
It’s often said that Jesus asks St Peter three times if he loves him in order to allow him to overturn his triple denial of Christ. And Peter, because he loves the Lord, is thus entrusted with the care of Christ’s beloved flock, the Church. But there is so much more to this passage. For in fact, Peter is being invited on a journey, to follow Christ so that he will learn to love as much as Jesus does to the point of dying for his flock.
The Greek text of this Gospel makes this more evident, I think. Because the first two times, Jesus asks: “agapas me”. Agape in the New Testament is an unconditional pure love, the kind of unselfish sacrificial love that God has for us, the kind of love that goes to the Cross for the sake of sinners, and forgives those who deny and betray him. And Peter, in his three replies says: “philo se”. This is not quite the same pure love that Jesus has and that he asks of Peter, but the love of friendship. Now, friendship is the “most fully human of all loves”, a beautiful and precious love indeed, but it isn’t quite the supernatural divine kind of love that agape, charity, is. But it seems, this is all that Peter can give at the moment, his very best and fullest human love.
When Moses first encountered the living God in the burning bush, he asked God: ‘If the people of Israel should ask what is the name of the God of their fathers, what shall I say?’ And God said to Moses: “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you” (cf Ex 3:13f). So, God makes himself known to his people as “I AM”, which in Greek is ‘Ego eimi’.
So, in today’s Gospel, when the people of Israel again ask, ‘Who are you?’, the Lord replies, not through Moses, but for himself: “Ego eimi”, or, in our translation, “I AM He”. Jesus says: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM He…” But Jesus is not just making an assertion that he is God. He is revealing who he is, just as he once revealed himself to Moses, and this revelation will be seen and recognized as such when he is lifted up on the Cross. Why?
The Greek root word that recurs in today’s Gospel is krinw, which basically means, to decide, to separate, to distinguish. In this sense, there is a judgment, a choice, to be made. Hence, in today’s Gospel the words derived from krinw are translated as judgment (krisis), and condemn (krine). The problem is that both these words have become quite emotionally charged.
Hence the Media is fond of the word crisis, which is derived from the Greek krisis, but which, in its origin just means ‘judgment’, ‘decision’. A crisis point is that point when a decision has to be made, and it is only fraught and laden with pain and anguish, as crisis seems to mean these days, if one doesn’t know what decision to make, or if it is a hard choice one has to make. A krisis is only a crisis when we don’t know what to do and how to go forward, as was the case when Greece was about to default on its loans again, and the Greek government didn’t know if they should swallow further austerity measures and stay in the Euro or not.