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.
"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:
Violence in the name of religion, and more broadly, the human desire to compel someone to believe, or, failing that, to punish them for not “receiving” the same viewpoint seems to always lurk about in our human dealings with one another.
This baser instinct of humanity is so evident today in countries like Syria, for example, where, only three days ago, a Christian hermit, Fr François Mourad, was killed. What began as an uprising for greater civil liberties has become a sectarian war with powerful forces intent on wiping out the Christian presence in one of the oldest churches in the world, a Christian community with Biblical roots. But Fr Mourad is only the latest face and name in the on-going violence directed towards hundreds of thousands of our nameless and faceless brothers and sisters in Syria, and very many other places besides.
And our own Western nations are not only complicit in the on-going Syrian conflict, either through silence or the trafficking of arms, but we are also by no means immune from the baser human desire to compel others to “receive” our values and world views. Hence, in the name of toleration, social progress and equality, no alternative point of view that differs from the liberal Western zeitgeist seems to be tolerated. And the force of law, it appears, will not hesitate to do violence to the consciences of those who will not conform. Alas, violence – and not just in the name of religion – is, all too often, being inflicted by the powerful on the ‘other’, who is often dubbed a ‘bigot’ or some other alienating and dehumanizing name.
The Christian Church, it is true, has been shameful in not always having avoided this sinful and disturbing tendency either. So, today’s Gospel honestly shows two of the apostles, James and John, wanting to punish the hated Samaritans who “would not receive” Christ by calling down “fire from heaven” to burn them up. This seems to be the preferred force of the violent. For still today, fire from heaven in the form of missiles rains down on whole communities to punish those who will not acquiesce, to intimidate them into submission.
But violence is not to be waged in the name of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. Indeed, this applies to all religions. As Pope Benedict XVI said to the people of Lebanon last year: “the basic message of religion must be against violence”. In today’s Gospel, then, Jesus firmly stands against violence, against force, against retaliation. Why? Because Christ stands for love, and there can never be any compulsion in love.
Recently, brothers from throughout our Province met to discuss the work of evangelization in the modern world, and to look at our ministry to young people, which includes, of course, the mission of this chaplaincy. We have had a good year, with achievements on an inter-personal and architectural level that we can be proud of. And we have done all this, we say, in the Lord’s name, and, obviously, for the Lord.
But is it really so obvious? The disciples today say that they did “many mighty works” (Mt 7:22) – prophecies, exorcisms, miracles – in Christ’s name. But these did not really matter to the Lord. It wasn’t so obvious to him that his disciples did these works for him. Today’s Gospel, I think, really challenges us – it certainly challenges me! It gives us cause to pause and reflect: is it the achievements, awards, and testimonials that we receive that truly matter? Are these signs of success evidence of God’s pleasure in our “many mighty works” for him? Or do these just flatter our ego? Do I evaluate what I do based on how successful I think I am – how much praise I receive for my talks and sermons, how many ‘Likes’ or ‘retweets’ I get online, how much I earn in donations for my photos? If so, then, ultimately, these are just a sandy foundation on which to build our lives and our ministries.
Because what the Lord expects of his disciples, of the whole Church, is not success, as such; not signs and wonders and marvels, ultimately. What Jesus wants is faith. Or rather, faithfulness. He wants us to do “the will of [the] Father” (Mt 7:21).
And of course, the one who does this most perfectly is Christ himself, who even went to the Cross in an act of perfect obedience to the Father and of love for all people. So, we’re to model our lives on his, to imitate his faithfulness, and, so, to become like him, the Rock of our salvation. The disciple who does this thus becomes Christ-like, which is why Jesus does not say to him “I do not know you”. Rather, he sees his own self in him because the faithful disciple, living out his baptismal calling, has been remade by grace in Christ’s own image and likeness.
So, in the following of Christ we will face many difficulties, defeats, and even the Cross. At the very least we will be thought odd and different from the world around us. But there are also the gales and floods of those who disapprove of what we do, who oppose the stances we take, and who consider the teachings of the Church to be wrong and even dangerously harmful. In other words, we should not expect to be applauded, and discipleship and ministry can become a thankless task, leading us to Calvary.
But in all this, we are called to stand firm with Christ. This calls for a courageous faith, an austere faith, a loving faith. If we are faithful, then, we may well have ‘success’ and rewards; our lives might become attractive and interesting to others and can draw them to Christ. But, more often, we will not have popularity and praise. Either way, neither reaction matters ultimately if we have just been faithful dutiful disciples of Jesus Christ. And this is its own reward, for such steadfast faith transforms us to become like our Lord and Master, Love incarnate. Hence, Blessed Teresa of Kolkata said: “God has not called us to be successful. He has called us to be faithful”.
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.