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.
Today’s first reading is probably one of the most well-known of St Paul’s writings; it’s often heard in weddings. And it is most appropriate for today as I offer this anniversary Mass in thanksgiving to God for the grace he’s given me, allowing me, though so unworthy, to serve as a priest of Jesus Christ for the past three years; and I thank you all for your forebearance.
As St Thérèse of Lisieux said, “At last I have found my vocation. In the heart of the Church, I will be Love!” This vocation is common to every Christian who is called to become like Christ who is Love made flesh. Our universal Christian vocation is Love, to be conformed to Christ. But how this vocation is lived out differs according to the state of life to which we’re called. Hence, when St Paul’s words are read in a wedding, it aptly reminds the couple that they have chosen to learn Christ-like, self-giving love through marriage; husband and wife sanctify one another through patient, humble, hopeful, all-enduring love.
The choice to take up the priestly vocation is also like this except that the priest is sanctified with those to whom he ministers, and as a religious he is sanctified with his brothers and sisters in the Order, particularised through the community in which he lives and serves. So, when I am impatient, unkind, boastful, envious, irritable and resentful, then I realize how poorly I love, and how much more I have to learn and grow in order to live my vocation; how much I am in need of God’s sanctifying grace. As St Josemaría Escrivá said: “Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me”.
In a marriage, this loving gift of oneself to the other is expressed in the exchange of vows and in the sign of the wedding ring. In an ordination, this call for the priest to love the Church is expressed in the giving of the Chalice and Paten with the gifts of bread and wine for the Mass. At that point the bishop says to the new priest: “Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s Cross”. Here, then, is the priest’s vocation to sacrificial love lived in service to the Church and to the preaching of the Gospel of salvation – and this call is a profound privilege and joy. Chief among my joys as a priest is the celebration of Holy Mass because it is here that I am conformed to Christ Crucified, here that I learn to love and am shaped by grace, and here that I renew my promise to love the people of God.
So, please pray for me, and let us also pray for one another since we help each other to grow in Love. As Cardinal Merry del Val put it in his ‘Litany of Humility’, I pray that “others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should”. This, indeed, is my prayer at this and every Mass. So, when I return to the sacristy I always say this 9th-century prayer: “May the tribute of my humble ministry be pleasing to Thee, Holy Trinity. Grant that the sacrifice which I, unworthy as I am, have offered in the presence of Thy majesty may be acceptable to Thee. Through Thy mercy may it bring forgiveness to me and to all for whom I have offered it: through Christ our Lord. Amen”.
The sorrowful Mother of God is ever-present in our world. In Gaza, Iraq, Syria her icon comes alive in those images on our screens of hundreds of women veiled in black, their faces contorted with grief at the death of their children. In Nigeria, her sorrowful face is seen again in the anguished faces of those mothers pleading for the return of their girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. In our own community, she stands alongside those mothers who have lost a child, or have a child who is suffering a terminal illness. Sorrow, distress, death – such is the human condition; such is living and loving in a fallen world.
All of us will know or have encountered death and disease. And for some, the experience of having a loved one suffer and die – nursing them and holding them – is extremely hard to endure. One suffers with the one who is sick or dying, and such experiences can shake one’s faith. Such is the pain of human compassion, literally, suffering with the other. So, today we recall that Our Lady is the compassionate mother who suffers with her Son on the Cross. As she is also our mother, so she suffers with us and shares our sorrows and pain.
Because Mary shares in the redemptive suffering and death of Our Lord on the Cross, Our Lady of Sorrows is Queen of Martyrs. Hers is the martyrdom, that share in the Passion of Christ, that comes from the union of love that is uniquely hers: the union of her Immaculate Heart to the Sacred Heart of her Son. But as a martyr she witnesses, also, to how a Christian lives and copes with sorrow and grief; as our mother, she teaches us by her example.
So we see that throughout her martyrdom, as she stands at the foot of the Cross, she looks to Christ and is turned towards him in love and in faith. So, too, in our hard times, in the loneliness of our grief and distress, let us turn to God and not away from him. We look to the Cross and are saved, as we were reminded yesterday. For in turning to Christ who suffers on the Cross with us, we are opened to the grace and strength that he gives us to carry the Cross of our discipleship. And our turning to God is a sign of faith, of confident hope that he will, at last, turn our sorrows into joy, as happened to Our Lady. Hence Catholic tradition tells that Our Lady was the first to see the risen Lord, even before St Mary Magdalene and the other apostles as the Bible recounts, because Our Lady, who shared most deeply in Christ’s sorrow, merited this honour of being the first to experience the joy of the Resurrection.
Countless Christians throughout the world, very many of whom are women and mothers, are themselves mothered by Our Lady of Sorrows. This is the beauty of what Christ does on the Cross: he establishes a relationship of love, compassion and care between his Blessed Mother and all the baptised. So in our suffering and grief – a daily martyrdom for many people – Mary holds us and leads us to to her Son, to hold to Christ in faith and hope. Thus we share in Christ’s redemptive sufferings on the Cross, we share the pain of love and compassion, but Our Lady assures us that we will also share in the joy of Christ’s Resurrection and glory. Today’s feast, then, confirms us in our Christian faith and hope.
Many of you will probably have had your parents come to Edinburgh this week, and I suppose you’ll have been making new friends, and finding your way around the city, and maybe seeing some of its tourist sights. Although this is my fourth Freshers’ Week, I’ve been doing this too. So, my mother came to stay and spent the week with us, and I met a group of French seminarians last Monday. Between taking my mum to see Holyrood Palace and going to the CSU barbeque, I squeezed in a very quick tour that ended up in the National Museum of Scotland. We rushed around from one room to the next but one display made us stop and had us transfixed with morbid fascination.
The Frenchmen thought it was a French invention from the 18th-century. So, they were amazed to discover that some two centuries before the French Revolution, in Edinburgh in 1564, the Scots were using a machine in public executions for beheading people. It’s called ‘The Maiden’, and over 150 people have died by it. And here it was, in the museum, taking centrestage in one of the rooms; we stopped and just looked.
Today’s feast also seems to put at centrestage an instrument of execution and death, and it may appear somewhat gruesome or shocking, or even repulsive, to celebrate the cross. For execution on the cross was shameful, humiliating, the worst kind of death devised by the Roman Empire for those deemed public enemies. And it would indeed be morbid and gruesome to celebrate the cross were it not for who the Victim of the Holy Cross is, and what he accomplished through this instrument of deathly torture.
For Christ Crucified is the Victim of Love, divine love. As St John says: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16a). Have you ever fallen in love and given your heart to someone else? It’s entails a kind of sweet pain, I think. Well, in becoming Man, God gives not just his heart but his whole self, his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity to you and to me. And the agony of sacrificial love is displayed for all to see on the Holy Cross. For when Jesus freely chose to mount the wood of the Cross, he chose to show the world the depths of God’s love for Mankind. His arms are stretched out horizontally to breaking point to embrace sinful humanity, so that in his own Body, Jesus reconciles God and Man, and he also draws us closer to one another. Vertically, he is stretched upwards to the heavens, for he is the Bridge that makes it possible for us to cross over to his Father in heaven, and to be united to God in friendship.
At the same time, Christ’s wounded and bleeding Body on the Cross reminds us of the sufferings and torments of humanity. We have all seen this summer the gruesome and horrific things that Man is capable of inflicting on their fellow Man including crucifixion. So, looking at the Cross, then, we see what our sins do to one another, and also to ourselves, and to God in Christ. For sin not only harms our neighbour but it also wounds and disfigures us; it makes us barely recognizable as rational human beings; it causes human misery and suffering, which Jesus, through his Passion and Death on the Cross, chooses to share in. Indeed, St Paul says that for our sake [God] made [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin (2 Cor 5:21). What this means, I think, is that Jesus on the Cross shows us the effects of sin in his broken body so that when we look at Christ Crucified, we also see sinful Man. We see ourselves, in fact, in the way that God sees us sinners: as wounded, frail, and mortal people in need of mercy, healing, and compassionate love.
Hence, as St John says, “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world” (Jn 3:17) but to save and heal and lift us up. And so, when we look up at the Crucified One, we look not into eyes that accuse us, or condemn us, or make us feel guilty. And if that is what you see, then you need to look again. Today’s feast, then, invites us to stop and just look at the Holy Cross. As Moses said to the people of Israel, we need to look and live (cf Num 21:9). For what we look into are the eyes of the Divine Mercy, and the Victim who we see raised up on the Cross is the Victim of Love. So when St John says that “whoever believes in [Jesus] should not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3:16b), he means, first of all, that we need to believe who the Victim on the Holy Cross is: he is God’s Love and Mercy made visible who has come not to condemn and accuse but to forgive and reconcile us. Jesus is stretched out on the Cross to re-unite heaven and earth; God and Man.
And this is what Jesus accomplished on the Cross. For by reconciling us to God in friendship, Christ makes it possible, as the Gospel says, for us to not perish (as human beings naturally would) but to have eternal life by becoming like him: not just human but also divine; one with God who is Life and Being itself. But how does he do this, and what does this mean?
Well, think of what we do every time we come to Mass, and whenever we receive Holy Communion with the right disposition. The very word, communion speaks of an intimacy and unity with God that is born of love. For in the Mass what happened once and for all on the Cross is made present for us; we stand on Calvary with the Crucified One. Thus, in the Eucharist and in Holy Communion, we experience and taste how “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”; Christ gives himself entirely to you and to me in one great Act of sacrificial love as he once did on the Cross.
This is the Mass, and while you are here in this University you have an opportunity that will be unmatched later in life. You have the chance to come to Mass every day with relative ease and convenience because there are two Masses in this chapel every weekday, and there are at least another four at different times of each weekday in churches within 15 minutes walk from here. If you know the pain of falling in love, do you know, too, the agony of unrequited love or of being distant from your Beloved? Do not let God’s gift of himself – a daily Eucharist – go unwanted and unrequited. But let us do our utmost to come to Mass as often as possible with gratitude, with adoration, and with love. It’s not just the highpoint of your week but should become the centre of your day, of your life.
For it is through the Eucharist that we are made one with God and so receive eternal life; through the Eucharist that the Crucified One is lifted up on high, and we with him. For the Eucharist is Christ who is the “living bread which came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51). And when we receive the Eucharist we receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Risen Lord Jesus so that we, too, may be lifted up with Christ in the Resurrection, and be “highly exalted” into heavenly glory as he was (cf Phil 2:9). As Jesus says to Nicodemus, only he has ascended into heaven (cf Jn 3:13), so we need to be united to him through the Eucharist if we’re to share in his resurrection, ascension, and eternal life; if we’re to be united with God in undying love.
Therefore, we don’t glory in an instrument of torture today, nor are we morbidly fascinated by it. Rather, we rejoice in what Jesus has done for us through the Cross, and is doing for us now in this and in every Holy Mass. As the Entrance Antiphon said: “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered” (cf Gal 6:14).
One of my sisters has spent the past summer working in Berlin, and my mother, who lives in Germany also mentioned Berlin to me this past week. I’ve never been to Berlin, but I am told that while most cities build monuments celebrating their nation’s great deeds in Berlin we see another kind of monument – they erect sculptures and public exhibits that commemorate the sins of past generations, of the Nazi Holocaust, for example. And they do this because it is cathartic, because it is healing to face one’s sins and mistakes, and so, to seek forgiveness and find new life.
Something similar happens with the monument or totem that Moses is told to erect – a serpent mounted on a pole that reminds the people of Israel of their sins. They are to confront their sins, and so, be healed. When Christ is lifted up and mounts the pole of the Cross, sinful humanity is also called to confront its wickedness; you and I are called to look at what our sins do to one another, and also to ourselves, and to God in Christ. For sin wounds and disfigures us, it makes us barely recognizable as human, it causes human misery and suffering which Jesus takes on himself.
But “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world” (Jn 3:17). So, when our God hangs on the Cross and we look at him, it’s not with an accusatory gaze that we’re called to do so. Nor do we look at the Cross to increase our feelings of guilt. Rather, we look at the Cross and acknowledge our sins and our brokenness, and simultaneously we look at Christ who is our forgiveness and our salvation and our healer. Hence, St Paul can say to the Galatians, as we heard in the Entrance antiphon: “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered” (cf Gal 6:14). So, too, so many people hold on to the Cross, or wear it on their bodies, and it is a source of comfort and of hope; we glory in the Cross.
For the suffering Christians of Iraq and Syria, and for countless Christians around the world the Cross is their glory, their hope, their comfort, their boast. Not only because they can see that Christ is with them in their catastrophe and pain and in their dying, but, more importantly, because they know, with Faith, that, as St Paul said, the Cross of Christ is our salvation, life and resurrection.
So, not unlike those monuments in Berlin, a feast like today’s is cathartic. It focusses us on the Cross of Christ so that we can look at the consequences of our sins and be healed and purified of them. But unlike a civic monument, the Cross is not just self-therapy or auto-salvific. It is much more than that because the Cross saves us for it is the instrument with which the God of our salvation acts. For we could not possibly atone for our own sins because they are so grave. Rather, we sinners stand in need of a Saviour. So, when we focus on the Cross, we glory in God’s goodness, his mercy and his forgiveness; we look at the God who became Man, and who lovingly offered himself on the Cross to atone for Mankind’s sins. As St John says, then, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16).
And this is the crux of the Gospel. In this past Fresher’s Week a number of Chinese students have made their way to our CSU Common Room. And we discovered that a few of them had no knowledge of the Gospel at all. So, in the brief time that we had, our students had to summarise the Gospel, to present its joy and its novelty as Pope Francis challenges us all to do. I would suggest that John 3:16 is a good place to start. And that verse continues: “That whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16). This is to say that all anybody needs to do to be saved is to look at the Cross; to see Christ Crucified for Mankind’s salvation, and believe.
It is as simple as that, though faith is not always easy. Nevertheless, like the people of Israel in the desert who looked at the bronze serpent and lived so we, the people of God, need only look at Christ – look to Christ – and live in his grace. Faith and belief in Christ is as simple as that. The rest – our life in Christ – is essentially, then, about being lifted up with Christ following the movement of the great Philippians hymn which we heard in our Second Reading. So, as disciples we are lifted up onto the Cross with Jesus; we take up our crosses and follow Christ, as we heard two Sundays ago. But, following this trajectory, we are also lifted up to heavenly glory with Christ.
And it all begins here at the foot of the Cross, as we look up at it and see on it the Victim of our sins, who dies so that we might live. Here in the Mass, we stand on Calvary. And on this feast, in particular, we come and we “behold the wood of the Cross on which hung the Saviour of the world”; by its lifting-up we, too, are uplifted!
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.