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.
St Peter says: “Now for a little while you may have to suffer many trials” (1 Pt 1:6). Perhaps this is true, but one thing can help us alleviate the suffering, and even avoid life’s trials: money. How often have we said to ourselves: if we had more money we could do this, enjoy that, and avoid such and such a hardship? And this is true: money does provide opportunities and does save us from certain pains, or at least, I’ve lived with the destitute and seen the terrible impact of a lack of money. So, we do need money in this world, and it does buy for us good things. The problem arises when we forget who is the Giver of all good things and our priorities go askew. Hence, we heard in yesterday’s Gospel: “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well” (Mt 6:33).
If we look at a US dollar bill or coin, we’ll see these words: “In God we trust”. So, it can remind one that the good things that money buys ultimately come from God; we should trust him even above those good things. But, very often, the God in whom people really trust is the very thing on which this slogan is imprinted: Money itself, or at least, what it buys. Thus the slogan becomes a taunt. Hence Pope Francis has spoken of a “new idolatry of money” in which we “calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies” (Evangelii Gaudium, §55). And the thing about idols is that they are very well-disguised.
The rich young man who comes to Jesus in today’s Gospel did not even recognize the dominion of wealth over him until Jesus exposed it. And Jesus does this because he looked at him and loved him. Thus, by asking him to sell all he had, Christ unmasked the idol that took the place of God in the young man’s life.
We might wonder today, especially as Lent approaches: What are the idols in my life? What are the things that I cannot, indeed, will not, give up for Christ’s sake; for the sake of the Faith; for the living out of the Sermon on the Mount which we’ve been hearing these past Sundays? This coming Ash Wednesday, the Blessed Sacrament will be exposed for several hours in this chapel. I encourage you to come to Our Lord and adore him; look at him. Or rather, let him look at you and love you as he loved the young man in today’s Gospel, so that Jesus will reveal to you what are the hidden idols in your life. What are the gods, truly, in which we trust?
The point isn’t that money or worldly things are bad. Rather, when an earthly good – even another human person – or spending time with friends, or our work, or a desire for money and its security and consolations has displaced God who is the highest Good, then we have begun to trust in idols. Hence, because Jesus looked at the young man and loved him, he invited him to “Come, follow me” (Mk 10:21). This Lent is an opportunity to do this. But do we dare let Jesus look at us, love us, and so, expose our idols that we cling to and trust in so implicitly? Will we, as St Peter suggests, allow ourselves to be tested by the purifying fire of God’s love so that our faith becomes “more precious than gold” (1 Pt 1:7). If we do, then, as Jesus promises the young man, we will have “treasure in heaven”, namely, God himself.
For God alone is our treasure, our worth, our security and Giver of all good things. “In God we trust”: let this slogan become no longer a taunt but true.
Today our Order celebrates one of my favourite saints, Blessed Jordan of Saxony who is the patron saint of Dominican vocations. And it’s not simply because I am Vocations Promotor that I have a special regard for him. Nor is it because Blessed Jordan struggled with learning the French language – although I feel a certain affinity with him in this regard! Rather, it is the kind of Christian man, a brother in St Dominic, and a saint that he was, and that comes across in what he did, what he said, and what he wrote.
And time permits me to just illustrate this briefly. What he did: Blessed Jordan must have been a remarkable man. He entered the Order in his 40s in 1220 in Paris where he had been teaching Scripture and theology in the University. Within two years he was made, first, Provincial of Lombardy and, then, Master of the Order. When he succeeded St Dominic in 1222, the Order had 40 priories in 8 provinces. By 1227, there were reportedly 404! He was such a charismatic preacher and such an effective recruiter of talented novices for the Order that mothers were said to have locked their sons up when he came to town! So, in 1230, for example, Bl Jordan writes: “I have the hope that God will give us a good catch at the University of Oxford where I am now staying”. It is said that until his death in 1237, Bl Jordan recruited over a thousand novices – one of them was Albert of Lauringen whom we know today as St Albert the Great.
What he said: We do not know precisely what Bl Jordan said since none of his sermons or lectures were recorded; he must have improvised a lot. But more important than what he said, I think, is his own character and temperament that probably made the greatest impression on his listeners. These are the words used by his contemporaries to describe him: “sweet affability”, “tender pity”, “kind and gentle”, “love and mildness itself”, “cheery”, “humble-minded”, “joyful”. And we’re told that he loved music and singing. One of my favourite stories tells of Bl Jordan encouraging the novices to laugh and rejoice, even during the Office of Compline, because they had been saved from the Devil’s clutches!
And it is this simple joy in salvation, in what Jesus has done for us, that comes across in Bl Jordan’s writings. Because although we don’t know what he preached we do, fortunately, have some of his writings, including a unique body of 58 letters to Bl Diana, a Dominican nun in Bologna. Bl Jordan’s letters are tender, warm, and full of affection, and he shows himself to be a wise and moderate spiritual director. In some he shares his hopes for the Order, in others of his fears and pain. For example, in 1235 he writes that “one of my eyes is giving me great pain and I am in danger of losing it”. Indeed, he did become blind in one eye – that was a nickname some gave him! But no matter what happens, Bl Jordan writes with firm faith in Christ, hope in the joys of heaven, and with great love for God. Always fixed on God, he put the troubles and difficulties of this life in its proper perspective. So, Bl Jordan wrote: “By the loss of the grace of God, alone, are the souls of the saints to be troubled”.
In 1237, Bl Jordan went to the Holy Land to visit the newly-founded priory of Acre. On this day in 1237, he boarded a ship bound for Europe but it was shipwrecked off the Syrian coast and he drowned. It is said that a bright light led the brothers to recover his body which had washed ashore. This was fitting for Bl Jordan of Saxony had been a guiding light for so many Dominicans, and even today our Order benefits from with his wisdom and leadership. Hence the early Dominicans said of Bl Jordan: “the grace of the Word which he received was such that no other could be found like him”.
Perhaps one letter, written in 1229, sums up the grace of the Word which he had received, and which inspired his saintly life. May his words help us today too. Bl Jordan wrote:
"I send you a very little word,
the Word made little in the crib,
the Word who was made flesh for us,
the Word of salvation and grace,
of sweetness and glory,
the Word who is good and gentle,
Jesus Christ and him crucified,
Christ raised up on the cross,
raised in praise to the Father’s right hand:
to whom and in whom do you raise up your soul
and find there your rest unending for ever and ever.
Today’s Gospel speaks of Christ’s mission to his apostles, sending them out to preach the Gospel and to bring God’s healing and saving grace to all peoples. From that moment countless others have followed in their footsteps as missionaries, and many have endured hardship and persecution, rejection and even death for the sake of the Gospel. And this is still a reality in these days.
But today we’re honouring the first martyrs of the Far East. In 1549, the great Jesuit missionary, St Francis Xavier had brought the Faith to Japan, and Christianity received a welcome so that by 1587 there were around 200,000 Catholics in Japan. That’s about 5,263 converts a year, or 14 a day! But in that same year the Emperor outlawed the Faith. However, numbers kept increasing so that in 1596 when a violent persecution began there were almost half a million Catholics in Japan. The 5th of February 1597 saw the sacrifice of Japan’s first Christian martyrs: 17 Japanese and Korean catechists, 6 Spanish Franciscans, and 3 Japanese Jesuits; 26 in total. The most prominent among them was St Paul Miki who was aged around 30 and who was being trained as a Jesuit priest.
The martyrs were all executed in Nagasaki, and they were disfigured, then paraded through the streets to terrify the local people into abandoning Christianity. But the 26 sang the Te Deum, an ancient hymn of thanksgiving and victory as they walked to their death. Then they were crucified, and killed with a lance in their sides. Even then, the martyrs continued to sing, and they sang the Benedictus which we sing every morning at Morning Prayer. Thus, they offered to the Christians of their time and to us today a brave witness to their faith in Christ as the Saviour of all; to their hope of his resurrection; and to their love for God and their fellow Japanese.
As St Paul Miki said: “The only reason for my being killed is that I have taught the doctrine of Christ. I thank God it is for this reason that I die. I believe that I am telling the truth before I die. I know you believe me and I want to say to you all once again: Ask Christ to help you become happy. I obey Christ. After Christ’s example, I forgive my persecutors. I do not hate them. I ask God to have pity on all, and I hope my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain”.
In order for the blood of these martyrs to be fruitful, let us today hold fast to the one true Faith they preached: that Christ alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And let us be inspired by them and their love for Jesus, and ask for the grace and courage to preach the Gospel to our fellow countrymen today, and to be faithful in our daily living out of the Faith. It is unlikely that we will be killed for doing this as the Martyrs of Nagasaki were, and as so many other missionaries around the world currently are, but the New Evangelization and being a faithful Christian will involve a sacrifice; it will cost us. So, we look to the martyrs to encourage us and to pray for us.
As Pope Francis says: “We do well to keep in mind the early Christians and our many brothers and sisters throughout history who were filled with joy, unflagging courage and zeal in proclaiming the Gospel… Every period of history is marked by the presence of human weakness, self-absorption, complacency and selfishness… These things are ever present under one guise or another; they are due to our human limits rather than particular situations. Let us not say, then, that things are harder today; they are simply different. But let us learn also from the saints who have gone before us, who confronted the difficulties of their own day.” (Evangelii Gaudium, §264).
St Mark’s Gospel begins by declaring Jesus Christ to be “the Son of God” (Mk 1:1), and then at Jesus’ baptism, the voice from heaven confirms this: “You are my beloved Son” (Mk 1:9). But in 1st-century Palestine there had been other righteous Jews, prophetic figures who were able to heal and seemingly control the natural elements, who were also called “sons of God” because they seemed to have a special intimacy with God and were his chosen servants. Thus the kings of ancient Israel had also been called sons of God. Even shortly after Jesus had died, a rabbi called Hanina ben Dosa was going around Galilee and performing miracles and a voice was said to have been heard coming from heaven and declaring him, Hanina, to be son of God.
So, when Mark’s Gospel is written shortly after this, those who heard the Gospel’s opening passages might have thought that here was the story of yet another wonder-working Jewish rabbi who wandered around healing and calling himself son of God. Except that he doesn’t.
If we’re attentive, we’ll note that Mark precisely states that only Jesus heard the Father’s voice from heaven saying to him alone: “You are my beloved Son”. And, when the unclean spirit recognizes who he is, Jesus immediately silences him. Scholars speculate about why this is so, but it may be that Jesus does not want the name ‘son of God’ spectacularly bandied about because its currency has been cheapened by these other false Messiahs.
Nevertheless, the irony is that, while nobody including Jesus’ first disciples really knows who he is because of this secrecy, the demons do. Know your enemy, it is said. And so, Satan and his demons know that Jesus of Nazareth is no ordinary rabbi, or even a miracle-working so-called son of God. He is, in truth, “the Holy One of God” (Mk 1:24). And thus, they obey him unhesitatingly for as God, Jesus is the author of all being, even the fallen angels. Hence, he has authority over their very existence. And this is something new, something different from the other sons of God, that the people note. Hence, they exclaim: “With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (1:27). And it is this authoritativeness of the true Son of God that St Mark presents as something unique and new about Jesus. For while others may invoke God’s name and call on God’s authority, Jesus does no such thing. He issues commands in his own name, and it is him the unclean spirits obey. Because he is God. Hence, the people are “amazed” (Mk 1:22, 27).
And this should continue to amaze us about Jesus Christ. For we’re not just following wise teachings, or a fine moral example, or a sophisticated system of theology as such. We’re not people of a book nor of an institution. We are followers of a person, and that person, we believe, is God, and thus radically Son of God. Hence, we Christians are baptized into Jesus Christ; we become like cells of his Body the Church; and we have his Blood coursing through us, his Body strengthens ours. So, we are drawn into a relationship with Jesus Christ; our faith depends on this encounter with Christ. And we’re called to a response not unlike the demons’ because it is based on the truth of who Jesus is! We’re called to obey his authority but not out of fear but love because we trust that he is good and wise and wills our flourishing.
Therefore, as a new year and semester gets underway, Pope Francis says to us in Evangelii Gaudium: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her… The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace” (§3).
preached at the Dominican Seminar in Hinsley Hall, Leeds
The streets of central Edinburgh, where I currently live, are festooned with stars; at this time of year star-shaped decorations are ubiquitous. But why? What do they mean?
Personally, a star has led me here today. As a boy schooled by the De La Salle brothers, the five-pointed star was familiar to me as their logo. It was called signum fidei for the star is the sign of faith, and it was with the La Salle brothers that my Catholic faith began. And as a man, I grew up to find that star resting above the brow of our holy father Dominic. So, here with Dominic and his sisters and brothers, I enter into a home of faith and worshipfully contemplate Truth.
But for so many others at this time, who hang those stars on trees, doors, and lamp posts, what does the star mean? Are they merely decorative, or, I wonder, might they evoke something more?
Immanuel Kant said that the “starry heavens above me… fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe”. In saying so, he echoes the psalmist who looks at the heavens, “the moon and the stars which [God] arranged”, and who is thus filled with awe and wonder at creation and our being (cf Ps 8:4f). Last summer I was out in the savanna of KwaZulu-Natal at night, and there, without any light pollution at all, I saw the Milky Way and the staggering multitude of stars for the first time. It was a truly breath-taking, exciting, awesome sight.
So, stars fascinate us; they marvel us with the vast grandeur of the created order and awe us with a sense of our place in creation. They lead us to ask questions and to seek answers. Thus their beauty attracts us, draws us out of ourselves, and beckons us on a journey, indeed, on an adventure; a quest for beauty and truth. And for millennia, people have navigated by the stars, pilgrimaging by its light to distant shores, stepping outside the familiar, but nevertheless guided by them to hoped-for destinations. As such, it seems to me that the star is, ultimately, signum fidei, a sign, an evocation, of faith.
For faith does involve wonder, awe and beauty; humility, questioning, and seeking. Faith draws us out of ourselves, and invites us on an adventure. So Pope Francis indicated in Lumen Fidei, saying that for the Magi “God’s light appeared as a journey to be undertaken, a star which led them on a path of discovery”. For “Religious man is a wayfarer; he must be ready to let himself be led, to come out of himself and to find the God of perpetual surprises” (§35). So, the stars signify something innate to our very humanity: Man’s restless search for God, and that we are capax Dei; made to know and love him.
But not everyone sees their signification, of course. In our technological age, starlight and where it leads us to is so often outshone by 21st-century lights. Many of us may have seen Brian Cox’s Wonder of the Universe on the BBC which explores the marvellous science of the stars. But although he sees the starry heavens above and invites us to share his awe and wonder, this wonder is truncated by a dogmatic atheism. The physics is deeply impressive and the knowledge of the physical sciences is brilliant but are material causes really the final word on the wonder of the universe? Do we not find that the spiritual yearnings of the human heart still remain, like starlight glimmering in the night sky but unnoticed because of the glare from an aggressively secular modern world?
For as Aristotle recognized in his Metaphysics, wonder is the beginning of knowledge, and thus, of Wisdom. Mankind seeks meaning: to perceive the wisdom of why and not just have material knowledge of how. And, try as he might, no scientist can simply dismiss that restless desire in the human soul for Wisdom. For the stars are not merely decorative, like pretty marvels to be wow-ed at on television but in the final reckoning a source of interminable wonder with no real meaning. Rather, as St Albert the Great, patron of scientists, wisely said: “the whole world is theology for us, because the heavens proclaim the glory of God” (cf Ps 19:2).
For the stars elicit a wonder and awe, a questioning and a journeying, a humble human quest that, ultimately, must have an end, a final cause. Because if we’re to safeguard our sanity, then our restless hearts must come to rest. Faith leads us to this goal: to God who speaks the final Word. So that, having attained what we desire, we experience great joy. Hence, St Matthew’s Gospel says that, at last, the Star “came to rest” over the Manger of Bethlehem, and when the Magi saw this, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Mt 2:9f).
Thus faith gives our life meaning and direction. It stirs up movement, leading us to the One who moves the stars. It guides our seeking, pointing us to the divine Seeker who comes in search of us. It is, as St John Chrysostom says, “the light of the soul”, and by its light we see Light. For in Christ, the “Morning Star who never sets”, all humanity’s awe and wonder, the deepest desires of the human heart, come to rest.
Hence this evening, we, too, rejoice exceedingly with great joy. Because the light of faith has led us here: here into this chapel, this Bethlehem, this house of bread; here, where we shall be fed from the manger of this Altar; here, where we shall rest in Christ as he, God’s Wisdom and Love incarnate, is laid to rest in us.
The Prologue of St John’s Gospel was read in the Mass of Christmas day, and today, less than a week later, it is repeated again. And yet, before the reform of the Liturgy, this Gospel was read at the end of every single Mass as a kind of repeated meditation on the sacred action that had preceded it. For in the Mass, do we not behold the glory of God’s Word becoming flesh? Does he not dwell among us, indeed in us, as in living tabernacles? And so, do we not receive from him, from the holy Eucharist, “grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16)?
But just as this was the ‘Last Gospel’ read at the end of every Mass to shed its light on what went before, so it seems fitting that it is read as the last Gospel today at the end of the calendar year. For it makes the whole year like a sacred action; our human dramas unfolding providentially within the economy of salvation. The entire past year thus becomes like a Mass in which all our sorrows and joys are being brought before God to be transformed by his grace.
For 2013 has been a most momentous year. The year of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, of the deaths of leaders like Mandela and Thatcher, and of on-going and, indeed, the intensification of severe persecution against Christians globally, particularly in Syria, Egypt and the Middle East. There have been natural disasters in Pakistan, the USA, China, India, Mexico, and most devastatingly in the Philippines. And there is every sign of rising violence in various African states. But “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5).
This is the light of truth, of the knowledge of faith that enlightens Christ’s anointed ones, as St John suggests in his letter (cf 1 Jn 2:20f). For what we have received from God is this grace: the knowledge and truth that God is with us. It is this faith in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh that is the source of our hope and gives us true joy, even when we are confronted by those things and events which are opposed to Christ – “anti-Christ”, as St John put it. So, Benedict XVI said in his last General Audience in Rome: “In our heart, in the heart of each of you, let there be always the joyous certainty that the Lord is near, that He does not abandon us, that He is near to us and that He surrounds us with His love”.
And how do we know that he, the Word made flesh, is near? Because of the Eucharist. He is here present in our churches, lying on our Altar, and placed in our mouths. God is so near that, through Holy Communion, he unites himself to us and so surrounds us in his love, and takes us up into the life of the Holy Trinity, which is a perfect communion of holy love. For “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). It is here in the Mass, then, that we know that God is with us; here that we are enlightened by the Word of God; and here that we remember God’s abiding presence and love for us.
What comes from the Mass, from this remembering, is the desire to become like St John the Baptist and to “bear witness to the light” (Jn 1:8). As Pope Francis said: “The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance: it is a grace which we constantly need to implore”. So, as we stand on the cusp of 2014, we implore this grace from God. We pray for a truly happy new year, full of the Joy of the Gospel, and may we bring the Light of Faith to all whom we meet.
We saw on Saturday how the story of God and Man is essentially a love song, in which God comes in search of his Beloved, wooing humanity with passionate words, and finally with the eternal Word himself who is God’s love for Man made incarnate and visible. But the image of God as the Lover of humanity, the Bridegroom of the soul, is matched by another Scriptural image today: that of the covenant.
For Malachi prophesies in the name of God, the Lord of hosts, that “the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight… is coming” (Mal 3:1). In other translations, the Greek form for messenger is used, so the “angel of the covenant” is coming. And the messenger, this angel, is understood to be Jesus Christ who bears in his own person and body the message of God’s covenant with humanity.
From the days of Adam, God has desired kinship with Man, and so he entered into a covenant with him. It would be a mistake to think of a covenant as a contract. For contracts exchange goods and property but covenants exchange persons; they establish a family bond. So, God becomes Father to Adam, and then, to Abraham and his descendants, and then, to Moses, and latterly to David and his house – as we have been recalling this past week. In each case, the covenant is renewed, and God promises that Israel will be his people and he will be their God (cf Eze 36:28). So, there is this exchange of persons, and the creation of kinship between God and the descendants of Israel.
But in Christ, the Second Adam, who is both God and Man, that kinship is perfected because it now encompasses not just one people but all of humankind for all time. So, because of Christ, all peoples can enter into a “new and eternal covenant” with God, and truly become members of God’s family. But there is an exchange of persons in a covenant, so it is not just that God receives our humanity through Christ, but also that we receive his divinity. And this is given to us in the Eucharist. Hence, Jesus says: “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant” (cf Lk 22:20), for the Eucharist creates and renews our covenant with God, and we are made “one body, one spirit in Christ”. Through the grace of Christ, the Son, we have become truly God’s kin, indeed, his adopted sons and daughters.
Our kinship with God comes entirely through grace; it is God’s initiative and gift. It is not a birthright, not something passed on by blood or family lineage, but received through faith, which is God’s gift, and given through God’s grace. Today’s Gospel alludes to this. For the neighbours and kinsfolk have gathered for the naming of the baby, and when they hear that he’s to be called ‘John’, they say: “None of your kindred are called by this name” (Lk 1:61). They want something traditional, something handed down. But the fact that a new name is given stresses that something new is taking place, and it is God’s gracious initiative. The miraculous conception of the child already told us this, but the name that the baby is given underlines this fact. For the name ‘John’ means, “God has been gracious”. So, the naming of John stresses God’s initiative, God’s grace and gift, and Zechariah and Elizabeth’s faith in what God accomplishes by his grace. They no longer rely on earthly familial or tribal bonds to maintain a covenantal relationship with God but on his grace, which comes to all peoples through the messenger of the covenant, Jesus Christ.
It is this extension of God’s covenant with Man to all nations, to you and me, that we will celebrate tomorrow night. The saintly Benedictine abbot Ansgar Vonier wrote that “covenant is an alliance between God and man; it is a peace concluded between divine Justice and the sinner; it is a friendship between the Creator and His creature”. And it is this alliance, this peace, this friendship with God that Jesus accomplished for all Mankind when he was born as one of us; when God became one with us.
The words of the centurion are significantly placed in the Mass just before we receive Holy Communion. When we hear them in the wider context of today’s Gospel we see just how apt they are. The centurion says Christ need not come personally to heal his servant; just his word will effect the miracle. This is the substance of his faith which caused Jesus to marvel.
This same faith is evident when we approach the Eucharist and repeat the centurion’s words. For we also believe that Jesus need not come personally to heal us, his servants. Rather, he comes to us sacramentally albeit really and entirely through the Eucharist. And, like the centurion, we believe that this happens at Jesus’ word. Thus St Thomas says, “The presence of Christ’s true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority”. Hence, we see that the centurion also appeals to the authority of one’s command to effect an action. Thus we believe that Christ’s Word – the words of institution by which the Eucharist is consecrated – carries a divine authority which effects a divine action, namely, Christ being present under appearances of bread and wine. So, when we repeat the centurion’s words before Holy Communion, we are making the same act of faith as him.
In the Gospel, Jesus then says “not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Mt 8:10b), and he makes a reference to Gentile peoples coming from all over to sit with the Jewish patriarchs at the table of the kingdom of heaven. As such, this is a reference to the Eucharist, which is a sign of the heavenly banquet. So, when we come up for Holy Communion, we are enacting this scene from the Gospel and fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy. For with faith, we have believed that Jesus’ word has authority and that they make him present; with faith, we approach the Eucharistic table, and share in the communion of the prophets, patriarchs and saints.
And what we believe the Eucharist effects in our souls is healing: “only say the word, and my soul shall be healed”. Whereas the centurion asks for healing for his servant’s physical ailments, we ask for spiritual healing for ourselves. And again, with faith, we know that this is what a worthy reception of Holy Communion effects in us since it is Christ the divine Physician who comes to us, and heals us. The Catechism (following St Thomas) thus teaches that “by giving himself to us Christ revives our love and enables us to break from disordered attachments to creatures and root ourselves in him” (CCC §1394). So, through Holy Communion, we are forgiven and healed of our venial sins, and we grow in love for God. Hence, in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis said: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (Evangelii Gaudium, §47).
These apocalyptic readings continue to be a challenge to our faith. When the centre of our world collapses, and disaster and calamity hits us, when we feel besieged and surrounded by desolation how can we respond?
Many people will wonder where God is. They may feel abandoned by him, or punished by him, or bereft of God’s love and support. Or many will say, in the face of great natural tragedies, that there just is no God, or he doesn’t care. Many will react, as the Gospel says, with perplexity, fear and foreboding (Lk 21:25f).
And what about us? What about you and me?
Today, Jesus assures us that when disaster strikes and our world falls apart, he is coming, and our “redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:28). In other words, when others interpret terrible events as the absence of God, we, who have faith, who rely on his Word, know that God will come, and, indeed, is with us when catastrophes happen. Why? Because our God is Love, and Jesus is for ever, the “Son of man” (cf Lk 21:27), i.e., God-with-us.
Just this kind of faith was expressed by the early Christians in the face of death and persecution. On the ancient sarcophagi in which they buried their dead they carved an image of Daniel in the lion’s den. For them, the story we’ve heard in our first reading was a prefiguration of Christ’s Resurrection. And so, this image was placed on their tombs as a sign of their faith that they could enter the lions den of persecution, enter the pit of death and even stand in the lion’s jaws of death, and yet, they believed that they would not suffer annihilation. Rather, like Daniel, they would emerge victorious and free.
Because the just man in whom they placed their hope and trust was not simply the prophet Daniel but the Just One himself, our God and Redeemer, Jesus Christ. So, when disaster struck; when the jaws of death closed in; and when the world came to an end, they looked to Christ. As Jesus says to his beloved disciples, to you and me, today: “when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:28).
For with faith in the Resurrection and the Just One, we do not look down in despair; nor look wildly around in bewilderment; nor close our eyes in fear. We look up. We look up at Christ. We raise our heads to look at Christ our Head. And we unite ourselves to him in faith, in hope, and in love. We cling to our Redeemer who is ever near, who is “coming… with power and great glory” (Lk 21:27).
With this in mind, we can see why St Martha said what she did when her brother had died; when her world had, in a sense, ended, and Jesus asked if she believed that he is the resurrection and the life. She said: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27). May such faith be ours too. Amen.
The final week of the liturgical year always focuses the mind on what, in the final analysis, really matters. For Nebuchadnezzar learns from the prophet Daniel that earthly kingdoms and temporal power will fall. And Jesus speaks of how even religious institutions and earthly glory will be not last. But so much of our human activity, our energies and time, have been poured into building and organizing. Yet we’re told that every earthly thing will come to an end at some point. What are we to make of this? What is the point of our human activity, then?
The Second Vatican Council says that “the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and that it allow men as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfill it” (Gaudium et spes, 35). In other words, nations, institutions, organizations; degrees, jobs, businesses; are not ends in themselves, but they serve a goal. And not a self-serving, individualistic, finance-driven goal – for all these are temporary and doomed to end – but a goal that transcends time and history.
This goal is relational, it is rooted in our Triune God who is the One relation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God is Love. So, all human activity is directed towards love, and is meant to enable us to love God and to love our neighbour. What this means is that the good things of our world now point to the Good that endures eternally. So, we can begin to build on earth now what will last for ever – not buildings and structures, as such, but relationships, friendships; build up Love. And this can be developed and built even in the midst of great calamities and disasters. As Jesus says in the Gospel, these will come, and temporal things will end. But even in the midst of them faith and hope bring light, and love deepens and brings joy.
Pope Francis released his new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, this morning. And in it he reflects: “I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to. I also think of the real joy shown by others who, even amid pressing professional obligations, were able to preserve, in detachment and simplicity, a heart full of faith. In their own way, all these instances of joy flow from the infinite love of God, who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”.
Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being.” (§7 & 8).
So, as the liturgical (and calendar) year comes to an end; now that the Year of Faith is over; we can take stock of all our activities and attempts and achievements. And we ask: Through them, have I experienced, known, encountered God’s love for me; the friendship of Jesus Christ for me and for all humanity?
For in the final analysis this is the one thing that really matters and that lasts for ever.