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.
The scene in today’s Gospel is rather extraordinary, even bizarre: a woman washing the feet of a rabbi reclining at the dinner table with her tears, kissing and wiping his feet with her unbound hair, and anointing his feet with costly ointment. But this extravagant spectacle is a response to God’s even more extraordinary and bizarre actions.
For the scandal of Christianity, its strangeness, is that we believe in a God who loves Mankind so much that God would abase himself for humanity’s sake. We say that God, who is entirely self-sufficient and needs nothing, freely chooses to save Mankind; he has a Father’s care and concern for our well-being. And we proclaim that God does the unimaginable and becomes Man; the Immortal who knows no change endures both change and suffering, even death. Why? Because as St Paul says: Christ “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Jesus Christ, and all he does in his life, death, and resurrection, is one extravagant spectacle of God’s love for you and me. And I wonder sometimes if we’ve just become so accustomed to it that we take it for granted.
Because God’s sacrificial love in Jesus Christ for every human person, for us sinners, is extraordinary, even bizarre and strange… But also wonderful; so amazing that some people today, made sceptical and cynical by life, may even find it literally incredible! Many of us may have just forgotten how breathtakingly unexpected the Gospel is. But in a world that’s burdened by debt and crushing austerity measures, Jesus’ parable resonates with the experience of many today, and reminds us of just how extraordinary the Christian message is.
We know that financial institutions are relentless in their pursuit for what they’re owed. Economic justice and the Law are no respecters of persons and circumstance, lacking in compassion or human consideration, and our capitalist system requires us to work constantly to evade being crushed by debt, poverty, and our liabilities. This is how the sinner is under the Law – he owes a huge, un-payable debt, the burden of sin, to God. And, in justice, we should pay it all, to the last penny. The Pharisees, who work hard to avoid the debt of sin by keeping the Law, thus look at sinners (like the woman in today’s Gospel) just as some in our society might regard ‘welfare scroungers’ – with contempt.
Now, what Jesus does is to declare God’s mercy and forgiveness for all people, regardless of who they are, or what they’ve done. So, because of Jesus Christ, all debts are entirely cancelled, and all the worry, strife, and heartache that go with debt and poverty. We can see, then, why the woman reacted with such effusive gratitude towards Christ. But Jesus does still more because of love: he gives to anyone who comes to him all that she could ever want, and more than she could ever imagine – he gives the grace of salvation.
All we need is to have faith in him, to believe in Jesus and trust his Word; to go to him. What this does is to completely level the market so that not only are there no debtors at all, but there is now also no distinction between those who are unemployed and those who work hard; between the poor and the rich. It sounds somewhat bizarre in our capitalist system, but that is precisely what St Paul is getting at when he says that “a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16). He’s saying that God’s grace is freely given to all through faith in Christ, and this grace is never earned nor merited. On this basis, we are all equal and have equal opportunity. Equal opportunity for what, though? To acquire Christ-like charity so as to invest in eternal life. And it is this end result – eternal life – that is really extraordinary.
“Curiouser and curiouser”, as Alice famously said in discovering Wonderland. And so it might seem as we move from the mystery of the Holy Trinity last Sunday to the mystery of the Holy Eucharist this Sunday. First we profess that God is One and God is Three, and then, today we profess that what looks and tastes like bread is, in its essential substance, the entire Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. “Curiouser and curiouser”. And to many onlookers, no doubt, it seems like we Catholics live in Wonderland, where as the Cheshire Cat said to Alice, “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad”. And one of the mad and wonderful features of today’s feast, of course, is the colourful procession in which Catholics in so many places around the world follow behind the Eucharistic Lord who is taken through the streets of the city; “curiouser and curiouser”.
Each year in Oxford, several hundred people would process with the Eucharist down the busy streets on Corpus Christi Sunday. We’d be singing hymns accompanied by the Witney Town Band and carrying banners as we walked from the Oxford Oratory to the University Chaplaincy with a pause in Blackfriars for a sermon. For the unsuspecting passer-by this procession was just another one of the curiosities of Oxford, that mad place which inspired Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. But, often, I saw others stop, wonder, and ask questions, and some fell to their knees in the streets. For curiosity is not a bad thing if it provokes thought, raises questions, and inspires wonder. Indeed, curiosity is at the heart of the scientific endeavour and, St Thomas would say, at the core of our humanity for we naturally desire to know and to seek truth.
And this kind of good natural curiosity which spurs the fundamental quest for truth, is very much the foundation of today’s feast. For the sole reason we Catholics believe that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ is because we believe Christ’s Word, curious though it is. As 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”. And this is the authority of Him who is Truth itself so that, as St Thomas says in his Eucharistic hymn, Adoro Te devote, “Truth himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true”. And isn’t the truth of things often curiouser and more wonderful than we would initially expect?
Our readings today thus present us with the curious figure of Melchizedek, who has this one unexplained cameo appearance in the Bible. But, when Christ comes and institutes the Eucharist, then it is realized that Melchizedek wondrously prefigures the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and his use of bread and wine in the Mass. St Paul, too, doesn’t explain how the Mass is a proclamation of “the Lord’s death”. This is a curiosity to him, but with wonderment and faith, he simply delivers to us what he “received from the Lord” (cf 1 Cor 11:23). And with the same faith, the Church has treasured and handed on the Mystery of the Eucharist in every time and place. A similar faith and trust in Christ’s Word and his actions is seen in the Gospel. Here, the Twelve simply do as Christ tells them, never objecting about the madness – the miraculous wonder – that five thousand could be fed from just five loaves and two fish. Rather, they believe that Truth himself speaks truly, and so, they faithfully hand on the Mystery to others, feeding them with what the Lord has provided.
This doesn’t mean that St Paul, or the Twelve apostles, or we are just left mute and unthinking. No. The Mystery of God’s action rightly and naturally raises questions for us. Hence, the Mystery of the Eucharist has inspired great theological treatises. But our words are never enough, and our rational human minds too limited to grasp the limitless activity and truth of God. Wisdom comes from knowing that some wonders are just beyond our reach to comprehend. So, for St Thomas there is a kind of intellectual hubris, the vice of curiosity, that comes from desiring “to know the truth above the capacity of [Mankind’s] own intelligence, since by so doing men easily fall into error”, including the grave error of disbelieving the truth of Christ’s Word to his Church.
Rather, Christians down the millennia have recognized that, before the Mystery of the Eucharist, our human reasoning and words just fail us. Hence, for generation upon generation, the Church’s faith has spilled over in wonder and awe into art, music, and processions, culminating in today’s great feast with its poetry, prayers and hymns specially composed by St Thomas Aquinas. Therefore, as St Thomas says in the Sequence hymn for Corpus Christi, the Lauda Sion: “Sing forth, O Zion, sweetly sing… Dare to do as much as you possibly can to praise” this great Mystery of the Eucharist, “for no amount of praise will be enough”! Which is why, when praise is not enough, we offer our love to our Eucharistic Lord and adore him in silence. Thus the Holy Father has invited Catholics all over the world to simultaneously adore the Lord with him today, from 4-5pm.
Our curiosity, then, leads us to wonder, and then to awe-struck love, as we contemplate who God is, and we wonder at the mad, out-of-this-world, extraordinary acts of love that God does for us. He has chosen to give his whole self to us in the Eucharist, in these ordinary and quotidian signs of bread and wine, humbling himself to be really present for us under the appearances of bread and wine so that we can be loved by him, and kiss him. For the English word ‘adore’ can be said to come from the Latin, ad ore, meaning ‘to the mouth’. So this carries the sense of kissing the Lord, of loving him so intimately, which, if we think about it, is what we do in Holy Communion. We are fed ad ore by the Lord; we kiss him, and we prolong this kiss of love in our Eucharistic adoration.
This movement from curiosity to adoration is one that underscores my own conversion to the Catholic faith. Briefly, as a teenager from a staunch Protestant family, I was curious about the beliefs of my friends in the Catholic school I attended so I did some reading about Catholic beliefs and customs. But I was especially perplexed though fascinated by the Mass. I heard the resonances of Scripture in what people said during Mass, but wondered about all the synchronized movement and rote responses. Curious, I thought. And I wondered about why people genuflected to a little gold box – the tabernacle. Even curiouser, I thought. So, one day, I asked one of my friends who explained to me that this was the “Holy of Holies” where God was truly present in the Eucharist. Curiouser and curiouser. But even as he said this I felt my knees go weak. For somehow, by God’s grace, I just knew what he said to be true; I believed Christ’s Word in the Bible, and all I’d read just made sense. And so, I fell to my knees in my school chapel in Singapore, and, kneeling in silence, I adored the Eucharist for the first time. To this day, I praise and thank God for this gift of faith in the Eucharist that led me into the Wonderland of his Church. For I am no longer just curious, but have found the Kurios, the Lord.
“How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mk 10:23) These words are well-known, but we should note what Jesus is not saying. He’s not saying that poverty per se is superior to riches. He’s not saying that we must be materially destitute, although the rich man had been asked to give away his possessions – and we’ll see why. And Jesus is not saying that the poor, because they are poor, will enter the kingdom of God more easily. Such readings, which risk romanticizing the poor or making Jesus into a Marxist, should be avoided. Rather, what Jesus does say, and he makes this more explicit the second time he says it, is that it is hard for “those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God” (10:24).
So the problem lies with one’s disposition, in where one puts one’s faith, and, indeed, one’s investment of time, energy, and self. For, as Christ says elsewhere, “where your treasure is, there also is your heart” (Mt 6:21). So, Christ, in calling the rich man to let go of riches and follow him, is effectively saying that Christ will be our treasure and riches, and that entry to God’s kingdom comes through placing our trust in him; through faith in God. But this applies to everyone, both rich and poor. What is it about having riches that makes it harder to have faith?
Wealth, I think, can create an illusion of our own invincibility and self-sufficiency. To some extent, it buys us security, comfort, power and control. But these can be illusions, too. Money seems to offer salvation but it doesn’t and cannot. Only God can give us true security, peace, and completeness. As if to remind us of this, the U.S. currency even have marked on them: “In God we trust”. But even if the rich man knows this, there is another danger. He might be accustomed to thinking that everything can be bought or earned. Everyone, rich or poor, can be prone to thinking like this, but it is more often the rich, who are good entrepreneurs, good at making deals, and exploiting opportunities for profit, who think they can make deals with God. As such, life, grace, and salvation can all become commercial transactions, and one thinks to buy one’s way into heaven.
But entry into heaven, into God’s kingdom, only comes from following Christ and trusting him enough to imitate him. And Christ’s way is the way of perfect love. Thus, God gives us life, grace, and salvation freely, gratuitously, with no strings attached. This kind of generosity and love is sacrificial – it cost Christ everything. And he personally gains nothing in return. In investment terms, this is the one thing an entrepreneur, a rich man, fears: no return for maximum investment means bankruptcy. Moreover, Christ is stripped and dispossessed, poor, humble and completely vulnerable on the Cross. This is everything the rich man had been trying to avoid; his riches are meant to protect him from this.
Hence, if the rich man is to enter the kingdom, he will have to embrace his worst fears, which is why Christ understands that it is hard. But it is possible if he will repent, as Sirach says, meaning, to change his mindset completely so that he can accept this kind of loss – bankruptcy, even – as Christ does, for the sake of love. If he does, the rich man will lose everything, but his investment of love will profit him the true reward of eternal life in God’s kingdom. For, as Christ said earlier in this Gospel, “what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mk 8:36)
in St Birinus’, Dorchester-on-Thames on 2 June 2011
Today is a day of paradoxes. It is a day of sorrow at the Lord’s departure from this earth, but also of great joy because he has gone into heaven to prepare a place for us. As the Preface puts it: He “was lifted up into heaven so that He might make us partakers of His divinity”. Today too, we are called to beChrist’s witnesses – something which normally involves firsthand knowledge through the senses – but today he is taken from our sight… That is to say, he is beyond the perceptivity of our senses. But although he is out of sight, he is not absent or unknowable. The Gospel of St Mark told us that after the Ascension, the disciples “went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it” (16:20). And that is what the Lord is doing now in this sacred Liturgy. He is working with his Church, and confirming the Gospel that is being preached with signs, above all, the most sublime Sign of the Blessed Sacrament in which he is present.
If we think about the Eucharist, what the Liturgy calls the Mysterium Fidei, we can understand how we can still be witnesses to Christ, even though he is taken from our sight. Regarding the Eucharist, St Thomas says in the ‘Tantum ergo’: “Faith, for all defects supplying, where the feeble senses fail”. So, we recognize the presence of God, and know divine truth, not by sight, not by the senses, but by faith. As St Paul says: “We walk by faith and not by sight”. For Christ has been taken from our sight, but we can still come to know and love him, and to experience his living presence in the world through Faith. And faith is a power which is given to us only by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Hence in the reading we’ve just heard from Acts, the Lord says: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses…” (1:8) What the virtue of faith gives us is an understanding of divine truth. It is a kind of firsthand knowledge that comes from an opening of the heart and mind to trust in what the Incarnate Word reveals, because Christ is God’s Word of Truth. As St Thomas says: “Truth himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true”. So, with faith in Jesus Christ, the One whom the book of the Apocalypse calls “the faithful witness”, we too can become faithful witnesses to divine truth.
But to be faithful witnesses, our acts of faith have to be directed properly towards true and authentic objects of faith, and our most sure teacher of the Faith is the Church. For she is the Mystical Body of Christ, the visible presence of Christ in time until he returns in glory. United to her Head, she bears faithful witness to the truths he revealed in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
How does the Church bear faithful witness to Jesus Christ? I want to consider just two ways. Firstly, through her sacred Tradition, which is like a living memory of what Christ has done and handed on to his apostles. For the Church not only has her Scriptures, which are a written witness to the mystery of Christ. But the message is confirmed by signs; what the Dominican cardinal Yves Congar referred to as “witnesses of tradition” such as the Fathers and the Magisterium. In particular, he was convinced that “the liturgy is tradition itself at its highest degree of power and solemnity”. Which is why the usus antiquior is such a precious gift to the entire Church. For it is the witness of tradition, an ancient sign which the Church has done in memory of Him, so that we can come to know and love Him, our Lord. So that we can become faithful witnesses ourselves when we partake of sacred Tradition.
The Church bears witness to Christ in another way – one which flows naturally from faith, and from participation in the Liturgy. This is the witness of Christian lives of holiness. The saints are pre-eminent witnesses to Christ, and they are signs of the power of faith, and of divine grace at work in the world. Resplendent in sanctity and charity, the saints are Christ’s work in the world, his signs that confirm the message of the Gospel.
How we behave, then, witnesses to the truth of what we believe in. We heard in St Mark’s Gospel that the disciples are to “preach the gospel to the whole creation”, which is an act of mercy and charity. But they are also to “cast out demons”, and heal the sick. So, the practical things that we might do to alleviate the spiritual and physical suffering of those around us are a sign to the world of Christ‘s presence and activity in the Church. And it is through her charity that the Church is more clearly seen to be a communion of saints, a “cloud of witnesses” (12:1), as the letter to the Hebrews says.
After today’s beautiful, heavenly liturgy, we might be feel like the Men of Galilee, gazing rapt into heaven. Like them, we are asked: “Why do you standlooking into heaven?” (Acts 1:11). Because like them, we have the same mission. Filled with the Holy Spirit, we are to be the witnesses of Christ “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We are to manifest his presence in the world through charity, to attract others to Christ through the beauty of holiness, and through the holiness of beautiful, faithful preaching and signs. Then, enlightened by faith, others too might see - indeed, witness - Christ coming among them, living and acting in his Church…
Christ, our Eucharistic Lord, coming on clouds of incense, for every Liturgy is a Parousia, a coming of Jesus Christ in the midst of his disciples.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn 13:34). The last time we would have heard these words in the Liturgy would be on Maundy Thursday in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, just before the Gospel account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. These words, then, re-enforce what was heard in the Gospel of Maundy Thursday: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14). Hence, it is rightly understood that Christ’s commandment that we love one another is borne out in serving one another, in works of social justice.
Therefore, our parish embarked on a charitable project this Lent that sought to serve the needy and poor – not so much to wash their feet as to help provide feet, in the form of prosthetic limbs. We have raised about £3500 for Olivia Giles’ ‘500 Miles’ project through a variety of initiatives. And as Olivia suggested on Friday night when we presented a cheque to her, it is through such acts of generosity and love in a Christian community that we demonstrate that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. For the Lord says: “all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).
But this understanding of love as social justice is not new. It is already found in the Old Testament, and it is rooted in the Jewish prophets. For example, Micah 6:8 says: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” What is different is that the New Testament adds a mystical dimension to this because in serving the marginalized and oppressed it is our poor, naked, hungry God, Jesus Christ himself, whom we serve and love.
However, vital though it is, there is more to Christian love than just social justice. Hence, our Liturgy re-visits these words of Christ, his new commandment to us, in the light of the resurrection. What has changed? Christ has risen from the dead, and so, destroyed death. He has put an end to the hold that sin, evil, and death had over Mankind. He has made “all things new” (Apoc 21:5a), re-creating the heavens and the earth. Because of Christ’s resurrection, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Apoc 21:4). The disciples of Jesus Christ, who touched and saw and heard the risen Lord, knew all this to be true. Through faith, we also experience the risen Lord and know his Word to be true.
With an Easter faith, then, how is Christian love expressed? What more needs to be done in addition to serving one another and doing justice? Love is expressed through bringing hope to others: hope in the resurrection; hope that comes from faith in the new creation brought about by the risen Jesus; hope in God’s mercies that are ever new.
Therefore, the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows us how we’re called to love one another as disciples of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Love impels the first disciples to travel far and wide, risking the perils of the journey, to preach the Gospel. They could have been content to just keep the faith to themselves, or considered it too risky and imprudent to stand up against the Jewish authorities and the mighty Roman empire. And, as we’ve seen in previous weeks, after the Crucifixion, they were full of fear and confusion. But once the Holy Spirit had descended on them there was no stopping them.
“Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (Jn 14:13f). For many people there can be something disturbing about this statement. Because how often have we asked, begged, and prayed for something, and nothing seems to happen? Our prayer, it appears, is unheard and unanswered. And this issue can lead to one’s falling away from God and the loss of faith. So, it seems to me that how we understand Jesus’ words is crucial.
Much, I think, depends on our perspective of life and its purpose. This life, as yesterday’s Gospel says, is a journey and we are on our way home to the Father’s house where Christ has prepared a room for us. So, we are preparing now to live with God, to share his deathless life, to have the endless joy of communion with Him. Life, then, is a preparation for eternal love, and Christ has come to show us the Way and teach us the Truth on how we might have Life, and have it in abundance; eternal life. So, this life is, in a sense, the journey, the preparation, the anticipation of something far greater to come: Life itself – being one with God through Love. And this, we might term ‘salvation’.
This perspective isn’t intuitive. Because the prevailing view is to think that this life is all that there is, and you get one stab at it, so we should enjoy it to the fullest and have life in abundance now. Or some might propose the idea of re-incarnation, in which case we have many chances at life until we learn and evolve into a higher state. But Christ who is the Truth teaches us that there is just one life – this one, right now – which is why every free choice we make, every human act, matters. And what road we take today affects where we shall go. Jesus is the Way to Life, so the Christian follows in his footsteps, desiring to make the same journey as Christ. This journeying we might also call ‘sanctification’.
Now, if this is our perspective, what might be the aim of all prayer? If we are on a plane travelling to a nice sunny destination, what do we hope for? That we get there safely. And this, I believe, is what prayer is fundamentally about. We pray, ultimately, that we might be saved by God’s grace. This is why Jesus says: “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it”. And Jesus’ name literally means ‘God is salvation’, or ‘God saves’. Hence the angel Gabriel says at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).
And Jesus adds that what we pray for, that is, salvation, is brought about so that “the Father may be glorified in the Son”. As St Irenaeus says, “the glory of God is a living Man”, that is to say, a person who enjoys eternal life in heaven. So, the Father is glorified in the triumph of his grace when a sinner becomes a saint through following in the Son’s footsteps. And Irenaeus adds: “the life of Man consists in beholding God”, for it is only in heaven that Man can see God’s face.
This, of course, is what Philip asks for at the start of our Gospel passage. He wants to see the Father. And Jesus’ response is to exhort Philip to have faith in him, to co-operate with the Spirit so that even now in this life he can begin, practice, prepare to live the life of heaven through works of love, and to pray, in faith, for salvation at last in Christ’s name.
Everything else that we pray for is ordered to this end – our final salvation. And we should pray to God for salvation because this is the one thing that only God alone can grant; we can never earn it or win it. On the other hand, bodily healing, material goods, world peace, and so on, are works which can be brought about by Man in partnership with God’s grace, or sometimes through some miracle. So we may certainly also pray about these things. However, in praying, let us not forget that the lives of the apostles and saints, and of Christ himself, tell us that we will not necessarily be spared illness, pain, suffering, humiliation, and death. Hence, we pray in Jesus’ name that we may endure these trials, which are part of our human condition, with Christ in faith so that finally we may see God face to face, and rest in Love. Now, about this kind of prayer, Jesus answers: “I will do it” (Jn 14:14).
There can be so many things that trouble and disturb us: exams, job prospects, relationships; worries about the future and about what we’re called to do. Many people wonder about what is the right thing to do, and about their vocation in life. In a sense, Thomas articulates our fears when he asks: “How can we know the way?” How can we know the way forward in a world that seems increasingly complex and fraught with difficulties?
Jesus’ response, if we’re weighed down with worry, is to broaden our horizon so that we can put our worries into perspective. He says to us with tenderness: “Let not your hearts be troubled”. We worry because we’re losing control, or because we feel helpless and lost, or perhaps because we experience a lack of security. But God assures us: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”. For God is our Father, which means that he loves and cares for our final good today. So, he is always providentially guiding all things to a good end, bringing us home to himself today, so that we can dwell securely in him for ever. Thus Jesus says to us, his disciples, his friends: “I go and prepare a place for you [and] I will come again and will take you to myself”. So, when we’re shaken by life’s uncertainties, we’re called to anchor our hope in God’s Word, and to be certain of Christ’s promise. Hence, Jesus says to you and to me: “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me”.
But you might well think, our faith does not take away our needs for finance, food, friends. No, it doesn’t, and we do need to work together and attend to these things, but faith in Christ does alleviate our anxiety over these genuine human needs. For, with faith, our perspective changes so that the ups and downs of life, its many unexpected turns and plateaus can be seen in Truth as part of the journey that we make to the Father, going along the Way to God’s house where Jesus has prepared a room for us. Life’s journey, with its many trials as well as beauty, as such, is a preparation for our homecoming when we shall be united in love to our Father, our God who is love and Life in the fullest.
Hence, Pope Francis said this morning, the Lord is preparing our hearts “with trials, with consolations, with tribulations, with good things”; preparing us and forming us to love God, to trust and believe in him, and to seek him, “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Cor 1:3). This, of course, is how Jesus lived his life among us, with complete trust and obedience in God, enduring all things for the sake of love. Thus, he is “the Way, the Truth and the Life”; he shows us the way forward, he lived the truth as he taught it, and his life gives us hope and new life.
All this is expressed in the simple act of the Mass and especially through Holy Communion. For it is here that we remember how Christ lived and loved; here that we look in hope to the resurrection and eternal life; and here that Christ, our food for the journey, comes to us. And, as he promised, he comes to take us to himself, to dwell in him and he in us. So, here, today, Jesus is saying to us: “Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me”. Then, as we receive him in the Host, let us wholeheartedly say: “Amen”.
A roaring lion is unlikely to successfully stalk and surprise its prey but lions do roar in the evening to proclaim their territory. So, in comparing the devil to a roaring lion, perhaps St Peter has in mind the devil roaring as he prowls around in the darkness of sin, proclaiming that sinful humanity belongs to him. After all, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus acknowledges the devil to be “the prince of this world” of sin (Jn 12:31). Or perhaps St Peter has in mind the devil roaring with fierce persecutions and difficulties so as to strike fear into our hearts and to shake the faith of men and women. For lions do roar so as to strike fear into the hearts of their prey and to stun them just before they pounce on them. Again, there is a suggestion of this in St Mark’s Gospel, that “Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them” (Mk 4:15) or “when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mk 4:17).
But into a world darkened by sin, a wilderness in which we are fearful and suffer tribulations, another lion has roared.
For the traditional symbol of today’s saint, the evangelist Mark, is the lion. Because his Gospel begins with “one crying in the wilderness”, like a lion roaring and proclaiming its territory in the desert. This is the roar of the evangelist, of the herald of Christ, of any who would proclaim and preach the Gospel of salvation.
But the good news that St Mark proclaims concerns another lion, Jesus Christ, who is called the Lion of Judah (cf Apoc 5:5). This Lion roars to claim humanity for God. We belong to him, and are marked out as his, saved from sin and the lies of the devil, through baptism. Hence, St Mark’s Gospel opens with the baptism of Christ through whom we too are called God’s beloved sons and daughters, with whom God our Father is well pleased (cf Mk 1:11). And the Spirit descends upon the waters, just as he did at the dawn of creation, for the world has been redeemed by Christ, reclaimed from the devil, and re-created in grace by the Holy Spirit. And as a sign of this, right after Christ calls all to “repent, and believe in the gospel”(Mk 1:15), and after he calls the Twelve apostles, Jesus performs a series of exorcisms, driving out the devil.
For the Lion of Judah is stronger than the prince of this world, infinitely greater than that lion who seeks to devour us. St Mark says: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house” (Mk 3:27). Jesus has done this, binding the devil, conquering sin and death, and plundering his house. Hence, all evils and even death itself has no lasting hold over humanity; we have been set free and our persecutions and sufferings – frightening and terrible though they may be – are only temporary. For Christ is victorious and has risen. So, as St Peter says in our first reading: “[A]fter you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you” (1 Pt 5:10).
Therefore, today, we give thanks to God for St Mark and his Gospel. Through his writings, God, in his grace, has called us to his eternal glory in Christ. So, let the roaring of the lion of St Mark overcome our fears and difficulties, for armed with the Gospel, we can resist the devil, “firm in [our] faith” (cf 1 Pt 5:10), empowered by the Lion of Judah.
St Stephen is described as being “full of grace and power”, as speaking with a “wisdom” that could not be bettered, and he also “did great wonders and signs”. St Luke, in his Gospel, says similar things about Jesus, whose surpassing wisdom was evident in the Temple when, as a boy, he taught the scribes; who also performed miracles – wonders and signs – with power throughout his ministry. And, interestingly, the identical Greek phrase that St Luke uses to describe Stephen, pleres charitos, “full of grace”, is also used by St John to describe Christ, the Word become flesh who is “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). And tomorrow, we will hear that Stephen died forgiving his killers, and commended his spirit to God at his death. Hence, St Stephen is portrayed as being very much like Jesus Christ, even identical to him in many respects.
But if Stephen is like Christ, this is because St Luke wants us to understand that Stephen is the model Christian. Thus he is truly another Christ. And he is only able to be like Christ, to do great things, and to preach truth compellingly because he is “full of grace and power”, that is, full of the Holy Spirit. For it is the Spirit of God who is grace, power and wisdom, and it is the Spirit of God who does wonders, miracles, and signs through men and women. So, what is true of Stephen is also true for us as Christians. For, at our baptism and each time we make a good confession, we also become, like Stephen, pleres charitos, full of grace. We have each been given God’s Spirit so that we can become like Christ; be another Christ, truly participating in Jesus’ grace and truth.
However, we might well ask, as the people in today’s Gospel did: “What must we do, to be doing the works of God” (Jn 6:28) as Stephen does? How do we tap into the power that has been given to us, the power of divine charity? Jesus answers: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (Jn 6:29). So, if we want to see God’s power at work in our lives, we need to believe.
Because God does not work against our will but with us; his grace builds upon and perfects our human nature. So, belief, faith, is not purely a work of God. Rather, belief involves both God and Man; it a human act, a free choice and decision, made in co-operation with God’s grace (cf CCC §§153-155). As St Thomas says, more precisely: “believing is [a human] act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace”. There is a fine balance here of grace and nature. For although we can do nothing at all without the grace of faith, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, it is also true that even after the gift is given, we must be open to God’s grace and not resist it. As our Collect for today says, we must “[put] off our old self with all its ways”, and, so, freely choose to “live as Christ did”. It is thus that we co-operate with grace; this is what it means to believe in Christ.
So, conscious of the many times we fail in this, and aware that without God’s grace to help us we can do nothing, let us pray these words from St Mark’s Gospel: “[Lord] I believe; help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24b).
Today we’re faced with one of the most challenging responses of the apostles: they rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name” (Acts 5:41). Can we say the same? Would we rejoice to suffer insults, shame, humiliation etc for the sake of Jesus? Or do we try our best to avoid even being known as Christians, unwilling to suffer the ridicule and awkward questions that this could bring down upon us? But, we know that so many of our brothers and sisters around the world do indeed suffer terribly for bearing the name of Christ – in Pakistan, in Egypt, in Iraq and Syria, and in Nigeria, China, and Libya. Yet, in a quiet humble way, it seems that they bear their suffering with profound faith; with joyful hope in the vindication that comes through Christ’s resurrection.
But why is there such persecution, such antagonism between the world and the Christian disciple? Perhaps the best reflection on this can be found in Chesterton’s biography of St Thomas Aquinas. Chesterton said, “The saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need”.
What our world needs is truth, but not an absolute truth that controls and that is used as a weapon; not an excuse for fundamentalist violence. Rather, the Truth we Christians believe in is a person, the God-Man who suffered and died for us. The truth is that we are loved, which means that Someone was willing to die for us, chose to sacrifice himself for our good and eternal happiness, so that we might live. The question, then, is, are we “worthy” of suffering and dying with Christ, of co-operating with him in the healing of our world, of being what the people need? This worthiness to mount the Cross with Christ and to proclaim the truth doesn’t come from a perceived superiority to others. Not at all. On the contrary, it can only come from humility; from emptying ourselves of our pride and need for worldly affirmation and praise; from being open to God’s grace so that we can share the mind of Christ who was “humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross” (cf Phil 2:5-8).
And if we are faithful to Christ in this way, and we bear witness to his sacrificial love, suffering with him for the love of our peers and contemporaries, then we can expect to be dishonoured and persecuted as Christ was. For “a servant is not greater than the Master” (John 15:20b). But, if so, then we can also be confident that we shall share in his glory. For Jesus promises: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you…Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Mt 5:11f).