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.
God’s covenant with Abraham is the bedrock of our faith. For through the incident recounted in today’s First Reading, God takes the initiative to enter into a personal relationship with Mankind; he calls Abraham and his descendants into communion with him. And our faith is founded on this promise of “an everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7). Thus, Abraham is called, in the Roman Canon, our “father in faith”.
In the covenant, God promises: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful” (17:6), and makes the gift of “all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession” (17:8). What this means is that communion with God brings life and flourishing. It is a promise, then, of salvation. We need to bear in mind that the word ‘salvation’ comes from the Latin salus which means health, well-being, flourishing. So, in the Old Testament, God is seen to have established a special relationship with Abraham and his descendants, with Israel, that promises to them health, success, and flourishing in this life so long as they are faithful to God and obey his Law. This, it seems, is what salvation entailed.
But Abraham’s faith shows its mettle when he’s asked to sacrifice his only son, his heir, Isaac. Thus the promise of physical health and material success is jeopardized. We need to wait until the Easter Vigil to hear this story recounted in the Liturgy but we want to keep it in mind today because what this incident shows is the depths of Abraham’s faith. He, our father in faith, shows us that faith encompasses the suffering, sacrifice and the endurance of all earthly sorrows and grief. And Abraham can do this because he believes above all that God is faithful and good, and so, will ultimately bring about life and flourishing. God will be faithful to his Word even in the face of death.
Hence, Abraham grasped that salvation is not so much about success and power in this earthly life but something deeper and more lasting, transcending even death. The covenant is not just a treaty for worldly gain, then, but something more profound, of spiritual significance and with its promise of rescue beyond the grave. So, when the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is read on Easter night, then we see that Jesus’ resurrection is God’s final and definitive answer to Abraham’s faith in the covenant. Here is the promised salvation, perfectly realized for all Abraham’s descendants. Because, by Christ’s Resurrection, Mankind is rescued from the privation of death, and shares in the everlasting life and health of God himself. Through Christ’s Resurrection the covenant with Abraham is perfected, and the salvation promised him is fully realized. We, who are Abraham’s descendants and heirs because we share his faith in Jesus’ Resurrection, are thus also inheritors of God’s covenant, the “new and eternal covenant” signed with Christ’s blood.
It seems that Abraham already had a glimpse of all this. For all this is what his faith signifies and anticipates. Hence Jesus says: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad” (Jn 8:56). For the day Abraham saw was the day of God’s salvation, and now, in Jesus Christ, in his saving Passion and Resurrection, that day shines out clearly. So, in the coming Holy Week we will see Abraham’s faith come to fruition so that with him, our father in faith, we can also rejoice and be glad.
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.
Today’s Gospel continues a long discourse between Jesus and the Jews. Let’s recap. Jesus healed a sick man on the Sabbath, which angered the Jews. But Jesus argues that just as God doesn’t stop working on the Sabbath, neither does he. The implication is that God is the source of all life and being, and just as God continues to sustain all life even on the Sabbath, so, too, Jesus is doing this work on earth, bringing healing and new life to the sick man, even on the Sabbath. But this response angers the Jews so much that they want to kill Jesus because he’s made himself equal to God; it’s blasphemy.
Jesus’ response is to say that he is perfectly obedient to the Father, doing what the Father does. Jesus is, as St Paul would say, “the image of the unseen God” (Col 1:15). So, the Son is, as it were, the mirror image of the Father so that we can see on earth in Christ’s works what God the Father in heaven is doing invisibly. Jesus, thus, lays down a challenge for the Jews: to believe his word. Thus we heard yesterday: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life… ” (Jn 5:24). So, one’s judgement on whether or not to believe Jesus and accept his Word also judges oneself, in terms of how one will live and end up, because if we follow him and obey him, we will have forgiveness, grace, and a share in the divine life, but without Christ there is only sin and death; nothingness.
Today’s Gospel, then, has Jesus, as it were, giving proof for the authority for his words. Why should the Jews believe him? Because “these very works which I am doing bear witness that the Father has sent me” (Jn 5:36). In other words, the works of healing, of giving new life, are a sign, a proof. They show that Jesus is Jesus is who he says he is, namely, equal to God the Father, because only God can give life and heal and work on the Sabbath. So, the Father bears witness to the authority and trustworthiness of Jesus’ words. And, Jesus adds, John the Baptist, who stands for the prophets, and also Moses, who stands for the Law, both also testified to Christ and his coming.
Jesus also speaks of “the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish” (Jn 5:36), and this, I think, is a reference to Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. The resurrection, of course, is the greatest work of the Father that bears witness to the Son, to Jesus being who he says he is, namely God. And this is where we, the Church, come in. You and I are being called today to make an act of faith, and so, to bear witness to Christ too.
For as John the Baptist and Moses are the witnesses from history who pointed to the truth of who Jesus is, so we are witnesses from the future (in relation to that moment in John’s Gospel when Jesus spoke to the Jews) who point to the truth of Christ, the Risen One. So, together with the just and righteous men of God’s People, Israel, the saints of God’s People, the Church, all point to Christ and converge on him. He is the One whom we worship.
However, the golden calf is always present as a temptation. It’s a temptation against faith. So, every time we’re called to be witnesses to the Risen Lord, to Jesus as Lord and God, to the truth of God’s eternal Word, we might well feel the tug of this temptation. But it’s not a temptation to doubt but idolatry. As Pope Francis said: “In place of faith in God, it seems better to worship an idol, into whose face we can look directly and whose origin we know, because it is the work of our own hands. Before an idol, there is no risk that we will be called to abandon our security… Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: “Put your trust in me!” Faith, tied as it is to conversion, is the opposite of idolatry; it breaks with idols to turn to the living God in a personal encounter” (Lumen Fidei, 13).
And this, I think, is what we’re invited to whenever we feel the tug against faith. To seek the living God in a personal encounter. For isn’t that what we do when we come to Mass? And so I invite you, too, to come tonight to the Eucharistic Healing Service. As Pope Francis says: “Believing means entrusting oneself to a merciful love which always accepts and pardons, which sustains and directs our lives, and which shows its power by its ability to make straight the crooked lines of our history”. Come tonight and let us experience this in the Sacrament of Reconciliation; as we see God’s works of mercy and love.
“One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see” (Jn 9:25). St Paul also describes coming to faith with stark simplicity: “Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph 5:8). But we know that faith in Christ is not a once and for all event, nor is it without difficulty and struggle. Because of Jesus the man born blind could now see… But, he was also placed in conflict with those around him, including his own parents. We may have each experienced moments when following Christ puts such demands on us that it seems more like a burden or even an imposition, and faith is an inconvenience. For some, its light has faded to become just a cultural tradition, something we keep up for our parents’ sake. But the blind man remained firm despite the difficulties because he experienced the sheer goodness of what Jesus had done for him in such a direct, life-changing way.
A few years ago a BBC programme that purported to reveal the secrets of the Bible said that Christians believe that Mankind is “fundamentally bad”. But that’s just wrong. If it were true then faith would be a pointless burden. We begin with the deprivation of sin and evil, just as today’s Gospel begins with the reality of the blind man’s condition, but we don’t end there. Our human reality continues with the good news of what God does for Mankind, and what he wants to accomplishes in every human person. Seeing the blind man, Jesus goes and gives him sight, showing the gratuitous love and goodness of God. Without our asking, God freely comes to us to give us what we lack. Faith is not imposed; it is a gift as necessary and obviously desirable as water, or sight, or life itself, but which we can either reject or accept.
The blind man chooses to accept, and he stands for those who would be baptized, especially at Easter. So, Jesus, who is the One Sent, asks us to wash in the pool which (we’re told) means ‘Sent’; we’re called to be baptized in him. And as Adam was created from the clay, so Christ anoints the blind man with clay as a sign of the new creation he is working, for grace re-fashions us in the image of the new Adam; we are a new creation. But it is the first words spoken by the man born blind that hint at something more. The blind man’s words are somewhat obscured in the English translations, but in Greek it stands out. “Ego eimi” - “I am” (Jn 9:9); the divine name. For baptismal grace fashions us in the beauty of the Son of God, and so we are adopted as sons of God; we become partakers in the divine nature. God is so gracious and bountiful to humanity that he doesn’t just restore to Man what he lacks, God freely gives what Man could never attain for himself. Only God can give sight to a man born blind; only God can give eternal life and divinity to mankind. Hence Jesus says that it is through the redeemed sinner, through giving sight to the man born blind, that “the works of God might be made manifest”.
So although we begin with the abasement of man in original sin, the Christian journey of faith continues with man’s healing by Christ, his transformation in grace, and his exaltation to the lofty inheritance of divine life itself; eternal joy and light in the Blessed Trinity. This sublime goal, this gift, is why the journey of sanctification, indeed, divinization, is worth taking despite the difficulties, struggles, and sacrifices we may have to endure. So countless saints, whose lives show the triumph of God’s grace at work in them, have shown this.
God’s work, however, is not completed with baptism. If I were blind from birth, suddenly being given sight does not mean that I would be can actually see. The brain needs to learn to interpret what the eye takes in. So too, when we’re moved from the blindness of sin to the light of faith, we also need to learn to live as “children of light” (Eph 5:8), to grow in grace and virtue, and live as sons and daughters of God. We need to see what this means.
And this is where the demands and hardship of faith and life in Christ comes in. As the blind man grew in understanding of what Jesus had given him with each challenge that he faced, so his relationship with Christ deepened. In fact, as the blind man preached his faith, and suffered for it, becoming increasingly isolated, and finally “cast out”, so that his life was shaped in the image of Christ Crucified. His life became closely identified to that of God’s Son. After he is cast out, Jesus finds him again, and says: “You have seen [the Son of Man], and it is he who speaks to you”(Jn 9:37). But how has the man born blind seen Jesus before? Notice that earlier on, Jesus had left before he’d gone and washed in the pool. So, how have we seen Jesus, the Son of Man?
Jesus reveals Satan’s tactics to us today. The strategy of demons, that is, of those fallen angels who have permanently rebelled against God, is to divide and conquer. For they know, as Jesus affirms, that “every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste” (Lk 11:17). Hence, the Devil is called in Greek diabolos, which comes from the verb diaballo, meaning to divide, to cause confusion, and so, to lie. So, the demons divide and conquer us by lying, as we saw the Serpent do to Eve and Adam. And by sowing confusion and doubt concerning God’s authority and goodness and wisdom, again, as the Serpent did in Eden.
Only yesterday, we heard how Moses extolled the wisdom and goodness of God revealed in his Law. As such, the Law was a mark of God’s closeness and intimacy to his people, of his loving care for Israel. And yet, as Jeremiah says today, Israel repeatedly doubted the wisdom and goodness of God’s Law, and instead, they “walked in their own counsels… and went backward and not forward” (Jer 7:24). The temptation, then, for each of us to turn from God and distrust him is ever present because the demons are ever watchful to do this, to deceive, to divide us, and so to conquer.
Hence, so many things – a myriad temptations – distract and divide us; our attention is scattered and unfocussed, and our desires are jumbled and confused. As Pope Francis said in Lumen Fidei, “Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: ‘Put your trust in me!’” (§13). Any good thing, any pleasure, any person becomes an idol if it is preferred over God; if we believe that they promise a happiness, a satisfaction, a peace that can, ultimately, only be found in God. As Pope Benedict said to young Catholics in Scotland in 2010: “There are many temptations placed before you every day - drugs, money, sex, pornography, alcohol - which the world tells you will bring you happiness, yet these things are destructive and divisive”. Hence, these temptations divide us, and conquers us, so that the heart is turned away from God, and becomes stubborn and evil, as Jeremiah says (cf. 7:24).
Which is why we need this season of grace, this time of Lent, to recollect ourselves. Or rather, we need Jesus to gather that which is scattered (cf Lk 11:23). So, Pope Benedict said: “There is only one thing which lasts: the love of Jesus Christ personally for each one of you. Search for him, know him and love him, and he will set you free from slavery to the glittering but superficial existence frequently proposed by today’s society”.
During Lent, then, we search for Christ. We want to know him better and love him more, so as to be gathered with him in a pure and undivided, un-scattered, heart. How? The Catechism, citing St Augustine, says: “‘Pure in heart’ refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith. There is a connection between purity of heart, of body, and of faith: The faithful must believe the articles of the Creed “so that by believing they may obey God, by obeying may live well, by living well may purify their hearts, and with pure hearts may understand what they believe.” (CCC 2518).
As those who are preparing for baptism at Easter typically receive the Creed in this week of Lent it is fitting that we, the Baptised, are reminded of this too so that we may be gathered into the unity of Christ and his Mystical Body the Church.
Today’s great feast fittingly comes in the midst of Lent, not so much as a respite from its rigours, but as a call to enter even more profoundly into its essence. For as St Joseph and Our Lady went in search of the child Jesus, so, he helps us to seek Our Lord. And as St Joseph would lead Jesus and Mary into the Egyptian desert, so, he leads us more deeply into the desert of Lent. For St Joseph, who is silent throughout the Gospels, shows us by his example that faith invites a silent contemplation so that we can listen to God’s voice and meditate on the mystery of God made visible in Jesus.
As Joseph Ratzinger, our Pope Emeritus, once said: “Let us allow ourselves to be ‘filled’ with St Joseph’s silence! In a world that is often too noisy, that encourages neither recollection nor listening to God’s voice, we are in such deep need of it”.
Silence can be something that we are initially uncomfortable with, and it can be filled with our many thoughts and worries and anxieties. St Joseph had his share of questions and troubles too, as he pondered Mary’s miraculous pregnancy; as his young family had to flee from Herod as refugees; as he frantically searched for his lost son in Jerusalem. But in all this turmoil he remains silent, strengthened by his steadfast faith in God’s goodness and Providence. Angels direct his actions, by which we can understand that in his silence he listened for God’s Word, and he acted upon it. So silence, which begins with difficulty, eventually takes us, as through a desert, to a place of communion where we can be close to God and be comfortable in his Presence.
In the silence of deep prayer, which we’re invited into especially during Lent, we encounter Christ; silence gives rise to the eternal Word. This is who St Joseph contemplated in his silence. Tenderly holding the infant Jesus in his arms, as he’s often shown in art, Joseph pondered the wonder of God’s Love made flesh. This kind of silence, when we are with someone we love, is deeply communicative. As Joseph Ratzinger observed, “It is often in silence that we observe the most authentic communication taking place between people who are in love: gestures, facial expressions, and body language are signs by which they reveal themselves to each other.” This is the kind of loving silence that St Joseph invites us to join him in, if we will stay and adore the Blessed Sacrament after this Mass.
Finally, St Joseph’s silence, which is not empty but filled with love and faith, teaches us the only possible response, sometimes, when we’re confronted by the mystery of God. Ours is a world which craves words and explanations; comments, and opinions, and analysis. But, God is not a part of our world; he is its Creator, the Source of all being, and thus completely Other from all that is. So, as St Thomas Aquinas said, “This is what is ultimate in the human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know God.” So, St Joseph could only be silent before the great mystery and unknowability of God. As Joseph Pieper said concerning St Thomas, but which can also be said, I think, about St Joseph: “His tongue is stilled by the super-abundance of life in the mystery of God. He is silent, not because he has nothing further to say; he is silent because he has been allowed a glimpse into the expressible depths of that mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech…” Hence, Joseph Ratzinger said, “In speaking of God’s grandeur, our language will always prove inadequate and must make space for silent contemplation”.
We’re all on death row. Aren’t we? Every one of us, some day, sooner or later, will die. But the inevitability of death is mitigated by posterity; we can leave behind a legacy that endures through the lives of our children. In some sense, we survive and so, transcend death, through our descendants. This, at least, is the hope that is glimpsed in the First Reading. Abram is promised that his name will be great, and that he will be the patriarch of a great nation. The blessing promised by God is precisely that of having many descendants. Hence in Genesis 22:17, the Lord says to Abraham: “I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven”. Here, then, is a promise of a kind of immortality – enduring through one’s blood line – that mitigates the certitude of death; the evocation of the stars not only denoting how numerous Abraham’s descendants will be, but also hinting at perpetuity.
But this is not the Christian way.
For we are all still on death row. One day you and I will die. And there is no such mitigation particularly for those of us who are childless, or single and celibate. Indeed, one of the signs of consecrated virginity and a freely-chosen life of celibacy is precisely that it counters this kind of hope of immortality. Because it is done in imitation of Jesus Christ who, as St Paul says, “[abolished] death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel” (2 Tim 1:10).
So, the light of immortality is not to be found in the stars but in Christ, the “one Morning Star who never sets” (the Exsultet). Our survival and transcendence of death is not found in our descendants but in the fact that we are descendants of the Risen One. And our name endures for all ages and is made great because our name is Christian. This is our hope, the hope of the resurrection with Christ, that the Gospel proclaims, and which is brought to light today in the Gospel of the Transfiguration.
But why, during Lent, this encounter with the Living One, Jesus Christ, flanked by the two living ones (for Elijah and Moses were regarded to have not died)? Why is the Transfiguration, which is this promise of the Resurrection, always read on the Second Sunday of Lent? I think its positioning here has a symbolic value that sheds light on the whole of our life. For Lent is a time when we are reminded of our mortality. Hence on Ash Wednesday ashes were imposed on our foreheads with these words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. During Lent in the Dominican form of Compline, an 8th-century chant is sung that reminds us of our mortality. It says: “In the midst of life we are in death”; we are all on death row.
But if we consider our mortal lives like this, as a continuous Lent, we know what will follow on after Lent. Easter. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, too, after the Lent of our lives, after death, will come our Easter, our resurrection in Christ. Hence, the positioning of the Transfiguration during Lent is a symbol of the hope of the Resurrection that lights up the Lent of our lives. We are being taught and formed by the Liturgy, therefore, to look to the Living One especially when “in the midst of life we are in death”. Isn’t it the case that there are times when life feels like death? When depression hangs about us, or things get so hard and unmanageable, and we wonder how we will cope with life’s stress and demands? How, some ask, will we survive the daily deaths of this life with its bitter disappointments and pains?
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).