The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
Today’s Gospel might be used to justify the separation of Church and State, or to divide the world into secular and sacred realms, or to induce Christians to pay their taxes. But I don’t think that Jesus is principally commenting on either economic or political issues as such. Rather, his meaning is deeply theological and says something about the world, about humanity, and our place in it. Only then might we derive political or economic principles.
The key sentence is this: “Render to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21). What is it that belongs to God? The psalmist says: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps 24:1). So, whereas Caesar is emperor of all the lands he has conquered and governs, the true Lord is God; all the earth and everything in it is his. So, even if tribute in the form of taxes is paid to Caesar, nevertheless, Caesar himself owes tribute to God; he owes him worship.
And again, another psalm says: “Know that the Lord is God! It is he who made us, and we are his” (Ps 99:3); we belong to God. Hence, humanity is made in God’s image and likeness. As the coin bears the “likeness” of Caesar, so the human person bears the likeness of God, the true Caesar. Implicit in this, I think, is a challenge to the idea that Caesar is divine, and that he is overlord. But in fact, every human person bears the divine imprint, and we are thus all equal in God’s sight whatever our position or wealth or status; everybody is called to acknowledge God’s sovereignty. Thus the Lord says in Isaiah: “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (Isa 45:5).
Hence, there is a hint of irony in the Gospel. The Pharisees and Herodians mock and flatter Jesus when they say that he “does not regard the position of men”. Now, Jesus draws attention to the fact that this is true of God: He, the Maker of us all does not regard our position. Hence, the Pharisees and Herodians had unknowingly spoken truly of Christ and indicated that Jesus is, in fact, Lord and God.
Indeed, Jesus is the true Caesar, heralded by angels as the Prince of Peace at his birth, and so Mankind is to be stamped by his grace so that we bear his likeness. We Christians are inscribed with a cross at our baptism so that we bear the name of Christ, and God’s grace is given to us in baptism to refashion us in the image of Christ, to make us partakers in his divine nature. Thus we are made “sons of God”. Traditionally, kings and rulers like Caesar are called ‘Son of God’, but now through baptism all humanity can become sons of God; kings; made divine. You and I, therefore, are made Caesar because we worship and are graced by the true Caesar, Jesus Christ.
But what does Jesus mean when he says, “Render… to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mt 22:21)? Yes, it suggests that we should pay our lawful taxes and obey civil authorities. St Paul thus says “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom 13:1). But at the same time he still remembers the proper order of things, which is that earthly authorities are themselves subject to God “for there is no authority except from God”.
However, what is it that is rendered to Caesar in the Gospel?
St Paul uses this beautiful phrase today: “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). This means that what we believe about Christ and what God has done for sinful humanity through Christ affects what we do, how we behave. Notice that right belief comes first so that our minds are formed and our intellects are focussed on the truth. Consequently, our wills are motivated by right thinking to do the right things, namely, to love as God first loved us. Hence St James also says: “I by my works will show you my faith” (Jas 2:18).
So, to love as God loves means to do certain works, good works. For love is not realized through feelings but through actions. Love for God, then, is shown by doing concrete things for God, whether regular prayer and Mass-going, or serving the homeless and poor, or caring for a sick and elderly person in our community. Each of these good works, if motivated by faith, is thus an expression of love for Jesus Christ. It is, as St Paul says, “faith working through love”. Thus, when Blessed Teresa of Kolkata speaks of serving the poor she says that it is Christ in the “distressing disguise of the poor” whom she serves. When we go out on the streets or to the Mercy Convent to feed the homeless, or even in our ordinary daily encounters with other people, it is Jesus whom we seek and interact with. This is how faith is worked out through love: we see Christ in others and we love him in and through them, in co-operation with God’s grace. Hence, we prayed in the Collect today that God’s grace will “make us always determined to carry out good works”.
The other side of faith motivating our actions is that we will avoid those acts which faith tells us displeases God. Thus Jesus says: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (Jn 14:21). My sins, therefore, reflect how poorly I love God: they are acts which I freely choose to do that are contrary to God’s loving commandments, contrary to God’s wisdom and desire for my truest human flourishing and genuine freedom. Every sin, therefore, implies a lack of faith in God’s Word and a corresponding lack of love for Christ and his commandments. In a contrary manner to good works, sinful acts also show “faith working through love” but they reveal faith in one’s own limited ideas of the good, in what the Media and popular opinion tell us is good, and they reveal a love of self or pleasure or convenience or some lesser good over and above God who is our greatest Good.
This question of what motivates our actions is also at the heart of today’s Gospel. The Pharisees are critcized because their actions, whether of alms-giving or service, are not motivated by genuine love of God and neighbour but by love of self or their status or social conventions. But God’s grace is given to us to free us from these constraints of our culture and of the common mindset (cf Gal 5:1) so that we can love what Jesus Christ loves, and do the good works he commands us. The saint, therefore, as Chesterton says, is “a medicine because he is an antidote” to the poisons of his age. We Christians are called to heal our age, and we do it through our right thinking and our right doing, through orthodox “faith working through [authentic] love”.
preached in 2010 for the Patronal Feast of Blackfen’s Catholic Church
Last month [in September 2010] I had the opportunity to visit the cell of Saint Pius V in Santa Sabina, the oldest Dominican priory in Rome. And there in his cell, which is now a chapel, we were surprised to see that he had a wide-screen television!
Well… actually… to be precise, what we saw was a fresco on the ceiling of the cell, showing the pope praying the Rosary… and as he does, an angel pulls back a curtain, and he appears to be watching the outcome of the battle of Lepanto on a wide-screen television… I think this is entirely appropriate because today’s feast widens our vision. And it is also appropriate that we celebrate this feast using the form of the Mass essentially codified by Pope St Pius V. This beautiful liturgy is itself a widening of our Catholic vision, of our hearts and minds. As Our Holy Father [Pope Benedict XVI] said: “Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows”.
So, how does this feast widen our vision? I just want to concentrate on just three ways. Firstly, today’s feast widens our historical vision, and so we are reminded of who we are. For the fresco in Santa Sabina actually depicts the miracle by which Pope St Pius V, while praying the Rosary in Rome, learnt of the victory of the Christian fleet over the Ottoman Turks in Lepanto, which is off the western coast of Greece. So, today’s feast, as you’ll probably already know, commemorates a great act of a unified Christian Europe. As Pope Leo XIII put it so stirringly: “Christ’s faithful warriors, prepared to sacrifice their life and blood for the salvation of their faith and their country, proceeded undauntedly to meet their foe near the Gulf of Corinth, while those who were unable to take part formed a pious band of supplicants, who called on Mary, and unitedly saluted her again and again in the words of the Rosary, imploring her to grant the victory to their companions engaged in battle”.
And it is by the Blessed Virgin Mary’s intercession that this decisive victory was won, and a significant threat to Christian Europe was routed. But how many historians, let alone other people, actually remember the Battle of Lepanto?
But memories are important. Think of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, who can no longer remember his own history. Such a person has lost his identity. Memories root us, and give us a sense of identity… of who we are today. And yet, is it not the case that Europe seems to be suffering from Alzheimer’s? Or perhaps it is a willful forgetting based on the embarrassment some people mistakenly feel over the very notion of Christendom? But as the then Cardinal Ratzinger has said, this “peculiar Western self-hatred is nothing short of pathological. It is commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of outsiders, but it has lost all capacity for self-love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure”. Well, take it from someone who was an outsider - I’m both a convert to Catholicism, and born in a Muslim country outside of Europe. There is much that is great and pure in the history of Christian Europe, and the victory at Lepanto is something we can be proud of. It is something we should remember, because it reminds us of our Christian roots, it grounds us in our common heritage, and we need to recall that so much that we value today is due to our Christian background. And all that could have been lost in 1571 at Lepanto.
So, today’s feast - as well as this Mass in the usus antiquior - widens our vision of who we are as Catholics, and indeed challenges Europe to remember her roots, and to see what threatens our civilization today. Pope Benedict XVI said recently that “Religion [is] a vital contributor to the national conversation”. But as we know, it’s rather difficult to hold a conversation with someone suffering from Alzheimer’s! So, we have to remember our heritage, and have some self-acceptance of who we are if there is to be any dialogue worthy of the name, “for the good of our civilization”.
In today’s epistle we read: “He that shall find me [Wisdom], shall find life, and shall have salvation from the Lord”. And so, today’s feast of the Holy Rosary widens our vision in a second way as we begin to see beyond history, or civilization, and contemplate the fullness of life itself, and what it means to be human. And the one who teaches us to be fully human is Christ, who is true God and true Man.
It is central to St Thomas‘ teaching - following the Tradition of the Fathers - that Christ assumed our human nature for a reason: in order to redeem it. We often hear it said that we’re made in God’s image and likeness, but it’s often forgotten that this divine image and likeness was (and is) deformed by sin. So Christ became Man in order to restore the image of God in us. And Jesus not only healed our deformities but, moreover, by grace, gave us his beauty as the Son of God. And so, when we meditate on the Rosary, we consider what Our Lord has done “for us men and for our salvation” by his coming as Man. As Pope John Paul II said, in the Rosary we are led by Mary to “contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love”.
Essentially, we contemplate the one mystery of the Incarnation - albeit made digestible in 15 (or even 20) mysteries! We contemplate the mystery of Christ’s humanity that encompasses the joys and sorrows of our life on earth, and the glory that is to be ours by the grace of baptism. And we don’t just contemplate, but we also preach… We preach by becoming imitators of Christ, so that we have the radiant beauty of holiness. How might we do this? Through remembering our identity as Christians: sons of God in the Son of God. John Paul II said that “in the recitation of the Rosary, the Christian community enters into contact with the memories and the contemplative gaze of Mary”. And so, with these memories we become more closely united to the incarnate Lord, and we are transformed by these graced memories so that, as it were, we take on our true identity as Christians - little Christs!
Finally, this union with Christ that is deepened by the Rosary points to the third widening of vision that today’s feast celebrates. For the end, the goal of the Rosary, is that we “obtain what they [the mysteries] promise”, and this, of course, is eternal salvation. By imitating what they contain, that is, by imitating Christ himself, we come at last, through grace, to obtain the widest - and indeed, the most HD - vision of all, namely, the Beatific Vision. We will have an eternal vision of the eternal God… and this is what our faith hopes for, this is what the mysteries of the Rosary promise, this is what the perfection of grace in our lives consists in.
And this is the beautiful vision we Christians have to recall… to our neighbours, to our country, to Europe, and to the world. It is a vision worth defending as our ancestors did at Lepanto, and it is a vision worth living, and paying the price for.
It is a vision that is certainly a lot wider, and with infinitely higher definition than the black-and-white, fuzzy vision, with very loud volume, offered by others in our contemporary Western society.
May Our Lady give us the victory through her powerful intercession in the most holy Rosary!
"The vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the House of Israel" (Isa 5:7). This is the refrain that shaped the worldview of the people of Israel. They were the Lord’s beloved, Israel the vineyard lovingly established and tended and protected by the Lord. Yes, they had been punished for their unfaithfulness, chastised for their sins and injustices, but the House of Israel was still the beloved vineyard of the Lord of Hosts, still chosen and cherished and unique. And the proof of this was visible for all nations to see, made manifest by the Temple on Mount Zion in the heart of the great city of Jerusalem. Here, in the centre of the world was the one place where the true God was encountered. Here, of all the places on earth, God had chosen to dwell. As the psalmist said: “The Lord of Hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our stronghold” (Ps 46:11). This was the mindset of the people to whom Jesus was speaking when he told today’s parable: the chief priests and elders. And the place where Jesus was speaking was in the Temple, that very place which was the foundation of their belief that Israel was uniquely chosen by God, and beloved by God above all peoples.
It is in this place and in this context, to the Jewish religious authorities who are secure in their identity as leaders of God’s beloved people, that Jesus unsettles them from their complacency and certainty. He does this by telling them three parables, and surveying them can help us understand today’s Gospel.
The first parable we heard last Sunday, which had this punchline: “the tax collectors and the harlots go before you into the kingdom of God” because they repented and believed John the Baptist but the chief priests and elders would not (Mt 21:32). So, Christ expanded the boundaries of God’s kingdom, of the vineyard, if you like, so that it is is no longer simply equated with the House of Israel, but includes anybody, even the most notorious social outcasts of Israel, so long as they repent and believe. So, God’s blessing and mercy is extended to anybody who repents and who walks “in the way of righteousness” as St John the Baptist did (cf Mt 21:32a).
Then, the second parable adds that those who walk in the way of righteousness; repentant sinners who are drawn from all the peoples, races and languages of humanity, are given an identity. They are no longer outcasts but are constituted as a people, a holy nation; God’s people. So today’s Gospel says: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it” (Mt 21:43). We should notice that this does not mean that God is abandoning the House of Israel, or that the Jewish people has been superseded and replaced. Rather, God’s vineyard has expanded to encompass all peoples, Jews and Gentiles alike, and all now have have equal opportunity to enter God’s kingdom; equal opportunity to being made righteous and fruitful in good works; equal opportunity to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit.
And this points us to the third parable which we will hear next Sunday. Briefly, it reveals how the many of humanity, all of whom are called and invited to enter God’s kingdom will do so. Every person needs to respond to God’s call and put on the wedding garment, that is, receive baptism. For it is through baptism that a person shares in the identity of Jesus Christ and becomes a son of God. So, salvation doesn’t come through our national identity, or through religious rites and laws as such, but through a Person, namely Jesus Christ. Thus Jesus overturns the conventions and the worldview of the chief priests and elders of Israel.
"[God] has made everything beautiful in its time" (Eccl 3:11) says the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, and he has said there is a time for everything, both good and ill, even war, mourning and dying. But is war and destruction beautiful? Yes, if we understand ‘beautiful’ to mean that something is proper and right and meant-to-be. All things have their purpose and are ordered to a good end because God is good and desires our final flourishing in grace and virtue. Hence, St Thomas citing St Augustine says: "Almighty God would in no way permit any evil in His works unless he were so good and powerful that he could bring good even out of evil". For God desires, ultimately, that we should be sanctified and so, be eternally united with him in love. So in God’s Providence, even ill events contribute to bringing about our sanctification if we have a firm trust in God and hope in his salvation.
We see this in today’s Gospel too. Jesus says that he “must suffer many things, and be rejected… and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Lk 9:22). In what sense ‘must’ Jesus do this? Is he compelled? Does he not have freedom? One can read Ecclesiastes and its profound and poetic meditation on divine Providence and think that things just happen and must happen and there is no human freedom or choice about their happening. And yet, this is not a correct understanding of Providence just as it is not correct to think that Jesus is compelled by ‘destiny’, so to speak, to undergo the Cross and Resurrection. No, Providence respects our human free will so that our acts are not pre-determined even if they are already known and seen by God who is eternal – we act in time and so happenings unfold in times and season, as Ecclesiastes says, but God, who is outside of time and sees all ‘at once’ already knows what we will freely choose to do.
So, when Jesus says he “must” undergo the Passion, Death, and Resurrection, he means that he wills to act according to God’s Providence, he places his trust in God’s good purpose and plan for him. It is in the light of Christ and his example, then, that we can understand our own lives, that we can look at Providence in human history. For there are the evils of rejection, death, violence and so on, but, with Christ, we can say that we will also be raised. The pattern of the Son of Man’s life becomes our pattern if we trust in Christ and keep faith with God who we know is good and who desires our flourishing and salvation. Hence St Paul said that “to them that love God, all things work together unto good”, which is to say that when we look at the totality of events both good and ill, they work together for the good. Only God has this perspective, and we in our time and place cannot see or know how this is happening. Ecclesiastes thus says that “[Man] cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Eccl. 3:11).
What we can do, then, is to follow Christ by abandoning ourselves to divine Providence and trusting in our good and loving God. As the 18th-century French Jesuit, Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote: “The designs of God, the good pleasure of God, the will of God, the operation of God and the gift of His grace are all one and the same thing in the spiritual life. It is God working in the soul to make it like unto Himself. Perfection is neither more nor less than the faithful co-operation of the soul with this work of God, and it is begun, grows, and is consummated in the soul unperceived and in secret”. Truly God has made everything beautiful in its time: his grace is quietly at work making us beautiful as his beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
Jesus truly died, was buried, and rose again from the dead. And the risen Lord Jesus was seen by hundreds of people, individually and in large crowds. Although the actual event of Christ’s resurrection wasn’t seen by anyone, the person of the risen Christ was seen by many including St Paul; he is an eyewitness. Some eyewitnesses had already died but many of these eyewitnesses would go on to become witnesses in another sense: they would become martyrs, a word which comes from the Greek marturia meaning ‘witness’. By willingly suffering and dying rather than to deny the truth they’d seen – the truth that Jesus Christ died and rose again – the eyewitnesses witnessed to the fact of Christ’s Resurrection and their belief in the word of the risen Lord Jesus. For he promised that all who believe in him and receive his Body and Blood will also, at last, rise from the dead and share in the glory of his Resurrection.
This is the Gospel which was preached to the Corinthians, and which was preached to us, and it is for ever true and valid no matter how long ago it happened. Like the Christians of Corinth, we today, and Christians down the ages and in every place, have always needed faith. Faith, as St Thomas says, is belief in the testimony, the witness, of some human being. This means that it requires that we trust what others have told us they’ve seen and experienced. Ultimately, St Paul appeals to the Corinthians to trust in the hundreds of eyewitnesses including himself, which is why he says that some of those eyewitnesses are still alive, implying that if one wanted to one could check with them.
But St Thomas, following St Paul, makes a distinction between believing through faith and knowing by sight. The latter is more certain knowledge, and only some have seen the risen Lord; the rest of us have to believe them, we have to put our faith in what they’ve seen and what they’ve told us. In short, we believe what we receive through the proclamation of the Church, the community of believers who can trace their lineage in unbroken continuity to the apostles, the eyewitnesses of the Resurrection, and also to the saints and martyrs, the witnesses of Christ’s promises.
The Church, therefore, is essentially a community built on trust, on faithfully handing on what we’ve received; this is the dynamic of faith. But we’re not passive recepients of the faith, either. For faith is a divine gift, and the Holy Spirit also stirs up in us charity, which is how our faith in the risen Lord is lived. Charity, after all, is a participation in the vibrancy of the living God, and it is Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, who thus makes it possible for us Christians to rise from the deadliness of sin through forgiveness, through loving our enemies, and to find new life through repentance and good works. Which ever country we come from, or live in, we Christians are called to witness to this; to live our faith.
Today’s saint, John Macias, a Spainiard who travelled to Peru and joined the Dominicans there, is an outstanding example of this. As a lay brother, he was the porter of his convent, and he spent his days welcoming the destitute, feeding the hungry, and praying for the most needy, especially the souls in Purgatory that they might soon enjoy the glory of the Resurrection. As such, St John witnessed to the truth testified by St Paul and the eyewitnesses – he bore witness to the Church’s faith in the Risen One. Through his life, then, and by his works of charity, he witnessed to the fact that the Church is a community built on trust – faith in the word of another –; a community founded on personal relationships of love and kindness, and he added his voice to the countless saints and martyrs of every nation and age who bear witness to the power of the risen Lord.
This is the democracy of the communion of saints; the power of charity that is made available to us through Christ’s Church and her sacraments, the true meaning of freedom which is the choice to love and live as Christ did. Ultimately, this is the only Yes or No choice that matters. With St John Macias and all the saints, let us always bear witness to our faith in the risen Lord and live in the hope of eternal life.
The sorrowful Mother of God is ever-present in our world. In Gaza, Iraq, Syria her icon comes alive in those images on our screens of hundreds of women veiled in black, their faces contorted with grief at the death of their children. In Nigeria, her sorrowful face is seen again in the anguished faces of those mothers pleading for the return of their girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. In our own community, she stands alongside those mothers who have lost a child, or have a child who is suffering a terminal illness. Sorrow, distress, death – such is the human condition; such is living and loving in a fallen world.
All of us will know or have encountered death and disease. And for some, the experience of having a loved one suffer and die – nursing them and holding them – is extremely hard to endure. One suffers with the one who is sick or dying, and such experiences can shake one’s faith. Such is the pain of human compassion, literally, suffering with the other. So, today we recall that Our Lady is the compassionate mother who suffers with her Son on the Cross. As she is also our mother, so she suffers with us and shares our sorrows and pain.
Because Mary shares in the redemptive suffering and death of Our Lord on the Cross, Our Lady of Sorrows is Queen of Martyrs. Hers is the martyrdom, that share in the Passion of Christ, that comes from the union of love that is uniquely hers: the union of her Immaculate Heart to the Sacred Heart of her Son. But as a martyr she witnesses, also, to how a Christian lives and copes with sorrow and grief; as our mother, she teaches us by her example.
So we see that throughout her martyrdom, as she stands at the foot of the Cross, she looks to Christ and is turned towards him in love and in faith. So, too, in our hard times, in the loneliness of our grief and distress, let us turn to God and not away from him. We look to the Cross and are saved, as we were reminded yesterday. For in turning to Christ who suffers on the Cross with us, we are opened to the grace and strength that he gives us to carry the Cross of our discipleship. And our turning to God is a sign of faith, of confident hope that he will, at last, turn our sorrows into joy, as happened to Our Lady. Hence Catholic tradition tells that Our Lady was the first to see the risen Lord, even before St Mary Magdalene and the other apostles as the Bible recounts, because Our Lady, who shared most deeply in Christ’s sorrow, merited this honour of being the first to experience the joy of the Resurrection.
Countless Christians throughout the world, very many of whom are women and mothers, are themselves mothered by Our Lady of Sorrows. This is the beauty of what Christ does on the Cross: he establishes a relationship of love, compassion and care between his Blessed Mother and all the baptised. So in our suffering and grief – a daily martyrdom for many people – Mary holds us and leads us to to her Son, to hold to Christ in faith and hope. Thus we share in Christ’s redemptive sufferings on the Cross, we share the pain of love and compassion, but Our Lady assures us that we will also share in the joy of Christ’s Resurrection and glory. Today’s feast, then, confirms us in our Christian faith and hope.
One of my sisters has spent the past summer working in Berlin, and my mother, who lives in Germany also mentioned Berlin to me this past week. I’ve never been to Berlin, but I am told that while most cities build monuments celebrating their nation’s great deeds in Berlin we see another kind of monument – they erect sculptures and public exhibits that commemorate the sins of past generations, of the Nazi Holocaust, for example. And they do this because it is cathartic, because it is healing to face one’s sins and mistakes, and so, to seek forgiveness and find new life.
Something similar happens with the monument or totem that Moses is told to erect – a serpent mounted on a pole that reminds the people of Israel of their sins. They are to confront their sins, and so, be healed. When Christ is lifted up and mounts the pole of the Cross, sinful humanity is also called to confront its wickedness; you and I are called to look at what our sins do to one another, and also to ourselves, and to God in Christ. For sin wounds and disfigures us, it makes us barely recognizable as human, it causes human misery and suffering which Jesus takes on himself.
But “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world” (Jn 3:17). So, when our God hangs on the Cross and we look at him, it’s not with an accusatory gaze that we’re called to do so. Nor do we look at the Cross to increase our feelings of guilt. Rather, we look at the Cross and acknowledge our sins and our brokenness, and simultaneously we look at Christ who is our forgiveness and our salvation and our healer. Hence, St Paul can say to the Galatians, as we heard in the Entrance antiphon: “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered” (cf Gal 6:14). So, too, so many people hold on to the Cross, or wear it on their bodies, and it is a source of comfort and of hope; we glory in the Cross.
For the suffering Christians of Iraq and Syria, and for countless Christians around the world the Cross is their glory, their hope, their comfort, their boast. Not only because they can see that Christ is with them in their catastrophe and pain and in their dying, but, more importantly, because they know, with Faith, that, as St Paul said, the Cross of Christ is our salvation, life and resurrection.
So, not unlike those monuments in Berlin, a feast like today’s is cathartic. It focusses us on the Cross of Christ so that we can look at the consequences of our sins and be healed and purified of them. But unlike a civic monument, the Cross is not just self-therapy or auto-salvific. It is much more than that because the Cross saves us for it is the instrument with which the God of our salvation acts. For we could not possibly atone for our own sins because they are so grave. Rather, we sinners stand in need of a Saviour. So, when we focus on the Cross, we glory in God’s goodness, his mercy and his forgiveness; we look at the God who became Man, and who lovingly offered himself on the Cross to atone for Mankind’s sins. As St John says, then, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16).
And this is the crux of the Gospel. In this past Fresher’s Week a number of Chinese students have made their way to our CSU Common Room. And we discovered that a few of them had no knowledge of the Gospel at all. So, in the brief time that we had, our students had to summarise the Gospel, to present its joy and its novelty as Pope Francis challenges us all to do. I would suggest that John 3:16 is a good place to start. And that verse continues: “That whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16). This is to say that all anybody needs to do to be saved is to look at the Cross; to see Christ Crucified for Mankind’s salvation, and believe.
It is as simple as that, though faith is not always easy. Nevertheless, like the people of Israel in the desert who looked at the bronze serpent and lived so we, the people of God, need only look at Christ – look to Christ – and live in his grace. Faith and belief in Christ is as simple as that. The rest – our life in Christ – is essentially, then, about being lifted up with Christ following the movement of the great Philippians hymn which we heard in our Second Reading. So, as disciples we are lifted up onto the Cross with Jesus; we take up our crosses and follow Christ, as we heard two Sundays ago. But, following this trajectory, we are also lifted up to heavenly glory with Christ.
And it all begins here at the foot of the Cross, as we look up at it and see on it the Victim of our sins, who dies so that we might live. Here in the Mass, we stand on Calvary. And on this feast, in particular, we come and we “behold the wood of the Cross on which hung the Saviour of the world”; by its lifting-up we, too, are uplifted!
Daily we are reminded of the powers of death and destruction, of the havoc and horror wrought by wicked people. The evils of the Islamic State; the likelihood that terrorists could strike with similar brutality in our homeland; the threat of the Ebola virus: this has been a summer of death and anxiety. So one line in today’s Gospel, one promise, drew my attention. Jesus assures us: “The powers of death shall not prevail against” his Church.
This is not a promise that life will be easy, or even that we will not suffer or know pain. Nor is it a promise that we will not die. This is impossible since these are essential to our mortal human condition. However, it is a promise that the powers of death shall not prevail. What does this mean? For many death is simply the end; the power of death is precisely its finality. But Jesus assures Peter and thus, his whole Church – you and me – that death is not final. Death has been robbed of its dreadful power. And this is because of who Jesus is and what he has done for Mankind, for you and me, for his Body the Church.
With a divine insight, St Peter acknowledges that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. This is to say that Jesus is Anointed with divine power and authority, and that he is truly the Living One. So, guided by the Holy Spirit, St Peter is able to proclaim faith in the Resurrection. And today we’re being asked if we can do likewise. Indeed, every day we’re being asked to share this faith by affirming in our hearts who Jesus is. For even if the headlines were not as dire as they are, we are still tested by the trials of our frail and changeable human condition – by illness, cancer, emotional anguish, depression, crushing loneliness. Our faith is challenged by these as Peter’s was.
If we look at the next few verses right after today’s Gospel passage, we read that Jesus explains to his disciples that he will need to go to Jerusalem and there “suffer many things… and be killed” (Mt 16:21). Peter takes Jesus aside and says “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Mt 16:22). And Jesus famously rebukes Peter saying: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt 16:23). What does all this mean?
It tells us that like Christ and with Christ we human beings will still need to suffer and die. Peter wants to avoid this, which is why Jesus rebukes him. Why is mortality necessary? Why? We do not know, but as St Paul says to the Romans: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33). That is one response of faith: faith in God’s wisdom and goodness. But faith gives us another more powerful response which we see in the courage and steadfastness of the Christians of Iraq and of countless martyrs over the centuries. It is faith in the Resurrection, faith that Jesus is the “Son of the Living God”. For by his death and resurrection, Jesus has overcome the powers of death; death’s terrible finality shall not prevail against Christ’s Body, the Church. Instead, the Body of Christ – that is, you and me – will be raised from the dead just as Jesus, our Head, was raised to eternal life and unending joy. This is the faith St Peter proclaims today, this is the faith of the Church and her martyrs, and this is our faith through baptism. Hence one of the Memorial Acclamations in the Mass says: “Save us, Saviour of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free”. Yes, Jesus has saved us and freed us from the powers of death. So our faith rests on the rock of who Jesus is: he is the Saviour of the world.
What would it mean if Jesus were not the Living One revealed by the Holy Spirit to St Peter and the Church? What does it imply to think that Jesus was Jeremiah or one of the prophets, or John the Baptist, or Elijah?
Today’s first reading is taken from the continuous readings of Jeremiah that we have been following during the week. And it is most fitting at this time. The lamentation of God’s people could well be found on the lips of the countless Christians who are currently being persecuted and ruthlessly murdered all over the world. “Let my eyes run down with tears night and day,
and let them not cease… If I go out into the field, behold, those slain by the sword!… We looked for peace, but no good came; for a time of healing, but behold, terror” (Jer 13:17–19). So, the prophet gives voice to the suffering of the Christians of Iraq, of Nigeria, of Syria, the Central African Republic, Pakistan, China, and many other places.
At the same time, the prophet also lends his voice to the suffering of peoples throughout the world who endure disease, famine, sickness. He says: “If I enter the city, behold, the diseases of famine!… Why hast thou smitten us so that there is no healing for us?” (Jer 13:18f). Death and illness: this is the lot of humanity labouring under the sin of Adam; thus is our mortality. Hence Jeremiah says: “We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, and the iniquity of our fathers, for we have sinned against thee”.
So in the Gospel we see that St Martha and her family have shared in this, the common fate of sinful Man. Her brother has fallen ill and died, and Martha and Mary are grief-stricken. However, Martha knows that God has the cure to Mankind’s mortal condition; Christ is the cure for death.
Thus she goes to him, and she says with faith: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27); she believes that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, that he will put an end to sickness and death. And so, St Martha speaks for us Christians, for every Christian who suffers and grieves, for the Christian martyrs and those who are persecuted, for the sick and for you and me. She says: “Yes, Lord, I believe”.
I believe, you believe, that Jesus will raise us from the dead, so that even “though [we] die, yet shall [we] live” because “whoever lives and believes in [Christ] shall never die” (Jn 11:25). So, today’s Gospel and this feast invites us to renew our faith in Christ, the Resurrection and the Life. Whatever ails us, however we may lament and grieve, we’re invited to share the faith of St Martha, and to trust in Christ, “he who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27). He comes to suffer alongside us. He comes to die with us, and to raise us to new life. He comes to give us a share in his final victory over sin, death, and evil. He is with us now, and feeds us with himself, the Living Bread. He promises: “Whoever eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:51).
So, with St Martha and all the saints and martyrs with whom we are united in one holy communion, we cry out: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Apoc 22:20).