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.
Every semester the chaplains devise a programme of catechesis, faith formation and study for the students who come to St Albert’s. And what we present is not arbitrary but based on prayer and an assessment on what we believe, as your pastors, would help you grow in faith and love for Jesus Christ. This semester, we have in mind Pope Francis’ frequent reminders that we should read and become familiar with the Scriptures: Bible study for Catholics! For through the Scriptures, read in and with the Church, we encounter Jesus Christ. Surely this should be a priority for us? As today’s saint, Jerome, wondered: “How could one live without the knowledge of Scripture, by which we come to know Christ himself, who is the life of believers?” Hence, St Jerome is the patron of Scripture scholars – of all who would study and read the Bible and not just academic scholars. And my hope is that many of us this semester would become scholars, readers of God’s written Word. Hence we have a Bible Study group every Monday and a Faith Talk on the Bible and its theology every Tuesday, both at 8pm. Today, then, is the feast day of the saint who we ask to guide and help us this semester, and throughout our lives, I hope.
But he guides and inspires us, not mainly by teaching us the meaning of Scripture, but by his reverence for the Bible, and his desire to read and learn from the Scriptures. And this was something he came to appreciate, you might say, in his university years – although, of course universities didn’t exist in the 5th-century. But he didn’t start off as a Scripture swot.
Around the 450s, Jerome was studying rhetoric and classical literature in Rome. He was from a rich Croatian family, well-educated, and his family were Christians although he wasn’t yet baptized. And during his time in Rome, Jerome lived what we might call a typical student life. He writes that he was tempted by the worldly ways of the big city, by a plethora of ideas, and by the so-called good times that tempt and distract us all in cosmopolitan cities. But there was another side to him.
While in Rome, Jerome would also go with his friends to the catacombs just outside the city walls. There, Christian martyrs are buried, and there in the hush he could reflect on the faith of his family, a living faith that empowered the martyrs to give up their lives as a witness to the truth of the Resurrection. As a student in Rome, Jerome had learnt Latin and Greek, and so, apart from reading the classics, he began to be fascinated by the Gospels which were written in Greek. For a while Jerome was torn between committing to Christ as a disciple, or remaining in the world but distant from Christ. It is a choice that every Christian faces, and it first comes to prominence when one is a student. St Jerome, too, underwent the struggle that so many of you and your peers may be facing, and we ask him to pray for us that we can choose Christ above all others.
For at last, by God’s grace, Jerome chose to be baptised in Rome, and so, he committed to the Christian life. A passionate man (his writings, some of which are very hot-tempered, make this apparent), St Jerome was not one to do things by halves. He changed his entire life. He left Rome and his family and headed East to study the Scriptures with other scholars. He improved his Greek, learnt Hebrew, and finally went to live as a hermit in the desert so that he could read, fast, study, and pray the Bible. And then he translated the entire Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, a translation called the Vulgate. He would eventually return to Rome, but his dream was to head for the Holy Land, and he would eventually die in Bethlehem, the place where the Word of God took flesh.
Whenever we come to Mass, we come to a Bethlehem for here the Word is made flesh for us both in the Scriptures that are read, and in the Eucharist. For as St Jerome says: “for me, the Gospel is the Body of Christ; for me, the holy Scriptures are his teaching… When we approach the [Eucharist], if a crumb falls to the ground we are troubled [because it is the Body and Blood of Christ]. Yet when we are listening to the word of God, and God’s Word and Christ’s flesh and blood are being poured into our ears yet we pay no heed…” Hence, St Jerome calls us to reverence both the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist; to come to Mass recollected and prepared to receive Jesus Christ in both the Gospel and the Blessed Sacrament. The people of Samaria “would not receive him” (Lk 9:53). Let it not be so for us but let the Holy Spirit be the true fire from heaven that comes down to inflame us with a desire to know and love Christ, with the same grace that St Jerome had.
"[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.
These three verses from St Luke’s Gospel are unique, and they name some of the women who travelled with Jesus on his missionary journeys. It’s easy to miss the significance of this and to see it as just another list of names. And yet, no detail in the Gospels is superfluous, and this detail would have shocked the people of Jesus’ time. That Jesus had women from both rich and poor echelons of society who supported him materially and who were drawn to him was not so unusual; contemporary rabbis of the time were similarly supported by women of means.
However, in the context of the Middle East – even today – it is highly unusual, even scandalous and shameful, for women to travel openly with men who were not their relatives, and presumably to stay overnight with them in the same place too. Typically, women travelled in groups of women with male relatives and stayed with relatives. So, what does this new reality say about what Jesus is doing; about the kingdom of God that he is inaugurating through his grace?
Those who travel with the Lord, who walk in his ways, are his disciples. So, the graced call to discipleship is extended to both men and women from all walks of life. As a sign of the new creation brought about by grace, men and women have equal dignity and can walk and sleep together in the same place with no fear of sin and scandal. For men and women in God’s kingdom now walk with God, that is, in his grace, and thus in each other’s company just as in Eden Adam and Eve were naked before one another without lust or shame (cf Gen 2:25), and they walked chastely with God in the garden. This Christian vision is far more challenging than a simplistic application of secular feminist principles to the Church. Rather, the Church is to grace the world with a true modelling of the complementarity and equal dignity of men and women.
This Gospel passage, then, is an image of the pilgrim Church into which we’re called by God’s grace. Christ is the Head and leader of his Church, and she is comprised of both those whom Jesus has called to servant leadership – the Twelve – and also those who are drawn to his teachings and who participate in and facilitate the evangelizing mission of Christ in his Church. Both are essential and united in the Person and in the evangelizing Mission of Christ.
And this communion of men and women walking with Jesus, united in Christ and his grace, becomes an image of heaven, which is the destination of the pilgrim Church. For here on earth, in the Church, we anticipate and mirror the unity and complementarity that is found in God the Holy Trinity. Here in the Church, we enjoy even now something of the graced friendship with God and one another that will be given to us definitively in heaven. For Christ risen from the dead is the “first fruits” (1 Cor 15:20) of eternal life. And he gives us a taste of heaven, of the risen life and unity with God and one another, here in the Mass; when men and women of all walks of life come together in “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit”.
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.
Today’s first reading is probably one of the most well-known of St Paul’s writings; it’s often heard in weddings. And it is most appropriate for today as I offer this anniversary Mass in thanksgiving to God for the grace he’s given me, allowing me, though so unworthy, to serve as a priest of Jesus Christ for the past three years; and I thank you all for your forebearance.
As St Thérèse of Lisieux said, “At last I have found my vocation. In the heart of the Church, I will be Love!” This vocation is common to every Christian who is called to become like Christ who is Love made flesh. Our universal Christian vocation is Love, to be conformed to Christ. But how this vocation is lived out differs according to the state of life to which we’re called. Hence, when St Paul’s words are read in a wedding, it aptly reminds the couple that they have chosen to learn Christ-like, self-giving love through marriage; husband and wife sanctify one another through patient, humble, hopeful, all-enduring love.
The choice to take up the priestly vocation is also like this except that the priest is sanctified with those to whom he ministers, and as a religious he is sanctified with his brothers and sisters in the Order, particularised through the community in which he lives and serves. So, when I am impatient, unkind, boastful, envious, irritable and resentful, then I realize how poorly I love, and how much more I have to learn and grow in order to live my vocation; how much I am in need of God’s sanctifying grace. As St Josemaría Escrivá said: “Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me”.
In a marriage, this loving gift of oneself to the other is expressed in the exchange of vows and in the sign of the wedding ring. In an ordination, this call for the priest to love the Church is expressed in the giving of the Chalice and Paten with the gifts of bread and wine for the Mass. At that point the bishop says to the new priest: “Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s Cross”. Here, then, is the priest’s vocation to sacrificial love lived in service to the Church and to the preaching of the Gospel of salvation – and this call is a profound privilege and joy. Chief among my joys as a priest is the celebration of Holy Mass because it is here that I am conformed to Christ Crucified, here that I learn to love and am shaped by grace, and here that I renew my promise to love the people of God.
So, please pray for me, and let us also pray for one another since we help each other to grow in Love. As Cardinal Merry del Val put it in his ‘Litany of Humility’, I pray that “others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should”. This, indeed, is my prayer at this and every Mass. So, when I return to the sacristy I always say this 9th-century prayer: “May the tribute of my humble ministry be pleasing to Thee, Holy Trinity. Grant that the sacrifice which I, unworthy as I am, have offered in the presence of Thy majesty may be acceptable to Thee. Through Thy mercy may it bring forgiveness to me and to all for whom I have offered it: through Christ our Lord. Amen”.
If St Paul were to ask Christians today: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (1 Cor 6:2); “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” (1 Cor 6:3); I suspect the answer would be “No”. Indeed, he’d be told that we’re not to be judgemental. “Who am I to judge?” So, what does St Paul mean?
It seems to me that what Paul is objecting to, most of all, is disunity among the Christian community in Corinth, and a public show of disunity in which Christians charged other Christians before a civil and secular court. For him this is scandalous because it offends against the fundamental unity that binds Christians together in Jesus Christ. As he says: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). For through the grace of baptism, we have become one with Christ; the Holy Trinity dwells in us, and it is a union that only mortal sin – the sins he lists verses 9 to10 – can disrupt. So, St Paul is expressing here the central mystery of our Faith, that we are called to become partakers in the divine life, one with God through sanctifying grace. And the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of unity, expresses this holy communion between God and Man. As we pray in the Third Eucharistic Prayer: “Grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son, and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ”.
And the Spirit, St Paul understands, will give those gifts of prudence, wisdom, and right judgement which should enable us to sort out our differences among ourselves. His worry is essentially theological: as we’ve been given the Spirit of truth, why should we need recourse to those who have not received grace through baptism, and who thus do not have these supernatural gifts and Spirit-filled virtues?
It’s St Paul’s ecclesiology, his theological vision of what God’s grace does for us that also underlies what he says about judgement. For it is precisely a graced union with Christ that enables the saints to judge the world and judge the angels, that is, the earthly and heavenly realms and their inhabitants. Such startling powers are only possible because what grace accomplishes for Christ’s saints is also startling: nothing less than union with God, divinization.
As God is the just Judge of all creation who alone can and will judge truly, so the saints in heaven, who are united to the Godhead in love, and so, share in the divine nature, will also share in God’s just judgements; they will rejoice to see divine justice done.
In today’s parable we see that everything that the servants have comes from the Master – without him they have nothing. Likewise, without God we have nothing and are nothing; every good thing that we have and do come from him as the fruit of his grace given to us. So, when the Master entrusts his property to his servants, he is giving them a share in something that is properly speaking his own. So, too, at our baptism, God entrusts to us his grace, giving each of us a share in his divine life. And God’s grace is so courteous, so gentle that it doesn’t destroy our human nature but perfects it if we choose to co-operate with it and use it. Hence the Master in the parable gives “to each according to his ability” (Mt 25:15).
Now, God’s grace is given to us so that we can belong to God as his adopted children, and he belongs to us. God, so to speak, invests his grace in us in order that we are no longer his servants but his friends (cf Jn 15:15) and, even, his co-heirs with Christ (cf Rom 8:17). And he does this not because we deserve it but because he loves us and wants us to enjoy true love in heaven.
However, one thing prevents us from acting as sons and daughters of God; one thing keeps us from using the grace God has given us: fear. Hence the servant who did not invest or use his talents says: “I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground” (Mt 25:30). For where there is fear, then love cannot flourish. Conversely, as St John put it, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18).
Because I think that the image of investment in today’s parable is about love. Financial investments are risky, and they can cost us; they require a sacrifice. So too do acts of love. Love is a risky business: it makes us vulnerable and there is a high likelihood that we will be hurt if we love. As C. S. Lewis said: “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken”. Herbert McCabe went even further and said that if we love we will be killed because we’ll be taken to the Cross with Christ.
The servant fears all this, then, and we might well be sympathetic. However, today’s Gospel calls us to something greater that goes beyond our natural fears. We are called to something supernatural which is why divine grace is given to human hearts. God gives us his grace so that we can behave not like a servant but a friend, indeed like an heir, like a son; we’re called to become like the Son.
He, the Crucified One, bears the wounds of love and he chose to become lowly, weak, and foolish in the eyes of the world. And he has chosen to share his love with us, that is, to teach us with his grace to love as he does: sacrificially, selflessly, courageously. His perfect love casts out our fear, so let us trust in God’s mercy and goodness and love. He cares for us, and he satisfies our deepest longings; he shows us the way of love. If we co-operate with grace, using what is given us in the sacraments, so that we truly love then we who are poor are rich, the humble are exalted, and the unlearned are wise. For such sacrificial love makes people become like Jesus. And he is, as St Paul says, “our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30).
Scripture scholars like to debate what it means to speak of a camel passing through the eye of a needle; some even think that the needle was a gateway in the walls of Jerusalem. But surely the meaning of this image – a comical one, even – is rightly understood by Christ’s disciples. They are astonished because camels simply cannot pass through the eyes of needles. As Jesus says, “this is impossible” (Mt 19:26). For it is impossible for Man, by his own efforts, to be saved.
Salvation cannot be bought or earned. If it were, then, according to our human logic those who are first will enter the kingdom first.
But Christ points to the divine logic of love and mercy which is different. Salvation is a divine gift, and although all those who rely on God’s grace and co-operate with it will ultimately be saved, Christ expresses the gratuitousness of salvation and Man’s utter need of God’s grace with this saying: “Many that are first will be last, and the last first” (Mt 19:30). Clearly, a different logic, quite different from human calculations and ideas of mere fairness and justice is at play. For our being saved by Christ isn’t fair; salvation isn’t about justice because it is not naturally owed us. Rather, salvation shows us God’s mercy and goodness – it is sheer grace. Thus, the Preface in today’s Mass says: “When [Man] was justly condemned, in mercy [God] redeemed him through Christ our Lord”.
Still, what is needed on our part as sinners is a recognition of our complete need of God, our need of his mercy and grace and forgiveness; our need to repent and turn to him. The reason why this is especially hard for a rich man is spelt out in the first reading from Ezekiel. There the prophet says that “your heart has become proud in your wealth” (Eze 28:5), and the rich man is thus prone to thinking: “I am a god” (Eze 28:2). He has, therefore, no need of a Saviour. How often, in our technological age which has seen more riches than ever before, have we heard people say that God is irrelevant?
Moreover, the danger is that the rich, the clever, the gifted person thinks that he can master and manipulate most things, including, salvation. As such, salvation is no longer the gift of our Master but, rather, within Man’s mastery, something we can grasp and earn and acquire. This tendency can be seen when we think that we do things, like pray, or venerate the Eucharist, or go to Mass, for God’s sake. But of course we do these things for our sake because we are in such need of God and his grace. God has no need of us as such.
The perennial temptation which is to invert things, as Ezekiel says, and for sinful Man to deny his need for grace, is what Jesus warns us against in today’s Gospel. Hence, in the Mass, we turn again to the Lord, and we say: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. The Word spoken into our lives is Jesus Christ. He is our healer, our forgiveness, our God who saves. Thus, at his word, “all things are possible” (Mt 19:26) even for us camel-like sinners.
Today hidden things are being revealed through parables. The prophet Jeremiah enacts a parable which shows us the hidden corruption of sin, while Christ tells a parable which speaks of the hidden transformative activity of grace. And both is at work in the human person.
So, in the First Reading the waistcloth stands for God’s people, and so, it represents you and me, who are called into a very intimate union with God through baptism. Just as in the baptismal liturgy a white garment is used as a symbol of one’s Christian dignity, so here a white linen loincloth is that symbol. But that cloth is hidden in a cleft of the rock, where the waters of the Euphrates river run over it. The Euphrates represents Babylon, a symbol of foreign power, idolatry, and sin. And so, hidden and unseen, sin, which is foreign to God, corrupts the human person, weakens our moral character.
This corruption does not come from the actual commissions of sins, as such, but something more subtle, and thus, hidden. It refers, I think, to an attachment to sin. St Francis de Sales explains: “weak and lukewarm penitents… would be very happy if they could sin without being damned; they speak of sin as something regretfully lost, and of sinners as though theirs were the happier lot”. This attachment to sin, St Francis de Sales says, “not only places you in danger of relapsing but is a constant source of weakness and discouragement, preventing you from doing good readily, diligently and frequently”.
I think we can all recognize this attachment to sin; repeated confessions where there is no firm purpose of amendment because we don’t really hate our sins. Rather, we are still hidden in the cleft of the rock, where the waters of the Euphrates run over us and slowly render us weak, discouraged and ultimately “spoiled” (Jer 13:7). Hence, we need to be removed from all attachment to our sins, and this is only possible if we see its disasterous effects, and why particular sinful acts are so harmful. Jeremiah’s actions, then, are meant to show us the effects of sin, rendering one “good for nothing” (Jer 13:7).
On the contrary, that which renders us good is God’s grace. As we said in our Collect, without God, “nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy”. So, we stand in absolute need of him, utterly dependent on his grace to accomplish any good. As such, God brings us to an awareness of our sins in order to spoil our pride (cf Jer 13:9), and so, to turn us back to him in humility so that we learn to cling to him, and to co-operate with his grace.
For God’s grace is not completely absent, even in the heart of sinners. His grace goes before us to move us to repentance, so that, having been forgiven, we can become holy, sanctified by grace. This grace at work in us, moving us to repentance and then to holiness, is also hidden and unseen, like leaven hidden in the flour (cf Mt 13:33). But whereas our hidden attachment to sin corrupts, the grace hidden in us, if we co-operate with it, transforms us for the good. Like yeast in the dough grace causes us to rise up to a new life with Christ who is the Bread of Life. This truth is being enacted now in the Eucharist for we receive here God’s grace, and we pray that we will be so open to the workings of God’s grace that, as we say in the Offertory Prayer, the Eucharist will “sanctify our present way of life and lead us to eternal gladness”.
It’s sometimes said that children should be left to decide about their religion when they grow up; anything else, it is polemically said, is tantamount to child abuse. Such nonsense, not least because it utterly fails to grasp what faith is. For such people, religion comes across as a bunch of abstract principles and faith is something private. Today’s feast challenges this.
Faith, as we Christians know it, is relational. As such, faith is rooted in personal relationships; in the histories and stories that people tell especially within families and societies; and it is expressed in social culture, in our human ways of relating and doing things together. Religion, properly understood, then, is the expression of one’s faith, particularly faith in God, who is thus to be worshipped and adored and thanked. But religion, then, is not something one picks up later in life, like a commodity or basket of private practices. Rather, it is directly related to one’s faith, to who God is revealed to be; it is founded on a living relationship with him.
And today’s feast recalls that this relationship with God, especially our incarnate and personal God, is rooted in personal and incarnational ways: in the family, in a community. For today we honour St Anne and St Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, grandparents of our Lord Jesus Christ, and hence, our grandparents too. In honouring them, we also remember and are grateful to all who have handed on the Faith to us: our families, teachers, priests, nuns, religious brothers, and fellow parishioners and friends – the wider family. As Pope Francis has said: “Faith is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion… Faith is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers. It is against this ecclesial backdrop that faith opens the individual Christian towards all others” (Lumen Fidei, 22). In the community, then, we learn that faith is relational and incarnational; that the Word became flesh in a human family, culture, and social network. And, so, faith culminates in love.
Cut off from this relational context, children don’t just decide on a religion when they grow up. Rather, they often don’t decide at all. How can they, when they have no existing relationship with God? When they don’t know Christ? People who have come to know Christ later in life are largely drawn by the friendships they have with other Catholics, which is why we each need to introduce Christ, our greatest and truest Friend, to our friends. But this assumes, of course, that we indeed know and love him. I’ll never forget a best friend of mine who became a Christian several years after she left university, but I’d known her for years, and never really mentioned my faith to her. She asked me: “Was I not enough of a friend to you for you to introduce me to Christ?”
The wisdom of the Catholic Church, then, coming from centuries of lived experience is to baptise children, as I did this morning. We wash children in the sacred waters of baptism not to brainwash them, as some ignorant people think, but to introduce them into a living relationship with Jesus Christ who is the fountain of life; who is the Truth and the Source of human happiness. We do so within the embrace of two families: the natural family from which the child is born, and the supernatural family of the Church into which the child is re-born. Held within the Church and together with one’s grandparents, parents and relatives, our relationship with God – the life of grace – grows and we journey together to our heavenly motherland. We journey as a communion of saints into that holy communion of Love that is God: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.