The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
The prayer Actiones nostras, which was prayed as the ‘Collect’ today, is an ancient prayer of the Roman church. In the Dominican rite, it was said just before Mass began for it is a prayer fittingly said at the beginning of any task or good work. So, as we embark on our Lenten journey, taking up our Cross with Christ and following Jesus, it is fitting that we begin this task of Lent, the good work of these 40 days, with this prayer.
A more literal rendering of this prayer might be: ”Prompt – or go before – our actions with your inspiration, we pray, O Lord, and further them – or continue them – with your constant help, that every one of our works – or our service – may always begin from you, and through you be brought to completion”.
The truth being expressed in this prayer is that God’s grace is necessary for every good work, every holy action. It is God’s grace that prompts Man to act, his grace that accompanies and sustains the good act, and his grace that brings it to completion. Hence, as we begin the season of Lent with God’s grace, we do well to pray that God will give us the grace to persevere over the next six weeks, and that all our actions, all the good resolutions we’ve made this Lent, will end well and be perfected by God’s grace. Thus, prayer, which teaches us to rely on God’s goodness and mercy, is a vital and foundational part of Lent.
As Pope Francis said yesterday: “Lent is a time of prayer, a more intense, more diligent prayer… In the face of so many wounds that hurt us and that could harden the heart, we are called to dive into the sea of prayer, which is the sea of God’s boundless love, to enjoy its tenderness”.
There is this sense in today’s Collect, too, of our every action being immersed in God’s love and goodness. There is no angst and gritted-teeth violence against our wills, but rather, we allow God’s grace to support and sustain our good actions; we turn to him and rely on his goodness, mercy, and love to bring our good works to completion. If we’re immersed in God’s love and mercy like this, then even our failures and falls are not fatal but are forgiven, and we can be picked up by God’s grace to continue on our Lenten journey.
At the same time, today’s First Reading reminds us that we do need to use our human freedom to choose the good, and to will it, to desire it. So, prayer helps form our choices, and stirs up in us a desire for that which is good and true so that we can freely choose life and blessing, as Moses says (cf Deut 30:19). For God’s grace will not do violence to the human will – there must be a graced co-operation between God and Man.
Hence, Jesus calls us to “take up [your] cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). Because if we follow Christ; if we remain close to him through prayer as we carry our Cross each day – whether in Lent or throughout our lives – then we do not struggle alone. Lent, and indeed, the entire Christian path of discipleship is not a lonely journey, not simply a matter of my human will power. Rather we are called to walk with Christ, co-operating with his grace which goes before, sustains, and completes our good actions. Thus Jesus is with us, carrying our Cross with us. But it doesn’t end at Calvary. As the ‘Prayer over the People’ for today says, Jesus leads us along “the ways of eternal life” to God himself, who is “the unfading light”.
Yesterday’s readings allowed us to consider the sacrament of marriage, instituted by Christ as a means of our becoming holy; we saw it’s role within Jesus’ new creation of grace. Today’s readings allow us to consider another two sacraments, and the same question is asked: How do they aid our salvation and make us holy?
Let us listen again to St James’ words – they still form the essence of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, and the sacrament of reconciliation (Confession) in the Church today. The apostle says: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:14-16).
"Is any among you sick?" Placed in this context, we can see that both these sacraments are sacraments of healing; they’re an encounter with Christ the Healer. We’ll hear more about Confession in our Penitential Service later today, but I want us to consider at this time how the sacrament of the sick makes us holy.
People often think that the sacrament of the sick is primarily about praying for physical healing. Some seek a miraculous cure, or even – judging by those who ring for the priest after the person has died – a physical resurrection! But the primary gift that is conferred in this sacrament – and in all the sacraments – is grace which is necessary for our final salvation; grace that sanctifies us. So, this is what the Church teaches: “This sacrament gives the grace of the Holy Spirit to those who are sick: by this grace the whole person is helped and saved, sustained by trust in God, and strengthened against the temptations of the Evil One and against anxiety over death. Thus the sick person is not only able to bear suffering bravely, but also to fight against it. A return to physical health may follow the reception of this sacrament if it will be beneficial to the sick person’s salvation” (Pastoral Care of the Sick, §6). As such, it is clear that this sacrament is focussed on the goal of our entire Christian journey, which is union with God in heaven; salvation. Indeed, every sacrament is given by Christ to his Body, the Church, in order to facilitate, meaning literally, make easier, our journey to heaven.
So, rather than physical healing, as such, the primary healing that Christ gives through this sacrament is far more crucial, going beyond the natural to the supernatural. For the former is in the gift of skilled women and men – doctors and physicians – but the latter can only be given by God. Hence, when we are ill and dying, Christ comes in this sacrament to raise us up to a new life with him; the life of grace. So through the grace given in this sacrament, Jesus comes to carry our cross with us, to empower the sick person to suffer and die with him, and finally, to lead the sick Christian to paradise with him. This is what St James means when he says: “the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up” (5:15).
Hence, as we recalled yesterday, the Christian vocation always involves picking up our cross and journeying with Christ to death and resurrection. Each sacrament confers a grace that enables us to do that; to grow in holiness, and so, to become more and more like Christ until we are completely one with him.
A couple of days ago, Cardinal Muller re-affirmed that valid Christian marriages cannot be dissolved. Divorce is not possible, he said, since “Church dogma isn’t just some theory created by some theologians” but is “the word of Jesus Christ which is very clear”. He must have had today’s Gospel in mind when he said this. But when the Catholic News Service posted the Cardinal’s words on their Facebook page, it generated a huge and rather revealing debate.
Now, we’re not speaking here of cases where a spouse is abandoned or abused. In such cases, the Church advocates separation. Hence the Catechism notes that “there is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage” (CCC 2386). Nevertheless, even where there is a valid marriage and where there is some fault, a good number of people commented on Facebook that this doctrine had to change. Which suggests that some Catholics believe that Man knows better than God, or at least, that Jesus was mistaken. Such was the original sin of Adam, so such hubris is not new. A few said that a celibate man had no right to lay down rules on marriage. It’s uncertain if they were referring to Jesus or Cardinal Muller; the latter, I suspect, which makes the comment all the more ironic. And some said we needed more love and less doctrine. Except, of course, the Gospel says that, “as was his custom”, Jesus “taught” the crowds, that is to say, he gave them doctrine (Mk 10:1). And teaching, too, is an act of love, isn’t it, especially if it leads one to Truth and to the Good? But just as some rejected Jesus’ teaching then, so it appears that some would reject it today. And this, too, is nothing new for every sin is a rejection of God’s wisdom in some way.
But where is the Gospel, the good news, in all this, then? As always, the Gospel is found in a vision of what God’s grace makes possible, transcending what nature by itself can achieve. So, Jesus recalls that in the first place, men and women were both created with equal dignity. But because of Israel’s “hardness of heart”, that is, because of sin this unity was disrupted. Man obtained power over his wife as though she were chattel that he could just “put away” (Mk 10:4). But Jesus comes to restore what was lost through sin, and to elevate nature through grace to a new supernatural end. Hence Jesus repudiates the concession made to sin and says that in his restoration and re-creation of the cosmos through grace, husband and wife “are no longer two but one flesh” (Mk 10:8). Indeed, Jesus then elevates marriage so that it becomes a sacrament, a sign of the new creation caused by grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus, as St Paul says: “This mystery [of two becoming indissolubly one flesh] is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:32).
However, we are still likely to find this teaching hard to grasp. So did the disciples, hence they “asked him again about this matter” privately (Mk 10:10). They wanted to be sure that they understood Jesus properly, and so he explains himself in even more blunt and plain language. It is in utmost fidelity to this explicit teaching of Jesus Christ that Christ’s disciples today, that is, his Church continues to teach that valid Christian marriages are indissoluble. We can do nothing else but be faithful to Jesus’ teaching.
But it’s not surprising that we should find this difficult. Because although Christ has given us his grace to live as his new creation, and although his Spirit dwells in our hearts, we still find ourselves very much attached to former habits, still very much surrounded and influenced by the old sinful self and its ways; we still struggle with sin. As St Paul says, then, we need to let our old selves die so that a new will arise with Christ (cf Rom 6). Hence, living the Christian call to holiness constitutes a cross, and discipleship means picking up our cross, dying to ourselves, and following Christ.
For those who have chosen to marry, marriage is a central beam of that cross. It is one that was freely taken up and committed to for life. As St James said: “let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation” (5:12). So, having made this commitment, the married couple have to depend on Christ’s grace and take up their cross. This means having to work at the marital relationship, learning to forgive, and stretching one’s heart and mind and life so as to make space for another. It means, ultimately, learning to love, and this is never easy. There will be falls and mistakes but these have to overcome with grace and faith, as both husband and wife strive for holiness. Hence, Christ’s vision of marriage is certainly possible and even joyful if we co-operate with God’s grace – the witness of countless Christian couples down the centuries testify to this. However, as so many saintly married couples show, it is certainly easier and thus objectively better if both parties in a marriage desire holiness, and, so, as “one flesh” both desire to learn from Christ.
The Church, then, is to be a facilitator of God’s grace and not an arbitrator (cf Evangelii Gaudium, §47). She exists to make it easier for us to co-operate with God’s grace and to grow in holiness. Hence Cardinal Muller says that “God’s mercy does not dispense us from following his commandments or the rules of the Church. Rather it supplies us with the grace and strength needed to fulfill them, to pick ourselves up after a fall, and to live life in its fullness according to the image of our heavenly Father”. If holiness is our goal – whatever our vocational state of life – then changing or removing Jesus’ teaching, or walking away from his Mystical Bride, the Church, certainly will not help.
Perhaps we can begin by considering what Jesus did not say in today’s Gospel. He does not say: “He who is not against us is with us”. So, there is still a distinction between those who are explicitly following Christ such as the Twelve, and those who are not.
Rather what Jesus says is: “He that is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40), and that the lone exorcist has been doing “a mighty work in my name” (Mk 9:39). This suggests that God’s grace is not limited to the Twelve, who stand for the Church. Rather God is free to grant his good gifts to all people, whether or not they are explicitly following Christ; whether or not they are Christians, therefore. As we were reminded in last Sunday’s Gospel, our Father in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). Hence, the Second Vatican Council could teach that “Divine Providence [does not] deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life” (Lumen Gentium, §16).
So, Jesus says in today’s Gospel that the apostles should not forbid the good that the man is doing in his name. For any goodness and truth comes from God. As we heard in St James’ letter last week: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (1:17).
But because there is still a distinction between those who do explicitly follow Christ and those who don’t, it doesn’t follow that the man who does mighty works in Christ’s name should not subsequently become a follower of Jesus Christ. Indeed, if the Church is to encourage all good and truth, and bring forth still more graces, then it needs to lead all men and women of good will to an explicit faith in Christ. Hence Vatican II goes on to say: “Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel” (ibid.).
It is in this light that the Holy Father said in Evangelii Gaudium, that “frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators” (§47). For this was what the apostles wanted to do: forbid the good being done, and thus control God’s grace. We’re not to do this. Rather, Christ’s Church has to facilitate God’s grace, that is to say, make it easier for people to grow in grace and virtue, to find the truth and good that every human heart naturally desires and seeks after. As such, the Church must evangelize, must bring all from merely being “for us” to being “with us” as explicit followers of Jesus Christ, visible members of his Body, the Church. Why? Because united with Christ in the Church we have easier ‘access’, so to speak, to God’s grace; more ready and sure means of growing in knowledge and love of God, and so, of being intimately united to One who alone satisfies the deepest desires of the human heart.
Thus, Pope Francis also said: “It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize” (EG, §266).
"The Gospel of the Lord", I said, which means: This is God’s Good News for us. And you said, "Thanks be to God". But did you mean it? Did what I’ve just read sound like good news to you? Was it something you were thankful for? Or did it sound like a burden, like an impossible demand, like yet more pressure? Should I have said: "The Bad News of the Lord"?!
But of course, the Gospel is not bad news. So, where’s the good news in today’s reading? Today’s passage is actually just part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which takes up three whole chapters of St Matthew’s Gospel; it’s quite significant. And the good news in the Sermon on the Mount is that it holds up a vision of who you and I are called to become.
It’s not surprising if you and I feel greatly challenged and somewhat disturbed by the Gospel today because we haven’t quite lived up to the Sermon on the Mount. Because the only person who has fulfilled the Law perfectly is Jesus Christ himself. Only Christ has loved so perfectly that he doesn’t just fulfill the external demands of the Law but the purity and goodness of heart, the love, that animates the Law. For the Law, ultimately, is fulfilled by Love, and Christ is Love incarnate.
So, when Jesus presents the New Law today, his Law of Love, he is also in effect saying: “Come, follow me” (cf 19:21). For Jesus Christ is who you and I as Christians are called to become. Now, this sounds impossible, and if it were, then today’s reading would be bad news. But in fact it is good news precisely because it isn’t impossible. I grant you it is not easy. It will require sacrifice – we will have to take up our cross and follow him (cf Mk 16:24) – but it is not impossible.
As Our Lady was told, “With God nothing will be impossible” (Lk 1:37). And this is the point; here is the good news. Because of Christ’s Incarnation, God is with us; his grace is given us so that nothing will be impossible. So, if we co-operate with God’s grace then we will be re-made in the image and likeness of Christ; we will learn to love as he does, and so, fulfill Christ’s Law of Love. As St Thomas says: “What is primary in the New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit, shown in faith working through love”. So, the good news today is that the Sermon on the Mount is a possibility because we have been given this grace of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it has become a reality in the lives of so many saints, and of countless other Christians whose lives of grace are still hidden. So, the vision that is held before us today by the Sermon on the Mount is the vision of Christian sanctity; of the triumph of God’s grace in the lives of his saints. As the Dominican moral theologian, Servais Pinckaers says: “The purpose of the Sermon is to show us what the Holy Spirit wishes to accomplish in our lives here and now through his grace, if we respond to him with the Yes of faith, with the eagerness of hope, and with the availability of love”. Hence St Augustine has said that the Sermon on the Mount is “a perfect model for Christian living”.
And yet, to many people – even those who call themselves Christians – the Sermon on the Mount seems too hard, too unrealistic; an unlive-able ideal, especially in the 21st-century. Hence, many pressurize the Church to abandon Christ’s teachings found here and elsewhere, such as his teaching on divorce or the grave sinfulness of lust. But the Church doesn’t invent teachings, and if she did why would she choose such unpopular ones? In truth, the Church’s sole task is to faithfully hand on the Gospel she has received from Jesus Christ even when it is difficult to do so, even when people say these teachings are “irrelevant” or “outmoded” or, in our age, impossible.
But the New Law is only impossible if God’s grace is futile; if the Holy Spirit is powerless; if Christ is without Wisdom and Truth. And the Church can never say this. So, we Christians can never abandon Christ’s teaching.
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.
Solomon says: “I have built… a place for thee to dwell in for ever” (1 Kgs 8:13) but as he acknowledges a few verses later, God cannot be restricted to places nor contained (cf 1 Kgs 8:27ff) because he is infinite. Nevertheless, God chooses and promises to be present in certain defined places and objects such as the Temple that Solomon built. Certain things, then, are set aside for God’s use; dedicated as the Temple was in today’s reading, so that they become instruments of God’s grace and his “dwelling place” where he is present for us.
Why? Because we human beings are finite, and we are confined to certain places and things. So St Thomas explains that the sacraments are “necessary” because they suit our “human condition” which is to be bodily and to know things through the senses (cf ST III 61 1). So, because we are bound by time, place and matter, God also ‘binds’ himself to certain times, places and things through which he can be assuredly with us, and definitively communicate his grace to us. So, the sacramental order are a mark of God’s love for us, that he should come to us through material things, and guarantee to make himself, his grace, available for us.
We get a sense of this in today’s Gospel, where Jesus goes to the market places, to “villages, cities or country”, to where people are. In a broader sense, God goes to where we are, that is, in the created material order, and he gives us his grace through the bodily, sensate and material signs of the sacraments – bread, wine, oil, water, anointing, consecration, and so on. Thus, in today’s Gospel we hear that people longed to touch “even the fringe of his garment”; even something material. For it is precisely through material means that Jesus acts to heal those who go to him. Hence “as many as touched it [his garment] were made well” (Mk 5:56).
So it is that the realities of heaven are bound up in the things of earth. For by his Incarnation, Jesus has united God and Man, and the divine works alongside the human. So through material signs and human agents, through the sacraments of his Church, Jesus faithfully works to heal us, and he promises to always give us God’s saving grace.
But notice, it is not that human beings have restricted and contained God to the sacraments. For as Solomon rightly noted, God cannot be contained. Hence the Catechism says, God “himself is not bound by his sacraments” (CCC 1257). However, Christ is faithful to his promises, to the seven sacraments he has established, and we know for sure that God is always active and present in them. So the Catechism also says that it is we human beings who are bound by the sacraments, meaning that if we desire to touch the fringe of Jesus’ garments, if we desire his healing and grace, then we need to go to him, to use the sacramental means he has established in his Mystical Body, the Church. For here he has chosen to dwell for ever (cf Ps 132:14).
Today’s readings contrast two different crops with two fruit, both begin small - barely noticeable - and grow into something large and encompassing.
David reaps a harvest of deception and death because of his sin with Bathsheba. It begins small, with a chance event. The prophet writes quite casually: “It happened, late one afternoon…” And David sees Bathsheba bathing. He could have looked away, but instead, he lingered and took pleasure in the sight of Bathsheba’s beauty. So, the seed of desire is planted. And he waters this seed by inquiring about her; he wants to possess more of her, beginning with knowledge of who she is. And once he has this, he abuses his royal power. As we read: “He sent messengers, and took her”. And so, the small seed of an impure glance, becomes sexual desire, which is fanned into adultery. And to complete his sin, and reap its harvest of death, David finally arranges for Uriah’s death, so that he could take Bathsheba as his wife, and she could bear his son legitimately.
Our sins often start small, barely perceptible, but if we’re vigilant we can nip it in the bud, choosing to turn away rather than to entertain what begins as just a seemingly harmless glance. We can choose not to cultivate the crop of sin just as, at each stage, David could have done otherwise than to allow his impure desire to grow and develop until it bore the corrupt fruit of murder.
The following words from today’s saint, John Bosco, who was a beloved and gentle educator of poor youth in 19th-century Italy, could have been said about king David: “Some people think that they can pacify evil passions by giving in to them. This is a mistake… Our evil inclinations are like snarling dogs, nothing will satisfy them. The more one panders them, the more they demand.”
So, the Gospel today shows us that there is another crop we should cultivate. And it also begins small, and barely perceptible to begin with, but can grow enormous and change our lives, giving us eternal shelter within it. It is the seed of Christ’s grace planted in our hearts through the sacraments, and God’s grace grows so that we can rest in God’s goodness and enjoy his friendship. As St Paul says, “the kingdom of God… is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit” (Rom 14:17).
We cultivate this crop and allow it to grow by weeding out the sinful desires and habits that would choke it, by not allowing the small seed of sin to grow. Thus St John Bosco said: “Do you want to banish evil thoughts? Control your sight, taste, and hearing. Give up certain kinds of talk and books. This is the only way you will still your passions, be victorious, and enjoy peace of mind.” Now, controlling our desires, changing our habits, will require effort on our part. But we should not rely just on our will power but rely even more on God’s grace. All we need to do is to go to Jesus in prayer, in humility, in faith, and receive the graces he wants to give us to help us root out sin and to grow in his love.
As St John Bosco said: “Do you want Our Lord to give you many graces? Visit Him often. Do you want Him to give you few graces? Visit him seldom. Visits to the Blessed Sacrament are powerful and indispensable means of overcoming the attacks of the devil. Make frequent visits to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and the devil will be powerless against you.” Let us heed his advice!
Today’s Gospel continues on from yesterday’s passage, and we wondered yesterday if Jesus was somehow saying that he spoke in riddles so as to hide the secrets of the kingdom from some people. Today, it is clear that Jesus’ parables are not riddles to exclude anyone but, rather, they are used to shed light; to illuminate the secrets of the kingdom. Thus “nothing is hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light” (Mk 4:22).
For Jesus has come to reveal the hidden life of God himself; he has revealed the blessed Trinity to Mankind, showing us by his works and his words that God is love, a holy communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And the way in which we come to know this intimately is through the sacrament of baptism which is also called the sacrament of enlightenment, of illumination. For through this sacrament, that which is secret – the hidden inner life of God himself – comes to light for Man is initiated into the life of God. So, Jesus says in St John’s Gospel: “O righteous Father… I made known to them your name, and I will make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn 17:26).
Hence, when we are baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity, God’s name is made known to us, and the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us. This is the effect of sanctifying grace which is first given to us in baptism.
Now, again in today’s Gospel, Jesus repeats a phrase which we also heard yesterday: “If any man has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mk 4:9, 23). This refrain is the key to unlocking the parables and the gifts of grace given to us. “Let him hear”: this means that we have to co-operate with God; we have to be receptive to Christ’s Word, and open to his teaching, and freely choose to say ‘yes’ to God’s grace. Then, the parables do not become riddles that confuse us but shed light on our lives to teach us to live as Christ lived; then the sacraments do not become mere empty rituals but become a source of mercy and new life for me. So, let us hear; let us be open to God’s grace, and seek to do his will. In other words, let us love God. For as Jesus says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn 14:15).
Finally, Jesus says: “the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you” (Mk 4:24). St Thomas comments that “the measure of charity is the measure of one’s union with God” so the more we love God and keep his commandments, the closer we will grow to God. Indeed, we will grow so close to God that we shall partake in God’s divine nature, and share the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. This is the “still more” that will be given us: divinity itself which is what the saints enjoy in heaven. Hence, sanctifying grace which makes us saints over the course of our lives is also called deifying or divinizing grace: grace that makes us divine!
But why does Jesus say: “from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”? I think this warns us that if we will not “take heed” to hear his Word (cf Mk 4:24), if we will not be receptive to his grace and if we do not keep God’s commands, then we will fall into mortal sin, and so, lose sanctifying grace. And the sad result of this is the death of sin and of being without God. Hence Jesus says to each of us, to you and to me: “Take heed what you hear” (Mk 4:24). That is to say, let us be sure to hear Christ’s teaching, listen to his Word of life, and obey him. For God’s Word is “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 118:105), revealing to us the hidden life of the Triune God.
Today’s Gospel passage contains what many scholars agree is the most difficult part of St Mark’s Gospel. How are we to understand these verses: “And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven” (Mk 4:12f).
What this seems to suggest is that Jesus spoke in parables, or indeed, riddles (because that’s what the word parabolos could mean) in order to exclude; in order that some may remain “outside”, and so not be forgiven. But is this really what Jesus means?
To begin with, Jesus is citing Isaiah 6:9-10 which, in its original context, was about the prophet Isaiah’s foreseeing of the failure of his mission to convert the people of Judah because of their hardness of heart. In the New Testament, this text is referred to here in Mark’s Gospel, and also in John’s Gospel and St Paul’s letter to the Romans to explain why the Gospel of Christ is not universally accepted. It is not that Jesus intends to obscure God’s will from us through riddles; after all, elsewhere the Evangelists say that Jesus taught in parables precisely so that he might be more readily understood. Rather, this difficult passage is, as in Isaiah, a foretelling of the fact that not all will turn to God to be forgiven. For sin blinds us to God’s grace, and hardens our wills so that we are stubbornly unreceptive to God’s grace. So, the tragedy is that, despite the preaching of God’s mercy and grace, some will persist in their sin and so, choose to be excluded from “the kingdom of God”. We see this even today in the Media’s commentary on Pope Francis’ preaching of mercy, compassion and grace. So blind are some to the reality of sin that they think that the Holy Father’s emphasis on God’s forgiveness means that there is no longer any such thing as sin. But mercy presupposes sin!
Hence, the parable of the Sower which precedes this passage points out that God’s Word is preached generously; his grace is given to all. However not all will accept this grace and so, not all will be saved. This mystery of our salvation is rooted in the awesome gift of human freedom – we can choose to accept or reject God’s gifts, to follow the teachings of Christ and his Church or not. This mystery of our human freedom is alluded to right in the heart of the Mass. When, in the words of Consecration, Jesus says that his blood is shed “for you and for many”, this is not to say that Jesus did not die for all humanity. He did. But these words (taken from St Mark’s Gospel) also point out that not all will necessarily be receptive to God’s grace and accept the gift of salvation through the shedding of Christ’s blood.
Hence, today’s readings prompt us to pray that our hearts will not be hardened by sin but softened by Christ’s precious blood before Which we say ‘Amen’. Let that ‘Amen’ be the ‘yes’ of our wills to all that following Christ entails, so that we will not “fall away” from him but be fruitful in God’s grace. So, let me end by praying an ancient prayer said at the end of a Homily: “God our Saviour… we implore you for this people: send upon them the Holy Spirit; may the Lord Jesus come to visit them, speak to the minds of all, dispose their hearts to faith and lead our souls to you, O God of mercies”. Amen.