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.
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.
Last July, Pope Francis famously said: “Who am I to judge?”, and it caught the world’s attention. The Holy Father had been asked about those with a homosexual orientation, and citing the Catechism, the Pope responded: “A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will—well, who am I to judge him?” And for some Catholics this was controversial; for many others, this was misunderstood as a papal moral license to do anything.
And yet the Holy Father’s attitude echoes that of the Householder in today’s first parable: “No… Let both grow together until the harvest”. That is to say that judgement of one’s good or ill is delayed until the harvest time when Christ will come as Judge. Until then, the Church is like that great tree in the second parable that shelters all the birds of the air. Christ’s Church is called, then, to be a refuge for sinners, a resting place for the weary, a home for all those who are seek truth, goodness and beauty; all kinds are invited to come and nest in her branches. And if anyone has seen a tree full of birds, it’s quite a lively noisy place, as they tweet away and, presumably, disagree and dialogue with one another.
But if judgement is made, and only those who agree with one another are gathered together, and all those who are judged ‘bad’ are excluded, then there is just silence, and hums of mutual agreement. Rather, the third parable has a vision of somewhat more confidence in the good and the true – it naturally attracts and grows and nourishes, like leaven in the dough. Interestingly, this, I think, is one of the instances when God is likened to a baker woman, mixing dough with the leaven of righteousness and truth, causing the dough of the Church and our world to rise up with the leaven of his grace.
Nevertheless, there are zealous servants who fear the damage and confusion caused by those who are deemed weeds. Who are these weeds? Pope Francis, I suppose, was thinking of people who are homosexual, who are written off by Christians and others because of they’re gay. It’s not difficult to find such zealous servants around especially in the Church - just yesterday, I read this sentence in a blog: “A lesbian who accepts her sexuality already defies church teaching just by existing”! But there are others, especially in the world, who would weed out and write off convicted pædophiles. Others still are written off because they’re deemed liberals or conservatives. Indeed, one can consider as a weed a whole range of labels and identities – based on what periodicals one reads, or what language one worships in, or what one does in the bedroom, and so on. But the bottom line is that the zealous servants believe that the Sower’s pure field, which should have only yielded good wheat, has been contaminated and confused by weeds sown by the Enemy.
But the Head of the Household, that is, Jesus Christ says: “Let both [weeds and wheat] grow together until the harvest” in case “in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them”. Here we see the patience of God, and his confidence in the power of grace to transform the sinner, to move one to repentance. As we said in our psalm response, the Lord is “good and forgiving”. But he can only be forgiving, only show mercy, towards someone who chooses to repent. This means, someone who we choose to include in our conversation and allow to nest in the tree of the Church; to grow in the field of the Lord. If they are judged immediately, and then excluded and weeded out now, there is no more opportunity for growth and change, less chance for repentance, no place for mercy and for God to show that he is good and forgiving. For because God is good, so we believe that he will also send the grace that moves us to repentance, to seek and receive forgiveness for sins.
In fact, those who would judge and act now to weed out the sinners have a more fundamental problem. They lack faith in the power of God’s grace. There is a kind of spiritual despair – the lack of hope – in believing that the evils of the world is stronger than the good; that the Enemy has won the war simply because he has won a skirmish or a battle. But the spiritual battle for the salvation of a soul is not over until the harvest time. Until then, God’s grace is still active and powerfully at work, even though it is unseen like the leaven in the dough, like the grain of mustard seed germinating underground. Until harvest time, repentance is still possible; a human person is still capable of change and conversion – that is our hope. And it is this hope, countering the despair and hopelessness all around us, that motivates the Church especially under Pope St John Paul II to oppose the death penalty, and to oppose the ‘Assisted Dying’ bill. Why? Because until one’s natural death, until harvest time, no zealous servant in the form of doctor or State should execute judgement and uproot the weeds.
This same hope of growth and repentance, then, this same faith in God’s redeeming grace, this same love of the whole human person and his whole life is what underlies the words of the Holy Father, when, echoing the Householder’s attitude, he says: “Who am I to judge?”
These are the words of a patient farmer who wants the Church to be that field in which both weeds and wheat can grow together. Because while there is growth and while there is time before the harvest, then there is also time for conversion, for change, for repentance. This requires, of course, on the one hand, that Christ’s true teachings are proclaimed and taught clearly and well, with sensitivity to people’s lived experience especially from among the saints. On the other hand, it requires of us a humble readiness to listen, to be challenged to grow, and to be open to change. The most terrifying thing is when a human person, who by nature is changeable, obstinately refuses to change. If our mind is made up and we believe that our opinions are necessarily correct; that there is no alternative way; that ours is the final word, then our growth is stunted – we may well remain weeds.
But in contrast to this, the Gospel of Jesus Christ keeps challenging every human person to grow and change and to be supernaturally perfected in grace, to become wheat. So, our minds must be opened up in repentance, metanoia, to humbly seek the Truth who is Christ. For as Pope Francis said in Lumen Fidei, “truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us”. The Gospel and the teachings of Christ’s Church also challenge us to grow beyond the fatalism of our age to see that nobody is doomed by genetics or sexual orientation or culture to behave in a certain way. No, Christ is the Way who leads to our fullest human flourishing and deepest joy. And it is he who is the final Word, God’s one Word spoken into our human lives and world with all its limitations, our weakness and sufferings, trials and confusion. Into this world, God’s Word is spoken, and his Word is “good and forgiving”, patient and gentle, forbearing and merciful and true. His Word is Love.
And so, this parable is not about moral relativism, nor does it say that the True and the Good is unknowable. Neither does it say that the sinner should be abandoned unchallenged or unrepentant. Rather, these parables tell of God’s Word of Love, about his grace patiently and powerfully at work in the world, converting and transforming the hearts of us sinners. God keeps faith with Man, hoping for our repentance, for more than we thought we’re capable of, more than the world cynically or ‘realistically’ expects. But the question is, will we keep faith with him? As Jesus asks in St Luke’s Gospel, when the harvest time comes, will he find any faith on the earth? (Lk 18:8).
HOMILY for the Wedding of Chris Oldroyd & Becca Coult
Songs 2:8-10, 14, 16a; 8:6-7a; Ps 128; Col 3:12-17; John 17:20-26
The readings that a couple choose for their wedding are very revealing. What might have gone through Becca and Chris’ minds when they chose these readings especially the first one? “Behold, he comes, leaping…” Was she thinking, maybe, of their romance begun on a dance floor? Why Not? Or perhaps of many a ceilidh celebrated here in the CSU? Then, again, the reading says: “Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet” Perhaps, then, Becca was thinking of Chris’ sweet singing in the CSU choir? Or maybe, Chris just fancied being compared to a “young stag”, although I don’t quite see him standing at the back, peering in shyly through the lattice screens! It may well be any of these reasons… But if I look at the other readings they’ve chosen, then I’d like to think that it may have to do with a CSU retreat last autumn. Both Becca and Chris were there, and together we’d explored my favourite book in the Bible, the Song of Songs, and I think they came away quite enthused.
The Song of Songs, as its name means, is the greatest song. Why? Because it tells of the greatest love story of them all: God’s passionate desire for Mankind. And the Singer of this love song is the greatest Lover of Humanity: God. For the entire history of God’s dealings with Man is a great romance, a love song that is still on-going and mirrored in the beauty of human love, of husband and wife. As Pope Benedict XVI has said: “Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love”.
And what is God’s way of loving? For millennia, through the prophets and through various messengers, God had been wooing Mankind from the very beginning, calling us into a relationship of love, of intimate friendship, with him. Again and again he has had compassion on his people when they fail, and he has shown forgiveness, mercy, great forebearence. So, in the second reading you chose, Becca and Chris, St Paul reminds you to become an image of God’s patient love to each other, “forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive”. And I know that you already strive to do this for one another.
However, when the prophets and kings and leaders fail, God at last comes himself to court us himself. Jesus is God’s Way of loving; He is Love made flesh. He, the eternal Word of God, gives voice to God our Beloved. So, the Song of Songs point to Jesus, the “voice of my Beloved” who comes leaping and bounding into human history; he comes to woo us in the Incarnation. As one of my favourite Christmas carols says: “Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love, This have I done for my true love”. Yes, for you and for me who are God’s true love, he has become Man. So, we are taken up into God’s love song; he is romancing you and me even now, drawing us closer into union with him through grace.
But notice that Christ doesn’t come and impose himself on us; he doesn’t break into our house. Rather, he stands “gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice”, waiting to be invited into our hearts, our lives. For – and again we should note God’s way of loving – love is courteous, kind, patient, gentle, and respectful of our freedom. He is waiting for us to let him in. Why do we fear? For see what our Beloved does for us.
Christ’s love song reaches its crescendo on the Cross, when he dies for us, offers his life and self for sinful humanity, even when we are undeserving. Again, God shows us the measure of human love: it doesn’t count the cost or what the other truly deserves, but is ever ready to sacrifice and so to suffer for the good of the other. The Dominican who founded this Edinburgh priory, fr Bede Jarrett OP put it this way: “Love finds words inadequate to hold all its deep meanings, and can only feel in sacrifice and in self-sacrifice a satisfactory outlet to its desires. Suffering is the only full speech of love”. So, on the Cross, the eternal Word-made-flesh speaks the full speech of God’s love: he dies that we might have eternal life.
As every mature married couple can attest, what you will undertake, Becca and Chris, will require sacrifice of you both, of a certain dying to self to make room for the other; in order that others, especially in the many children I hope you’ll have, may have life. Such is the way of Love, and it will sanctify you both; it will unite you ever more closely to Christ our Saviour; it is your particular path of salvation that you are choosing today.
But “love is strong as death”, we’re told. And so, Love brings with him new life and resurrection, even if Love demands much of us. Our Beloved says: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away”. So, when you feel weary and burdened, when your love for each other is tested, remember that God’s love will sustain you and raise you up to new life. He calls you “my love” – so, go to him and be loved and restored and strengthened by God. If we do, then, Christ will raise you up with him – “Arise”. God’s Holy Spirit will heal your wounds and makes you beautiful with his grace – thus he calls you “my fair one” and says your face is “comely”. And our loving Father wants, at last, to carry you away with him – “come away”, he says, and rest in his peace. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts”, St Paul says. In your marriage, Becca and Chris, always make space, make time, for Christ. Pray together, even as Christ prays for you; speak – or sing – of him to your children, even as the Father sings his love song for you; love God, who has first loved you and sustains your every breath with his love.
For, as the Song of Songs says: “My beloved in mine and I am his”. This, really, is the central refrain of why we’re here today. Here in the Mass, we celebrate God’s giving of himself – his Body and Blood – to us, and we say as his faithful People that we belong to him when we receive Holy Communion. And here in the Sacrament of Marriage, we see this reciprocal love of God and Man, of Christ and his Church, take flesh in your flesh, Becca and Chris. For you two shall become one flesh: one with each other in love even as you are one with God through Christ’s love, as we hear in the Gospel.
So, after this, as we all dance and sing, drink, feast and make merry, it is right and just that we do so. Not just because we’re Catholics, and Catholics love parties. But, more importantly, we love parties because we rejoice in God our Saviour. And wedding parties are the best because they give us a foretaste, a glimpse, of the joy and celebration of heaven itself, of eternal life in God.
We’ve heard the words of today’s Gospel three times in the last month since the feast of the Sacred Heart. What more can be said? I would like to share with you reflections of a somewhat more personal nature on this Gospel, but I hope that they are no less relevant for you because of that.
These words of Christ frame my life as a consecrated religious and as a priest. When I made simple profession in September 2006, this Gospel was read. It seemed to me, at the end of a novitiate year which can be trying and quite difficult at times, to be apt. Because whenever things seemed wearisome and I felt burdened by our life as Dominican friars, I turned to Christ in prayer; I went to him and felt rest. And often, I reflected, I felt weary because I had drifted away from Christ and relied mainly on my own efforts. So, together with Christ, lifted up by his grace, the yoke that is laid on us becomes sweeter and lighter.
For the yoke that Jesus lays on us is the yoke of love. Religious life, insofar as it is a perfection of the baptismal life of every Christian, is about learning to love as Jesus does. It is, as the Collect for First Profession says, about offering to God “a perfect gift of loving service”. And this is only possible with Christ’s grace, if I go to him and rest in his mercy and goodness.
In September 2011, when I was ordained a priest, I chose this same Gospel to remind myself of those thoughts that accompanied by Simple Profession five years earlier. But, this time, I reflected on the heart of Christ that I, as a priest of Jesus Christ, needed. Then, and now more than ever, I am still in need of a heart transplant so that my divided and often hard heart may become “gentle and lowly” like Christ’s. I had in my mind, the words of one of my brothers who examined me for the faculty to hear Confessions. He reminded me – not especially, I don’t think – to be gentle and kind. The grace of ordination, of course, doesn’t replace my heart with Christ’s heart immediately. As my Student Master said to me, we, with all our frailties and very human characteristics, are still the instrument cause of God’s grace, so the instrument must still be purified and improved by grace.
So, this Gospel read at my Ordination reminded me that if I wanted a heart like Christ’s, I need to go to him again and again, to remain close to him. Pope Benedict XVI put it so well in 2007 when he said to priests: “Taking the Lord’s yoke upon us means first of all: learning from him. It means always being ready to go to his school. From him we must learn gentleness and meekness: the humility of God who shows himself in his being a man”. So, again, when I fail in humility and gentleness, when I feel burdened by Christ’s yoke, I know it is because I haven’t gone to Christ, haven’t prayed and relied on his grace enough. So, today’s Gospel reminds me to go to him.
And, in fact, every time I celebrate Mass I am reminded of this. As I prepare to go to Jesus in the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, prayers are said to accompany every vestment we put on; they remind us of who we are and what we’re going to do at the Altar. So, when the chasuble is put on, I say this prayer: “O Lord, Who have said, ‘My yoke is sweet and My burden light’: grant that I may so carry Your yoke as to merit Your grace”. For the yoke of Christ, as Pope Benedict says, “is that of loving with [Christ]. And the more we love him and with him become loving people, the lighter becomes his seemingly burdensome yoke”. This is what comes to mind as I prepare to celebrate Mass, as I go to Christ in the Eucharist, and receive his Body and Blood. It is a prayer that he will give me rest by increasing my love for him and for his people, by transforming – not replacing – my heart with his grace, so that my heart will beat in tandem with his Sacred Heart.
A few years ago I made a point of visiting all the early Christian basilicas of Rome to look at its mosaics. In every one of them, either in the apse of the main arch over the Altar, these two great apostles of Rome can be seen. As the Office hymn for today’s feast says, Saint Peter and Saint Paul ennobled the city of Rome with their martyrs’ blood, with their heroic witness to Christ; so the first churches of Rome were ennobled with their images in beautiful mosaic artwork. I think that these images, or rather, how Ss Peter and Paul were depicted in the art of the Roman Church can offer us some insight into how we Christians from the earliest centuries understood their significance.
One of the oldest depictions of Ss Peter and Paul is the so-called traditio legis, the handing on of the Law, which is believed to have been found in the apse of old St Peter’s in Rome. A mosaic in the mausoleum of Constanza, dating to 325, as well as numerous 4th-century sarcophagi excavated from the Vatican necropolis all show Christ’s seated and giving a scroll to St Peter. In the Santa Constanza apse an inscription on the scroll reads: “The Lord gives the Law”.
I believe this image is a Roman adaptation of today’s Gospel in which Christ gives his authority to St Peter and, hence, to his Church. The image of the keys which we find in the Gospel is a royal image, echoing Isaiah 22, in which the key of David’s royal household is given to the royal chamberlain, Eliakim. However, Rome’s monarchy ended around 510 BC. Instead power and authority was vested in the Law and its legislature. In this context, then, the Scriptural handing on of the keys of authority to St Peter and the Church has been altered into a scroll of the law, but the idea remains the same. For Jesus says to his apostles: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them [and] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:18b-20).
In all the images of the traditio legis, both Jesus and St Peter hold on to the same scroll. For St Peter and his successors, the popes, do not have any authority of their own. Rather their authority is Christ’s who entrusts it to them; Jesus shepherds his Church through them and with them. What kind of authority is it? It is the authority of charity; the authority, therefore, to make disciples, to baptize and to teach Jesus’ commandments, the chief of which is charity. As such, the Church has authority to teach all truth in matters of faith and morals concerning the salvation of souls. And in these matters she cannot fall into error for Christ has promised to be with his Church always until “the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).
In particular, Jesus does this by guiding Peter and his successors, sharing his authority with the Magisterium of the Church. Hence today’s first reading can be said to vividly recount that God acts to lead and guide St Peter and his successors in his ways, freeing them from the prison of error. And this, essentially, is what the doctrine of papal infallibility is about – that the pope, and thus the Church, will not teach falsehood in matters of faith and morals.
So the popular idea that papal infallibility means the pope can do whatever he wants and change so-called Church ‘policy’ is itself an error. For, while popes can adapt the disciplines of the Church, they cannot change what Jesus has taught, what is handed on to the Church in Tradition and Scripture for all generations. As St Paul says to Timothy today: “I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). And elsewhere, in his letter to the Corinthians, he says: “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” (1 Cor 11:23). So, the image of the traditio legis, carved in stone and laid in mosaic, reminds us of where the Church’s saving authority comes from, and to whom St Peter and St Paul and, ultimately, every Christian is accountable: Jesus Christ.
As many converts to Catholicism have said, one of the key reasons the Faith is attractive is because Jesus has entrusted his authority to his Church through Peter, as today’s Gospel attests. And St Peter’s successors continue to ensure that Christ’s teachings are handed on intact. As Pope Benedict XVI said, the pope is “the one responsible for making sure that the faith that keeps people together is believed, that it remains alive, and that its identity is inviolate. But only the Lord himself has the power to keep people in the faith as well”.
This idea is related to a second type of apse mosaic which develops the older scene. In the 6th-century basilica of Ss Cosmas and Damian Christ is holding a scroll still and on either side are St Peter and St Paul. But instead of holding the scroll with him, with one hand they are both gesturing towards Jesus, and their other hand is around the shoulder of one of the patron saints of the church. It’s a beautiful and quite touching gesture of friendship, which is essentially what Jesus’ call to “make disciples of all nations” is. For discipleship is an invitation to friendship with God, and the Church’s task of evangelization, entrusted to every one of us, is to bring others to friendship with Christ. We’re called to say to our friends: “Let me introduce you to Jesus, my best of friends”. As Pope Francis says: “Being a disciple means being constantly ready to bring the love of Jesus to others… always keeping in mind the fundamental message: the personal love of God who became man, who gave himself up for us, who is living and who offers us his salvation and his friendship”.
But the Jesus whom we befriend and who we introduce to others has to be the real Christ and not one we’d prefer, who is made in our own image. Rather, we’re to be made in his image through grace. And where do we see his true image? He is the One whom the apostles Peter and Paul knew and introduced us to in the Scriptures; the Christ who is witnessed to in the Church’s Tradition; the Jesus whom we experience and love in prayer and the Liturgy. So, this mosaic reminds us of what the Church is: the fellowship of Christ’s true friends, who constantly look at his face, and who have one arm of friendship around others and the other hand pointing to Jesus as he really is.
Finally, there is a third and somewhat unique image of Ss Peter and Paul from the church of Sta Pudenziana. The mosaic dates to around 390, and it’s the oldest figurative representation surviving in a Roman church. Christ is enthroned in a senator’s toga, and all the apostles around him are dressed in Roman finery. Behind St Peter and St Paul stand personifications of the Church of the Circumcision (i.e. the Jewish converts), and the Church of the Gentiles (i.e., the rest of us), respectively. These four look directly at Christ who is looking across at us. Together the Jewish and Gentile Church represent the universal Church, the “all nations” into which Christ had sent his apostles.
This image, therefore, reminds us that Christ’s Church is both Roman and Catholic. This is to say that our faith comes from these two great saints who, Providentially, were martyred in Rome. Rome, as such, has a double dose of apostolic witness to the true Faith. Thus, our Catholic Faith, though universal and spread throughout the world, though necessarily diverse in culture and experience, is nevertheless rooted in their witness; strengthened and united by communion with the pope, the Bishop of Rome. For it is through St Peter’s successors, through the authority entrusted to them, that each of us can come to see Christ, to look at his beautiful face, as they do. And he? Jesus looks at you and me and he says: “I call you friends” (cf Jn 15:15). So let us not be afraid to go to him, led by the embracing arms of St Peter and St Paul.
It’s midsummer which means, for us in Scotland, long days and beautiful drawn-out evenings, often accompanied by a spectacular celestial display as the sun sets. Last night, St John’s eve, was one such evening. However, as the longest day has come and gone, so we know that the days are already getting shorter and, up here in Scotland, darker. For this is what midsummer spells for us, and this, too, is what St John’s birthday heralds.
And this is fitting because it reminds us of St John’s words: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). So, the advent of the holy Forerunner’s birth brings with it the decrease in the hours of daylight until we reach the winter solstice, until that time of year when we will celebrate the Saviour’s birth. The natural daylight decreases from the time of St John’s birth even as the supernatural light of grace increases until Christ, the light of the world, shines forth in the darkness and quiet of midwinter. Then, as the book of Wisdom says, “while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone”, that is, when we are half way through the night of winter, Thy all-powerful Word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne” (Wis 18:14f). So, today’s feast and the birth of the herald looks forward to that holy night when our Saviour is born.
Now, the thought of Christmas already in June might fill some of us with dread because of the worry of preparations and gift-buying, and so on. However, today’s feast reminds us of the only preparation that is truly necessary if we wish to celebrate Christ’s birth. Today’s second reading reminds us that “before [Christ’s] coming John had preached a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel” (Acts 13:24). So, we prepare for Christ’s coming through repentance, and it’s never too early or inopportune a moment for this.
For repentance, metanoia, is an on-going activity. It means, really, conversion, as I decrease so that Christ can increase in my life. Repentance means less and less of the sinful self that limits and restricts us so that we open our hearts and minds to make room for God’s possibilities and graced activity; so that Christ can be born in us, and his grace can flourish within us. We see this movement in Zechariah, for example, who has to repent of his doubt in the angel’s word, and so open his mind in faith to God’s loving plan of salvation, which is always greater than we can imagine. If we do so, trusting in God’s word and his plans for our good, then, what is said of St John the Baptist can also be said of us: “the child grew and became strong in Spirit” (Lk 1:80). For an on-going conversion to Christ means that we grow as God’s children, and become strong in grace until we are matured in Christ and transformed into his image; until we love and trust God our Father like he, the beloved Son, does. Then, even if our days grow darker and colder, we have the light of Christ and the warmth of God’s love.
This work of God’s transforming grace is thus heralded and preached by St John the Baptist. Thus he is given a new name: John, which means ‘God has been gracious’. And John’s mission of proclaiming God’s gracious activity will come to its climax when he points to Jesus Christ, to the One who is divine grace itself, and he says: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). With this proclamation, John’s mission will be completed, for as St Augustine says: “John is a voice [only] for a time, but Christ is the eternal Word from the beginning”. Then, the daylight will have decreased and faded for the true Light is come (cf Apoc 21:23).