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.
One word recurs in our readings today: glory, from the Latin gloria. But what, really, do we mean by glory? Usually, I think this word evokes light, brilliance, and splendour. And these are related to the Greek word for glory, which is doxa. But if we look at the Scriptural origins of glory from the Hebrew word kabod we find something rather unexpected. Glory, coming from kabod is related to weight. So, in contrast with our association of glory with soaring flights of angels, light, and uplift, glory, coming from the Hebrew kabod, denotes a quality of being heavy with weight, wealth or nobility, or with exceptional goodness. Glory, in this sense, implies the wealth and power of the king, his riches and worth, because of what he has done. Or we can think of an Olympian or a soldier who has achieved glory in athletics or combat, and is weighed down with medals; their weightiness proclaim what he has achieved, they glorify him.
If we translate this idea to God, then kabod, glory, signifies the wonderful work that God has done in creating all that is, and it tells of what Christ has achieved in dying, rising again and ascending into heaven. For God’s greatest work, his heaviest impact, his glory is seen in the salvation of sinful humanity; in our being brought from the death of sin to the fullness and abundance of new life in the risen Lord Jesus. Thus St Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is Man fully alive”. The glory of God is you and me, being re-born through grace as sons and daughters of God, sharing in the divine life of Christ, being one with him in the communion of love that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (cf Jn 17:26).
This tremendous work of God’s grace that lifts up a sinner to become a saint, beckoning Mankind to “Come” and enjoy freedom and life in the Trinity (cf Apoc 22:17), brings about the glory of God. And the effect of God’s grace is glorious, and this is probably why the word ‘glory’ has come to connote light, brilliance and uplift, because the effect of what God has done for us, what his grace causes, is to raise sinful Man up to share in God’s light and divine life.
However, the idea of God’s glory, kabod, is still related to weightiness because each saint is like a shining medal glorifying God, signifying who he is – our Creator and Redeemer – and what he has done – united the saint to God’s self through grace. For each and every saint, beginning with St Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, witnesses to the triumph of God’s grace. Stephen’s life and death testifies to what God has done for weak, frightened and sinful humanity through Jesus Christ, which is to re-make each human person in Christ’s image, strengthened with his virtues. Thus, Stephen’s death, which completes and seals his life’s work, is deliberately portrayed by St Luke as mirroring Jesus’ death: both innocently condemned, executed outside the city, and died forgiving their killers.
The work of God’s grace that re-fashions us in Christ’s image is weighty, heavy business; the work of our sanctification and our salvation is impressive, world-impacting, life-changing. As such, it’s also glorious. And kabod does carry this notion of being heavy with goodness. In this sense, we might speak of the weight of our vocation as Christians. For we’re called to be holy, we’re made for glory, and this will involve a certain expectation of what we’re called to do. This gives a certain weightiness to the moral choices we make, and heavy sacrifices will be necessary. For love demands sacrifice, as the life of Christ and of St Stephen shows us, but it is only through love that we become like Christ, that we are united and become one with God who is love.
In 1970, Pope Paul VI did an unprecedented thing. He declared not one but two women saints to be Doctors of the universal Church, and we celebrate the feast of one of those women today: the lay Dominican saint and mystic, Catherine of Siena, who is also patroness of Europe.
St Catherine lived in the turbulent 14th-century when there was much warfare among the Christian states of Europe, and under the influence of the powerful French monarchy, the pope no longer lived in Rome but in Avignon. This came to a climax in 1377 when French and Italian factions competed for the papacy and cardinals under their influence ended up electing two popes, thus bringing about the Great Western Schism that lasted until 1417. But this schism could only have happened because the Church was in serious need of reform: the clergy was corrupt, beset by scandals, and the laity were morally and doctrinally lax.
Hence, through deep prayer, penitential austerity and mystical experiences, Catherine was called by God in 1370 to care for the spiritual sickness that was then afflicting the Body of Christ. She was to be a doctor to the Church, called to heal the Church’s disunity and corruption which, in her words, disfigured the beautiful face of Christ’s Bride with leprosy. The disunity of the Church and the sins of her members – lay and clerical alike – were a great wound to Christ’s Body, and St Catherine bore this wound in her own body. For in 1375 she received the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – and she bore these invisibly until her death in 1380, when she would die at the same age as Christ, thirty-three.
For the last decade of her life, Catherine wore herself out travelling throughout Italy and France speaking and pleading with influential people, writing almost 400 letters to urge Christians to seek peace and unity, and imploring the pope to reform the clergy and to return to Rome – the symbol of the Church’s unity – which Gregory XI did in 1377. But his death shortly afterwards led to the schism, which weighed heavily on St Catherine.
So, she’d laboured to heal the Church’s disunity but she seems to have failed at the end of her short life. Yet, she is a Doctor of the Church because in her saintly life she taught us a most important lesson, and one which is ever relevant, especially today.
St Catherine knew that the reform of the Church was not primarily about politics and structures and bureaucracies. Rather, the Church is animated by the Holy Spirit, and so, she has to be healed spiritually, made whole by God’s love first. Hence, St Catherine offered her whole life of austerity, penance, fasting and prayer, as well as her ministries out in the world, for the love of God’s Church. So, Jesus promised her that “With these prayers, sweat and tears, I shall wash the face of my spouse, the holy Church”.
For Catherine knew, too, that reform was not ‘out there’ or the problem of the Roman Curia, or the warring cardinals. There can be much hand-wringing about the need for institutional reform, but St Catherine knew, rather, that the problems were also very much hers. As she put it “I have slept in the bed of negligence. This is why so many evils and ruins have befallen your Church”.
Thus, Doctor saint Catherine’s remedy for the sins of the Church was to look to her own sins, and to repent and change her ways. Because she knew that the only soul she could change and cause to co-operate with God’s grace, to conform to Christ’s will, was her own. So, reform of Christ’s Church comes through each of us as members of the Body of Christ striving to be faithful to Christ and our Christian vocation; each of us allowing Christ the divine Doctor to heal us so that we can play our proper part within his holy Body. Hence, through the “prayers, sweat and tears” of the saints, Christ himself will purify and reform his Bride; it is his Church.
With this fundamental knowledge and faith in Christ, and love for Christ’s Mystical Body, St Catherine became a saint, and so can we today. May she pray for us, for God’s Holy Church, especially in Europe, and for our lay Dominicans for whom she is patroness.
Several things might have struck us about our new Holy Father last night. Firstly, he chose his papal name in honour of St Francis of Assisi, a universally popular saint who appeals to Christians and non-Christians alike. A saint renowned for his love of holy poverty, simplicity and austerity of life, humility and a zeal for re-building Christ’s Church. And the man who appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s seemed to have these qualities. He, the first Jesuit pope appeared in the simple white papal cassock – said to have been modelled on the white Dominican habit – bearing the name Francis. And he spoke simply, prayerfully, and then bowed in humility before the crowds to receive their – our – blessing before he, in turn, blessed us. Simplicity, humility, prayerfulness. Are these not qualities we associate with St Francis, which is why he is so loved?
But, it seems to me, the reason why we are drawn to such qualities is because of who they point to ultimately: our God. These works, so to speak, bear witness to Jesus Christ, who in humility bowed down to earth and was born of the Virgin Mary; our God who shares our poverty, our sufferings, and our alienation; Emmanuel, God-with-us. As the works that Christ does bears witness to the truth, to who God truly is, so, the works that we do as Christians bears witness to Christ, testifies that God is love and mercy. Moses learns this by first having to be merciful and compassionate himself, pleading with God for clemency. It seems that only when we ourselves have learnt these ‘works’ of humility, mercy and love, which reflect God’s true glory, then we can understand who God is, and, as his witnesses, attract others to him.
Hence, the work of rebuilding the Church, of restoring God’s glory to his Mystical Body, of witnessing to Christ and the saving truth of the Gospel does not belong to Pope Francis alone, or to saints like St Francis, but to each of us. And it begins with each of us learning, as Moses did, to be merciful and compassionate, interceding, praying, for others – much as Christ does, interceding at the right hand of the Father for us sinners. Simplicity, humility, prayerfulness are to be our virtues, too and Pope Francis led the way for us last night.
For, surely, one reason why so many people do not believe in Christ is because I – we – are often such poor witnesses? So, in this Year of Faith, the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, has exhorted us all, as Christ’s Church, to undertake an “authentic conversion” to the person of Jesus Christ so that we can be better witnesses. We can have no better model of radical conversion to Christ than St Francis, who (as Pope Benedict XVI has said) “simply wanted, through the word of God and the presence of the Lord [in the Eucharist], to renew the People of God, to call them back to listening to the word and to literal obedience to Christ”.
Now the Holy Spirit has raised up another Francis. May he renew God’s People in the same way. Perhaps we have one little indication of how Pope Francis will act. St Francis of Assisi famously tore his rich garments, and left them at the feet of his merchant father as a sign of worldly renunciation. So, too, Pope Francis, in his letter for the start of Lent this year, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, has referred to the tearing of garments, or, more properly of our hearts. His words raise a challenge for us individually and as a Church:
“Rend your heart, not the clothing of artificial penance without [an eternal] future.
Rend your heart, not the clothing of technical fasting of compliance that [only serves to keep us] satisfied.
Rend your heart, not the clothing of egotistical and superficial prayer that does not reach the inmost part of [your] life to allow it to be touched by God.
Rend your heart, that we may say with the Psalmist: ’We have sinned.’
Rend your hearts, open your hearts, because only with [such a] heart can we allow the entry of the merciful love of the Father, who loves us and heals us… Changing our way of living is both a sign and fruit of a torn heart, reconciled by a love that overwhelms us”.
Rend your hearts to experience, in serene and silent prayer, the gentle tenderness of God.
Rend your hearts to hear the echo of so many torn lives, so that indifference [to suffering] does not paralyze us… Rend your hearts to be able to love with the love with which we are beloved, to console with the consolation with which we are consoled, and to share what we have received”.
In our trek across the Lenten desert today, we encounter not just one but two bushes. For the parable in today’s Gospel can be juxtaposed with our First Reading, which recounts Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. For the early Christians, the burning bush came to be seen as a symbol of the Virgin Mary, who was consumed by the fire of the Holy Spirit but whose virginity remained untouched. But, by co-operating with God’s grace, Our Lady became most fruitful, and she bore the most beautiful fruit of all: Jesus Christ.
In contrast, the parable presents a tree or bush which is barren; for three years it has produced no fruit at all. As such, it is fit only to be cut down and burnt up. This bush, I think, could well stand for us sinners if we do not co-operate with God’s grace. For although our loving God is ever-ready to save us from the barrenness of sin, God can only do so with us, and never without us. This means we have to engage our human freedom and act; we need to choose to co-operate with God’s grace.
This involves a change of heart, acknowledging our need of God’s forgiveness. Co-operating with grace entails repentance and willing a conversion of life that is made concrete in the sacramental means that God has chosen. And for some, this means will be as strange and as startling as the burning bush! But, it is the way that God has established. So, it is ordinarily in the sacrament of Confession that we truly encounter the living God (as Moses did), and we come into contact with God’s purifying fire; we are opened to his transforming grace, and receive his mercy and forgiveness. In the holy ground of the confessional, God says to each of us: “I have seen your affliction and heard your cry, and I am here to deliver you”. And, like Moses, we can choose to go to the Lord. Or we can choose to turn away and not co-operate with God’s grace, remaining fruitless. But if we go as Moses did, then we will see a great sight, and experience the wonders of God.
But the transforming work of God’s grace is often slow and gradual, and sometimes hard and messy, too. It is like gardening, and we have to repeatedly return to the confessional just as we repeatedly dig up and weed our gardens, and even, pile on the manure. So, in the Gospel parable, a gardener asks for a year’s reprieve for the barren tree. Here, I’d suggest that the gardener is the divine Vinedresser, God himself, and the year given for the barren tree to bear fruit is our lifetime. As such, each day of our lives is God’s grace-filled time, in which he patiently cares for us and coaxes fruit from our barren, sinful state.
God’s desire and plan is that, over a lifetime’s co-operation with his grace through repeatedly using the sacrament of reconciliation, we, the barren bush would become a burning bush. For, as we co-operate with grace, the Holy Spirit will inflame us with charity, divine love. And God’s grace is a holy fire that does not consume and destroy our human nature. Rather, grace perfects us and elevates our humanity. The result of co-operating with God’s grace is that we will flourish as human beings and flower in virtue, so that, we too, like Our Lady, will bear that most wonderful fruit, Jesus Christ. For grace transforms us so that we become Christ-like, partakers in the beauty and being of God.
Spring is a time for gardening, so, Lent (coming from the Old English word for spring) focuses our minds on God’s cultivation of grace in our hearts, and the vital role of confession in that, so that we are fruitful. The journey towards holiness, of course, takes not just forty days but the entire ‘year’ of our lives. But none of us knows how long that – our lifespan – will be. So, in the time we have, each precious day, let us make good use of the means God gives us, the sacraments, to receive his mercy and forgiveness, and to grow in his love.
The real wonder of today’s Gospel isn’t the staggering catch of fish, but the closeness of God to humanity. Typically, God is holy, indeed thrice-holy, and this meant being distant from the profane world. Hence, the Hebrew word for holy, qadosh, comes from the root qodesh, meaning to ‘cut off’ or ‘separate’. And God is separate from his creatures so that he remains clean and undefiled by sinners. This typically Jewish notion seemed odd to me at first, because I’m so used to the idea of God’s holiness transforming my sinfulness, but in fact, it’s common sense. No one uses a greasy cloth to polish glass, or applies a dirty brush to a clean shirt; the unclean soils the clean. And so, the traditional notion of God and holiness seems to be that God had to be separate and cut off from his creatures in order to be clean, pure and holy.
But this is not the God that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. The beauty of the Incarnation, of our Christian faith, is that we believe that God has become Man, has entered time and space, and walked, eaten and worked with his creatures, with sinful humanity. In the previous chapter of St Luke’s Gospel, an unclean demon acknowledged that Jesus is “the Holy One of God” (Lk 4:34), and he said “Have you come to destroy us?”, and Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to depart. This signals that, contrary to what had been thought, the unclean does not contaminate the clean. Rather, the Holy One drives away sin, evil, the unclean; God’s grace heals, redeems, transforms and purifies.
Thus, in today’s Gospel, the Holy One of God comes to sinners to be their salvation; this is the first time in St Luke’s Gospel that this idea is expressed. So, God is found, not in the Temple, or a designated place, but out and about by the lakeside, in the workplace of these fishermen, where we are. For Jesus shows that our holy God does not separate himself from us, but comes in search of us to make us holy by uniting us with himself and his mission.
God does this because God is love. For only love will impel us out of ourselves and all our self-preoccupied concerns for our own cleanliness, safety, and comfort, driving us out into the world to take risks for those we love. Hence, Christ’s action reveals that God is love, and what he does overturns the traditional notions of God as holy, and who thus stands aloof from his creatures. Rather, God’s holiness is seen in the depths of his love. God thus wills to take on the messiness of humanity, to become a part of his creation and get ‘dirty’, so to speak, and to even embrace a sacrificial death on the Cross.
A friend and I visited the National Museum of Scotland recently and there were so many things to see that we rushed around from one exhibit to another. But one display had us transfixed with morbid fascination. It was called ‘The Maiden’, a beheading machine made in Scotland in 1564, some two centuries before the French Revolution and the guillotine, and over 150 people had been executed by it. Today’s feast also seems to have at its centre an instrument of torture and execution, and it may appear somewhat gruesome or shocking, or even repulsive, to celebrate the cross. And it would be so, were it not for who the Victim of the Holy Cross is, and what he accomplished through it.
For God chose to mount the wood of the Cross as his means of showing the world the depths of his love for Mankind: a sacrificial love that is stronger than death, that conquers human violence, and that ends the reign of sin. The vertical and horizontal arms of the Cross thus remind us of God’s love that reconciles Man with God, and unites us to one another, through Christ who is our peace and reconciliation. At the same time, the Cross reminds us of the sufferings of humanity and of the wicked deeds we’re capable of inflicting on one another; a reminder of the wickedness of sin that Christ overcame on the Cross, and also that God is with us in our pain and suffering. Hence, the Cross reveals on the one hand the goodness of God and, on the other hand, the evil of sin.
Thus, the Cross becomes the true Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Eden, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit of that tree, greedy for the devil’s false promise of divinity, and so, by choosing to trust in another than God, their friendship with God was ruptured. But now, through Christ’s obedience and perfect trust in God, that dynamic is overturned. For, on the Cross, Jesus restores mankind to friendship with God and becomes the health-giving fruit of the Tree of Life, so that, whoever looks at it shall live. But we’re not invited to just look at the Cross but, moreover, to take up our Cross and to follow Christ: to follow him by learning to conquer sin in our hearts, to master our selfish desires, and above all, by learning to love.
Where does greatness lie? We celebrate St Albert the Great, Charles the Great (nominated a saint by the French!), and now, St Gregory the Great. Does it lie in breadth of learning, such as St Albert exhibited? Or in military prowess and political strategy such as Charlemagne had?
Some would say it’s a combination of both, which we can see in the life of today’s pope, Gregory I. He was born of a noble and wealthy Roman family c.540, and when he was a child Rome was sacked; the apogee of Rome. Gregory was well educated, and he became a monk, eventually turning his family home on the Caelian Hill into a monastery, dedicated to St Andrew. It’s still there. Gregory became a papal diplomat, sent to the imperial court in Byzantium to ask the Emperor for military aid against the Lombards but in 590 he was elected by acclamation to become the next Bishop of Rome. When the Lombards did invade, Pope Gregory organized the defense of the city, and eventually signed a treaty with them.
For popes were effectively governors of Rome at the time, so Pope Gregory had to shelter, feed and defend the people of Rome. When there were famines, he organized for grain from Sicily to be imported and distributed.
Pope Gregory’s papacy was also one of great evangelizing energy and reforming zeal. He sent monks to evangelize northern Europe, and among these missions was that of St Augustine to the Anglo Saxons of England. He reformed the Roman Liturgy, and is credited with codifying the Church’s heritage of sacred music that is still named after him: Gregorian chant. St Gregory’s copious writings form the basis of early medieval Christian thought. By his death in 604, he’d commentated on the Scriptures, written many sermons, collated stories on the life of St Benedict, and written hundreds of letters.
All these achievements, we might think, would amount to greatness. And yet, we don’t canonize saints for their political prowess and able leadership, as such. Saints are honoured because they display the greatness of God’s grace at work in their lives. As St Paul put it: “I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling… but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God”. Our greatness, as Christians, is found in how much we allow God’s power to shine through us, in the degree of our faith, hope, and charity which unites us more closely to Christ.
So, as St Gregory himself said: “Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom”.
So, as we celebrate the feast of this saint, let us give thanks to God whose Spirit has been given to us, anointing us for great things: “to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And these great things, Pope St Gregory certainly did.
Isaiah’s famous vision recognizes that God is thrice-holy, and the Hebrew word for ‘holy’ is qadosh, which comes from a Semitic root word meaning ‘to cut off, to separate’. God is thrice-holy because he is entirely Other from his creation. For he alone is Uncreated, the great I AM, and all else is created, deriving being and goodness from him.
But the wonder of God’s love is that he is not aloof from his creation, but rather, he desires to somehow bridge that otherness. So, God makes himself known to Isaiah, and God extends his friendship to Isaiah. This is seen in the reading as purification for it is only by being made holy, that is, becoming like God, the holy and sinless one, that we can have a kind of ‘equality’ with him in the way that friends love one another. And it is as God’s friend that Isaiah can be empowered and sent out with God’s word on a mission of love. We find this dynamic time and again in God’s relationship with humanity. As St John says: “We love, because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19).
This dynamic culminates in the Blessed Virgin Mary whom God makes pure and holy from the moment of her conception, not just so that her lips may be opened to speak his word, but, more astonishingly, so that her virginal womb might be opened to carry the Word made flesh. In Isaiah’s case, a burning coal is applied to his lips by the seraph so that he can speak God’s word. In Our Lady’s the burning ardour of divine love, charity, is applied to her so that she can give birth to God’s Word of Love incarnate. For from the moment of her conception Mary was infused with all the spiritual gifts and virtues, and above all, perfect charity, so that she could be Mother of the Lord.
“Behold the Lamb of God!” Every time we come to Mass, we hear these words, and today we celebrate the birthday of the man who first said this. We celebrate him who points to Christ; the Voice who announces the Word; the one whom God had prepared from the womb to prepare God’s people for the Lord’s coming, leading them to behold Jesus, the Lamb of God.
It’s often remarked that apart from the birthdays of Jesus and Mary, St John’s is the only other birthday we celebrate in the Liturgy. It’s so important that it even trumps a Sunday. Why? Perhaps the importance we give to St John emphasizes the importance of preparation. All good things require preparation, whether it is a meal, a birthday celebration, a sporting event, or a concert. And the more special and momentous it is, the more preparation it deserves. Otherwise the event may become a disappointment; stressful and lacklustre. Even more important than occasions are relationships. These also need preparation. Marriage, for example, comes at the culmination of years of friendship which prepares the way for committed love, union, and family life.
So, when God desires to enter into a personal relationship, and indeed, a marital covenant with his people, he first prepares the way. Before the event and the relationship of the Incarnation takes place, God sends St John to prepare and make ready his people for the coming of Christ.
This preparatory task of gathering Israel to the Lord, as the First Reading put it, is essentially the task of a priest. Which is what St John was. Born of parents who were both descended from Aaron, from the Old Testament line of priests, John was also a priest. Thus we find that John washes – i.e., baptizes – the Lamb of sacrifice, and he ministers around the Temple who is Jesus Christ. As a priest, John ministers to the people of God by preparing them for the Lord’s coming, so that they are ready to “behold him who takes away the sins of the world”. And he does this by “preach[ing] a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel”, as our Second Reading says.
But if preparing for the Lord’s coming is so important, what’s become of St John’s ministry?
It’s often said that Jesus asks St Peter three times if he loves him in order to allow him to overturn his triple denial of Christ. And Peter, because he loves the Lord, is thus entrusted with the care of Christ’s beloved flock, the Church. But there is so much more to this passage. For in fact, Peter is being invited on a journey, to follow Christ so that he will learn to love as much as Jesus does to the point of dying for his flock.
The Greek text of this Gospel makes this more evident, I think. Because the first two times, Jesus asks: “agapas me”. Agape in the New Testament is an unconditional pure love, the kind of unselfish sacrificial love that God has for us, the kind of love that goes to the Cross for the sake of sinners, and forgives those who deny and betray him. And Peter, in his three replies says: “philo se”. This is not quite the same pure love that Jesus has and that he asks of Peter, but the love of friendship. Now, friendship is the “most fully human of all loves”, a beautiful and precious love indeed, but it isn’t quite the supernatural divine kind of love that agape, charity, is. But it seems, this is all that Peter can give at the moment, his very best and fullest human love.
Father Leon Dehon, founder of the Priestly Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Congregatio Sacerdotorum a Sacro Corde Iesu) also known as the Dehonians, celebrating Holy Mass. According to former privilege granted to the missionaries in China,