The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
Today, the 21st of July, in the Roman Martyrology is commemorated the martyrdom of St Praxedes who died around 160. Hers is the name of one of millions of Christian martyrs, of those “faithful and true witnesses” of Jesus Christ, whom we barely recall; her feast isn’t even in the universal Calendar of the Church, although a great and beautiful basilica – one of my favourite, in fact – still stands over the site of her home in Rome. Santa Prassede, it’s called, and in that church Pope Paschal I brought the relics of some 2300 martyrs to rest there in the early 9th-century. And he did this because St Praxedes had great love and devotion for the persecuted Christians of her time, and for the first martyrs of Rome. The Roman Breviary recounts how St Praxedes, with her sister St Pudentiana, kept [some of the persecuted Christians] in hiding in her house, others she encouraged to profess the faith heroically, and the dead she buried. To those languishing in prison she brought needed assistance”. At last, on this day, she too was martyred and joined those holy martyrs whom she had honoured in life – she was honoured with eternal life.
Even now, in these difficult times, the roll call of martyrs is being added to – thousands of people whose names we do not know, and whom the Media cannot be bothered to recall or even report. On Saturday, almost 1700 years of continued Christian presence in the city of Mosul in Iraq ended. Mosul, incidentally, is the city in which the prophet Jonah (mentioned by Christ in today’s Gospel) was buried until the Islamists recently desecrated his tomb. So, in that historic city, the bells had been forcibly silenced months earlier with the arrival of Islamic terrorists, even as the Western world largely remained willfully silent to the persecution and oppression of our fellow Christians. Then the ‘Caliph’ issued an ultimatum. The Christians were to convert, or pay a fine (too large to be realistically borne), or leave the city; otherwise there was “only the sword”.
So this past weekend saw an exodus of Christians, literally stripped of their belongings by the so-called ‘Caliphate’ as they fled Mosul; the churches they left behind despoiled and burnt down, including the Archbishop’s headquarters; their homes seized as property of the so-called Islamic State. Just to put the numbers affected into perspective, and not to minimize in any way the suffering of other oppressed innocent peoples: the Iraqi Christians displaced since 2003 outnumbers by more than double the number of Palestinians displaced since the creation of the State of Israel. However, while Muslims took to the streets of Paris and other parts of France yesterday to protest the injustice suffered in Gaza, the Christian people remain, largely, silent in the face of this great historic atrocity and massive injustice in Iraq and across the globe. Online, there has been far more moral outrage over images of an American girl who was legally culling African game animals than over this!
I cannot say it urgently enough: the Body of Christ, his Holy Church, suffers multiple wounds as we Christians are the most persecuted people in the world. The blood of the martyrs, like the blood of Abel, cries out to heaven for vengeance. We cannot stand by silently and uncaring like Cain. At the very least, tell your neighbours and friends about what is happening; bring the brave witness of the 21st-century martyrs to light, and honour their memory by naming them before God in prayer, and before other people in whatever way you can.
The prophet Micah says today that our God asks us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [him]” (Mic 6:8). So, in justice, we owe our persecuted brothers and sisters our attention, our concern, our prayers, our action. It is a kindness to them that we help them in any way we can. And let us walk humbly with our God, in solidarity with the suffering Body of Christ, and with gratitude that we still have the freedom to worship him and bear witness to the true Faith openly. So, I’m able to wear my habit and walk the streets of Edinburgh praying the Rosary, for example, and I am largely unmolested. But we cannot take these liberties for granted.
The only news so far from our Dominican brethren is that the priory of Notre Dame al Saah in Mosul had its doors smashed in yesterday morning. We do not know the state of the interior or where the friars are, nor is there current news of the sisters. If they are not dead or captured, we have no doubt that they are humbly walking alongside God’s suffering people, bearing witness to God’s Love with their fellow Christians, our martyrs of this current age. Together, the Christians of Mosul are the “something greater than Jonah” (Mt 12:41): they are a sign of faith in Christ’s Resurrection (cf Mt 12:40). Many among them will be the St Praxedes-es of our time.
So, this Mass is being said to pray for them that they may have courage and grace in this suffering, and to honour and love them, even as St Praxedes honoured and loved the persecuted Christians of 2nd-century Rome. It’s the very least, in one sense, and in another sense, also the very most, we can do for them.
May God have mercy on them and on us all, and may St Praxedes and all the saints of Syria and Iraq pray for all the persecuted Christians around the world.
Every day we hear stories of mounting violence and terror around the world, of grave evils done, particularly against Christians. The terrible story of Naboth who is falsely accused and stoned to death; his inheritance, a vineyard, taken from him is another tale of evil done. And yet, Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “Do not resist one who is evil” (Mt 5:39). How are we to make sense of this?
Our instinct, I think, is to defend ourselves against evil and to seek to prevent evil done. Recently, one of the offices in our chaplaincy was broken into so we have been seeking to secure the building more effectively. But does this mean that we are resisting evil? Does Jesus forbid self-defense and preventative measures against possible evils? One might come to such an erroneous conclusion if we read this teaching in isolation, which is why it is so dangerous to quote Scripture selectively. Rather, we need to read this teaching in its context.
This section of the Sermon on the Mount begins with Jesus saying: “You have heard it said…” So, where have we heard it said “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Mt 5:38)? In the legal codes found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and also in the Code of Hammurabi and in Roman Law. Hence, in Jewish, pagan and Roman law, we have heard this said. This alerts us to the fact, then, that Jesus is addressing the legal practices of his time, and these laws regulated revenge and retaliation for damages suffered. If I am injured, how much compensation does the law allow me to sue for? This is the question being addressed by Christ, and the attitude underlying it is, in part, a desire for justice, but moreover a desire for vengeance and retaliation. And the law allowed this because it sought to limit the degree of vengeance one exacted, to make revenge proportionate. So, the law “an eye for an eye” was seen as an advance in public morality because it put an end, in theory, to an endless cycle of vengeance. In ancient China, by comparison, it was not unheard of for an entire clan to be wiped out for a single harm done.
But Jesus, the divine Lawgiver, comes among us, and in his Sermon on the Mount gives a new law for a new redeemed humanity. It is the law of Love, and the most perfect practitioner of this law is also the one who preaches it: Jesus Christ. Christ’s law of love seeks to put an end to the attitude that underlies the old law; an attitude that could be so destructive, and even consume the person who is wronged. Indeed, the rise of violence in our world in our time can be said to be due to this. This attitude is the human desire not just for justice or self-preservation but for vengeance, revenge and retaliation. And this sinful attitude is in all of us; deep down we want ‘them’ to pay and, at the very least, to suffer as we have suffered. So, St Jerome comments on Christ’s new law of love, saying that “Our Lord, by doing away all retaliation, cuts off the beginnings of sin”. Personal vengeance and vindictiveness, then, is stemmed by love. And this is Our Lord’s first concern, that we should not risk, even for the sake of justice or some other good, falling into sin.
However, we might still ask, is the evil-doer to be simply unchallenged and uncorrected, then? No. The answer is found in God’s response to the evil done to Naboth, which we’ll read tomorrow. But, if I may give away the story, God says to Ahab: “Behold, I will bring evil upon you” (1 Kgs 21:21). Hence, St Paul says: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Rom 12:19). For the Lord is just and will not allow evil and injustice to have the final word.
Rather, it is his Word, risen from the dead, who will vindicate the saints, judge and punish the evil-doers, and conquer evil. Indeed, St Thomas says that the exercise of divine justice is the “direct cause of the joy of the blessed” in heaven. However, this response, in which we wait for God’s justice to be done, calls for faith and hope. Thus Christ’s law schools us in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
“One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see” (Jn 9:25). St Paul also describes coming to faith with stark simplicity: “Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph 5:8). But we know that faith in Christ is not a once and for all event, nor is it without difficulty and struggle. Because of Jesus the man born blind could now see… But, he was also placed in conflict with those around him, including his own parents. We may have each experienced moments when following Christ puts such demands on us that it seems more like a burden or even an imposition, and faith is an inconvenience. For some, its light has faded to become just a cultural tradition, something we keep up for our parents’ sake. But the blind man remained firm despite the difficulties because he experienced the sheer goodness of what Jesus had done for him in such a direct, life-changing way.
A few years ago a BBC programme that purported to reveal the secrets of the Bible said that Christians believe that Mankind is “fundamentally bad”. But that’s just wrong. If it were true then faith would be a pointless burden. We begin with the deprivation of sin and evil, just as today’s Gospel begins with the reality of the blind man’s condition, but we don’t end there. Our human reality continues with the good news of what God does for Mankind, and what he wants to accomplishes in every human person. Seeing the blind man, Jesus goes and gives him sight, showing the gratuitous love and goodness of God. Without our asking, God freely comes to us to give us what we lack. Faith is not imposed; it is a gift as necessary and obviously desirable as water, or sight, or life itself, but which we can either reject or accept.
The blind man chooses to accept, and he stands for those who would be baptized, especially at Easter. So, Jesus, who is the One Sent, asks us to wash in the pool which (we’re told) means ‘Sent’; we’re called to be baptized in him. And as Adam was created from the clay, so Christ anoints the blind man with clay as a sign of the new creation he is working, for grace re-fashions us in the image of the new Adam; we are a new creation. But it is the first words spoken by the man born blind that hint at something more. The blind man’s words are somewhat obscured in the English translations, but in Greek it stands out. “Ego eimi” - “I am” (Jn 9:9); the divine name. For baptismal grace fashions us in the beauty of the Son of God, and so we are adopted as sons of God; we become partakers in the divine nature. God is so gracious and bountiful to humanity that he doesn’t just restore to Man what he lacks, God freely gives what Man could never attain for himself. Only God can give sight to a man born blind; only God can give eternal life and divinity to mankind. Hence Jesus says that it is through the redeemed sinner, through giving sight to the man born blind, that “the works of God might be made manifest”.
So although we begin with the abasement of man in original sin, the Christian journey of faith continues with man’s healing by Christ, his transformation in grace, and his exaltation to the lofty inheritance of divine life itself; eternal joy and light in the Blessed Trinity. This sublime goal, this gift, is why the journey of sanctification, indeed, divinization, is worth taking despite the difficulties, struggles, and sacrifices we may have to endure. So countless saints, whose lives show the triumph of God’s grace at work in them, have shown this.
God’s work, however, is not completed with baptism. If I were blind from birth, suddenly being given sight does not mean that I would be can actually see. The brain needs to learn to interpret what the eye takes in. So too, when we’re moved from the blindness of sin to the light of faith, we also need to learn to live as “children of light” (Eph 5:8), to grow in grace and virtue, and live as sons and daughters of God. We need to see what this means.
And this is where the demands and hardship of faith and life in Christ comes in. As the blind man grew in understanding of what Jesus had given him with each challenge that he faced, so his relationship with Christ deepened. In fact, as the blind man preached his faith, and suffered for it, becoming increasingly isolated, and finally “cast out”, so that his life was shaped in the image of Christ Crucified. His life became closely identified to that of God’s Son. After he is cast out, Jesus finds him again, and says: “You have seen [the Son of Man], and it is he who speaks to you”(Jn 9:37). But how has the man born blind seen Jesus before? Notice that earlier on, Jesus had left before he’d gone and washed in the pool. So, how have we seen Jesus, the Son of Man?
Today’s readings challenge us to see things from God’s perspective, from the perspective of Love. For the human way is to judge purely by appearances, to be impressed by status, wealth, and power. This is the worldly perspective that James point out, and it follows a conventional Jewish idea that the righteous are blessed with riches and power, and that poverty was a curse on the sinful. But Jesus overturns this.
So, in the Gospel, there is a comparison between how men – the world – understands Jesus, and how his disciples are to understand him. The world sees Jesus like just one of the prophets, a fairly conventional perspective, I suppose. But Peter speaks rightly when he says that Jesus is not just any prophet but the Messiah. However, the conventional Jewish idea of the Messiah was that he would topple empires, fight for Israel’s liberation from Rome, and restore power to the Jewish nation. And it’s clear from Peter’s reaction that although he knew Jesus was the Christ, he was unwilling to let go of this conventional vision of the Christ. It comes from a worldly perspective that is allied with power, violence, and riches.
And it is this perspective that Jesus rebukes and overturns. Because the divine perspective is one of Love, so that the Messiah comes in humility to serve, to teach, and, above all, to suffer. That is the way of Love, and it leads to the Cross. And it is this perspective that we – Christ’s disciples, the Church to whom James’ letter is addressed today – are to learn. And so it is that we’re ultimately judged by Love. Not by our riches or lack, which do not matter much to God, but by whether or not we have learnt to love as Christ loves, to see the world and other persons from God’s perspective of Love. If we do love, we will be led to the Cross, where we are united to Christ in suffering, but we can take heart because we will also have the promise of rising to a new and divine life.
We live in a time when there are so many words. As the Guardian website is called, ‘Comment is free’. Thus everyone feels free to comment, to venture an opinion even when one is ignorant and uninformed. About a year ago, someone went out on the streets and asked people what they thought of the new pope, when, in fact, there wasn’t one. But this did not stop people giving their opinions and commenting on the non-existent. Unfortunately, this was videoed and put on YouTube, which served to show the wisdom of St James’ advice today: sometimes it’s better to say nothing, to admit our ignorance; to be “slow to speak” and “bridle [the] tongue”.
In our age of citizen journalism, of Twitter, Facebook and blogs, we have to be even more vigilant about what we post and what we say. Very often we do not have all the necessary facts before us, so prudence and justice demands that we be more “quick to hear”, to listen in charity and present the views of those we disagree with fairly, as we see St Thomas Aquinas do in his writings. So, we’ll need to take more time to gather facts, reflect and think, rather than to rush and hit the ‘Retweet’ button. These words of St James, I think, are especially pertinent to religious bloggers and digital citizens today: “If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain” (1:26). Hence, Pope Benedict said in 2012: “Learning to communicate is learning to listen and contemplate as well as speak. This is especially important for those engaged in the task of evangelization: both silence and word are essential elements, integral to the Church’s work of communication for the sake of a renewed proclamation of Christ in today’s world”.
So, rather than to stay seated in front of our computer screens or on our smart phones, from which we rush to comment on the world around us, perhaps we need to contemplate the world we wish to comment upon. This is what St James counsels: “visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and… keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27). We may understand in this a call to social justice and outreach, as well as a call to contemplative prayer, of silence before God. Hence, the Holy Father repeatedly encourages us Christians to stop gossiping, and to get out into the world to serve those at the margins. In Evangelii Gaudium, for example, Pope Francis says: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (§49).
Many people have been enthused by Pope Francis and inspired by his words. But that is not enough. As St James says, we need to be “be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (1:22). So, maybe we can begin with a ‘SmartNomination’. This is an initiative that was started as a riposte to the Neknominations craze – it challenges us to go out into our neighbourhoods and do an act of kindness for those in need. Consider yourself all nominated, not by me but by St James. As he says: “a doer that acts; he shall be blessed in his doing” (1:25).
In 2009 a debate hosted by ‘Intelligence Squared’ was held in London. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world’, and before the debate began only about 38% of the audience were for the motion. But by the end of the debate, those who said the Catholic Church was a force for good in the world had decreased to 12.5%; the largest swing ever in an ‘Intelligence Squared’ debate.
By way of contrast, consider that around the year 360 the Roman Emperor Julian had written a letter complaining that his attempts to revive the Greek and pagan religions in the Roman empire were not as successful as he’d hoped precisely because the Catholic Church was being seen by too many as a force for good in the world. He noted that “the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause”. And he also bemoaned that “it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [the name given by Julian to Christians] support our poor in addition to their own”. So, by their good works – the kind that the prophet Isaiah mentions – the early Christians gave glory to God the Father, and at the same time they were valued by society; they were valued as salt and light for the world.
So, a Lay Dominican said in our recent Dominican Seminar in Leeds in January, we Christians should have such a positive impact in our present-day society that, if we were gone, we would be missed. So, at the very least, I think the ‘Intelligence Squared’ debate should give us pause for thought.
What has changed? Some might say that the world has just lost its taste for salt; society no longer wants what we offer. But I don’t think the 4th-century Roman empire was all that different from ours; it has always been hard to peddle salt in a world already flavoured with so many exotic spices and tastes. So, as Pope Francis observed, “Some people nowadays console themselves by saying that things are not as easy as they used to be, yet we know that the Roman empire was not conducive to the Gospel message, the struggle for justice, or the defence of human dignity” (Evangelii Gaudium, §263). Nor was it any easier when St Paul preached to the thriving Roman city of Corinth in the 1st-century. Corinth was itself a city on a hilltop, shining with the light of Greek philosophy, cultural achievements, and rhetoric. But faced with this St Paul brought a humble and unsophisticated message: “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Yet the Truth of this Gospel message would shed a light that outshone the Roman empire.
So, perhaps it is that the salt has lost its taste? How does this happen? If we look again at the image that Jesus uses, there is an interpretation of the cultural context behind Jesus’ words that is rather compelling. In Palestine where wood is scarce, cakes of dried animal dung are used as fuel. And these light up ovens made of earth. It is a common practice still seen today. However, 1st-century Palestinians also placed a flat plate of salt on the bottom of these ovens to activate the dung fuel. For the salt had a catalytic effect that helped the dung to burn, thus resulting in fire and light, and ultimately, the bread that was being baked in the oven. After a few years, a chemical reaction causes the salt to lose its catalytic effect, so it has to be thrown out and replaced; it has lost its saltiness.
So the salt, as it were, grows tired after a while and has to be renewed; it is no longer capable of igniting fires. So, too, a Christian community can grow tired and insipid, or even, to use the literal meaning of the Greek word in the Gospel, ‘foolish’ (cf Mt 5:13). If one has lost the savour of the Faith, one is no longer capable of acting as a catalyst that transforms the culture; of producing the light that comes from our works of practical mercy and justice; of igniting the fire of sacrificial love in hearts. And so, the world only sees such Christians as fit to be thrown out and trodden under foot; many, it seems, might not miss us if we are gone. A good few may even throw a party!
How, then, shall our saltiness be restored? How shall salt be renewed so that it is again a catalyst for love and a force for good? Only by our being transformed by an encounter with “Jesus Christ and him crucified”. Thus, Pope Francis said that “Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is nothing else than the culmination of the way he lived his entire life. Moved by his example, we want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world” (EG, §269). What the Pope is alluding to is the Beatitudes, which are found in the verses immediately preceding today’s Gospel (Mt 5:3-12). And this is fitting because it is by becoming men and women of the Beatitudes, and so becoming more like Christ Crucified, that we are salt of the earth, capable of firing up the world with God’s transforming love.
Recently, there has been much hope for change and renewal in the Church but in fact reform does not simply come about from changing structures, or from papal decrees, or overhauling the Roman Curia. All this may be of some import, but they can amount to nothing if the most basic and essential change does not happen. Indeed our concern with official reforms and Ecclesial politics and debate can be a distraction from this most vital reform, namely, the conversion of one’s heart and the reformation of one’s mind – of my heart and mind – to Jesus Christ and him crucified. For our history shows that in every age it is not structures but saints who have reformed Christ’s Church and transformed the world.
Hence, at a time of great internal strife in the Church, the Dominican mystic St Catherine of Siena said: “I have slept in the bed of negligence. This is why so many evils and ruins have befallen your Church”. Or, when Chesterton was asked what was wrong with the world today, he replied “I am”. Therefore, Pope Francis has said quite emphatically: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her” (EG, §3).
Will you and I dare to take up this daily invitation from Christ and his Vicar?
You’re probably familiar with the phrase “count your blessings”. So, why was David punished for apparently doing this? How had he sinned? In fact, what David did was not to count his blessings, as such, but to count what he believed was his. He thought he’d conquered and owned Israel and all within it, and it was his right to make a census of the resources available to him. And it was certainly an impressive number.
But Israel belongs to God, and so does all in it. Indeed, as the psalm says: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps 24:1). For all being owes its existence to God, so that life itself and everything we have is a gift, a blessing, something we receive from Another.
David’s grave sin, then, was to disregard this and to think that he owed God nothing; he’d earned it all himself. And the temptation to think this, and that we’re therefore independent of God, is always present. The money we have, the things we buy, the achievements we attain, the lives we’ve built – there is the danger of thinking that all this is simply my own, that these are somehow rightly due, or owed, to me and my efforts alone. Then God’s blessings become my entitlements, my property, my rights. As a consequence, life itself is owed to me, taken for granted, and indeed, totally subject to my control. Even grace and salvation can become things that God must give me, that he owes me. Thus many people are so indignant about the notion of hell, as though God owed us heaven no matter what we freely choose to do with our lives. Or people claim it is unfair to be held eternally accountable for our unrepented sins. But something can only be unfair or unjust if what is owed us is not given to us. But does God owe us life? Do we have a right to his mercy and forgiveness? Must he save us and give us eternal life?
God does not owe us anything at all. Not even existence, let alone salvation and eternal life. As God said to St Catherine of Siena: “Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you will have beatitude within your grasp. You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS”.
Beatitude, then, is seeing that despite our nothingness God does give us being. Despite our sinfulness, he is merciful to us. Although we do not deserve it, God does desire to save us and give us a share in his divine life. And he does all this not because he owes them to us. Rather, he owes it to himself, who is Love, to be gracious and merciful to us; to come and heal and save us. So, it is for the sake of his Son, Jesus Christ, and by his merits, that God redeems us and gives us eternal life. Hence, St John says that “from [Christ’s] fulness have we all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16). So, when we truly count our blessings, we realize that everything we have, beginning with life itself, is a gift, a blessing, a grace – undeserved and unearned.
How, then, can we respond? The psalmist says: “What shall I render to the Lord for all that he has given to me? I will lift up the Chalice of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps 116:12f). In the Dominican rite, these words are said just before the Offertory of the Mass because the Eucharist is the only adequate response to all we owe God. But God is so generous with us that even the Mass is his Gift. For it is through Christ’s grace that we can be here; that we are united to Christ in baptism so that, together with the Son, we can offer our whole being to the Father in love, in obedience, and in worship. So, “let us give thanks to the Lord our God” for “it is right and just”.
In this final week of Christmastide after the great Epiphany to the Magi, the lectionary presents us with a series of epiphanies, of moments when God reveals himself to humanity; times when divinity is so near to us. Hence, we’ve heard of great signs of healing, miraculous works of feeding, and Christ’s power over the elemental storms. For in these diverse ways, Jesus reveals his divinity and that he is God-with-us.
In today’s Gospel, we could say that St Luke sums up these epiphanies, these signs of God at work in the world, especially through healing miracles. Tomorrow’s Gospel will reiterate this as we hear of the healing of a leper. However, although physical healing is an important sign of God’s presence among us, there is something else which St Luke adds especially. For although Luke is principally quoting Isaiah 61:1-2, he has inserted a line from Isaiah 58:6, where the prophet outlines the features of a fast pleasing to God. So, into the prophecy of what Christ, the One who is anointed by the Spirit, will do, St Luke adds that he will “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Lk 4:18).
Now, of course Christ has, fundamentally, by his incarnation, set Mankind free from the oppression of sin and death. Thus, the psalm which we have been hearing every day since the Epiphany, when this was revealed to all nations through the Magi, says: “From oppression and violence he redeems their life” (Ps 71:14). However, we should beware of simply spiritualising what Christ has accomplished. This, it seems, is St Luke’s concern. Thus, he inserts a line from the practical works of mercy and justice given by Isaiah in chapter 58. And if we look there we find these words: “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bond of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free… Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn…” (Isa 58:6-7).
Therefore, the light of God’s presence among us, the epiphany of God’s glory shines on us when we are just and loving to the oppressed and needy; when we show practical mercy and compassion to the poor. Our first reading reiterates this by saying: “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). But, then, St John suggests that we have seen God, or rather, his son Jesus Christ. We have seen him because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). So, we see Christ in other human persons, dwelling in their flesh, in our flesh.
For through his incarnation, Christ has united his divinity to our human flesh; he has redeemed humanity in the flesh. So, “the flesh is the hinge of salvation”, Tertullian says. Hence it is in the flesh that God is seen and that his salvation for all peoples is revealed. For as Isaiah says, the hungry, homeless, and naked are “[our] own flesh”. Thus, when we care for our own flesh, meaning, not just our own bodies, but for every body; loving all peoples who are oppressed by poverty, violence, and injustice, then, in our acts of justice, mercy and of love, God is seen and his glory is revealed – they are an epiphany.
The great refrain of Christmastide is: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14), and we recognize that in the Babe of Bethlehem, divine Love is made visible. Today’s feast picks up on these themes in its own way. For, as our Collect said, the Holy Innocents followed Christ “not by speaking but by dying”. So, words are insufficient – they have to be followed up by action; love has to be made visible in the flesh. What the Holy Innocents do, or have done to them, is that they die for Christ, in his stead.
Originally, today’s feast celebrated the Flight into Egypt. But very early on the Church was moved – by a motherly instinct, shall we say – to honour these Holy Innocents who were killed by Herod. In doing so, the Church broadened her understanding of Christian martyrdom. Martyrdom, witnessing to Christ, does not just encompass those who explicitly and consciously choose to die for Christ, such as St Stephen. We see today that martyrdom includes an implicit discipleship; an anticipated following of Christ who said that there is no greater love than to die for a friend (Jn 15:13). For in the death of the Holy Innocents, truly actions speak louder than words. They die for Christ, who is the truest Friend of Humanity. But they also die as victims of a tyrant.
The megalomanic’s lust for power, and the cut and thrust of politics made these Holy Innocents of Bethlehem the victims of violence and military might. And as innocent victims of the world’s evil, these saints are being honoured today as the first martyrs to be redeemed by the grace of Christ and suffer the so-called ‘baptism of blood’.
To my mind, today’s feast has a particularly contemporary resonance. Each year, I think of the millions of unborn babies in the womb who have been killed – victims of those who wield the power and presumed right to choose whether these holy innocents live or not; victims of gender politics, and our sinful world.
But this year, when we have seen so much warfare and violence especially in Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, the Middle East and Africa, I think, too, of the many children whose innocence is killed and whose lives are ruined by power, politics, and violence. The UN estimates that there are “300,000 child soldiers in at least twenty countries in the world today. As well as being forced to fight, children are used as spies, couriers, cooks and cleaners. Girls are often forced into sexual slavery”. And, “right now, children are fighting across the [African] continent: in Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some are abducted or forcibly recruited, others are driven to join by poverty, abuse and discrimination, or to seek revenge for violence enacted against them or their families. Children are more likely to become child soldiers if they are separated from their families, displaced from their homes, living in combat zones or have limited access to education. Children may join armed groups as the only way to guarantee daily food and survival… these children are responding to economic, cultural, social and political pressures”. And all of them are, in some way, victims of tyranny, power, and the corruption of our world that matches and even exceeds king Herod’s.
So, it is for all these innocents that I pray and offer this Mass today. May the Christ Child have mercy and redeem them by his grace, and may the Holy Innocents in heaven pray for them. And, moved by a motherly instinct, may we – may the whole Church – work for the eradication of these and the other abuses of children, always giving voice to the voiceless – but not just in words but also in actions. For they, too, long to see the Love of God made visible in Christ, that is, in us, his Mystical Body on earth.
Many of us will know Saint Margaret’s chapel in Edinburgh Castle. Reputedly the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh, it dates to the reign of King David I (1124-53). But the saint we celebrate today is even older. She was King David’s mother, and she died in the Castle in 1093. But although Queen Margaret of Scotland never worshipped in the chapel named after her, it is the one remaining structure closest to her time, and, I think that through it one gets a sense of the woman and the saint we celebrate today.
This building is quite literally, a survivor. It has survived sieges, wars, and being battered by the wind, snow and rain. Margaret herself was a survivor. She was born a princess of Wessex, but not in England. Her father had been exiled from England in 1016 when the Danes invaded. So, she was born in Hungary around 1045. At the age of 12, she returned with her family to England, but when England was again invaded, this time by the Normans, in 1066, Margaret and her family had to flee to Northumbria. But a storm drove their ship off course, and they landed in Scotland. So, St Margaret was a refugee, a survivor of war, violence, and both political and natural storms.
St Margaret’s chapel, with its thick stone walls and low ceiling gives one a sense of strength, austerity, and endurance. This is fitting as St Margaret was certainly a strong person to have endured and weathered all this turmoil in her young life. But what gives St Margaret’s chapel it sense of solidity and firmness, I think, is how its rough stone walls seem to blend into the very rock on which the Castle stands. So, too, St Margaret’s strength comes from the Rock on which she built her life: Jesus Christ.
Her being founded on Christ – her strong faith in him – was expressed in spiritual works and corporal works. Thus St Margaret was renowned for her austerity, her piety and devotion. After her marriage to King Malcolm III in 1070, she would read him stories from the Bible, rise at midnight for Matins, and she invited Benedictine monks to establish a monastery at Dunfermline. In this way she sought to bring the Scottish Church closer to the rest of the Catholic Church. Her childhood on the Continent had given her a greater sense of the universal Church than people on these islands might have had, and her son David would continue her efforts in this area.
St Margaret’s firm faith was also expressed through the corporal works of mercy she carried out daily. As the website of Queen Margaret University notes: “Queen Margaret was concerned with works of mercy and giving and particularly with the care of the poor”. So, she would wash the feet of beggars, she fed orphans and the poor before herself, and she tended to the sick. And she did this because, as our Gospel reminds us, she saw Christ in them.
Finally, I think something can be said about the way St Margaret’s chapel stands humbly and often unnoticed, dwarved by the grand War Memorial and other Castle buildings around it. We’re reminded, thus, of the saint’s humility and quiet service. But also, I think, of the on-going works of charity and compassion done by countless Christian women, and men, down the ages. These are often unnoticed, too, and one can be distracted by the apparatus of the secular State, military power, and wealth. But today’s feast recalls that goodness, mercy, and love, being founded on Christian truth, are never forgotten, always precious, and stand steadfast and firm against the battering of time and fashion. Just so, St Margaret’s chapel has stood for almost a millennium.
But even when that crumbles, St Margaret herself will shine like a pearl for all eternity, radiant with the glory of Christ and all the saints.