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.
Pentecost is often called the birthday of the Church, and so, we tend to think of it as commemorating something new, as marking a beginning, a birth. But in fact, if we consider what the Jewish feast of Pentecost, also called the feast of the First Fruits, was about, we can look at it differently. Pentecost was the the completion of a seven-week long celebration begun just after the Passover, and it marked the harvest season, when the first fruits of a new harvest were offered to God in thanksgiving. As such, Pentecost was a day of expectation and a culmination; it marks the kind of ending that harvesting implies rather than the beginning that is implied in sowing.
Hence the great signs of Pentecost when the Spirit descends on the Church are also evocative of harvesting: wind, as from a winnowing fan to separate the wheat from the chaff (cf Mt 3:12), and fire, as in traditional harvesting methods to bring fertility and new life to the harvested land. So, at Pentecost, God the Holy Spirit comes as the harvester and he comes to “renew the face of the earth” (Ps 103:30).
But this Pentecostal harvesting is the culmination of what began fifty days earlier on Easter Sunday. For the risen Christ is, as St Paul says, the “first fruits” of a new creation (cf 1 Cor 15:20). And it is he, as first fruits, who was offered to the Father, being taken up into heaven at his Ascension. And now, on the fiftieth day, the climax of the Paschal celebrations, the Spirit comes to harvest and offer up to the Father those first fruits of Christ’s new creation, namely, Christ’s holy Church who stand for a humanity renewed and transformed by the power of Christ’s resurrection. Thus, the Spirit comes to harvest you and me, we who are baptized into Christ. And, so, we are being offered with Christ as first fruits to the Father; we’re being raised up by the Spirit to new and everlasting life with God. As St Paul put it: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also” (Rom 8:11).
However, if the day of Pentecost was the great moment of God’s harvesting, then this is a moment which continues to this day. For the Church, who is animated by the Holy Spirit, lives ever in the Pentecostal moment, called in every age to renew and transform the whole world through the preaching and living out of the Gospel. Time and again, Christians have failed in this calling, but the Spirit comes as wind and fire to separate wheat from chaff, to burn out impurities with God’s fiery love, and to renew the face of the Church. Thus, the Church, and each of us individually, must call out each day: “Lord, send forth your Spirit, and renew us”.
And the Spirit who comes, and who renews us by bringing to our remembrance all that Jesus has taught us (cf Jn 14:26b), will also send us out as labourers into God’s harvest. This missionary imperative was put into action on Pentecost day. The tongues of flame loosened the tongues of the disciples so that they could preach the Gospel to all nations. It is in this sense that we can speak of the birthday of the Church. Because the Church was born for mission. She exists to “bring to remembrance” before all peoples what Jesus said and did. You and I, as members of the Church, are here for others, for the good of the world; we exist as a Church to be sent out to serve our brothers and sisters by bringing them the Gospel. As Pope Paul VI said: “[The Church] exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection”. Our chapel, which looks out onto the world, and with the Altar of Christ’s sacrifice and the tabernacle of God’s dwelling with us so visible to all passers-by, is a constant reminder of this: that we, the Church, exist to evangelize. We’re here in order to go out into God’s harvest, into the world, as labourers, collaborating with the Holy Spirit to “renew the face of the earth”.
But what does this renewal, this collaboration with God, mean concretely? Let us look again to the Biblical origins of Pentecost.
There has been much praise of Pope Francis’ warm personality and his evident care for the poor and marginalized. Only yesterday it was announced that the Holy Father will celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, not in his cathedral or in St Peter’s, but in Rome’s juvenile detention centre. And he will wash the feet of twelve inmates as a sign that he is going to serve the poor, the unwanted and the forgotten of society. Actions like these are “good works” that are deeply impressive, and the Media has been fixated on them.
But the Holy Father knows that what he believes and says and does is nothing new, nor by any means unique to his pontificate or to himself as a Christian. For the Catholic Church is still internationally recognized as the largest charitable organization on earth. Only two days ago, the new Archbishop of Canterbury acknowledged that Catholic Social Teaching is “one of the greatest treasures” that the Church has to offer to the world. But this teaching is still little known by many Catholics, let alone by non-Christians. So, what the Pope seems to be doing through his actions is to draw the world’s attention to our social teaching, and to highlight what so many Christians have been doing quietly since the apostles. And the reason for this, I think, is to try and rebuild the Church’s credibility and standing in our society, to re-focus on Christ. As Jesus says to the unbelieving Jews who opposed him, “even though you do not believe me, believe the works” (Jn 10:38a). So, we’re inviting a skeptical world to “believe the works” that the Church does. This is an important foundation for the New Evangelization.
But the works themselves point to beyond themselves to God who is the Father of all good. As Jesus says today: “believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father”. (Jn 10:38b) Each of us, baptised into Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit, can say the same. Any good works that we do comes from the grace of Christ for “apart from [him we] can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). And if we have an explicit faith in Christ, then our works witness to him, and to his divine authority.
It is this claim of the Church – that Christ teaches with authority, teaching, even deeply unpopular and hard truths in fidelity to him – that is often opposed. This is especially so when they stand against the ‘gods’ of modernity and so, constitute a ‘blasphemy’. But in fact, not only our good works, but also our faith, our beliefs, our world view and our moral life, all stem from our relationship with Christ and are a response to the Gospel. As Pope Francis said to the world’s journalists: “The Church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails, yet her nature is not essentially political but spiritual: the Church is the People of God, the Holy People of God making its way to encounter Jesus Christ. Only from this perspective can a satisfactory account be given of the Church’s life and activity”.
So, our good works are the start of the New Evangelization, they should lead one to the Father, to our God of mercy and love. And this work begins, not with the Pope alone, but each one of us. As Pope Paul VI said in 1975: “It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus – the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity”. Pope Francis has highlighted this with his own life. What can we do?
In this fortnight before Easter, which is still sometimes called Passiontide, the readings have changed in mood. We are emerging from the themes of wilderness and journey, from exhortations to repentance and penitential acts to focus on God’s work of saving grace through the Passion of Jesus Christ. In other words, in this run-up to Holy Week we’re looking at how Jesus will save us through the events of Holy Week: his trial, suffering, death and resurrection.
The Gospel readings from St John continue Jesus’ disputation with the Jews, as Jesus invites us to ponder his identity and saving mission from the Father, but with each day the tension mounts too, as the antagonism between Christ and the Jewish religious authorities mounts. However, the First Readings, at least in the first part of this week, look at the events of Holy Week through the lens of the Old Testament. We’re being invited to look at types, or anticipations of Christ’s Passion in Old Testament figures.
Today, we’re invited to see the righteous and innocent Susanna, as a figure of Jesus Christ who was also falsely accused and unjustly tried and condemned. Susanna had two witnesses to accuse her, as the Law demanded, but these human witnesses were liars, and Daniel exposes them as such. Jesus will also be condemned by false and fallible human witnesses. But the Lord will not be saved from execution by a just human judge like Daniel. Pontius Pilate is too cowardly to let justice be done and he allows an innocent Jesus to be crucified.
However, Jesus insists that he does not need human witnesses to the truth of his identity and mission, nor indeed, a human judge to save him. Rather, God will be the just judge who rescues him from death. And by raising him from the dead, God testifies to Jesus’ innocence and the truth of his claims. Hence, Jesus’ Passion and Crucifixion is part of that divine testimony, part of Jesus’ glorification. For Jesus dies so that he can be raised by God, and so, be vindicated in the truth of what he said and did. And, as Christ is raised by the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can note that here are the two witnesses to Christ’s truth – not fallible and unreliable human witnesses but divine witnesses, God himself.
Like pregnant mothers we’ve been awaiting a birth; invited by the liturgy into the silence expectation of Advent. But the incarnation of the divine Word has already happened. God has taken human flesh – Mary’s flesh – and already dwells among us, tabernacled in the Virgin Mother’s womb. Christ is not yet born, but he is from the moment of his conception, Emmanuel, God-with-us in the person of Jesus Christ. By uniting himself to our humanity at his incarnation in Mary’s womb, God has “united himself in some fashion with every human being” (Gaudium et spes, 22). Because of this, we believe that every human life is sacred: loved into being by God, and so, worthy of our love, respect, and reverence.
This truth is underlined today by St Luke’s Gospel account of the Visitation, as we call it. For the first two people to recognize the presence of Emmanuel in Our Lady’s womb are Elizabeth and John. These two, in fact, represent the most vulnerable in our society today, those whose divine right to life is often challenged, and, not infrequently, simply for reasons of convenience. For Elizabeth and John stand for the elderly and the unborn child; they stand for the vulnerable whom we are called to protect, cherish, and ‘visit’ with our love.
In a recent lecture in Oxford, the Dominican bishop Anthony Fisher noted that economic pressures on public healthcare have led to so-called “age rationing”, whereby the elderly are isolated and intentionally deprived of medical care to hasten their death, and so, reduce their economic burden. This hastening of death contrasts sharply with today’s Gospel, in which Our Lady hastens to Elizabeth, bearing in her womb the Author of Life himself. So, too, we are called to be bearers of life, and hasten to bring life, human flourishing, and true respect for human dignity to all people.
In our reverence for the sanctity of human life, and in our care for human dignity at every stage, we recognize with faith that God is Emmanuel, present and with us in our humanity.
Jesus sends out his apostles with nothing except his power and authority, so that they learn to rely entirely on God’s Word. They rely on his Word to attract people to God, and hopefully, in that process, gain their hospitality. But they also rely on God’s Word in that they depend on God’s Providence. For the mission and the journey is God’s, so they entrust themselves to God’s goodness to provide what they need for that journey. Since the Word has sent them out, so the Word must support them. The apostles are thus utterly dependent on God and on other people; they become child-like. Hence, they are kept humble, lest the power and authority entrusted to them go to their heads and they forget the Giver of all good gifts.
The instruction to not take a spare tunic is related to this. If we read it in the light of today’s proverbs, we’re given only what is “needful”, so we trust that God will give us just what we need for each day. This was something the Israelites had to learn when they made their journey through the desert – to take only what they needed and not to store up a surplus. In this way they learnt to trust in God’s daily Providence, and to thank him for it.
But this is not just an issue of humble dependence on God but also an issue of justice to our neighbour. For everything comes from God as a gift, and any surplus is not ours to take for ourselves, but is entrusted to us to be re-distributed to those who need it more. In fact, the Old Testament saw it as theft from the poor for the rich to have extra while the poor had nothing. For God’s justice demands that each of us have simply what is “needful”: “neither poverty nor riches” but what is just and befitting our needs.
In our day, we’re all so accustomed to the idea of investments, of saving up for a rainy day, of insurance, that to overlook these things would be considered fool-hardy. But we must not forget that it is God who gives us every good gift, and we depend on his Providence. Moreover our fiscal prudence should not prevent us from sharing from our surplus with those in need. Justice demands this, and in fact, Christian charity demands even more – that we sacrifice even what we need. If we do this, then we not only proclaim the Gospel of Christ’s life-giving sacrifice, but we also contribute to the healing of our world by shunning economic greed and fiscal selfishness, and placing our trust not in banks and material wealth but in God and his loving Providence.
It’s easy for us to read today’s Gospel of St Mark and immediately conflate it with St Matthew’s version of it, where Jesus says: “Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). But Jesus doesn’t say this today – not directly, anyway. In fact, St Mark’s version of this saying comes later on in his Gospel, in the next chapter, where Jesus says: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mk 10:15). So, today’s teaching isn’t especially about openness and humility to trust in God’s Word, although this is essential. Neither is it particularly about our greatness in heaven being derived from our smallness, humility, and powerlessness. Although this, too, is true, and is found in Christ’s teaching in today’s Gospel that anyone who would be “first” in the kingdom of heaven has to be “last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:36).
But if we pay attention to today’s Gospel, what Jesus does is to hold up a child to his followers, and then, to identify himself with the child. Thus, “whoever receives one such child in my name receives me”. And if we’re to link this to St Matthew’s Gospel, we go straight to the Parable of the Last Judgement that’s found only in that Gospel. There, Jesus famously identifies himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the needy. And is all this not what children, often, are? Needy? They need us to feed them, clothe them, pay attention to them. They need our care because they’re dependent on us. But most of all, they need our love.
So, greatness in God’s kingdom, and indeed, greatness on earth, if we come back to what the disciples were arguing about, is about charity. Greatness is about an open-hearted welcome to those who, like children, are vulnerable, powerless, dependent, and in need. And it is true that our society admires those individuals and organizations that strive for justice for the poor, needy, and powerless. But, again, let’s pay attention to the text of the Gospel. Jesus doesn’t just call his followers to welcome the child. He calls us to welcome the child in his name. Which means that there is something distinctive about Christian charity. It’s not humanitarian social work, although on the surface it may look like it. Indeed, this is why Christians can collaborate in charitable and social justice work with all people of good will. However, Jesus adds another spiritual – one might even say, mystical – dimension to our physical acts of mercy and justice. Christ reminds us is that Christian charity – hence, our deeds of love – is rooted in the Incarnation.
In midsummer we celebrated the birth of St John the Baptist, and today, as summer wanes, we celebrate his birth into eternal life through his martyrdom. How the evangelist St Mark presents this narrative of St John’s death is instructive.
First he recounts that Jesus is rejected in Nazareth, so, the Lord says: “A prophet is not without honour except in his own country”. And to some extent, this is true for John. For Herod “feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man”. But despite this, John is plotted against and killed for his prophetic stance towards Herod, for speaking out again his immorality and corruption. For, although Mankind is naturally inclined to truth, the heart that has been seduced by sin ultimately listens to another voice. As the psalmist says: “Sin speaks to the sinner in the depths of his heart. There is no fear of God before his eyes” (Ps 36:1f). Thus, Herodias “had a grudge against” John, God’s prophet and herald. Sin contrives to silence the voice of truth, and Herod does this on a whim, drowning out John’s voice by the loudness of his drunken oath.
St John’s death, then, sounds a perilous note in the Gospel, for there is now no guarantee that a prophet will be honoured anywhere. So, John’s murder foreshadows the passion and death of Christ, where Truth himself becomes the Victim of sin, fear, and lies. And so, by his Passion on the Cross, Truth revealed the truth of our world as a place of violence and sin, showing itself to be in great need of Christ’s redeeming love and mercy. Since “a servant is not greater than his master”, so, today we recall how the servant of Christ, a faithful preacher of the truth and of justice, is summarily executed on the basis of lies, like his Master will be.
But it is not just St John the Baptist that the evangelist has in mind, but every disciple. For St Mark places the episode of John’s death, like a kind of flashback, between the account of Jesus sending out his Twelve apostles to preach repentance, and their return to the Lord. Hence, John who had gone before Christ becomes the model for those who could go after Christ, as followers of Jesus. There is always a cost to preaching the Gospel of truth, calling one to repentance, to justice, to change one’s life and return to the Lord. Sometimes, the cost is one’s own life - literally. But more often, it’s more metaphorical: the deaths of giving up old habits and familiar sins, of being ridiculed by people, of being distanced by family and friends, of being dismissed for being a Catholic, or side-lined for not toeing the line in the academy, or the workplace, or the pub. At the end of every Mass, we say: ‘Thanks be to God’ when we’re sent out into the world to preach the Gospel of Truth. But are we ready? Ready, even, to follow in St John’s footsteps? Are we ready to return to the Lord, either through the conversion of hearts, or indeed, through martyrdom?
This sounds frightening, but St Mark encourages us with a final irony. For, although it’s king Herod’s birthday, by killing John, it, in fact, becomes St John’s birthday: his birth into eternal life, where he enjoys for ever the beautiful dance of Truth at the heavenly Banquet of the true King.
May St John pray for us, that we may share his courage and grace, and, so, join him there.
Much is put forward in the name of human rights, and it would seem that we live in a world, which, as Blessed John Paul II says, has “a growing moral sensitivity, more alert to acknowledging the value and dignity of every individual as a human being, without any distinction of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or social class”. But while much is said and done about human rights and human dignity, some of the so-called rights being asserted in the name of humanity fail to take care of what is truly fundamental.
For the dignity due to Man, the reason individual human beings have inherent rights at all, is because of who Man is. Man is made in the image and likeness of God, and so he is capable of knowing and loving God, and by Christ’s grace, of being elevated to friendship with God. It is this relationship with the Creator that gives Man an inherent dignity, so that we human beings become temples of the Holy Spirit. Man is a “temple of the Lord”. So, when there is so much talk of human rights these days, it is as if one were saying: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jer 7:4).
But, as Jeremiah says, these words become “deceptive” if we do not behave accordingly; if we do not act and put forward laws that underline the dignity of every human person, especially the weakest and voiceless in society. Jeremiah’s words challenge us to consider: is our society just to the stranger and refugee, to those so-called “aliens” at our borders? Do we respect our elderly – the “fatherless and the widow” – and love and care for them with real compassion and dignity until their natural death? Is ours a society that condones the shedding of “innocent blood”, the most innocent of all being the unborn child?