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.
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.
Today we celebrate a fourth-century bishop of Tours in France, who was one of the first Christian saints to be venerated without having been a martyr. Instead, he was called a confessor, meaning someone who lived a holy life. The martyrdom or witness of a confessor is that daily dying to self; taking up one’s cross and following Christ that we are all called to.
St Martin was born in Pannonia, the Roman Province that covers modern-day Hungary. His father was an officer in the Roman army and not a Christian. But, somehow, Martin heard of Christianity and at the age of 10 he secretly asked to become a catechumen – someone who was being instructed about the Faith. At the age of 15, he was still an unbaptised catechumen when he joined the Roman army, and he served in the cavalry.
One of the most famous stories about St Martin, which is often depicted in art, comes from his time as a soldier. One day he saw a poor naked beggar shivering in the cold at the gates of the city of Amiens where he was posted. Moved with compassion, Martin drew his sword and divided his red military cloak in two, and he gave one part to the beggar. During the night, Christ appeared to him in a dream wearing that half of the red cloak, and saying: “Martin, yet a catechumen, has clothed me in this mantle”. The next day Martin went to be baptized. He was 18 years old at the time, and two years later he left the army because he desired to fight for Christ rather than for Caesar. So, eventually he was ordained, and with his mentor, St Hilary, he opposed the Arians, who denied the divinity of Christ, so effectively that he was publicly scourged and exiled from Milan to Gaul. There, he established the first monastery in what became France, but was called from the cloister to the cathedral of Tours to serve as its bishop from 371. As bishop, he was opposed by many non-Christians but he slowly converted them by his holiness of life, preaching, and miracles.
After his death in 397, the cloak of St Martin came to be venerated as a sacred relic. That cloak, called a ‘capella’ lent its name to the small church housing it, from which we get the word ‘chapel’. And the priests who guarded that cloak were called ‘cappellani’, from which we get the word ‘chaplain’.
Every year, St Martin’s feast coincides with Armistice Day, which is appropriate given his peaceable life as a soldier, and his famous act of self-giving love. May he pray for all soldiers, for those who gave their life for the sake of their friends, and for all who die as a result of war and violence. May his example of service above all to Christ, the Prince of Peace, inspire all to strive for peace and justice in every situation. In the words of our First Reading, may all “rulers of the earth” “Love righteousness… think of the Lord with uprightness, and seek him with sincerity of heart” (Wis 1:1).
Pope Francis, when asked why he took the name of today’s great saint as his papal name, said that “Francis was a man of peace, a man of poverty, a man who loved and protected creation”. And those are the three hallmarks for which St Francis is well-known; rightly so. But for some, St Francis is depicted as the perfect saint for our time, an antidote to all of our contemporary ills: warfare and inter-religious violence, capitalist excess, and environmental change and ecological crises. Thus, Francis becomes appropriated as a pacifist, a nature mystic, and eco-warrior.
We should beware of such caricatures and mythologizing of Francis, lest we fail to see his real sanctity; we can be so dazzled by the effects that we don’t see their cause.
Today’s readings for the feast of our saint point out the source of St Francis’ holiness, which is a complete conforming of his life with Christ’s, so much so that he received the sacred stigmata. And because of this love for God, he also loved God’s creation, and above all, his fellow Man especially the poor and vulnerable. Hence Pope Francis said this morning in Assisi, “St Francis teaches us respect for the human person, who is the centre of God’s creation”.
However, although we tend to focus on St Francis’ works of social justice, this is an unbalanced picture. For in a saint justice for mankind is always balanced with justice toward God, so that the saint is just in all respects. Indeed, it is justice towards God, love for God, which grounds and makes possible justice and love for our neighbour. So, how is justice and love towards God expressed? The actual writings of St Francis, which I want to draw attention to on his feast day, make clear that justice towards God is found in the virtues of religion, which is about giving to God what is his due, namely, worship and reverence. For St Francis this was directed especially towards the Eucharist.
It is notable that our saint of the poor and of peace, our lover of nature, never had harsh words for those who wrought war, or destroyed the environment, or even oppressed the poor. That is a Francis invented for our modern-day needs. The real St Francis expressed his anger and strongest language for those who do not venerate the Eucharist with humility. As the Dominican historian, fr Augustine Thompson notes: “The locus of Francis’s ‘mysticism’, his belief that he could have direct contact with God, was in the Mass, not in nature or even in service to the poor”.
Thus, in a letter to the leaders of the Franciscan Order, he said: “[R]evere above all else the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ… [The clergy] should hold as precious the chalices, corporals, appointments of the altar, and everything that pertains to the sacrifice. If the most holy Body of the Lord is very poorly reserved in any place, let It be placed and locked up in a precious place according to the command of the Church. Let It be carried about with great reverence and administered to others with discernment… When It is sacrificed on the altar by a priest and carried anywhere, let all peoples praise, glorify and honour on bended knee the Lord God living and true”.
At a time when the clergy only bowed after the Elevation of the Host, St Francis the deacon was a leader in the lay initiative of kneeling during Mass, and he was quite insistent on having the priest genuflect after the Consecration. Hence, he said: “I implore all of you brothers to show all possible reverence and honour to the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ”. So, when we kneel and genuflect before the Eucharist, we honour St Francis’ dearest wishes.
And in his letters and actions, St Francis expressed his desire that the altar linens, the churches, and every thing set aside for the Mass be clean, beautiful, and of the best quality possible. Indeed, he even told his friars, with their miserable poor habits, to present precious silver containers to the secular clergy in which they could reserve the Eucharist. What an incongruous but powerful sight that would have been, showing us that we should spare nothing in our love for God in the Eucharist, for from this flows our love for the rest of God’s creation. Such Eucharistic love, surely, is the source of our saint’s holiness, the cause of all he did.
- preached at a retreat focussed on the Encyclical, Lumen Fidei
Prayer is fundamentally an act of faith, and we exercise that faith by praying, that is, by asking, seeking, and knocking. This does not mean simply asking for whatever we want and expecting God to do as he’s told. Rather, it means having persistent confidence in God’s ability to grant whatever we ask, but at the same time, trusting that God is our loving Father, who will always give to us, his children, whatever he chooses for our greatest good. So, we should pray persistently, asking God always for what we need.
But it is likely that God, who knows all things and always wills the best for us, will answer our prayers in ways we don’t expect, that are more creative than our solutions, and that bring about our deepest joy and greater freedom. Or sometimes, we have pray persistently because it is thus that we learn what we truly desire. For what we see in our First Reading is an extraordinary dialogue between God and Abraham. As he seems to bargain with God, there is, in fact, a testing of Abraham’s faith and of his desires, so that, through prayer, Man learns to ask for what humanity truly needs, which is to see God’s justice and mercy, to experience compassion and love. And God does answer humanity’s longing for mercy, not immediately. Not even definitively through Abraham, but through Christ. Because it is when Christ becomes Man, and hangs on the Cross, that we see God acting most perfectly to save the whole world – every sinner. And he does so for the sake of just one righteous Man: Jesus Christ. For Christ is God’s final answer to Abraham’s prayers, and indeed, the prayers of every human person.
As we read in Lumen Fidei: “the life of Jesus now appears as the locus of God’s definitive intervention, the supreme manifestation of his love for us. The word which God speaks to us in Jesus is not simply one word among many, but his eternal Word (cf. Heb 1:1-2). God can give no greater guarantee of his love, as Saint Paul reminds us (cf. Rom 8:31-39)” (§15).
So, when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, they are asking to share in his perfect confidence in God’s love, to enter into that same relationship of love that is between the Son and the Father. Hence, Jesus teaches us that prayer is an act of faith, of trusting in the Father’s love and care for us. And we can rely on God because he has given us his Son, who offered himself on the Cross for the salvation of all. So, Pope Francis says: “Christ’s total self-gift overcomes every suspicion and enables me to entrust myself to him completely [and] Christ’s death discloses the utter reliability of God’s love above all in the light of his resurrection” (Lumen Fidei, §16, 17).
As such, our Christian faith is a resurrection faith. This means that we trust in God’s activity in the world and in our lives, with the sure and certain hope that our God of Love is bringing good to fruition, even when things seem difficult and challenging. For Jesus reveals that ours is a God of the Living, a God who brings Life out of death, and whose creative Love is more powerful and liberating than sin, evil and suffering. There are many questions that we and our contemporaries may have, but faith means that we trust that Jesus Christ shines a light on these difficulties, and that in him – in his life, death, and resurrection, we find an answer to the deepest longings and questions of humanity. Hence, Lumen Fidei says: “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light” (§57).
So, we need to continue to seek those answers by remaining close to Christ and contemplating his life and words, putting our questions to him, with the confidence that he will bring light to our darkness - not instantly, but in God’s good time. This requires of us a patient endurance, a contemplative hope like Our Lady’s, waiting for God’s to reveal his good plan in time. And as Pope Francis says: “time propels [us] towards the future and encourages us to go forward in hope”.
And we have this hope because of what Jesus, who is Truth and Love, has promised us: “The one who asks always receives; the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will always have the door opened to him”. So, let us turn to him in persistent prayer, asking, seeking, knocking. May the door of Faith be opened even wider for us so that we may enter, through it, into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
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.