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.
God marvels that Solomon, although he was “but a little child” (1 Kgs 3:7), did not ask for riches, or the other kinds of things that young men are wont to ask for. But I was a rather typical youth! For when I was a child my annual birthday wish until I stopped believing in birthday wishes was that I would become the richest man in the history of the world. It was a childish wish, but perhaps the kind that is still common today, and not just among the young.
But as St Paul says: “in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rom 8:28), and so, God granted my juvenile prayer in the best way possible, that is, according to his wisdom, to bring about my greatest good. So, at the age of 16, I received baptism as a Catholic Christian. And then at the age of 28 I became a Dominican. On the day of my Solemn Profession in 2009, I recalled my childhood wish and I realized it had come true. Because, given who I am, there is no greater joy than loving and serving God in the consecrated life; no greater treasure than the Gospel of salvation – treasure both ever new and old (cf Mt 13:52) – which I am privileged to bring out and share with others through preaching; no riches better than the grace given to me at baptism and which makes every Christian a child of God, “conformed in the image of his Son” (Rom 8:28). All this sounds rather pious, but it isn’t thereby less true. When my parents and friends ask me if I am happy, I can honestly say I can’t think of anything I’d rather do, and I thank God for the grace of a Dominican vocation. And my friends often remark on how rare a joy it is in this life to have a ‘job’ you enjoy, which I evidently do. So, I am grateful for the joy I have found in having been consecrated to Jesus Christ as a Christian, a Dominican brother, and a priest.
A few months before I entered the Order, people tried to warn me of the many sacrifices I’d have to make, and what a deprivation religious life was. In some sense this is true. There are things we give up, and many people focus on these, especially the giving up of the goods of marriage and family life, material wealth, and self-determination. Initially, I’d focussed on these losses too. And then, I saw the riches I’d gained.
Hence in these parables of the treasure and the pearl the focus isn’t on what the treasure-hunter or the merchant had to sacrifice. What is emphasized is the worth of the Kingdom, that is, the supreme good that comes from knowing and loving Jesus Christ. Once we recognize the riches that Jesus brings we would give up all we owned – everything – to possess him. Or rather we do not possess Christ – it is he who embraces and possesses us with his love but first we have to let go of all the other things we cling on to so that we can hold to him. The key phrase in the Gospel which motivates this letting go of all else is this: “in his joy” (Mt 13:44). For without joy, the man would not have been motivated to sell all for the field and its treasure. So, too, without joy it’s hard to be a Christian, or a poor, chaste and obedient religious, a celibate priest. Without joy, the Christian life becomes drudgery, an obligation, and not worth living or, indeed, dying for.
At this time, this truth becomes ever more apparent. For ours is a time when more Christians are being persecuted and killed for their Faith in Christ than ever before. While I had willingly dispossessed myself of goods, last weekend the Christians of Mosul were forcibly stripped of all they had, and many have lost their lives. They made the ultimate sacrifice. And what motivates someone to offer their lives in Christian martyrdom if not the joy that comes from having been possessed by Christ who is the Resurrection and the Life?
Thus Pope Francis has said, “those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew” (Evangelii Gaudium, 1). This joy comes from being held in God’s love, through a daily personal encounter with Jesus Christ who is our treasure and our pearl of great price. For him, we would joyfully give up all without counting the cost.
The example of the martyrs inspires all Christians to seek this radical joy, and so, too, does the authentic witness of a consecrated life. For as Pope Francis said: “This is the beauty of consecration: it is joy!” Hence the Holy Father followed his letter on the Joy of the Gospel by calling for a Year for Consecrated Life from October 2014. So, today’s Gospel invites all peoples to find anew the joy of loving and serving Christ, but, in particular, perhaps he is calling some of you to the consecrated life, and so to especially enact through your vocation stories the Gospel parables we hear today. Is God calling you, too, to riches beyond your childhood wishes?
If you would like to find out more about the Dominican religious vocation, please visit our website, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Last July, Pope Francis famously said: “Who am I to judge?”, and it caught the world’s attention. The Holy Father had been asked about those with a homosexual orientation, and citing the Catechism, the Pope responded: “A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will—well, who am I to judge him?” And for some Catholics this was controversial; for many others, this was misunderstood as a papal moral license to do anything.
And yet the Holy Father’s attitude echoes that of the Householder in today’s first parable: “No… Let both grow together until the harvest”. That is to say that judgement of one’s good or ill is delayed until the harvest time when Christ will come as Judge. Until then, the Church is like that great tree in the second parable that shelters all the birds of the air. Christ’s Church is called, then, to be a refuge for sinners, a resting place for the weary, a home for all those who are seek truth, goodness and beauty; all kinds are invited to come and nest in her branches. And if anyone has seen a tree full of birds, it’s quite a lively noisy place, as they tweet away and, presumably, disagree and dialogue with one another.
But if judgement is made, and only those who agree with one another are gathered together, and all those who are judged ‘bad’ are excluded, then there is just silence, and hums of mutual agreement. Rather, the third parable has a vision of somewhat more confidence in the good and the true – it naturally attracts and grows and nourishes, like leaven in the dough. Interestingly, this, I think, is one of the instances when God is likened to a baker woman, mixing dough with the leaven of righteousness and truth, causing the dough of the Church and our world to rise up with the leaven of his grace.
Nevertheless, there are zealous servants who fear the damage and confusion caused by those who are deemed weeds. Who are these weeds? Pope Francis, I suppose, was thinking of people who are homosexual, who are written off by Christians and others because of they’re gay. It’s not difficult to find such zealous servants around especially in the Church - just yesterday, I read this sentence in a blog: “A lesbian who accepts her sexuality already defies church teaching just by existing”! But there are others, especially in the world, who would weed out and write off convicted pædophiles. Others still are written off because they’re deemed liberals or conservatives. Indeed, one can consider as a weed a whole range of labels and identities – based on what periodicals one reads, or what language one worships in, or what one does in the bedroom, and so on. But the bottom line is that the zealous servants believe that the Sower’s pure field, which should have only yielded good wheat, has been contaminated and confused by weeds sown by the Enemy.
But the Head of the Household, that is, Jesus Christ says: “Let both [weeds and wheat] grow together until the harvest” in case “in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them”. Here we see the patience of God, and his confidence in the power of grace to transform the sinner, to move one to repentance. As we said in our psalm response, the Lord is “good and forgiving”. But he can only be forgiving, only show mercy, towards someone who chooses to repent. This means, someone who we choose to include in our conversation and allow to nest in the tree of the Church; to grow in the field of the Lord. If they are judged immediately, and then excluded and weeded out now, there is no more opportunity for growth and change, less chance for repentance, no place for mercy and for God to show that he is good and forgiving. For because God is good, so we believe that he will also send the grace that moves us to repentance, to seek and receive forgiveness for sins.
In fact, those who would judge and act now to weed out the sinners have a more fundamental problem. They lack faith in the power of God’s grace. There is a kind of spiritual despair – the lack of hope – in believing that the evils of the world is stronger than the good; that the Enemy has won the war simply because he has won a skirmish or a battle. But the spiritual battle for the salvation of a soul is not over until the harvest time. Until then, God’s grace is still active and powerfully at work, even though it is unseen like the leaven in the dough, like the grain of mustard seed germinating underground. Until harvest time, repentance is still possible; a human person is still capable of change and conversion – that is our hope. And it is this hope, countering the despair and hopelessness all around us, that motivates the Church especially under Pope St John Paul II to oppose the death penalty, and to oppose the ‘Assisted Dying’ bill. Why? Because until one’s natural death, until harvest time, no zealous servant in the form of doctor or State should execute judgement and uproot the weeds.
This same hope of growth and repentance, then, this same faith in God’s redeeming grace, this same love of the whole human person and his whole life is what underlies the words of the Holy Father, when, echoing the Householder’s attitude, he says: “Who am I to judge?”
These are the words of a patient farmer who wants the Church to be that field in which both weeds and wheat can grow together. Because while there is growth and while there is time before the harvest, then there is also time for conversion, for change, for repentance. This requires, of course, on the one hand, that Christ’s true teachings are proclaimed and taught clearly and well, with sensitivity to people’s lived experience especially from among the saints. On the other hand, it requires of us a humble readiness to listen, to be challenged to grow, and to be open to change. The most terrifying thing is when a human person, who by nature is changeable, obstinately refuses to change. If our mind is made up and we believe that our opinions are necessarily correct; that there is no alternative way; that ours is the final word, then our growth is stunted – we may well remain weeds.
But in contrast to this, the Gospel of Jesus Christ keeps challenging every human person to grow and change and to be supernaturally perfected in grace, to become wheat. So, our minds must be opened up in repentance, metanoia, to humbly seek the Truth who is Christ. For as Pope Francis said in Lumen Fidei, “truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us”. The Gospel and the teachings of Christ’s Church also challenge us to grow beyond the fatalism of our age to see that nobody is doomed by genetics or sexual orientation or culture to behave in a certain way. No, Christ is the Way who leads to our fullest human flourishing and deepest joy. And it is he who is the final Word, God’s one Word spoken into our human lives and world with all its limitations, our weakness and sufferings, trials and confusion. Into this world, God’s Word is spoken, and his Word is “good and forgiving”, patient and gentle, forbearing and merciful and true. His Word is Love.
And so, this parable is not about moral relativism, nor does it say that the True and the Good is unknowable. Neither does it say that the sinner should be abandoned unchallenged or unrepentant. Rather, these parables tell of God’s Word of Love, about his grace patiently and powerfully at work in the world, converting and transforming the hearts of us sinners. God keeps faith with Man, hoping for our repentance, for more than we thought we’re capable of, more than the world cynically or ‘realistically’ expects. But the question is, will we keep faith with him? As Jesus asks in St Luke’s Gospel, when the harvest time comes, will he find any faith on the earth? (Lk 18:8).
HOMILY for the Wedding of Chris Oldroyd & Becca Coult
Songs 2:8-10, 14, 16a; 8:6-7a; Ps 128; Col 3:12-17; John 17:20-26
The readings that a couple choose for their wedding are very revealing. What might have gone through Becca and Chris’ minds when they chose these readings especially the first one? “Behold, he comes, leaping…” Was she thinking, maybe, of their romance begun on a dance floor? Why Not? Or perhaps of many a ceilidh celebrated here in the CSU? Then, again, the reading says: “Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet” Perhaps, then, Becca was thinking of Chris’ sweet singing in the CSU choir? Or maybe, Chris just fancied being compared to a “young stag”, although I don’t quite see him standing at the back, peering in shyly through the lattice screens! It may well be any of these reasons… But if I look at the other readings they’ve chosen, then I’d like to think that it may have to do with a CSU retreat last autumn. Both Becca and Chris were there, and together we’d explored my favourite book in the Bible, the Song of Songs, and I think they came away quite enthused.
The Song of Songs, as its name means, is the greatest song. Why? Because it tells of the greatest love story of them all: God’s passionate desire for Mankind. And the Singer of this love song is the greatest Lover of Humanity: God. For the entire history of God’s dealings with Man is a great romance, a love song that is still on-going and mirrored in the beauty of human love, of husband and wife. As Pope Benedict XVI has said: “Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love”.
And what is God’s way of loving? For millennia, through the prophets and through various messengers, God had been wooing Mankind from the very beginning, calling us into a relationship of love, of intimate friendship, with him. Again and again he has had compassion on his people when they fail, and he has shown forgiveness, mercy, great forebearence. So, in the second reading you chose, Becca and Chris, St Paul reminds you to become an image of God’s patient love to each other, “forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive”. And I know that you already strive to do this for one another.
However, when the prophets and kings and leaders fail, God at last comes himself to court us himself. Jesus is God’s Way of loving; He is Love made flesh. He, the eternal Word of God, gives voice to God our Beloved. So, the Song of Songs point to Jesus, the “voice of my Beloved” who comes leaping and bounding into human history; he comes to woo us in the Incarnation. As one of my favourite Christmas carols says: “Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love, This have I done for my true love”. Yes, for you and for me who are God’s true love, he has become Man. So, we are taken up into God’s love song; he is romancing you and me even now, drawing us closer into union with him through grace.
But notice that Christ doesn’t come and impose himself on us; he doesn’t break into our house. Rather, he stands “gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice”, waiting to be invited into our hearts, our lives. For – and again we should note God’s way of loving – love is courteous, kind, patient, gentle, and respectful of our freedom. He is waiting for us to let him in. Why do we fear? For see what our Beloved does for us.
Christ’s love song reaches its crescendo on the Cross, when he dies for us, offers his life and self for sinful humanity, even when we are undeserving. Again, God shows us the measure of human love: it doesn’t count the cost or what the other truly deserves, but is ever ready to sacrifice and so to suffer for the good of the other. The Dominican who founded this Edinburgh priory, fr Bede Jarrett OP put it this way: “Love finds words inadequate to hold all its deep meanings, and can only feel in sacrifice and in self-sacrifice a satisfactory outlet to its desires. Suffering is the only full speech of love”. So, on the Cross, the eternal Word-made-flesh speaks the full speech of God’s love: he dies that we might have eternal life.
As every mature married couple can attest, what you will undertake, Becca and Chris, will require sacrifice of you both, of a certain dying to self to make room for the other; in order that others, especially in the many children I hope you’ll have, may have life. Such is the way of Love, and it will sanctify you both; it will unite you ever more closely to Christ our Saviour; it is your particular path of salvation that you are choosing today.
But “love is strong as death”, we’re told. And so, Love brings with him new life and resurrection, even if Love demands much of us. Our Beloved says: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away”. So, when you feel weary and burdened, when your love for each other is tested, remember that God’s love will sustain you and raise you up to new life. He calls you “my love” – so, go to him and be loved and restored and strengthened by God. If we do, then, Christ will raise you up with him – “Arise”. God’s Holy Spirit will heal your wounds and makes you beautiful with his grace – thus he calls you “my fair one” and says your face is “comely”. And our loving Father wants, at last, to carry you away with him – “come away”, he says, and rest in his peace. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts”, St Paul says. In your marriage, Becca and Chris, always make space, make time, for Christ. Pray together, even as Christ prays for you; speak – or sing – of him to your children, even as the Father sings his love song for you; love God, who has first loved you and sustains your every breath with his love.
For, as the Song of Songs says: “My beloved in mine and I am his”. This, really, is the central refrain of why we’re here today. Here in the Mass, we celebrate God’s giving of himself – his Body and Blood – to us, and we say as his faithful People that we belong to him when we receive Holy Communion. And here in the Sacrament of Marriage, we see this reciprocal love of God and Man, of Christ and his Church, take flesh in your flesh, Becca and Chris. For you two shall become one flesh: one with each other in love even as you are one with God through Christ’s love, as we hear in the Gospel.
So, after this, as we all dance and sing, drink, feast and make merry, it is right and just that we do so. Not just because we’re Catholics, and Catholics love parties. But, more importantly, we love parties because we rejoice in God our Saviour. And wedding parties are the best because they give us a foretaste, a glimpse, of the joy and celebration of heaven itself, of eternal life in God.
We’ve heard the words of today’s Gospel three times in the last month since the feast of the Sacred Heart. What more can be said? I would like to share with you reflections of a somewhat more personal nature on this Gospel, but I hope that they are no less relevant for you because of that.
These words of Christ frame my life as a consecrated religious and as a priest. When I made simple profession in September 2006, this Gospel was read. It seemed to me, at the end of a novitiate year which can be trying and quite difficult at times, to be apt. Because whenever things seemed wearisome and I felt burdened by our life as Dominican friars, I turned to Christ in prayer; I went to him and felt rest. And often, I reflected, I felt weary because I had drifted away from Christ and relied mainly on my own efforts. So, together with Christ, lifted up by his grace, the yoke that is laid on us becomes sweeter and lighter.
For the yoke that Jesus lays on us is the yoke of love. Religious life, insofar as it is a perfection of the baptismal life of every Christian, is about learning to love as Jesus does. It is, as the Collect for First Profession says, about offering to God “a perfect gift of loving service”. And this is only possible with Christ’s grace, if I go to him and rest in his mercy and goodness.
In September 2011, when I was ordained a priest, I chose this same Gospel to remind myself of those thoughts that accompanied by Simple Profession five years earlier. But, this time, I reflected on the heart of Christ that I, as a priest of Jesus Christ, needed. Then, and now more than ever, I am still in need of a heart transplant so that my divided and often hard heart may become “gentle and lowly” like Christ’s. I had in my mind, the words of one of my brothers who examined me for the faculty to hear Confessions. He reminded me – not especially, I don’t think – to be gentle and kind. The grace of ordination, of course, doesn’t replace my heart with Christ’s heart immediately. As my Student Master said to me, we, with all our frailties and very human characteristics, are still the instrument cause of God’s grace, so the instrument must still be purified and improved by grace.
So, this Gospel read at my Ordination reminded me that if I wanted a heart like Christ’s, I need to go to him again and again, to remain close to him. Pope Benedict XVI put it so well in 2007 when he said to priests: “Taking the Lord’s yoke upon us means first of all: learning from him. It means always being ready to go to his school. From him we must learn gentleness and meekness: the humility of God who shows himself in his being a man”. So, again, when I fail in humility and gentleness, when I feel burdened by Christ’s yoke, I know it is because I haven’t gone to Christ, haven’t prayed and relied on his grace enough. So, today’s Gospel reminds me to go to him.
And, in fact, every time I celebrate Mass I am reminded of this. As I prepare to go to Jesus in the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, prayers are said to accompany every vestment we put on; they remind us of who we are and what we’re going to do at the Altar. So, when the chasuble is put on, I say this prayer: “O Lord, Who have said, ‘My yoke is sweet and My burden light’: grant that I may so carry Your yoke as to merit Your grace”. For the yoke of Christ, as Pope Benedict says, “is that of loving with [Christ]. And the more we love him and with him become loving people, the lighter becomes his seemingly burdensome yoke”. This is what comes to mind as I prepare to celebrate Mass, as I go to Christ in the Eucharist, and receive his Body and Blood. It is a prayer that he will give me rest by increasing my love for him and for his people, by transforming – not replacing – my heart with his grace, so that my heart will beat in tandem with his Sacred Heart.
Today’s Gospel is connected to Isaiah’s image of blessing through the seed which is sown. Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God, has been sown by God the Father in the earth; he has taken root in the soil of our humanity, and he has become one with us. This marvellous truth, this wonder of the Incarnation of Christ, is that great thing that prophets and righteous men longed to see and hear but did not. But you and I, we who are baptized in Christ, we are the ones whom Jesus calls ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’ because we have seen and heard him whom so many before us, and so many around us long for. This is the source of our Christian joy for we, because of God’s generous love and the free gift of his grace, have seen and heard God’s divine Word, Jesus Christ his Son. In fact, we not only see and hear the Word but we receive it into our lives just as the seed is embedded in the earth. In the Mass as the Scriptures are read to us and we listen to God’s Word, it is being sown in our hearts. And then, when we receive the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, then we receive into our very bodies what Isaiah calls “bread for the eating”.
Isaiah also says that it is the rain that gives “growth to provide seed for the sower and bread for the eating”. What is this rain? It is the Holy Spirit. Through our baptism, we have all received God’s Holy Spirit who dwells in our hearts, and it is the Spirit who teaches us and leads us into all truth. And so, we perceive the truth of the Gospel and our hearts are opened to receive the Word of God, not by our own efforts, but rather, because of the gift of faith and the gift of understanding which is given by the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is also the Holy Spirit who sanctifies the bread and wine that is offered at Mass so that in Holy Communion we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. However, the rain also causes the earth to yield, that is, to be fruitful. Thus, it is the Holy Spirit who causes us to “hear the Word and understand it” and consequently to “yield a harvest” that produces abundant fruit, each according to the individual gifts and talents God has given us.
Just as a tree bears fruit which is attractive and delicious and offered to all who pass by to receive it and taste its goodness, so too with us. If we draw from God’s grace and live in him, then we will bear fruit that will last and which our world longs for and needs so very much. St Paul tells is that the fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal 5:22f). These fruit render us sweet and attractive to others, as the saints are, so that others may look on us and be drawn to taste and see the goodness of God, the sweetness of his grace. A parish is thus like an orchard, and each of you are a fruit tree, and if you are fruitful by the grace of the Spirit, you will be full of joy, mercy, and love that is deeply attractive.
Our Holy Father has said much about the joy of the Gospel and the mercy we should show to others. At this time, we are faced with a challenge as the Assisted Dying Bill comes before Parliament again on Friday. It is a false sense of mercy that would kill the most vulnerable and dying, and the very real fear is it is the depressed, the weak who would not be helped but rather pressured to die, and so ease our troubles rather than their own. In a society where the right to life and to live is already denied millions of unborn children, this is yet further descent into the “culture of death” that Pope St John Paul II warned against. No. We must strive to build the “civilization of love”, and love doesn’t kill off; it suffers with and finds redemption through suffering love.
Look at that great Cross that hangs above us, and we see Our Lady and St John with the dying Christ, accompanying him with love, compassion, and much care; doing all they can to assist him to die with dignity and grace. This is what ‘assisted dying’ truly means.
For suffering, is a mark of our humanity, just as Christ who became human suffered, and he suffered greatly for his love was so great. So, St Paul says: “all of us who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free”. Imagine the seedling breaking free from the seed-pod, straining towards the light, growing into a fruitful tree. We too are struggling, straining to become more fully who we are called to be, reaching for the light of heaven and that is not a painless process. But it is a process that will come to fruition as we rely on God’s grace and hope in him. For Isaiah rightly says that God’s Word does not return empty but will “succeed in what it was sent to do”. This is to say that God’s Word, Jesus Christ, comes to strengthen the dying, give grace to endure the Cross with him, and sends his Spirit to console the afflicted. Hence it is vital to anoint the sick and dying that they may receive this needful grace.
The witness of Christ, and of his saints and mystics, has been to what is called ‘redemptive suffering’ as Christians, motivated by faith and great love for Christ, suffer with Christ and die with him. But they do so with hope and resurrection joy, confident that they will rise to glory with him. Thus St Paul says: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothingcompared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Rom 8:18). One of the most beautiful deaths I have seen was of a Dominican brother who died with such dignity, surrounded by loving brothers, in the priory in Oxford. And I have been privileged to see Catholics die like this in hospitals too, surrounded by loved ones. And the image that comes to mind is of a seed buried in the ground in the hope of the resurrection. It is perishable but it rises to imperishable life (cf 1 Cor 15:17).
This is our faith and our hope as Christians; the Cross of Christ is our response to suffering, and we love and cherish all life from conception to natural death. For we are confident, and thus joyful, that the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise our mortal bodies too. For God dwells in us – the seed of glory, the Eucharist, has been planted in our bodies, and the grace of his Holy Spirit waters us and makes us flourish and yield the harvest of eternal life. This is the joy that we have to preach to a world gripped by despair and desperation. This is the mercy that truly responds to the needs of our contemporaries. This is the love that only Jesus Christ, Love made flesh, can give us; he fulfills the deepest longings of humanity.
Now, let us share this sweet and good news, and help build a civilization of love and of life.
Observing the young mothers around here lately, as young women become mums, I reckon that not only do their wombs expand during their pregnancy but also their hearts. The heart swells with love to make room for another, and from the moment a relationship is formed with the little person in her womb, the mother stores up in her heart a treasury of memories, of ponderings, of love for her child.
This is the image given us in Scripture of the Virgin Mother: “Mary kept all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51b). But Our Lady’s ponderings from the moment the angel Gabriel appeared to her must have gone beyond what every mother does because the Son in her womb is God incarnate; Love become flesh. And thus, Mary ponders the mystery of the Incarnation in her heart, she contemplates the wonder and depth of God’s love for humankind. So, Mary keeps in her heart the mystery of divine love, and so it is expanded by grace to become like her divine Son’s, a heart full of love for all. For Mary becomes the new Eve, the Mother of the Church.
But the heart that loves is, therefore, the heart that suffers. So Mary’s immaculate heart, which swells to accommodate all people, suffers greatly. As Simeon told her, “a sword will piece through your own soul also” (Lk 2:35). For, as all mothers do, Mary suffers to see harm befall her Child, as when she stood by the Cross of Jesus. And as Mother of mothers, Mary keeps and holds in her heart, too, the silent grief and suffering of so many mothers. Above all, though, as Mother of all humanity, Mary stands by us sinners, and she weeps to see Mankind crucified by sin.
Hence today’s first reading tells of the sorrows of the virgin daughter of Zion. Seeing the devastation of Jerusalem because of its sins, the daughter of Jerusalem weeps. Our Lady is that virgin daughter of Zion who weeps for Mankind, for all her children because she, the Immaculate One, sees all the more clearly the devastation to human souls and to societies that is caused by sin. For the Immaculate Mother – who knows so well the call of humanity to live in intimate friendship with God, who experiences the joy of sanctifying grace and freedom from sin from the moment of her conception – she recognizes as only such a human person can, the sorrow and pain that results from grave sin, i.e., the deprivation of sanctifying grace and life and love. We often do not see how sin harms us personally, but the Virgin Mother does, and her immaculate heart feels the pain and sorrow we inflict on ourselves by sinning. Thus she weeps for us. But she also intercedes for us. “Pray for us sinners”, we say again and again, and we know she does, as every mother does, praying for her children, hoping for our salvation, pointing us always to her Son, our only Saviour.
As she once sought the child Jesus and found him, so she prays that all will find Jesus too. For he alone brings joy to the human heart. This hope and prayer, Mary treasures in her immaculate heart. So, by our Mother’s loving intercession, may this come to be. Amen.
Our Lectionary’s tour of the royal history of the divided northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah gives us a reading today that sounds like an episode of ‘The Game of Thrones’! This past week our focus has been on the northern kingdom. God’s prophet Elijah had challenged the corrupt king Ahab, overthrown the infamously wicked Jezebel, and defeated the false prophets of the idol Baal. Today, our focus shifts to the southern kingdom of Judah. There’s another wicked queen, Athaliah, to contend with, whom the priests and army dispatch with. The young king Joash is restored to power, and under the influence of God’s priest, he overthrows the idols of Baal. Hence, once more, God and his commandments are restored; God takes the throne, so to speak.
The history of God’s people is full of such complicated and dramatic events, and the writer of ‘The Game of Thrones' can probably find much inspiration from it. But the macro-level drama of Israel and Judah constantly vacillating between fidelity to God and idolatry reflects the complexity and drama of our own human-scaled lives. There seems to be an on-going daily struggle, a mini 'Game of Thrones', between God and those things which claim our attention and desires.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks specifically of treasures on earth. So we need not spiritualize this to mean power or influence or ideas. Rather, he means those things that can decay and be stolen: material things. Jesus, it would seem, understood the allure of things because we tend to think we can be satisfied by stuff, and this is true, of course to some extent. If we’re hungry or unclothed, we need material things. But the problem is that our needs are not simply material because the human person is not just a body; we have spiritual desires which cannot be satisfied by just more stuff. And yet, if we look at how modern capitalism works, it’s all about stirring up our desires and telling us that we can only be happy if we buy more. And the sadness that comes from the stress and hard work necessary to acquire these things lead to yet more ‘retail therapy’ to buy us a modicum of happiness. Thus, some economists have noted that “capitalism has inflamed our innate tendency to insatiability”. If we give in to consumerism and unchecked capitalism then we engage in a kind of idolatry – we have dethroned God.
For the reason we have an “innate tendency to insatiability” is because our desires are not merely material. Placing a thing on the throne where God belongs will only leave us unsatisfied and unhappy. For as St Augustine recognized, our fundamental restless human desire is for God. Our deepest wants are insatiable because what we long for, ultimately, is love. Only the possession of love, or more accurately, being possessed by love can bring us happiness, contentment, peace.
Hence today’s Gospel alerts us to the trap of seeking happiness just from earthly treasures because this quest is in vain. It dethrones God because it seeks from material things a final pleasure and security and delight and peace that can only come from God, from being loved by him and loving him in return. This is what it means to “lay up… treasures in heaven” (Mt 6:20). Thus Blessed Teresa of Kolkata said that “the spiritual poverty of the Western World is much greater than the physical poverty” she saw in India. “You, in the West”, she said, “have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unloved and unwanted… They know they need something more than money, yet they don’t know what it is. What they are missing, really, is a living relationship with God”.
So, today’s Gospel challenges us to overthrow our idols and enthrone Christ in our hearts. This is the struggle facing us in our daily ‘Game of Thrones’. But this is no mere game or fantasy story. It is real life. And the prize is nothing less than a heavenly throne with God (cf Apoc 20:4).
People sometimes say that Jews, Muslims and Christians worship the same God. And there is some truth in this for we can all say: “I believe in one God”. However, this is not the complete truth. For the one God who we Christians worship and profess in the Creed, who is revealed to us by Jesus Christ, and who is expounded in Scripture and Tradition, is the Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And this truth, this great mystery matters. For truth matters, especially when it concerns the highest truths about God and our salvation. Hence the Church struggled and theologians argued for centuries to understand and express its meaning, and the difference it makes is of such import that it would set Christians apart from Judaism, and gave St John of Damascus cause to consider the emerging religion of Islam in the 7th-century to be a heresy. For there is a strict monotheism present in both Islam and Judaism that we Christians cannot profess as the full truth; something essential is lacking. So, from this point of view, we do not worship the same God. Rather, as the prayers of today’s Mass say, we profess “the true faith”, of God the “eternal holy Trinity and undivided Unity”.
In fact, you have probably already professed this truth several times today. Whenever we make the sign of the Cross we invoke the Holy Trinity. And at the same time, in tracing the Cross over ourselves we say that God saves us through the Cross of Jesus Christ. So, this one action, which we probably don’t consciously take much note of, says what matters most about the God we worship and about Mankind’s salvation. Indeed this action expresses what Jesus says in today’s Gospel: that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”. (Jn 3:16).
St Paul, in today’s Second Reading, refers to the Triune God as “the God of love and peace” (2 Cor 13:11), and this can be related to the Gospel. For the Father is the God of love, who so loved us that he sent Jesus to reconcile sinful humanity to himself. The Fourth Eucharistic Prayer puts it like this: “When through disobedience [Mankind] had lost your friendship, you did not abandon him to the domain of death… And you so loved the world, Father most holy, that in the fullness of time, you sent your Only Begotten Son to be our Saviour”. The Son, then, is the God of peace, who puts an end to the disturbance and rebellion that is sin, and restores Mankind to peace and friendship with God. Indeed, Christ gives his Church his peace, which is freedom from sin and a share in his divine Sonship, union with God. In the Mass it is put this way: “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you: look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity…”. But what about the Holy Spirit? He is present, I think, in this: St Paul says, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Cor 13:12).
Many people, including my own parents, often assume that we Catholics, and especially a religious like myself, are bound by innumerable rules. My grandmother would have said to me, for example, if she saw me having a drink, “Are you allowed to drink?”. This was her constant question: “Are you allowed…” as though I were bound to a lists of observances and promises that I had to constantly check myself against. Everything I do, they seemed to think, is regulated by external rules – what I can eat, where I can go, when I should sleep, what music I can listen to, what I should think, what I should wear.
And to some extent this is true – the most obvious sign is that we wear a religious habit that is given to me, handed down to us from our holy father Dominic, and indeed, so we say, from Our Lady. And it is also true that I promised to live “until death” according to the Rule of St Augustine and a book of Constitutions and Ordinations. So, it would appear that I live a life restricted and constrained by all kinds of rules, fundamentally un-free because I made a vow.
However, I do not feel this is so, nor do I think it an accurate description of the authentic Christian life. Why? Because the Christian life is fundamentally free, and it is this Christian freedom that today’s Gospel addresses.
Jesus tells us that he does not want us to be bound by oaths and rules and the fear of breaking them. For these have a kind of external force that do violence to our human freedom and make us do what we do not really want to do. This kind of force doesn’t cultivate virtue, nor is it conducive to love. Rather, in order that we may act lovingly, what Jesus desires is that we want what we do so that our actions are motivated, so to speak, from within; by our free choice. Christ’s teaching, “let what you say be simply `Yes’ or `No’”, points to this. However, the Gospel leaves unsaid what is crucial, perhaps because it is understood implicitly. It is vital that what we want is good and true. For this is true freedom: to desire the good, and to act accordingly. However sin often bind us and constrains our freedom from doing this!
The authentic and mature Christian life, then, is one that is focussed on the good, particularly the ultimate good of salvation in Christ, and which is thus drawn to seek God’s will and to act accordingly. Throughout our lives, we struggle with sin as we learn to desire rightly; we struggle with ignorance and error, we ask questions, as we learn to know and understand the truth.
So, we Christians are not bound by rules, really, but by our word, by a commitment, by a simple “Yes”. It is a “Yes” that we make to our natural human desire for the good and the true. As rational animals we are simply truth-seeking creatures, and we do good by living according to what is true. As Christians, this truth, we profess, is Jesus Christ; it is God who is Love. And so, we said “Yes” to living according to Love at our Baptism. We renewed this commitment in our Confirmation, and likewise when we go to Confession, or say “Amen” before receiving the Eucharist. Through each of these sacramental actions we say “Yes” to living the life of grace, re-committing ourselves to living a good life that is conformed in heart, mind, and will to the person of Jesus Christ, to truth, to Love.
And as Dominicans, we made our “Yes” by making just one public vow – that of obedience. Through this one action we freely give our freedom to God, committing all our subsequent actions to doing his will and labouring for the salvation of souls. Our Constitutions says that obedience thus “plants the roots of self-discipline in our hearts [and so it is] of the greatest benefit to that freedom of spirit characteristic” of God’s children (LCO 19 §3). So, the nature of this vow, obedience to God who is good and true; who is Love; doesn’t make me un-free, but in fact, even more free. And this is what Jesus wants for all his disciples: he wants us to be unbound from sin so that we can be free to love. Everything that constitutes our religious life – indeed, our Christian life – must have this as its aim.
This week has been a week of martyrs. Monday was the optional memorial of two 4th century Roman martyrs, clerics, whose names are in the Roman Canon: Saints Marcellinus and Peter. Then St Charles Lwanga, an African layman and his companions who were both Catholic and non-Catholic Christians; martyrdom is an ecumenical witness. On Wednesday our Order celebrated the feast of the first Dominican martyr, St Peter of Verona. And yesterday was the anniversary of the martyrdom of St Boniface, apostle to Germany. All this leads very appropriately to today’s Gospel. In this week that has been punctuated with St Peters, we recall Our Lord’s words to the first St Peter: “Follow me” (Jn 21:19). And so, St Peter too was martyred, following in the Way of Jesus Christ, the king of martyrs.
Every one of the martyrs we honoured this week – men from every state of life, laity, religious, clergy; priests, a bishop and a pope; witnesses from Europe and Africa – all followed Christ in laying down their lives for the good of others, for the sake of the Gospel of salvation. Even in the secular world, this has been a week when the sacrifice of one’s life for the sake of the Good is being remembered for today is the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy, D-Day. How we die, what we willingly give up our lives, time, energies for, reveal what we value, who we love. Which is why, before revealing to St Peter the manner of his death, the death of a Christian martyr, Jesus asks Peter who he loves: “Do you love me?” (Jn 21:15)
As we look on the sacrifice of the martyrs, and as we prepare for Pentecost when God’s Spirit of Love descends on us anew, the same question, then, is put to us in today’s Gospel: “Do you love me?”, Jesus says.
Sometimes, I’m afraid to respond. But today’s Gospel offers hope. At first Jesus asks Peter if he loves him totally and unconditionally: “agapas-me?” Does he have the love of a martyr, willing to give his life for Christ’s sake and in order that others may be saved? But Peter replies “filo-se”. That is, he loves Christ as much as is humanly possible for one as weak and sinful as he is. This is Peter’s realistic and humble response after the Crucifixion. Not a rash and bold declaration as he would have usually given but, rather, one that recalls his human fallibility. And the Lord accepts just this kind of love because the third time, Jesus asks: fileis-me? For our compassionate God is content that we, weak and sinful as we are, just love him as much as we currently can.
So, we might look at the martyrs and think we’re not capable of doing what they did. Indeed, we can look at our war veterans and think the same thing. And yet, we don’t have to be able to die a martyr’s death right now. All Jesus asks is that we entrust ourselves to him, that we be open to his grace, and just offer him what we do have, however little it is. He asks, in other words, that we follow him and so allow him to love us. So, each morning, let us offer our poor selves to him; offer our weaknesses, our failings, and our hopes and gifts too. He will transform what we give him with his grace into the very best we can be for as we say every morning, we belong to him, we are “the flock that is led by his hand” (cf Ps 94:7).