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.
One of the images of Lent is that of going into the desert or the wilderness, for so Jesus did for forty days, and the people of Israel for forty years. However, what comes with the image of the desert is a place of blistering austerity, of hard stones and discomfort, of unpleasantness. No wonder, then, that so many people dread or fear the rigours of Lent; it can appear almost masochistic!
But I think we need to look at Lent from God’s perspective. Today’s Collect prays for God to “look with compassion” on us, and to give us his “protection”. In the book of the Apocalypse, the Woman clothed with the Sun, who stands for the Church, is taken by God “into the wilderness” for her protection, to keep her safe from the Dragon (Apoc 12:14). And, the prophet Hosea says that God will “bring [his beloved people] into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” there (Hos 2:14). So, during Lent, God leads us, his beloved Church, into the wilderness for our protection, so that he can allure us and woo us, and show us his compassion. Hence in the reading we’ve heard from Isaiah, he says: “The Lord will always guide you, giving you relief in desert places” (58:11).
And how does the Lord show compassion? How does he give us relief? How does Lent protect us? In the same way, I think, that the Sabbath does. The latter part of Isaiah’s reading for today, the Saturday after Ash Wednesday concerns the Sabbath, which was given to Mankind as a gift from the Lord. All too often we can see it as an inconvenient commandment – that we are to keep the Sabbath holy – which, if we even remember it, gets in the way of work or shopping or other things we’d rather do than go to church. But as Jesus has said, “The Sabbath is made for man” (Mk 2:27). So, it’s not for God’s sake that we keep the Sabbath holy, or go to church, or cease from servile work – it’s for our sake.
Because, again and again people have come to me saying that they are stressed, over-worked, and feel enslaved to their desks and jobs. Like the dragon of the Apocalypse, our work and the demands of a competitive work culture, our deadlines and economic targets can threaten to consume us. But Life lived like this is imbalanced. So, the Sabbath is God’s way of ensuring a balance is kept in our life, that we not only work, which is vital for mankind’s dignity – there is something debilitating about unemployment as well as idleness – but that we also rest. For in the Sabbath rest we discover God who is a communion of persons, we discover the divine dignity that is fundamental to our humanity. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, thus explains that the Sabbath is the “still point in the turning world, the moment at which we renew our attachment to family and community… [It is] the one day in seven in which we live out all those values that are in danger of being obscured in the daily rush of events; the day in which we stop making a living and learn instead simply how to live”.
So, too, Lent is like an annual Sabbath. As Jesus called Levi away from his work in the tax office, so we are called to follow him into the wilderness each Lent. For God calls us into the desert to protect us; to speak tenderly and compassionately to us; to restore our spirits and strength, and recall us to “live out all those values that are in danger of being obscured”. So, during Lent, if we take up the opportunities it provides, we learn to re-discover community through almsgiving; we learn to re-balance our life and its priorities through fasting. And, most significantly, we learn “simply how to live”, indeed, how to love through prayer. For through prayer know that we are loved; through prayer Christ calls us away from the wild-ness of our world to follow him into the Lenten wilderness where we can rest in God’s love, where God can speak “tenderly” to Man.
If we find “an eye for an eye” a rather barbarous approach to personal justice, it shows how influenced we are by Christian ethics both individually and as a society. Because this Levitical injunction (cf Lev 24:20), which is also found in the Code of Hammurabi and in Roman Law, was originally a genuine advance in morality and public justice. It was meant to limit the penalty exacted for wrongs done to the person so that revenge was not limitless. One could not, as certain ancient Chinese codes sometimes allowed, eliminate an entire clan because of a wrong done to one person!
But as Gandhi observed wryly: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. So, Christ’s teaching goes beyond this reciprocal version of justice with its idea of giving to each person what is his or her due. Once more, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount challenges the wisdom of the world with God’s wisdom, which is characterized by love. For God loves all alike, both the just and the unjust (cf Mt 5:45). This is his Way.
However, it would be a mistake to think that Jesus is therefore telling us in today’s Gospel to be pushovers; that we’re neither to fight nor even to flee but are to passively give in to evil done to us, and even invite it. This appears to be what Jesus is saying: “Do not resist one who is evil”; “let him have your cloak as well” (Mt 5:39f) but, in fact, the examples of evil which Jesus uses are not life-threatening as such. So, Jesus doesn’t seem to me to be saying that we should not defend our life when it is being directly threatened, or that we should not protect the innocent from direct harm.
Nonetheless, Jesus does give us examples of evils which do injure us in some way. More specifically, they injure our very humanity and the dignity that belongs to each human being as a “God’s temple”, as St Paul put it. Because Jesus uses examples of acts which are designed to humiliate one, which treat one as a lesser being, such as when a Roman soldier would force someone to carry something thus making him a beast of burden. But should we then respond to these acts of aggression on our humanity with inhumanity, with violence and hatred? Such, I suppose is the “wisdom of this world”, and the state of our wounded and broken world exemplifies this. But, as St Paul says, such worldly ‘wisdom’ is “folly with God” (1 Cor 3:19). So, what is one to do?
Jesus teaches us a different way: his way, which is thus, God’s way. And, as the Dominican Geoffrey Preston put it so memorably, Jesus Christ is God’s way to be Man. Hence, Jesus teaches us to respond to inhuman actions not with yet more inhumanity but with true humanity; with a humanity that comes from him who is “true Man”.
In the first place, then, Christ teaches that evil is not to be met with evil; violence with still more violence. For to respond to an aggressive action with an identically mirrored reaction is to lock the human situation of animosity into a hopeless impasse. But this is not mere passivity. Rather, evil is to be met with an active freedom: with courage and virtue and the good. So, Christ urges us to stand our ground so that we are not made into victims or inferiors. On the contrary, we rise above the bullies and show them the deep injustice and inhumanity of what they’re doing. We surprise our aggressors with compassion, forgiveness, selflessness, and ultimately, love. In this way, the Christian action aims to reveal the truth of the injustice being done, and to shame the aggressor into a change of heart so that he can also find his true humanity.
This, of course, is what Jesus does on the Cross. For the Cross reveals who we are as sinners. There, the Innocent One is condemned and violently executed – an icon of Man’s inhumanity to Man. Indeed, as Rowan Williams says: “The only fully human person is seen as the enemy of humanity… [Jesus carries] the cost of our ingrained revolt against who we really are” – the cost of sin which always dehumanizes us. For when we sin, when we retaliate and react with evil and aggression, we are being less-than-human. Hence, God’s response is to call us back to our true self; to call us from sin and its inhumanity to the true humanity shown in Jesus Christ. Here, then, is the wisdom of God, and Jesus wants to restore his Spirit of divine love to our hearts so that we can be as fully human and free to love as he is; to love even in the face of evil done to us.
But how is this possible? Perhaps a few striking examples may help.
Today’s readings challenge us to see things from God’s perspective, from the perspective of Love. For the human way is to judge purely by appearances, to be impressed by status, wealth, and power. This is the worldly perspective that James point out, and it follows a conventional Jewish idea that the righteous are blessed with riches and power, and that poverty was a curse on the sinful. But Jesus overturns this.
So, in the Gospel, there is a comparison between how men – the world – understands Jesus, and how his disciples are to understand him. The world sees Jesus like just one of the prophets, a fairly conventional perspective, I suppose. But Peter speaks rightly when he says that Jesus is not just any prophet but the Messiah. However, the conventional Jewish idea of the Messiah was that he would topple empires, fight for Israel’s liberation from Rome, and restore power to the Jewish nation. And it’s clear from Peter’s reaction that although he knew Jesus was the Christ, he was unwilling to let go of this conventional vision of the Christ. It comes from a worldly perspective that is allied with power, violence, and riches.
And it is this perspective that Jesus rebukes and overturns. Because the divine perspective is one of Love, so that the Messiah comes in humility to serve, to teach, and, above all, to suffer. That is the way of Love, and it leads to the Cross. And it is this perspective that we – Christ’s disciples, the Church to whom James’ letter is addressed today – are to learn. And so it is that we’re ultimately judged by Love. Not by our riches or lack, which do not matter much to God, but by whether or not we have learnt to love as Christ loves, to see the world and other persons from God’s perspective of Love. If we do love, we will be led to the Cross, where we are united to Christ in suffering, but we can take heart because we will also have the promise of rising to a new and divine life.
In 2009 a debate hosted by ‘Intelligence Squared’ was held in London. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world’, and before the debate began only about 38% of the audience were for the motion. But by the end of the debate, those who said the Catholic Church was a force for good in the world had decreased to 12.5%; the largest swing ever in an ‘Intelligence Squared’ debate.
By way of contrast, consider that around the year 360 the Roman Emperor Julian had written a letter complaining that his attempts to revive the Greek and pagan religions in the Roman empire were not as successful as he’d hoped precisely because the Catholic Church was being seen by too many as a force for good in the world. He noted that “the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause”. And he also bemoaned that “it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [the name given by Julian to Christians] support our poor in addition to their own”. So, by their good works – the kind that the prophet Isaiah mentions – the early Christians gave glory to God the Father, and at the same time they were valued by society; they were valued as salt and light for the world.
So, a Lay Dominican said in our recent Dominican Seminar in Leeds in January, we Christians should have such a positive impact in our present-day society that, if we were gone, we would be missed. So, at the very least, I think the ‘Intelligence Squared’ debate should give us pause for thought.
What has changed? Some might say that the world has just lost its taste for salt; society no longer wants what we offer. But I don’t think the 4th-century Roman empire was all that different from ours; it has always been hard to peddle salt in a world already flavoured with so many exotic spices and tastes. So, as Pope Francis observed, “Some people nowadays console themselves by saying that things are not as easy as they used to be, yet we know that the Roman empire was not conducive to the Gospel message, the struggle for justice, or the defence of human dignity” (Evangelii Gaudium, §263). Nor was it any easier when St Paul preached to the thriving Roman city of Corinth in the 1st-century. Corinth was itself a city on a hilltop, shining with the light of Greek philosophy, cultural achievements, and rhetoric. But faced with this St Paul brought a humble and unsophisticated message: “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Yet the Truth of this Gospel message would shed a light that outshone the Roman empire.
So, perhaps it is that the salt has lost its taste? How does this happen? If we look again at the image that Jesus uses, there is an interpretation of the cultural context behind Jesus’ words that is rather compelling. In Palestine where wood is scarce, cakes of dried animal dung are used as fuel. And these light up ovens made of earth. It is a common practice still seen today. However, 1st-century Palestinians also placed a flat plate of salt on the bottom of these ovens to activate the dung fuel. For the salt had a catalytic effect that helped the dung to burn, thus resulting in fire and light, and ultimately, the bread that was being baked in the oven. After a few years, a chemical reaction causes the salt to lose its catalytic effect, so it has to be thrown out and replaced; it has lost its saltiness.
So the salt, as it were, grows tired after a while and has to be renewed; it is no longer capable of igniting fires. So, too, a Christian community can grow tired and insipid, or even, to use the literal meaning of the Greek word in the Gospel, ‘foolish’ (cf Mt 5:13). If one has lost the savour of the Faith, one is no longer capable of acting as a catalyst that transforms the culture; of producing the light that comes from our works of practical mercy and justice; of igniting the fire of sacrificial love in hearts. And so, the world only sees such Christians as fit to be thrown out and trodden under foot; many, it seems, might not miss us if we are gone. A good few may even throw a party!
How, then, shall our saltiness be restored? How shall salt be renewed so that it is again a catalyst for love and a force for good? Only by our being transformed by an encounter with “Jesus Christ and him crucified”. Thus, Pope Francis said that “Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is nothing else than the culmination of the way he lived his entire life. Moved by his example, we want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world” (EG, §269). What the Pope is alluding to is the Beatitudes, which are found in the verses immediately preceding today’s Gospel (Mt 5:3-12). And this is fitting because it is by becoming men and women of the Beatitudes, and so becoming more like Christ Crucified, that we are salt of the earth, capable of firing up the world with God’s transforming love.
Recently, there has been much hope for change and renewal in the Church but in fact reform does not simply come about from changing structures, or from papal decrees, or overhauling the Roman Curia. All this may be of some import, but they can amount to nothing if the most basic and essential change does not happen. Indeed our concern with official reforms and Ecclesial politics and debate can be a distraction from this most vital reform, namely, the conversion of one’s heart and the reformation of one’s mind – of my heart and mind – to Jesus Christ and him crucified. For our history shows that in every age it is not structures but saints who have reformed Christ’s Church and transformed the world.
Hence, at a time of great internal strife in the Church, the Dominican mystic St Catherine of Siena said: “I have slept in the bed of negligence. This is why so many evils and ruins have befallen your Church”. Or, when Chesterton was asked what was wrong with the world today, he replied “I am”. Therefore, Pope Francis has said quite emphatically: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her” (EG, §3).
Will you and I dare to take up this daily invitation from Christ and his Vicar?
Today’s Gospel speaks of Christ’s mission to his apostles, sending them out to preach the Gospel and to bring God’s healing and saving grace to all peoples. From that moment countless others have followed in their footsteps as missionaries, and many have endured hardship and persecution, rejection and even death for the sake of the Gospel. And this is still a reality in these days.
But today we’re honouring the first martyrs of the Far East. In 1549, the great Jesuit missionary, St Francis Xavier had brought the Faith to Japan, and Christianity received a welcome so that by 1587 there were around 200,000 Catholics in Japan. That’s about 5,263 converts a year, or 14 a day! But in that same year the Emperor outlawed the Faith. However, numbers kept increasing so that in 1596 when a violent persecution began there were almost half a million Catholics in Japan. The 5th of February 1597 saw the sacrifice of Japan’s first Christian martyrs: 17 Japanese and Korean catechists, 6 Spanish Franciscans, and 3 Japanese Jesuits; 26 in total. The most prominent among them was St Paul Miki who was aged around 30 and who was being trained as a Jesuit priest.
The martyrs were all executed in Nagasaki, and they were disfigured, then paraded through the streets to terrify the local people into abandoning Christianity. But the 26 sang the Te Deum, an ancient hymn of thanksgiving and victory as they walked to their death. Then they were crucified, and killed with a lance in their sides. Even then, the martyrs continued to sing, and they sang the Benedictus which we sing every morning at Morning Prayer. Thus, they offered to the Christians of their time and to us today a brave witness to their faith in Christ as the Saviour of all; to their hope of his resurrection; and to their love for God and their fellow Japanese.
As St Paul Miki said: “The only reason for my being killed is that I have taught the doctrine of Christ. I thank God it is for this reason that I die. I believe that I am telling the truth before I die. I know you believe me and I want to say to you all once again: Ask Christ to help you become happy. I obey Christ. After Christ’s example, I forgive my persecutors. I do not hate them. I ask God to have pity on all, and I hope my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain”.
In order for the blood of these martyrs to be fruitful, let us today hold fast to the one true Faith they preached: that Christ alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And let us be inspired by them and their love for Jesus, and ask for the grace and courage to preach the Gospel to our fellow countrymen today, and to be faithful in our daily living out of the Faith. It is unlikely that we will be killed for doing this as the Martyrs of Nagasaki were, and as so many other missionaries around the world currently are, but the New Evangelization and being a faithful Christian will involve a sacrifice; it will cost us. So, we look to the martyrs to encourage us and to pray for us.
As Pope Francis says: “We do well to keep in mind the early Christians and our many brothers and sisters throughout history who were filled with joy, unflagging courage and zeal in proclaiming the Gospel… Every period of history is marked by the presence of human weakness, self-absorption, complacency and selfishness… These things are ever present under one guise or another; they are due to our human limits rather than particular situations. Let us not say, then, that things are harder today; they are simply different. But let us learn also from the saints who have gone before us, who confronted the difficulties of their own day.” (Evangelii Gaudium, §264).
“Behold, the Lamb of God…” These are such familiar words to us. But, perhaps a better translation would be “Behold, the Kid of God”! Because what St John the Baptist actually called Jesus – in Aramaic, we expect – was talya de ‘laha. And the word talya in Hebrew has a double meaning. It means both ‘boy’ or ‘servant’, and also ‘lamb’ – our word ‘kid’ comes closest, I think, to conveying this.
And this might explain why our First Reading is coupled with today’s Gospel. For the servant whom God is speaking to has now come, as promised. John thus points to Jesus, declaring him to be God’s servant. Last week we recalled how the Father’s voice from heaven had said: “This is my beloved Son”. Or indeed, if we keep the word talya in mind, perhaps the voice said: “This is my beloved boy”. So, the Father declares Jesus to be his talya, his Boy, a rather intimate term. Then, as soon as the Baptizer sees Jesus, he declares that here is God’s talya, his Servant, a term rich in prophetic resonance, reminding us of Isaiah’s prophecies of the Christ who would come to do God’s work of calling God’s beloved people back to him.
However the evangelist, St John, chooses a theologically rich meaning to the word talya, so that Jesus is not just God’s boy or servant, but also the Lamb of God. Thus in the original Greek of John’s Gospel, Jesus is the amnos tou Theou, and the word amnos, which refers to a sheep under one year old, only occurs four times in the New Testament. If we look in the Septuagint, which is the revered Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word is used in Exodus to refer to the lambs offered in sacrifice to God in the Temple. Hence, St John is telling us that Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb of God. More specifically, it is by being the sacrificial lamb, by the complete offering of his life in love, that Jesus carries out the work given to him. Thus, Jesus is tayla de ‘laha in every sense: both boy-servant and lamb.
But it is not just Israel that is being brought back to God but the whole world. Isaiah says: “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6). Notice that even this language is sacrificial since the light burns by consuming oil in the lamp; a candle gives light only by sacrificing itself and being consumed by the fire. Hence St John says that Jesus is the Lamb of God who “takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). Thus we are reminded of the universal mission given to God’s servant in Isaiah, and also of the sacrificial aspect of that mission, whether as the light-giving lamp or sacrificial lamb given for all peoples.
This idea that Christ has come for all is one that the Liturgy has lingered over for a few weeks now. It was made manifest at Epiphany when the Magi, representing the nations of the world, came to the infant Christ. Then, last week we saw how Christ, by descending into the waters of baptism, identifies with and extends his salvation to all of sinful humanity, even those cast out of communities. And today, Christ’s universal mission is being re-iterated. But what is being made more explicit is how Jesus will bring salvation to Mankind. We had a hint of this on the feast of our Lord’s Baptism. It is through baptism, to which all are invited, that we shall be saved. More precisely, we are saved by what baptism symbolizes. As St Paul says: “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (Rom 6:3). So, Christ’s descent into the waters prefigures his descent into death, because it is by Jesus’ death that we are saved.
Here, then, is the full meaning of Jesus being called the Lamb of God. For it is through his sacrificial death that Christ takes away the sin of the whole world. His death on the Cross destroys our death, the death of Adam’s sin. And thus, having overcome sin and death, Jesus makes it possible for us to be with God, walking with him in friendship as Adam once did in Eden. Hence St Paul goes on to say in his letter to the Romans: “We were buried therefore with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).
Thus, Jesus has done the work given to him by the Father. In the words of Isaiah, he has brought Jacob back to God, and raised up the tribes of Jacob (cf Isa 49:5-6), and, of course, this applies to not just Jacob but all God’s children. So, by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, not just Israel but all humanity, has been restored to friendship with God; the Servant’s mission is accomplished.
Now, the goal of the servant’s work is key if we’re to understand what sacrifice is about. For sacrifice is not principally about the killing of something, or placating a bloodthirsty God. Rather, St Augustine says that “a true sacrifice is every work that is done in order that we may cling to God in holy communion, that is to say, [every work] that has a reference to that goal of the good, through which we may be truly blessed”.
As such, sacrifice is ordered to renewed fellowship; reconciliation and union with God. This is the goal of the servant in Isaiah. So, the work that Jesus does to accomplish this is a “true sacrifice” not because he has to die but because of the goal of that sacrificial work, namely, that Man may cling to God in holy communion and, so, be truly blessed. The fact that Jesus accepted the Passion and died a Victim of humanity’s sinful inhumanity serves, at the very least, to show just how far he would go to bring about Mankind’s greatest good: blessedness. Christ’s death on the Cross shows the extent and quality of his divine love. So great was God’s love for Mankind that he became Man, and then even freely offered his life so that Mankind’s rebellion and violence might be broken, and we might be reconciled. Thus, Jesus said: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). For this love is stronger than death, and restores Man to friendship with God.
The result of Christ saving work is that we, women and men, can do this: celebrate the Mass. We come together as God’s friends and in fellowship with one another to eat and drink at this sacred banquet. St Thomas observes that sacrifices often end with a meal because it is a sign that the goal of the sacrifice has been accomplished: friendship is restored. Thus, the Eucharist is both a sacrifice and a meal, for in the Mass we behold Christ, the Lamb of God whose sacrifice, made present in the Mass, makes possible our holy communion with God and one another. Here, Christ, the talya de ‘laha accomplishes his work and raises us to new life with our Father. So here in the Mass we are, as St Paul put it, “called to be saints together with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:2).
In this final week of Christmastide after the great Epiphany to the Magi, the lectionary presents us with a series of epiphanies, of moments when God reveals himself to humanity; times when divinity is so near to us. Hence, we’ve heard of great signs of healing, miraculous works of feeding, and Christ’s power over the elemental storms. For in these diverse ways, Jesus reveals his divinity and that he is God-with-us.
In today’s Gospel, we could say that St Luke sums up these epiphanies, these signs of God at work in the world, especially through healing miracles. Tomorrow’s Gospel will reiterate this as we hear of the healing of a leper. However, although physical healing is an important sign of God’s presence among us, there is something else which St Luke adds especially. For although Luke is principally quoting Isaiah 61:1-2, he has inserted a line from Isaiah 58:6, where the prophet outlines the features of a fast pleasing to God. So, into the prophecy of what Christ, the One who is anointed by the Spirit, will do, St Luke adds that he will “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Lk 4:18).
Now, of course Christ has, fundamentally, by his incarnation, set Mankind free from the oppression of sin and death. Thus, the psalm which we have been hearing every day since the Epiphany, when this was revealed to all nations through the Magi, says: “From oppression and violence he redeems their life” (Ps 71:14). However, we should beware of simply spiritualising what Christ has accomplished. This, it seems, is St Luke’s concern. Thus, he inserts a line from the practical works of mercy and justice given by Isaiah in chapter 58. And if we look there we find these words: “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bond of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free… Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn…” (Isa 58:6-7).
Therefore, the light of God’s presence among us, the epiphany of God’s glory shines on us when we are just and loving to the oppressed and needy; when we show practical mercy and compassion to the poor. Our first reading reiterates this by saying: “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). But, then, St John suggests that we have seen God, or rather, his son Jesus Christ. We have seen him because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). So, we see Christ in other human persons, dwelling in their flesh, in our flesh.
For through his incarnation, Christ has united his divinity to our human flesh; he has redeemed humanity in the flesh. So, “the flesh is the hinge of salvation”, Tertullian says. Hence it is in the flesh that God is seen and that his salvation for all peoples is revealed. For as Isaiah says, the hungry, homeless, and naked are “[our] own flesh”. Thus, when we care for our own flesh, meaning, not just our own bodies, but for every body; loving all peoples who are oppressed by poverty, violence, and injustice, then, in our acts of justice, mercy and of love, God is seen and his glory is revealed – they are an epiphany.
Raymond of Penyafort (near Barcelona in Catalonia) lived for a century, and he gave half of his life to the Dominicans, joining when he received what we’d term a ‘late vocation’ at the age of 47. By then he was already a celebrated professor of canon law at Bologna University, and many more vocations followed in his wake. One of Raymond’s first projects was to co-found the Order of Our Lady of Ransom, which set about to redeem Christians enslaved by the Muslims. And this idea of liberation is central to Raymond’s life and mission.
Because he is most noted by the Church for two accomplishments. Firstly, for his redaction and compilation of church law in 1234 called the ‘Decretals’, a monumental work which was used for the next 700 years as a basis for canon law. Thus, he is patron of canon lawyers. But he is also remembered for a work intended as an aid for priests hearing confession, and Raymond was so respected as a confessor that he was both confessor to the pope, and the king of Spain. Confession, we know, of course, to be a work of God’s mercy and liberation; in this sacrament we experience Christ’s redemption of us, freeing us from our slavery to sin and the devil.
Although we may not think it, the exercise of canon law is also a work of liberation. Why? Because canon law has one great aim, which is to foster the salvation of souls, i.e, to facilitate our redemption in Christ. The law of the Church, then, is the structure - the bones - on which we can build the edifice - the flesh - of our Christian lives. The law orders the ways in which we Catholics live and work together in our common mission of making Christ and his redemption known. And if we keep this in mind always, then law is liberating, and enables us, as the Body of Christ, to be a communion of love.
The relationship between law and the freedom to love may not always be evident to us, but it is also manifest in our readings. St John says today: “Let us love one another” (1 Jn 4:7), and just a few verses previously: “[T]his is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us” (1 Jn 3:23). But what does this mean? We cannot really be obliged to love another, or commanded to trust and believe in Christ. Rather, the commandment, the law, acts more like a structure, a foundation on which to build something good. But the will to do this, to act well, has to come out of our own desire. It has to come from our freedom to choose that which the human heart is inclined towards, namely the good, the true, and the beautiful. As such, sheer legal positivism is insufficient; in fact, this kind of legalism is a failure. Rather, good law is the kind that serves the flourishing of the human person and the common good. It facilitates the satisfaction of our deepest desire, which is communion with Christ, and with one another. It serves to make it possible to love God and neighbour, and to express this one love through the virtue of justice.
In St Raymond, we praise a man who was first of all a lover of God, and of his neighbour, and it is this love that made him a wise and respected canon lawyer and confessor; a liberator. After all, It is not for his learning and canonical skills that he was canonized, but for his charity, which is the goal and perfection of all canon law, indeed, of all the commandments. Hence, as we prayed in today’s Collect, “Love is the fulfilling of the law…”
Eccl 3:3-7. 14-17; Ps 127; Col 3:12-21; Matt 2:13-15. 19-23
It’s tempting and attractive to think that the birth of the “Prince of Peace” would put an end to all wars and violence. Or that, as the angels sang on Christmas night, peace would come to all people “of goodwill”. And yet, every Christmas, we’re reminded that this isn’t obviously so. This year, bombs went off near a church in Baghdad; in the previous two years bombs exploded in Nigeria. But it’s not just contemporary events which remind us of this. The Church’s liturgy also reminds us that Christ’s birth did not bring an immediate cessation of sin and violence. So, perhaps the peace that Jesus’ birth promises is not the end of human conflict and strife as such.
For God became Man, but in doing so God left intact our humanity with its greatest dignity, which is our freedom to choose good or, indeed, evil. Hence on the second day of Christmas, the liturgy recalled the killing of St Stephen the first martyr. While he chose to love and die for the truth, his executors chose otherwise. Yesterday, we recalled Herod’s cruel decision to massacre the newborns of Bethlehem because of his fear and lust for power. And today, we’re confronted again with the threat of violence – Man’s wickedness and cruelty to his fellow Man directed against Christ, the Son of Man. Thus God is with us, and experiences all that Man has to suffer. Hence the divine infancy is, from its first moments, overshadowed with sorrow, tragedy, and the difficulties of the human condition, of our mortality.
In contrast to the cosy – and, even, splendidly grand – images of the Nativity that dominate our art and popular imagination, these words from the 17th-century poet Patrick Cary have remained with me:
“Look, how he shakes for cold!
How pale his lips are grown!…
He’s frozen everywhere:
All th’heat he has
Gives in a groan;
or Mary in a tear”.
For Jesus is born in a cold dark cave – the kind of makeshift shelter that shepherds used when inclement weather suddenly arose. And Mary is a young inexperienced mother – anxious for her child, an amateur in every sense of the word. And Joseph’s greatest concern is to protect and safeguard his wife and the baby; this preoccupation even fills his sleep. Such is the Holy Family being presented to us today, with all the fears and anxieties, the needs and concerns, as well as the hopes and dreams, of every young family; it’s all very human.
But at the same time, as Patrick Cary notes, there is in the parents’ concerns and anxieties, in the suffering groan and tear of Joseph and Mary, a true expression of love. This love is all the heat the Christ Child has. And, indeed, this love is something divine. For we are also being presented with the greatness of human freedom when it rises to its divine potential and chooses to love, to sacrifice, to care deeply for another’s wellbeing and good. Every family – mother, father, and child – at its best, exhibits this too. And, so, there is something holy about every family founded in love. But what distinguishes this family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as the Holy Family is that, throughout all the trials of this life – today we see how they are forced to flee as refugees – they always chose to love, to co-operate with God’s grace.
Hence, it is with Mary and Joseph that Christ is most at home on earth. Because in the mutual giving and receiving of love between Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Holy Family mirrors the divine life of the Holy Trinity who is a perfect communion of love. So, whenever we co-operate with grace and choose to love, to create a communion of love on earth, we are, so to speak, building a home for Christ where he can live with us; where incarnate Love can dwell and be made visible. This is true of every family but also of our parish communities; of God’s holy Church.
But there is another divine quality that is essential for our communities and families. It is a vital part of the suffering associated with genuine love. And the Holy Family, hounded into exile by Herod, would have known this also. So, St Paul says to Christian communities, and thus, to families too: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col 3:16). Now, Christ is Love made Man, so what is his word? What does Love say? On the Cross, Jesus says: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34); words repeated by St Stephen as he lay dying too. For love enables forgiveness, which is never easy. But it is necessary if we’re to receive the peace of Christ in this world.
For peace in a world in which Mankind remains free means there is always the risk of sin, violence, and evil done to us – as well as the selfishness, thoughtlessness, and fears that wound and strain our human relationships. But, at the same time, we each remain free to rise to our divine potential, to co-operate with grace and so, to love and to forgive. Thus the peace of Christ is ours. Because, when we do love and forgive, we suffer alongside Christ but we also share in his divine freedom, and we experience the newness of his risen life. Hence, St Paul says: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13).
These words underpin an account I read recently in The Tablet. Maureen Greaves’ story is one of holiness in a family today. It illustrates how Christ’s love dwells in us, and gives rise to long-suffering forgiveness, but then, also, to the grace of new life and true peace. This is peace, as Jesus says, “not as the world gives” (Jn 14:27) but from the merciful and sacred heart of Jesus; peace as the Holy Family knows it. So, let Maureen’s story have the final word today:
On Christmas Eve last year, Maureen’s husband, Alan, was savagely attacked as he was walking to his local Anglican church for the midnight service. As he lay unconscious in hospital on Christmas day, Maureen says: “I… remembered how, all through our marriage, he had always been the one who found it easier to say sorry and to forgive others. And I also remembered that he’d been attacked at Christmas, and that Christmas is when Christ came to forgive our sin. And when I looked down at Alan, I knew that if he could speak to me, what he’d be saying is: please forgive them.” She prayed deeply, and it was one of the hardest things she’d ever done, she says, but that Christmas day, she forgave her husband’s two killers. Concerning them, she says: “I see them as two men – men who have done something immensely shocking, but men who were made in the image of God. I’ve always thought of them as two people who are loved by God… Forgiving them gave me a huge sense of relief. It’s allowed me to sleep at night, it’s allowed me to use up all my energy on helping my children to cope with what’s happened, rather than being eaten up with anger and hatred”. “If that had happened, she believes it would have been in a sense a double tragedy: first the tragedy of losing Alan, and then the tragedy of losing sight of the truth that’s been the centre of her life, and was at the centre of her and Alan’s life together, which is the importance of Christian forgiveness”.
This is a time of year for songs and singing. Sitting in the second of our parish carol services recently, I was reflecting on this annual marvel. That people should come to church voluntarily to sing songs so enthusiastically – and often quite musically difficult and high ones, at that – and, in doing so, proclaim, indeed, preach, the central mysteries of the Christian faith. Would that this happened all year round! It’s often said that singing is central to Christmas because of the angels who proclaimed Christ’s birth to the shepherds. And yet, as Pope Benedict rightly noted about a year ago, there’s nothing in the Gospels to say that the angels sang at all! However, we do find a lot of singing in Advent, and especially in this run-up to Christmas day.
Indeed, we hear today from the greatest song in Scripture, the Song of Songs. The whole of sacred Scripture, of course, reveals the passionate love of God for Man, but here, in the Song of Songs, that love story is condensed into a song shared by a Lover and the Beloved. So the Jesuit theologian, Henri de Lubac said the Song of Songs “symbolically celebrates the great mystery of love, the union of God and man prefigured in Israel and realized by the incarnation of the Word”. And this is why it is fittingly read today. For yesterday, we heard of how, at Our Lady’s ‘Yes’, the Incarnation took place; the eternal Word took flesh in her womb. And today, Scripture sings her greatest song about the world’s greatest love: God’s for humanity.
For God’s love, which creates the whole universe and holds all in being, is sustaining all by the breath of his Spirit, just as a song is sustained by the singer’s breath. And the Word of God’s love song now takes flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. And so, God enters the song of creation. Jesus is, as Pope Benedict says, “a ‘solo’, a theme entrusted to a single instrument or voice which is so important that the meaning of the entire work depends on it”. For, by his incarnation, Christ re-creates the world through his grace so that, as we hear in the Song of Songs, the winter of sin and death is past and ended, and the springtime of grace comes (cf Sg 2:10-11); creation flowers anew, and “the time of singing [or pruning] has come” (cf Sg 2:12). And so, we hear today how, God, the Beloved comes over the hills to Judea, in Mary’s womb. God comes “bounding over the hills” in search of his Love, Mankind, whom he will save.
This Good News, this springtime of Man’s salvation is, the Song of Songs says, heralded by the cooing of the turtledove, a sweet gentle bird. We can see in this a symbol of Our Lady, whose voice is heard by Elizabeth and St John. At her voice, the Baptizer leaps in the womb – indeed, the Fathers said St John danced a jig of joy upon hearing Our Lady’s voice, for thus Mankind rejoices in its salvation first announced by the Virgin Mother’s voice and presence. And then, following the Song of Songs, the proclamation of salvation’s Spring is accompanied by singing. Hence, Our Lady bursts into song and sings her ‘Magnificat’.
So, too, our psalm response today exhorts us: “Sing to him [the Lord] a new song” (Ps 32:3). So, it is really because of Our Lady, I think, rather than because of the angelic choirs that we sing at this time of year. And this is fitting for the Christ, the solo Singer has entered God’s love song of creation, and it is he who calls us to join in his song, the new song of grace and Mankind’s salvation.