The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
Today is a day of beginnings. It’s the first Sunday of Advent – the beginning of a new liturgical year. And today we also rejoice with Victoria and Sascha at another signifiant beginning – the baptism of their son Emil Louis-Christophe. And, so, it is fitting that at the start of the Church’s year we are reminded of the start of our Christian journey. It is fitting, too, in Advent that we rejoice. For this is not so much a penitential season as a quiet season of joyful expectation; a time in which we hope to “go rejoicing into the house of the Lord”, not just on Christmas day, together with the shepherds and wise men, but also on the final day, at the end of Life’s journey. We hope to go rejoicing, with the angels and saints, into the eternal house of the Lord, into eternal life with God in heaven. For this is the destination of the Christian journey, and it begins for each one of us with baptism. Hence, when Victoria and Sascha was asked what they wanted for Emil in asking for him to be baptised, they said: “Eternal life”.
The Christian journey is depicted by the prophet Isaiah in our first reading as a pilgrimage up a mountain, up to the “house of the God of Jacob”. The rite of baptism tries to give this sense of journeying too, as we move from the entrance of the church towards the lectern, where God’s Word is read, then to the font, where we are re-born to new life, and finally to the Altar. This is literally the ‘high place’, the mountain of the Lord, where we come to dwell with God and he abides with us through the Eucharist.
Our Christian life is, therefore, never static but is marked by this kind of movement towards God. Inasmuch as it is a journey up a high mountain, so, the Christian life has its struggles and difficulties. We may battle against high winds, occasionally wander off the path, or be distracted by various sights. But, we must move ever upward. In the words of the Dominican saint, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, the patron of our scouts, and patron of youth: “Verso l’alto”. We must move ever onwards “toward the top”, to the summit where God awaits us.
But, we do not struggle alone on this journey. Some of us may recall a recent climb up Arthurs Seat, where the wind was so strong that you could lean back into it and it supported one from falling. God’s Holy Spirit, the divine Wind or Breath of God, is like this. He supports us on our Christian journey if we would lean into him, and we are supported, too, by a host of saints and fellow pilgrims, by God’s holy Church. This is the reason Emil is baptised during Mass, so that we can all pray for him, and support him. No one is a Christian alone, and nobody journeys to heaven alone. We do so as members of Christ’s Body surrounded by a crowd of friends and family, by parents and godparents, by brothers and sisters in Christ.
Isaiah says: “Come, let us go up… that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isa 2:3). So, on our Christian journey, we will need not just the prayers and support of one another, but we can also learn from one another, especially from the saints. This is why we invoke their prayers in the rite of baptism. The saints have reached the summit of the Christian life, and so, they can show us the way up and help us with their prayers. In this journey, Emil can look to one of his name saints, Christopher, who is patron saint of travellers, for help. The paths that the saints have trodden before us are well-worn but arduous. We may need to lighten our load, and shed unneeded burdens and worldly attachments if we want to walk in their paths. Because the path they take is the Way of the Cross; the mountain they have climbed is Calvary. So, too, each of us can learn from the saints how to walk this way too. It is the way of our Lord Jesus Christ; it is the way of Love.
In modern times, one saint stands out for the way he sacrificed himself for the love of his fellow Man, and in doing so, he clearly reached the summit of the Christian life. His baptism found its goal, its perfection, in his martyr’s death. As he offered his life in exchange for the life of another fellow prisoner in Auschwitz, St Maximilian Kolbe, patron of the pro-life cause, shows us what it costs to reach the summit of the Christian life. It costs us love.
St Maximilian, who is Emil’s special patron because he was born on his feast day (14 August), teaches us the costliness of walking in Christ’s way of love. For love demands sacrifice. But it is precisely this Christ-like love that “shall judge between the nations… so that “nation shall not life up sword against nation [nor] shall they learn war any more” (Isa 2:4). Love heals violence, hatred and strife. And the one who follows Christ’s way of love shall “walk in the light of the Lord” (Isa 2:5). This is to say, he will share in Christ’s glory and be raised up to reign with Christ in heaven. For Love endures for ever and is stronger than death.
For many of us, the Christian life may not be so dramatic, but if we are to learn to love, then it will still be costly and demanding. Every day, situations arise which demand a sacrifice, which ask for love, or mercy, or compassion from us. These may be small instances, but many will be unexpected. Hence Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel to “be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Mt 24:44). We’re to be vigilant, then, in our Christian life. Or perhaps, we should think of it in an Advent mode. Let us be full of joyful expectation that the Lord could come at any time, and give us opportunities to love, to be kind, to be tender-hearted to him. For Christ is with us in the “distressing disguise of the poor”, as Blessed Mother Teresa said. He is all around us waiting to be recognized, served, and loved. Another of Emil’s name saints, Louis, was thus always attentive to care for the homeless and poor.
Hence, it is here in the Church, which we can truly call “the house of the Lord”, that we learn from the saints how we can walk in the Lord’s paths and find him. It is here in the Church that we support one another with prayer, friendship and love on our Christian journey. It is here in the Church that Man finds his way home to God. So, as Emil is baptised today, he indeed goes “rejoicing into the house of the Lord”!
The final week of the liturgical year always focuses the mind on what, in the final analysis, really matters. For Nebuchadnezzar learns from the prophet Daniel that earthly kingdoms and temporal power will fall. And Jesus speaks of how even religious institutions and earthly glory will be not last. But so much of our human activity, our energies and time, have been poured into building and organizing. Yet we’re told that every earthly thing will come to an end at some point. What are we to make of this? What is the point of our human activity, then?
The Second Vatican Council says that “the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and that it allow men as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfill it” (Gaudium et spes, 35). In other words, nations, institutions, organizations; degrees, jobs, businesses; are not ends in themselves, but they serve a goal. And not a self-serving, individualistic, finance-driven goal – for all these are temporary and doomed to end – but a goal that transcends time and history.
This goal is relational, it is rooted in our Triune God who is the One relation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God is Love. So, all human activity is directed towards love, and is meant to enable us to love God and to love our neighbour. What this means is that the good things of our world now point to the Good that endures eternally. So, we can begin to build on earth now what will last for ever – not buildings and structures, as such, but relationships, friendships; build up Love. And this can be developed and built even in the midst of great calamities and disasters. As Jesus says in the Gospel, these will come, and temporal things will end. But even in the midst of them faith and hope bring light, and love deepens and brings joy.
Pope Francis released his new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, this morning. And in it he reflects: “I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to. I also think of the real joy shown by others who, even amid pressing professional obligations, were able to preserve, in detachment and simplicity, a heart full of faith. In their own way, all these instances of joy flow from the infinite love of God, who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”.
Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being.” (§7 & 8).
So, as the liturgical (and calendar) year comes to an end; now that the Year of Faith is over; we can take stock of all our activities and attempts and achievements. And we ask: Through them, have I experienced, known, encountered God’s love for me; the friendship of Jesus Christ for me and for all humanity?
For in the final analysis this is the one thing that really matters and that lasts for ever.
Music and singing are integral to any celebration. We see this in today’s first reading where the people of Israel rejoice for eight days “with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals” (1 Macc 4:54). They had endured persecution; the Maccabees had fought and suffered; and now they celebrate their victory with music and song.
This is fitting today as we celebrate the feast of St Cecilia who is the patron saint of music. She was a 4th-century Roman martyr who was killed for the Faith. It is thought that she was beheaded in her family home, and it’s still possible to visit the site under the basilica of St Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome. As she died, Cecilia was said to have sung to God “in her heart”.
So, like the Maccabees, St Cecilia had endured persecution, she’d resisted and suffered – they tried to boil her alive to begin with! – and, then, as she was being killed, she sang. This is quite bizarre if we think about it because Cecilia saw her dying – her martyrdom – as a victory to be celebrated with music and song.
However, the Preface for Martyrs in our Liturgy says the same thing. In the struggle of the martyrs, God gives them “ardour” and “firm resolve” so that they can remain faithful to Christ even to accepting suffering and death, and so, in their death there is “victory” over those who oppose Christ. What is this victory we celebrate, then? It is the triumph of grace, and indeed, the victory of Love. For only love for Jesus Christ can move someone to accept death. So, St Cecilia dies for Truth, for the integrity of her faith, for fidelity to Jesus rather than to renounce him; she dies for love of him.
We find this idea, of dying for love’s sake, quite often in romantic love, especially in what McCartney called “silly love songs”. And St Cecilia’s martyrdom might seem like a version of this kind of love. But is it? Did St Cecilia simply sing a silly love song as she died? Well, the martyr is not just someone totally in love with God and who dies out of fidelity to her conscience, to her love. There is something more, I think, that she witnesses to.
The martyrs’ death is an act of witness to the fundamental Christian belief in the truth that God’s love is stronger than death. This means that we believe and we hope in the final resurrection of our body. We believe that the death of our bodies, even under great suffering, is not the end of life. Because, we believe that the Christian is so united to Christ that even if we die as he did, we will also rise just as he did. Hence the YouCAT says: “Eternal life begins with Baptism. It continues through death and will have no end” (No. 156).
We will rise to eternal life with Christ because Love – God himself – is eternal and Christ, the living Word of God is the final word. His is the song of victory, and so, we too can sing that triumphal song with him. St Cecilia thus died with a song in her heart. Not a silly love song, but a celebratory Easter song. It’s significant that the Jews celebrated their victory for eight days, for Easter is often called the eighth day because it is the day of a new creation, of life after death, of eternal life. So, with Christ, we, who have died with him in baptism, and who have endured the trials and sufferings of this life, shall also rejoice and sing with him for eight days, that is, for all eternity in heaven.
This is what St Cecilia bore witness to. May she pray for us that we may share her faith, her hope, and her love for Christ.
In many ways today’s First Reading is very contemporary. In the 2nd-century BC, Maccabees relates how a culturally imperialistic Greek-speaking empire came into conflict with Judaism and the religious practices and culture that distinguished the people of Israel as God’s People. Why did this conflict arise? Because Jewish religious observances were thought to threaten the unity of the empire, which was already very diverse and large. A similar conflict occurred centuries later between the early Church and the Roman empire. And today we, too, face these issues as our globalized urban culture brings many diverse peoples together. Then, as now, there is a fear that distinctive religious practices that are different from the dominant cultural view, can impair so-called “community cohesion”.
So, in 2007, for example, the chairman of a Parliamentary cross-party committee on faith schools could say: “It seems to me that faith education works all right as long as people are not that serious about their faith. But as soon as there is a more doctrinaire attitude questions have to be asked”. By ‘doctrinaire’, this man meant certain ideas challenged the “common culture” and he feared that they might lead to the fragmentation of society. Interestingly, a similar fear motivates king Antiochus in the book of Maccabees. As we hear today, he issues a decree “that all should be one people, and that each should [therefore] give up his customs” (1 Macc 1:41f).
But, of course, both king Antiochus and the modern-day parliamentarian make a mistake in thinking that religious observances are all merely customs that can be separated from doctrinal truth, from the worldview of faith which essentially roots these customs. Some practices are indeed changeable customs, however, many are more profoundly rooted in the essential truth of God and the world, of who the human person is and his relationship with other people. As today’s Gospel implies, then, faith opens our eyes to a new and truer, more life-giving, way of seeing the world. And so it has a tangible, outward, physical impact. It causes us to behave differently and to flourish in society. In the case of the blind man, his faith enables him to see, and so, to follow Jesus and glorify God (cf Lk 18:43). As such, genuine religious observances are not separable from doctrinal truth – outward acts from inward faith – without engendering hypocrisy or the fragmentation of the religious person. So, what seems to be at stake is the fragmenting of an individual or the fragmenting of society. Or to cast this in more positive terminology, religious freedom or the cohesion of the state.
Except that this kind of dichotomy doesn’t really exist. Not, in any event, if we look at what our current ‘culture wars’ are about. Just what did the parliamentarian consider ‘doctrinaire’? A Catholic bishop had asked his schools to teach the Church’s teaching on sexuality, love, and chastity to youth rather than what is de rigeur in schools today. In 2012, an interview with young women in The Sunday Times tells us what the bishop was trying to oppose. One Natalie, aged 24, said: “It’s like the schools are promoting sex… It was all saying: ‘Sex is fun, go do it, just be safe’. That summer when we were 12, after we’d had sex education at school, lots of friends went on to do things that were sexual and inappropriate. There was nothing about relationships, or intimacy, or trust, or love, or saying girls should wait and they didn’t have to do it, or encouraging them not to”. Another girl says they were not taught that sex involved love, or commitment, or intimacy. The journalist says: “The girls describe a culture in which easy access to contraception fuels a kind of sexual free-for-all”, and it is this dominant culture, in fact that gives rise to the fragmentation of society; the sociological research is plain for all to see, if one opens one’s eyes to it. So, in fact, both the bishop and the parliamentarian were seeking to unify society and prevent its disintegration.
The parliamentarian, then, is right to say that “questions have to be asked”, but not about the Christian faith, as such, but rather the ‘faith’ of secular society in liberal morality and assumptions. This is the prophetic role that is given to us at baptism. But it is a work, not of condemnation, but of mercy and of love for our fellow Man, for our brothers and sisters. But Jesus also said: “no prophet is acceptable in his own country” (Luke 4:24). So, we have been warned of the cost of discipleship today and in every age.
Many of us will know Saint Margaret’s chapel in Edinburgh Castle. Reputedly the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh, it dates to the reign of King David I (1124-53). But the saint we celebrate today is even older. She was King David’s mother, and she died in the Castle in 1093. But although Queen Margaret of Scotland never worshipped in the chapel named after her, it is the one remaining structure closest to her time, and, I think that through it one gets a sense of the woman and the saint we celebrate today.
This building is quite literally, a survivor. It has survived sieges, wars, and being battered by the wind, snow and rain. Margaret herself was a survivor. She was born a princess of Wessex, but not in England. Her father had been exiled from England in 1016 when the Danes invaded. So, she was born in Hungary around 1045. At the age of 12, she returned with her family to England, but when England was again invaded, this time by the Normans, in 1066, Margaret and her family had to flee to Northumbria. But a storm drove their ship off course, and they landed in Scotland. So, St Margaret was a refugee, a survivor of war, violence, and both political and natural storms.
St Margaret’s chapel, with its thick stone walls and low ceiling gives one a sense of strength, austerity, and endurance. This is fitting as St Margaret was certainly a strong person to have endured and weathered all this turmoil in her young life. But what gives St Margaret’s chapel it sense of solidity and firmness, I think, is how its rough stone walls seem to blend into the very rock on which the Castle stands. So, too, St Margaret’s strength comes from the Rock on which she built her life: Jesus Christ.
Her being founded on Christ – her strong faith in him – was expressed in spiritual works and corporal works. Thus St Margaret was renowned for her austerity, her piety and devotion. After her marriage to King Malcolm III in 1070, she would read him stories from the Bible, rise at midnight for Matins, and she invited Benedictine monks to establish a monastery at Dunfermline. In this way she sought to bring the Scottish Church closer to the rest of the Catholic Church. Her childhood on the Continent had given her a greater sense of the universal Church than people on these islands might have had, and her son David would continue her efforts in this area.
St Margaret’s firm faith was also expressed through the corporal works of mercy she carried out daily. As the website of Queen Margaret University notes: “Queen Margaret was concerned with works of mercy and giving and particularly with the care of the poor”. So, she would wash the feet of beggars, she fed orphans and the poor before herself, and she tended to the sick. And she did this because, as our Gospel reminds us, she saw Christ in them.
Finally, I think something can be said about the way St Margaret’s chapel stands humbly and often unnoticed, dwarved by the grand War Memorial and other Castle buildings around it. We’re reminded, thus, of the saint’s humility and quiet service. But also, I think, of the on-going works of charity and compassion done by countless Christian women, and men, down the ages. These are often unnoticed, too, and one can be distracted by the apparatus of the secular State, military power, and wealth. But today’s feast recalls that goodness, mercy, and love, being founded on Christian truth, are never forgotten, always precious, and stand steadfast and firm against the battering of time and fashion. Just so, St Margaret’s chapel has stood for almost a millennium.
But even when that crumbles, St Margaret herself will shine like a pearl for all eternity, radiant with the glory of Christ and all the saints.
Death is the end. It is a cut-off point for many things. Illness and suffering for example, in which death may be seen as a relief and a release. But it’s also a cut-off point for various relationships. My religious vows are only made until death. So, after death, it seems, I am not longer a Dominican. The same is true for the bond of marriage which is also only made until death. After death, it seems, no one is still married. And this may be seen by some, I dare say, as a relief and a release but for many it will be a surprise and maybe even a shock. And yet, that is what Jesus affirms in today’s Gospel.
The reason for the end of marriage at death is that marriage, from Jesus’ point of view, serves a temporal purpose; it is for “this age” (Lk 20:34). It’s for pro-creation and for the raising of children in a family. As such, marriage serves the common good of society and ensures the continuation of humanity; it is ordered to Life, and, more specifically, life on this earth; this life, this age. Hence Timothy Radcliffe said in The Tablet: “Marriage is founded on the glorious fact of sexual difference and its potential fertility. Without this there would be no life on this planet, no evolution, no human beings, no future”. In a recent article on the Huffington Post a newly-wed man said a similar thing. Seth Adam Smith said: “love and marriage isn’t for you. It’s for others… for family… for your future children”. And this article went viral because it appeared so fresh and new. And yet, in rather more turgid language, this is what the Code of Canon Law, repeating words from Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, says: “The marriage covenant… of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children” (CIC 1055 §1). Today in this Gospel, Jesus gives us the implication of this understanding of the very nature of marriage, which is that in the agelessness of heaven, all temporal concerns such as the procreation and education of children, the transmission of new life through the marital act, and thus the marital bond itself will cease. So, Jesus says that those who rise from the dead “neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more” (Lk 20:35f). What this means we can barely imagine since the inevitability of death and its finality is always before us especially in this month of November.
But we have a glimpse of the strangeness of the risen life in today’s Gospel: there will be no marriage, no sex. And also, no eating or drinking. As St Paul says: “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). What is striking, I think, is that these basic bodily activities are taken away at death but… they are not entirely gone. Rather, what they signified for us human beings remains and is intensified. St Paul hints at this. The conviviality of the banquet and shared meal – which is why human beings don’t just feed but dine – endures and strengthens; there is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”.
So, what of marriage and the marital act, then? As we know, the marital act between husband and wife is never just about pro-creation although this is always essential. But there is more. For human beings don’t just mate but make love. Thus, sex is always unitive and strengthens the mutual bonds of love and commitment between a couple. And so, I think we can say that in the risen life, love and unity, which is what the sexual act signifies in this life, remains and is intensified because in the life to come we will be caught up in God who is Love itself, and in the communion of the Holy Trinity who is most perfectly One. Pope Francis pointed to this two weeks ago when he said to families in Rome: “True joy comes from a profound harmony between persons, something which we all feel in our hearts and which makes us experience the beauty of togetherness, of mutual support along life’s journey. But the basis of this feeling of deep joy is the presence of God, the presence of God in the family and his love”. In heaven, then; in the life of the resurrected, this joy and harmony and love which is only glimpsed in our family and marital lives on earth is brought to perfection as we see God face to face and live for ever in his presence, in him.
I hate writing Curricula Vitæ (CVs). I hated the pressure of trying to make them stand out, exaggerating the most minor experiences and trumpeting my achievements in a way that would set me apart from the others. So, I wrote my last CV ever and joined a religious Order, and now I just get told to become an assistant Chaplain, or Sub-Prior, without any more need for CVs to get these jobs! But I didn’t realize I’d still need to make posters and announcements to attract people to Dominican Youth Weekends, retreats, Chaplaincy talks etc – and this is almost as hard as writing a CV! And, then, as Vocations Promoter of the Dominicans, I’m often asked what makes us different; what sets our Order apart from others – as though our cool habit wasn’t an obvious enough answer!
Well, you know what I mean, I think. It seems that in our competitive world we constantly have to set ourselves apart from others by raising our game, improving our skill set, boasting of what we’ve done. And if it would help, we may even have to resort to distinguishing ourselves from the competition by putting others down, just to stay ahead and be noticed. None of this is really ideal. Which is why I hated writing CVs.
This kind of dynamic becomes really dangerous if we behave like this in our spiritual life, in our relationship with God. The Pharisee in today’s parable seems to be giving God his CV. He’s not so much praying to God as he is boasting of his achievements and, at the same time, for good measure, putting others down. What the Pharisee has done, which goes well beyond the minimum requirements of the Jewish Law are truly impressive and good, and not to be discouraged in themselves. But the problem is that he raises himself to get himself noticed while at the same time pouring scorn on others like the tax collector.
But God doesn’t need our CV. He certainly doesn’t need us to impress him. We really don’t need to get God’s attention in this way. Because God loves us so much that he just can’t take his eye off us – he’s always watching after us with tender mercy and love, and offering us every grace we need, even his own Self. And we don’t need to tell him all the good we’ve done because God is the cause of all the good we do. His grace prompts, and accompanies, and completes every good act. Insofar as our human freedom is involved, we choose to co-operate with God’s grace, to will the good, and so every good act can be said to be ours too. But it is, essentially, a share in God’s goodness and has its source in his grace. For without God’s grace, Man can do nothing, accomplish no good. So, the Pharisee and the tax collector are fundamentally the same; the Pharisee’s gravest mistake was to forget that all the good he’d done ultimately came from God. Hence Jesus says, people like him “trusted in themselves that they were righteous”. But only God is righteous, and we receive all grace, goodness, righteousness, holiness, life itself from him. Thus, St Gregory of Sinai said: “There are two kinds of humility… [T]o deem oneself the lowest of all beings and to ascribe to God all one’s good actions. The first is the beginning, the second the end”.
Now, if God were not Love, to think ourselves the lowest would just be humiliation. But because God is pure Love, he desires to give us all that we desperately need, beginning with life itself; Man depends on God for every good. And because God is Love, he even offers us his own divine life for our salvation. This is what happened when we were baptised. Through the sacrament of baptism God has, in effect, given you and me a job, without the need for any CV. God’s called us to be his beloved son or daughter; a citizen of heaven; a co-heir with Christ of all the treasures of his heavenly kingdom. Rather like my jobs and responsibilities as a Dominican friar, the call to be a child of God – made sons of God in the Son of God – is a gift. Our baptism is pure gift, an act of grace upon grace entrusted to you and me because Love takes risks and has faith in us. So, there is no competition in our spiritual life; no scarce resources to fight over since God’s love and grace is infinite; no need to boast, or prove ourselves, or put others down to be noticed. We only need to relax in God’s love and receive his grace.
But why is it that we might still compare ourselves to others?
I often return to this passage of Romans. St Paul describes the interior struggle with sin which I think we all experience and know intimately. We are attracted to God, and we know the Gospel to be true and good; we want to love Christ. But we are pulled in another direction by sinful habits and addictions. This inclination to sin, which we all have due to the wound of original sin, is called concupiscence (cf CCC 405). And so, there is a struggle in the Christian moral life, an ongoing spiritual struggle in which we learn to master our sinful inclinations by becoming more open to grace, and more attracted by divine Love. The Second Vatican Council thus said: “Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield [of life] man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity” (Gaudium et spes, 37).
Sometimes, this struggle, this spiritual battle, can just seem exhausting. But St Paul exclaims that there is deliverance, there is help from Christ. The struggle is tiring when it is waged alone, but doesn’t Jesus say to us: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Mt 12:28)? For it is when we experience our weakness and our helplessness against sin, that we need to turn to God for mercy and for strength. We need his grace.
In a way, Jesus’ frustration in the Gospel can be related to this. We see the storm and scorching heat of sin and temptation coming, and yet we do not know what to do, and we think we can withstand its onslaught alone. What we must do is turn to God, and seek his refuge and help. Few of us do this, I think, but it is precisely in the heat of our temptations and as we are falling that we need to pray to Jesus, who alone is our Saviour and Deliverer, who is the Mercy and Love of God.
And the prayer that I think of in particular is this ancient one, from the ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’. A certain monk of the Egyptian desert in 5th century, struggling with sin, prayed: “Lord, whether I want it or not, save me, because, dust and ashes that I am, I love sin; but you are God almighty, so stop me yourself. If you have pity on the just, that is not much, nor if you save the pure, because they are worthy of your mercy. Show the full splendour of your mercy in me, reveal in me your love for men, because the poor man has no other refuge but you”.
Today we begin our reading of one of the most influential of St Paul’s letters, and it’s worth mulling over. Just this one sentence has so much in it. He says: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:7). So, what might this tell us?
The fact that the letter is addressed to the Church in Rome points to the universal nature of the “gospel of God” (Rom 1:1); it is good news for everybody. For Rome was the centre of the known world, a communications hub, and it is from here that the Gospel spread to the whole world, not just to Jews but to the Gentile, to people of every race, language, and nation, right down to us today. Thus St Paul was determined to bring the Gospel to Rome, and through that city to the whole world, and today, as we read this letter again, it is being addressed to us.
And we are “God’s beloved… who are called to be saints”. To be called to be a saint means that God desires us to be united to him in love, and so, to live eternally with him. The reason he desires this is because he loves us so completely. Indeed, because he loves you and me, God has come in Christ to seek us out, becoming, as St Paul says, “descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom 1:3), then dying and rising again for our sake (cf Rom 1:4). So, the Gospel concerns what God has done for all Mankind because he loves us. Love has taken flesh, forever uniting himself to our humanity, so that he can show us the depths of his love; a love which is stronger than even death.
For through his death, the supreme sacrifice of love, a sign of perfect obedience and self-offering, Jesus has ended Mankind’s rebellion of sin, and so brought peace between God and Man. Thus, St Paul says: “peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. And because of Christ, God is now also our Father. For Christ’s peace establishes a new relationship between God and all people. In Christ we are adopted as God’s own children; we belong to God our Father because we “belong to Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:6b).
Finally, because we belong to Christ, and are God’s children, we receive “grace… from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. This is to say that we share in God’s life, in the communion of the Holy Trinity. For that is what we mean by grace – the presence and saving activity of the God himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, because of grace you and I can live and move and have our being as God’s beloved children, and it is this grace at work that enables us to become saints if we co-operate with it and allow it to transform our lives. Thus it is called sanctifying grace because it makes us holy.
So, in these few words St Paul says that God loves us, and calls us to live with him for ever; God reconciles us to himself in the peace of Christ; and God gives us his grace so that we can become saints. All we have to do is to accept this wonderful gift in “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5) and, so, turn away from sin and towards God so as to allow God’s grace to act in our lives. Thus, in today’s Gospel Jesus calls us to repent, to turn from sin, for “something greater than Jonah is here” (Lk 11:32), namely God’s inexhaustible offer of his love and grace.
It’s easy to be distracted by the demonology that seems to be presented in today’s Gospel for us to miss the point. Once again, I think we should focus on the protagonist of the Gospel - what is God doing? And for St Luke, especially, the main unseen player in his writings is the Holy Spirit, who is named here as “the finger of God”, the “Strong Man” by which demons and unclean spirits are expelled. And the good news that is being proclaimed is that this world and every human person, who God creates and holds in being by his love, is being reclaimed by the Holy Spirit, by Love. For as St Augustine said: “The Spirit… is God as love”.
However, in St John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit is referred to as “living water” (Jn 4:10). So, when Christ suggests today that the unclean spirit searches in waterless places for rest, that means not so much the desert – which is where people thought the demons lived – but rather, places where the Holy Spirit, where Love, is absent. For without the Spirit there is only dryness and lifelessness or emptiness. For the image used in today’s Gospel is of an unoccupied house – swept and ordered, it seems, but not filled with Love, with God’s Holy Spirit.
Hence, the Church’s prayer to the Holy Spirit always begins with an invocation for the Spirit to come and fill us. And the Sequence hymn for Pentecost, for example, asks that the Spirit may come and dwell in us so as to “Wash that which is unclean, water that which is dry, heal that which is wounded; Bend that which is inflexible, warm that which is chilled, make right that which is wrong”. It is the Spirit, then, who makes us, as it were, wet so that we’re unattractive to evil spirits. Thus St John says: “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18).
So, let us pray persistently for the Holy Spirit, and pray with confidence that God will come and dwell in us if we invite him to. For as Jesus said in yesterday’s Gospel: “If you then… know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:13).