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.
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).
One of the translations for the Sequence hymn of Easter, Victimæ Paschali laudes, has this line: “Death with Life contended… Life’s own Champion, slain, yet lives to reign”. And this caught my eye because, at first, ‘champion’ seemed to me a rather unusual translation for dux, until I considered how dukes were initially military leaders who were honoured because they had been successful on the battlefield. But Christ is a rather odd military leader because he doesn’t fight. Or rather, he fights by becoming a Victim, suffering heroically and taking up the weapon of the Cross to defeat sin and evil with his sacrificial love. So, by dying Jesus conquers death, and by rising from the dead, he becomes our victorious Champion over sin and death.
Now, champions are typically decked with medals, and the shinier the better. Likewise, every success on the battlefield is matched by a bright medal on one’s chest. When we think of these shiny medals and what they stand for – success on the field of battle or of sport – then we begin to understand what the word ‘glory’ means.
For this word occurs repeatedly in today’s readings, and the word usually evokes shiny brilliance, light, and splendour. This understanding of ‘glory’ comes from the Greek word doxa which is what is being translated in our readings. However, if we look deeper, we find that doxa is often a Greek rendering of the Hebrew word kabod. And here we discover something unexpected. The word kabod is related to weight, whether because of wealth, or nobility or even moral excellence. So, rather than the idea of glory as something bright, light and soaring splendidly to the heavens, we have the sense of something being heavy and weighty, substantial.
Hence, the Scriptural understanding of glory doesn’t connote so much the shininess of the medals as their weightiness. The idea, then, is that the more one achieves on the field, the more one is weighed down by medals. The champion, then, is one who is glorified when he is bedecked with so many medals that they weigh him down and thus proclaim the weighty import and substance of what he has accomplished.
Christ our champion, then, has conquered sin, death, and evil. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, this is “the work” which the Father gave him to do, and which he has accomplished (cf Jn 17:4). So, having won the salvation of Mankind and having freed us from Satan’s grasp, Jesus asks that the Father “glorify him” (Jn 17:1); the champion is victorious, and now awaits his medals to be awarded by God the Father. It’s a rather striking image but what are the medals? How is the Son glorified?
From next Friday, after Ascension Thursday, the short responsory at Vespers becomes rather short indeed. In three words, it simply says: “Spiritus Paraclitus, alleluia”. This caught my attention many years ago, when I used to pray the Office alone in Latin, because that phrase uses the three ancient Liturgical languages of the Church: Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Because, ‘alleluia’, of course is the Hebrew word meaning ‘Praise God’, and the word ‘Paraclitus’ is just a paraphrase of the Greek word used in today’s Gospel to describe the Holy Spirit.
Jesus says: “I will pray the Father, and he will give you allon parákleton" (Jn 14:16), which is translated here as ‘another Counselor’. In other places, it will read as ‘another Advocate’ or helper, or also ‘another Comforter’. So, I think this word, parakletos, which only occurs in John’s Gospel merits further exploration.
The word is really a compound of the prefix para, meaning ‘beside, next to, side-by-side’, and the verb kaleo, meaning ‘I call’. So, the Holy Spirit is one who is called to stand by our side. The English translations are derived from this. The Spirit is one who is called to come alongside us to help us. Think of how you might be carrying a heavy burden and need someone to help you with it, or even to hold the door open to make passage easier. For this is who God is. He is one whom we can call upon to help and strengthen us, to ease our burdens and our way forward in life. Likewise, the Spirit is called alongside us to bring us comfort. Think of how we might lean on the shoulder of a friend, or of how we put our arms around someone to comfort them in sorrow. For this, too, is who God is – our friend, our Mother and Father, our intimate Lover who comforts us in times of sadness, but also whom we can lean and rely on.
However, the translation we often find carries a more technical meaning. Whether we use ‘Counselor’ or ‘Advocate’ the language is of the courtroom. The Spirit, then, is the one we call to stand beside us when we are in the dock, charged with sins, and we stand before the Judgement Seat of God. In the Bible, the Devil is called the Accuser, or in Greek, diabolos. Literally, the one who throws things across or throws apart. The Devil hurls accusations at us; he is the Prosecutor, and we stand accused. But when we are accused because we have sinned, and we stand guilty, who will defend us, who will come to our side? Spiritus Paraclitus, alleluia. The Spirit is our Advocate, our Counsel, whom we can call upon to come and defend us.
Often we feel so burdened by our sins and guilt, and the great lie is that it is God who accuses us; hence, many resent him. But in fact it is the Devil who is the Accuser. He tells us we are hypocrites, unworthy, useless sinners, and so on. Every feeling of inadequacy, every accusation that tears us apart and humiliates us come from him, the Father of Lies. What are we to do?
If you stand accused, call your defence lawyer! Come, Holy Spirit! Call the Advocate, the Counsellor, the Comforter. Call upon the Holy Spirit to come and stand beside you. As St Paul says: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Often we Catholics will run to the saints and especially Our Lady for help. And this is well and good; we should ask them to intercede for us. But let us not neglect the parakletos who we should call alongside us first as our Helper and Comforter.
And how the Spirit helps and defends us is with the Truth. The Holy Spirit, Jesus tells us, is the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17) who will “teach us all things” and remind us of all Jesus told us (cfd Jn 14:26). What this means is that the Spirit comes to show us the truth of who we are as sinners. But at the same time he reminds of the truth of who we are as children of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ and healed by his grace, even while we were still sinners (cf Rom 5:8). The Spirit of truth reminds us that we are loved by God, and so, stirs up in us a love of God and of his wise commandments. For God’s commandments, and the keeping of them, are a mark, a sign to all, that we are loved by God and we belong to him. We are his children, so the Accuser cannot get to us – indeed, he has nothing to hold against us.
Hence St Paul says: “If God is for us, who is against us?… Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?” (Rom 8:31, 33). For, again, it is not God who condemns us. It is the Devil who does, and we help him when we choose other than to follow God’s wise commands, when we fall for the Devil’s lies. God, on the other hand, stands to defend us, to raise us up, to help us with his powerful grace.
Indeed, we should notice that Jesus says that the Father will send the Spirit as anotherparakletos. Who, then, is the first Paraclete? St John says in his first letter: “My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn 2:1). And the Greek word translated as ‘advocate’, of course, is parakletos. Christ is our advocate because, as St Peter says today, “Christ… died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pt 4:18).
Through his incarnation, God came alongside sinful humanity. For generations the people of God had called out for salvation, and at last the One they had called out to, God himself, came alongside as Man. In Jesus Christ, the parakletos, comes and stands alongside us as Emmanuel, God-with-us, and he suffers with us, dies with us, and is buried with us. This is the full implication of God being our parakletos: he the righteous one died for the sins of us, the unrighteous ones. But Jesus rose from the dead and he lives. And as he says: “Because I live, you will live also” (Jn 14:19b). Thus, we did stand accused but because of Christ, our parakletos, we have been sentenced to a life of glory, to be alongside God in heaven.
For that is where we Christians belong, here in this life, and eternally. For we, through Baptism into Christ and receiving the Spirit in Confirmation (cf Acts 8:14-17), are also parakletos. We’ve been called alongside; called to be next to, side-by-side, abiding with our merciful and loving God now and for ever.
Circumcision “according to the custom of Moses” (Acts 15:1), thankfully, is not necessary for salvation. However, this does not mean nothing has to be cut away. For as Jesus points out in today’s Gospel, God the Father will prune; he will cut away whatever keeps us from bearing fruit as Christians.
The Christian is one who is united to Christ through grace. His precious Blood, which we drink in the Mass, flows in our veins. As sap courses through a plant and gives it life, so we draw our strength and nourishment, our share in the divine life from the true Vine. Apart from him, we can do nothing (cf Jn 15:5); indeed, we are nothing.
Now, to be fruitful as Christians means, as Pope Francis likes to remind us, that we are filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit. This is not mere external happiness and superficial smiles, but the deep joy of belonging to God, of being united to Christ in love, of being Christian; the kind of joy that enables countless Christians down the centuries to this day to faithfully endure even suffering and the chalice of martyrdom. For the wine of the Eucharist which comes from the true Vine has intoxicated us and gives true joy. But this wine is Christ’s saving blood. Thus all who drink deeply from Christ’s chalice, who really share in the fruit of the true Vine, will also experience the deep joy of sacrificial love, of being poured out for the good of others.
In this, in acts of love, we find salvation. Not through circumcision, then, do we find salvation, but through union with Christ who is Love. Then, the fruit of joy is ripened by love so that others can taste and see the sweetness and goodness of God at work in our lives. This, then, is how we are saved – by allowing God’s good grace to sweeten us, and his Love to ripen us so that we abide in Christ, and Christ in us (cf Jn 15:4); his saving Blood flows in our veins.
But for Christ’s Blood and grace to flow in us so that we are fruitful, so that we can love as he loves, certain things will need to be cut out. St Paul, echoing Deuteronomy, thus speaks of a circumcision, not according to the custom of Moses, but of the heart. St Paul says: “real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (Rom 2:29). Hence, we need to be pruned by the divine Vinedresser, co-operating with God’s grace to cut out of our lives all that separates us from God, all the sinful desires, attitudes and addictions that obstruct the flow of God’s love in our lives.
So, let us examine our lives and consider: What do we need to cut out? And then, let us offer them to the Father, asking for his mercy and grace. We need to let God prune us and to ask him to give us the courage and generosity to accept the pain of this pruning, so that we will bear fruit in joy and ripen in acts of Christ-like love. For while the circumcision of Moses is not necessary for salvation, this one, the truer spiritual kind which makes us abide in Jesus Christ, is.
St Matthew’s Gospel is emphatic that the risen Lord Jesus first appears to women. Two women, in fact, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (Mt 1:28), “mother of James and Joseph” (Mt 27:56). The fact that there were two of them is significant because, as St Paul (echoing Jewish law) says, “any charge must be sustained by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (2 Cor 13:1). So, there must be at least two witnesses to establish a fact. However, Jewish tradition did not allow women to serve as witnesses in court. Neither were slaves, or children, or the deaf and blind, or notorious sinners admitted as witnesses.
But the Risen Lord comes to these two women, and reveals himself to them, and allows them to touch his glorified body. For as Jesus had said and shown through his ministry in Galilee, he was born for sinners; he came to heal the deaf and blind, to bring freedom to slaves, and he called children to him. In Christ God had come to reach out to the weakest and marginalized of society; those whom society and men of law and power reject, Jesus calls and embraces.
So, after his Resurrection, Christ comes again to these women who stand for all those whom official society had marginalized or held as weak and not-good-enough. And as God had reached out to them in Jesus, so now they reach out to Jesus. They “took his feet and worshipped him” as God (Mt 28:9). Hence, you and I who are sinners, who were blind and deaf because of sin have been healed by Christ’s grace and mercy shown on the Cross. And we, who are reborn in baptism are like little children, who can now approach and embrace the risen Christ “for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:14).
Let nobody, then, feel too weak or sinful or small or unworthy to reach out to Christ. Let no one be afraid. For the Risen Lord comes in search of such people – not of the proud and self-righteous – but of the humble and weak. Of those, perhaps, who feel they’ve not kept a very good Lent, or are still tempted and sinful. These are the ones the Risen Lord seeks, and he says to us, to you and to me: “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28:10). He comes to us today in the Eucharist, and he allows us to reach out to him, to touch him, and receive his healing mercy and grace.
And to those of us who come here to worship Jesus as God, and who have encountered the Risen Lord in these Easter sacraments, Christ gives us a command: “Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (Mt 28:10). Because Jesus is for ever God and Man, so his brethren refer not just to the apostles but to all of Mankind. So the women, that is, we, are told by the Risen Lord to tell all peoples that we have encountered him. And we’re to tell them to “go to Galilee” where they will see him too. What might this mean? Galilee, as I’ve suggested, was where Jesus first ministered to the little ones, to the needy and poor and unloved of society. So, we Christians are to go out among the marginalized and poor. As St Matthew’s Gospel says we will see Christ among the least (Mt 25:40).
However, we’re also to go among those who are sinners, who are still blind and deaf to Faith and to Christ’s Word. And we’re to tell them the Gospel of salvation, to open their eyes to God’s love in Christ, so that they, our fellow sinners, can also see the Risen Lord Jesus. “There they will see me” (Mt 28:10). For where he is needed most – in the despairing and skeptical hearts of 21st-century men and women – in our modern-day Galilee, the Risen Lord will be there. He reaches out to his brothers and sisters, made so deaf by false philosophies, so blind by Rationalism, so poor by lack of Faith. But he relies on you and me to tell them the Good News that he is risen, so that they, too, can see the risen Lord, and reach out to touch him, and worship.