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.
As the crocuses paint the Meadows with spring colour, and the spring flowers behind the altar bud forth, and the gentle rain soaks into the ground, we know that spring is approaching. Hosea uses the image of the return of spring as a sign of God’s love; it is a sign of hope. Ever faithful, no winter of human sin can be an obstacle to God’s love, and God renews his Covenant with Israel, with us, not because of who we are, or because we deserve it, but because of who God is.
God is a faithful and loving God, a merciful God whose generosity and goodness is like the spring, bringing life and colour where there is pallid cold and death. So, the Lord says: “I will heal their faithlessness; I will love them freely” (Hos 14:4). It is God’s divine initiative to love us and heal us despite what we have done and who we are.
And because God has first loved us, so, we can love him (cf 1 Jn 4:19). For loving God is a work of his grace, relying on his initiative. As Hosea says: “from me [God] comes your fruit” (Hos 14:8b). On our part, we only need to be open to God’s grace and love, like the soil that is receptive to the gentle soaking rain. As God’s grace imperceptibly seeps into our heart and his love warms it, so, what had been cold and dead through sin will gradually show signs of new life.
First, the tender shoots of understanding that strengthens in the light of the knowledge of God’s goodness to become the strong upright stem of the will, choosing to obey God’s commandments, which finally flowers in charity – active deeds of love for God and neighbour. Again, as the prophet says: “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them” (Hos 14:9).
So, during Lent, let us rejoice and be confident of the faithful love of God, and allow his grace to penetrate our hearts, for this is our springtime, a time of renewal, growth, and being strengthened in the Lord’s love.
Being essentially an only child, I wasn’t really aware of the tug of sibling rivalry until I joined a community of brother preachers, a fraternity. Only this morning, I read an excellent reflection on today’s Gospel on Godzdogz, our Dominican students’ blog, and, I confess, I felt a spark of that sibling rivalry, of jealousy, because I began to compare myself to the brother who’d written the post. And, then, for a moment, I coveted the gifts I saw in him, and in his writing. And I can find myself doing that repeatedly with each of my brothers, sometimes, even putting them down so that I seem better. Such is sibling rivalry, and at its heart is the capital sin of envy.
This, of course, is what we find in today’s Gospel. The elder son compares himself with the younger son and is envious. And, then, he puts down his brother: “This son of yours… who has devoured your living with harlots”. The result of envy is a certain sadness, in that one becomes unable to delight in what joy and good is present. It also shows a lack of love because love delights in the good and success of another but jealousy begrudges these.
So, the elder son is not able to delight in his Father’s generosity, love and mercy; he resents his younger brother’s return to the family fold; he does not give thanks to God for the grace that has brought his brother to repentance; he is unable to enjoy the gift of the fatted calf; and he doesn’t appreciate the gift of having been at home with his loving Father. Consequently, divine grace is unwanted and unappreciated, and the Father’s goodness is not celebrated. Hence St Thomas Aquinas said that envy is “grudging a brother his grace” and can lead to a sin against the Holy Spirit, for God is “glorified in his works”. So, when we see the success and good done by another, we ought to give thanks to God for the good he does in the life of another, in the preaching of a brother, or the talents of a sister.
But the root cause of sibling rivalry and envy, of course, is a lack of self-esteem. As Henri Nouwen said in his beautiful book-length reflection on today’s parable: “Here lies hidden the great call to conversion: to look not with the eyes of my own low self-esteem, but with the eyes of God’s love”. This is a love that is infinite. It is only our human capacities that are finite so that each of us cannot have an infinite number of talents and gifts. Rather, God has chosen for each of us what is sufficient and right to make each of us an individual and unique form of his love in the world; he has given each of us all the love and good that we can bear. If we wish to overcome envy, then, let us just enjoy one another’s gifts without comparison. Rather, we give thanks to a loving and generous Father for all the graces he gives us, both individually and together as brothers and sisters, for God is glorified in all his works.
So, when I once said to my Student Master how much I enjoyed his preaching, and I said, with some envy, that I hoped to preach like him, he replied, “No. You should rather just hope to preach like yourself. Find your own style, because we all have our own ways and our own gifts”. How very wise and right he was.
“It is your face, O Lord, that I seek; hide not your face” (Ps 26:9). These words from psalm 26, cited in the entrance antiphon, and repeated in our responsorial psalm express the fundamental longing of the human heart: to see God’s face. St Augustine famously put it this way: “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in you”. And the philosopher Roger Scruton, in his 2011 Gifford Lectures, argues that this existential restlessness, experienced as a deep loneliness, is intensifying because we, as a society, have tried to hide from God’s face. But God, Scruton says, is “avoidable only by creating a void. This void opens before us when we destroy the face – not the human face only, but also the face of the world”.
What Scruton has in mind is the modern stripping away of our human personhood and relations by institutions – banks, government, shops and corporations who see us merely as faceless consumers and customers; the loss of public spaces and the faceless architecture that isolate us from one another; the consumption of people as faceless objects of sexual desire through the endemic spread of internet pornography. The result of all this, Scruton says, is a “godless void” that confronts us. But Lent, I think, if it is practiced well, tries to seek again the face of God, saying: “It is your face, O Lord, that I seek; let not your face be hidden from me”. And today’s Gospel reveals how this happens.
At first glance, this seems improbable because when Peter, James and John look upon the face of Jesus on the mountain, we’re told that “the appearance of his countenance was altered” (Lk 9:29). So, instead of God’s face being revealed, it is hidden once more. Jesus’ face changes as he prays on the mount of the transfiguration, and his clothes become dazzling so that he cannot even be looked upon; his face is hidden from us, even altered, so that he cannot be recognized. This is because, traditionally, God’s face cannot be seen. As the Lord said to Moses in Exodus: “You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:20). Rather, God revealed himself by entering into Covenantal relationship with his people as he did with Abram in the first reading, and through the Law and the prophets. Hence, in the transfiguration, Christ is revealed in glory as God between Moses and Elijah, revered in Jewish tradition as the ‘living ones’. The fact that this occurs up on a mountain also reminds us of the hiddenness of God’s face, for it is on a mountain that God tells Moses that “you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen”. And it is on a mountain that Elijah encounters God, but he does not see his face, but only finds him in a “still small voice”. God is heard but unseen just as in today’s Gospel. For, God’s face is, typically, hidden from us.
But the incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity changes all this. Now, God has a face, the face of Jesus. Hence, when Peter says he would like to remain on the mountain he is rebuffed, or at least, ignored. For humanity is historically more familiar, and so, more comfortable with an unseen God – the faceless God of our modern post-Christian society. But the incarnation challenges this. We’re now to listen to God’s Son, and, although it’s not explicit, the demonstrative “This is my Son” indicates that we’re to look at him; look at God’s face in Jesus Christ.
The problem is that we often do not see Christ’s face today; we fail to recognize him, and even avoid looking at God’s face. Let me explain what I mean. In today’s Gospel, mention is made of Jesus’ “exodus, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem”, and a few verses from the end of today’s Gospel passage, St Luke says that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem”. It is for this reason – going to Jerusalem – that Peter, James and John had to come down from the mountain of the transfiguration with the Lord so that, in Jerusalem, God might reveal his face to them, to all humanity.
We’ve been instructed to call God ‘Abba’, to pray insistently and boldly with the confidence of a child asking for good things from his loving Father, and today Christ continues in a similar vein. He teaches us how a son and daughter of God behaves: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven”.
So it is that when he, the Son of God, is crucified, he prays: “Father, forgive them”. And Christ’s death on the Cross wins salvation for all humanity, both the “evil and the good… the just and the unjust”. All are reconciled to the Father by this one sacrificial act of the Son’s perfect love and obedience. Thus Christ shows his sonship of our loving and merciful Father, by praying for his persecutors, and by loving them to the end upon the Cross.
We, who have been baptised into Christ, and so, share in his death, are also given a share in Christ’s sonship, in his perfection. By God’s grace, this sometimes means enduring martyrdom with the willingness, courage and sacrificial love of today’s saint Polycarp who was the first martyr of the Church not mentioned in the New Testament. He was a disciple of St John the Evangelist and the octagenarian bishop of Smyrna in Turkey, one of the persecuted churches mentioned in the Apocalpyse. And his death was a witness of love, following in Christ’s footsteps. As contemporaries said, Polycarp’s martyrdom was “a sign of love to desire not to save oneself alone, but to save also all the Christian brothers and sisters”. Here, then, was a son of the Father.
But most of us, it is hoped, will not be called to such dramatic acts of love. Rather, there are the daily mortifications and little acts of love that we’re called to; these express that we are children of a loving and merciful, a humble and crucified God. Recently, I was struck by these examples from St Josemaria Escrivá, which I end with. He said: “the cheerful smile for those who annoy you; that silence when you’re unjustly accused; your friendly conversation with people whom you find boring and tactless; the daily effort to overlook one irritating detail or another in the persons who live with you… this, with perseverance, is indeed solid interior mortification. Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.’”
Yesterday’s Gospel simply says that after going without food for forty days and nights in the wilderness, Jesus was hungry. In this way we see how the Spirit immediately led Jesus after his baptism to a testing, a sacrifice of love, that anticipates the Cross. For the Lord chose to suffer the pangs of hunger, starvation, in order to experience what is a daily reality for so many people down the ages, including our own time. Nearly a third of our global population, and millions even in Britain, experience hunger because of “deep poverty”.
So, Jesus, who is God-with-us, suffers in solidarity with all who are hungry, and also with all the poor, needy, and oppressed. This is what today’s well-known parable impresses upon us. Indeed, Jesus so identifies himself with the hungry and poor, that when we see them and help them, it is Jesus whom we help and serve.
This is such an important element of our Christian faith that the Catholic Church is still the largest charitable organization in the world. This Lent, SCIAF, the official aid and international development charity of the Catholic Church in Scotland, wants to help the people of Burundi. Regarded as the third poorest country in the world, SCIAF reckons that 2 in 3 people in Burundi go to bed hungry each night. 90% of the population rely on subsistence farming, so SCIAF aims to help build peace in broken communities, and teach people new ways of farming so that they can grow enough food just to live. We can contribute to this work of justice and mercy by picking up a ‘Wee Box’ after Mass, and, throughout Lent, filling it with change. It’s a small thing for us, but together we can make a big difference to people’s lives.
But most importantly, whether our acts are big or small, let us act with love. For without love but mere obligation or duty, we may not actually see Christ in the poor and needy, in the people around us, sitting next to us. How can we grow in love, and have our eyes opened so that we recognize Christ in the world? Through prayer, especially in the Eucharist. As Blessed Teresa of Kolkata said: “Jesus made himself the Bread of Life to satisfy our hunger for God and for his love”. So, it is here in the Mass that we are filled with God’s love, that we contemplate Christ Crucified and love him. For it is on the Cross that Christ is poor, hungry, naked, and suffering, and, then, we shall be taught to see the face of our beloved Lord in anyone who is poor, hungry, naked and suffering. And we can love Christ in them, love them because they are human beings, created in God’s image and deeply loved by him. Thus, prayer grounds our Lenten almsgiving so that they become acts of love.
We may not be able to solve the world’s social justice problems, or end world hunger, but with love, our “wee” contributions become something beautiful that we can offer to God this Lent, and indeed, throughout our lives.
Christ is the Bridegroom of his Church, the lover of every human soul, and he gives himself to his Church for her protection, cherishing her, clothing her, loving her, and dying for her on the Cross. As St Paul says: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). As Bridegroom, Christ gives us an example of sacrificial love. And it is this example that we’re to follow when he is no longer physically visible on earth; when the Bridegroom is, in a sense, taken from his Bride after his ascension into heaven.
Because every one of us, as Christians, have been anointed as types of Christ, baptised into union with him. So, each of us is called, in some sense, to be the Bridegroom, lovers of every human person. Now that the Bridegroom is taken from us, it is you and I, his disciples, who are called to be Christ in the world, to embody God’s love, mercy, and compassion to all people. For this is what fasting entails. Not giving up food, or just some other creature comfort as such, but to love as Christ, the Bridegroom loves – sacrificially.
Hence, as Isaiah says, we’re called “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke… 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…” And this last phrase, “your own flesh” is reminiscent of marriage, wherein “two shall become one flesh”. St Paul thus says, in an echo of Isaiah, that “no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body” (Eph 5:29f).
So, through our union with Christ in baptism, through our membership in his Body, we’re called to protect, cherish, clothe, and love other people sacrificially; to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mk 12:31) for “no man ever hates his own flesh.” This, then, is what our Lenten fast is about – not just sacrificing those things we enjoy, but to learn to enjoy sacrificing for others, that is, to learn to love like Jesus, the Bridegroom loves the Church, his Bride; to learn to love other people with our bodies.
For as Saint Teresa of Ávila said:
“Christ has no body now but yours No hands, no feet on earth but yours Yours are the eyes through which He looks compassion on this world Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world Yours are the hands Yours are the feet Yours are the eyes You are His body Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
The real wonder of today’s Gospel isn’t the staggering catch of fish, but the closeness of God to humanity. Typically, God is holy, indeed thrice-holy, and this meant being distant from the profane world. Hence, the Hebrew word for holy, qadosh, comes from the root qodesh, meaning to ‘cut off’ or ‘separate’. And God is separate from his creatures so that he remains clean and undefiled by sinners. This typically Jewish notion seemed odd to me at first, because I’m so used to the idea of God’s holiness transforming my sinfulness, but in fact, it’s common sense. No one uses a greasy cloth to polish glass, or applies a dirty brush to a clean shirt; the unclean soils the clean. And so, the traditional notion of God and holiness seems to be that God had to be separate and cut off from his creatures in order to be clean, pure and holy.
But this is not the God that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. The beauty of the Incarnation, of our Christian faith, is that we believe that God has become Man, has entered time and space, and walked, eaten and worked with his creatures, with sinful humanity. In the previous chapter of St Luke’s Gospel, an unclean demon acknowledged that Jesus is “the Holy One of God” (Lk 4:34), and he said “Have you come to destroy us?”, and Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to depart. This signals that, contrary to what had been thought, the unclean does not contaminate the clean. Rather, the Holy One drives away sin, evil, the unclean; God’s grace heals, redeems, transforms and purifies.
Thus, in today’s Gospel, the Holy One of God comes to sinners to be their salvation; this is the first time in St Luke’s Gospel that this idea is expressed. So, God is found, not in the Temple, or a designated place, but out and about by the lakeside, in the workplace of these fishermen, where we are. For Jesus shows that our holy God does not separate himself from us, but comes in search of us to make us holy by uniting us with himself and his mission.
God does this because God is love. For only love will impel us out of ourselves and all our self-preoccupied concerns for our own cleanliness, safety, and comfort, driving us out into the world to take risks for those we love. Hence, Christ’s action reveals that God is love, and what he does overturns the traditional notions of God as holy, and who thus stands aloof from his creatures. Rather, God’s holiness is seen in the depths of his love. God thus wills to take on the messiness of humanity, to become a part of his creation and get ‘dirty’, so to speak, and to even embrace a sacrificial death on the Cross.
We’re told as children to beware of strangers – not to accept gifts from them, or a ride home, or to associate with them. We’re taught from quite early on to fear strangers, and, by extension, to fear and thus avoid anything that’s ‘strange‘… like haggis! For many, this avoidance of strangers and the strange is a matter of self-preservation, and can be, ultimately, a matter of life and death.
But in the desert places of the Bible, hospitality to strangers was literally a matter of life and death, not for the host, but for the stranger. The stranger travelling through the arid Middle East simple needed access to water, food, and shelter to survive and continue his journey; he relied on another’s hospitality for life. And the host offers this hospitality as an act of trust, of good faith, and ultimately, of love. The example alluded to in our first reading is that of Abraham who offered hospitality to three strangers by the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18:1-8). Those three turned out to be angels; truly strange creatures, so different from our human ways. The author of Hebrews has already held up Abraham as a model of faith, and now, he alludes to him as a model of love.
For as St John says, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). So, it is love that overcomes our reasonable and conditioned fear of the stranger, to reach out in openness and trust, and offer shelter and help. It is love, then, that moved Abraham to offer hospitality, though not without caution. But love is always a risk, and there is always the chance of pain, rejection, and suffering.
Yet, God did not hesitate to take this risk of love. He came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, even though this meant suffering the violence of the Cross, and the hatred and refusal of many. His perfect love overcame his fear of these. So, God came to us as a stranger, so different from our human ways, because Christ was like us in all things except sin. But, whereas Abraham once offered hospitality to the three angels (who are traditionally seen as a symbol of God the Holy Trinity), now, through Jesus Christ, God offers hospitality to us. The tables have been turned. It is we, human beings, who have been estranged by sin; we are the strangers, so different from God and his way of love. But through the hospitality of Jesus Christ, God offers us hospitality at the table of the Eucharist to teach us his ways, to show us love. Here, God gives us shelter from sin, and food and drink for the journey. We’re given Christ’s own Body and Blood, so that we can survive and continue on our journey home to heaven. Such is the divine hospitality to us strangers that we receive again and again in the Eucharist, and this is, fundamentally, a matter of life and death. For because of God’s hospitality, because of the Eucharist, we can have eternal life.
So, today’s reading from Hebrews, and indeed, today’s Eucharist is a challenge to us. They call us to love better – to risk trusting another and putting faith in the other whom we may not yet understand or who is just so different from us. We’re called to “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels”. Because, it may be that when we take the risk to love, to be kind, helpful, and open to another, to the strange, that God has a message for us, something vital – of life and death, even – to teach us.
The 11th-century Japanese courtesan, Sei Shonagon, once said, in what is considered the world’s oldest novel, that a saint is one “who has really given up all thoughts of the world”. In a sense, she is right. Her compatriot, Paul Miki, who was martyred in Nagasaki in 1597, and the other twenty-five martyrs of Japan whom we honour today would have had to renounce the world, and focussed instead on Christ, and “the life of the world to come”. So, yes, the saint looks beyond this world and our present life. But, in another sense, the saint cannot be one who has really given up all thoughts of this world. Because the saint and martyr lives and dies for love of the world, for love of one’s own country, and for you and me.
As St Thérèse of Lisieux, who is patron saint of the missions, famously said “love was the true motive force which enabled the other members of the Church to act; if it ceased to function the apostles would forget to preach the gospel, the martyrs would refuse to shed their blood.”
It seems to me that Sei Shonagon’s characterization of a saint has to be seen from the context of the Buddhist ideals of self-denial, renunciation of the world, and self-immolation for one’s personal and individual transcendence; it is, essentially, auto-salvific. But there is no hint of this in the Christian understanding of sainthood. Rather, the act of Christian martyrdom is motivated entirely by love, that is, it is an act of sacrifice for the sake of others, in order to witness bravely and radically to the Truth of the Gospel so that others, too, might be saved through faith in Jesus Christ. As St Paul Miki said moments before his execution: “Having arrived at this moment of my existence, I believe that none of you thinks I want to hide the truth. That is why I declare to you that there is no other way of salvation than the one followed by Christians”.
So, the martyr sheds his blood in order to witness to the most important things in life, truths worth dying for, and his witness is an act of love for others, hoping that we might thus be convinced of the Faith for which he died – faith in the Crucified Christ, in the power of his resurrection, in the truth and necessity of his Word. Thus, the saint is paradoxically most world-embracing when he renounces the world by giving himself up to death, preaching with his blood. But if the martyrs’ witness, his “mighty work” is not to be in vain, then we need to beware our modern tendency to relativize truth, and to see another’s belief and conviction as merely a matter of individual conscience. That would be akin to the tragedy of today’s Gospel, where the people hear Christ’s wisdom and see his works, but they refuse to believe because they think they know better.
St Paul Miki’s dying words were: “I hope my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain”. Such was his love for us that motivated his sacrifice. As we contemplate his witness today, let us do so with humility and open hearts, open to the Truth he loved and preached. Through his intercession, may we be roused to greater faith and hope in Christ and his promises.
St Agatha, a 3rd-century martyr of Sicily, is one of that great “cloud of witnesses”, who persevered in “the race that is set before us” of Christian perfection in the faith. Looking to him alone, she was steadfast in her faith, refusing to deny Christ and sacrifice to pagan idols. Thus, as a martyr she shares in his victory over sin and death. But, more than this, as a virgin who had consecrated her whole self – body and soul – to God, St Agatha also bears witness to a life that is completely dedicated to the love of God, preferring Him, the greatest Good, before all else. So, when the cruel senator Quintianus made sexual advances on her, she refused to give up her virginal integrity, remaining pure in intention, in soul, and in body despite the most gruesome and cruel tortures. Thus she died for the integrity and purity of her love, totally given up for God alone.
Agatha’s purity and goodness were so widely recognized that, after her death c. 253, she came to be universally venerated by Christians, pagans and Jews – a sign that sanctity and goodness attracts and unites all people of good will. And in the 5th century, St Agatha’s name was inserted into the Roman Canon as a sign of the Church’s esteem for her, and for the gift of consecrated virginity, which itself mirrors the consecration of the Church to Christ, her divine Bridegroom.
For consecrated virginity is not, as some make it out to be, a fear of sex or a denigration of marriage; on the contrary, it highlights their sanctity as great goods that are sacrificed for the sake of an even greater good, namely, for love of God alone. As Pope Pius XII explains: “This then is the primary purpose, this the central idea of Christian virginity: to aim only at the divine, to turn the whole mind and soul to God; to want to please God in everything, to think of Him continually, to consecrate body and soul completely to Him” (Sacra Virginitas, 15).
In an age when virginity has been stigmatized and sex is trivialized, when the human body has become objectified, the virgin martyr points to the integrity of the whole human person - body and soul. Because of concupiscence and sin, we are often so disintegrated and fragmented, professing one thing and doing another, barely able to keep body and soul together, seduced by the dualism of our contemporaries. But the witness of the virgin martyr challenges this mindset, and encourages us by demonstrating what faith can accomplish when we look to Christ alone. For faith in Christ saves, heals and reintegrates us, both soul and body, as today’s Gospel reminds us. Thus, if we belong to Christ, then we belong to him not just in mind and in spirit, but also, and always, in our own bodies too. Such is holiness – wholeness of life and love. As such, what we do with our bodies, our bodily posture in prayer, and our care for the health and integrity of our body matters. The body speaks of our love for God, for ourselves, and for others. And, incidentally, this is what the ‘500 Miles’ charity that our parish is supporting this coming Lent bears witness to.
Therefore, St Paul exhorts us: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). May St Agatha and all the virgins of the Lord pray for us.
Father Leon Dehon, founder of the Priestly Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Congregatio Sacerdotorum a Sacro Corde Iesu) also known as the Dehonians, celebrating Holy Mass. According to former privilege granted to the missionaries in China,