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.
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.
We can all think of ways in which knowing the truth about some situation sets us free. Think, for example, of the Oscar Pistorius trial: people, and especially the parents of the dead woman want to know the truth about their daughter’s fate. The truth doesn’t raise the dead but it does bring some closure, and so, some relief; a kind of freedom. A similar phenomenon is observed in the hunt for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. The relatives of the missing are bound up by uncertainty, tormented by a lack of knowledge of what happened to their loved ones. Finding the truth, again, wouldn’t end the grief, but it does bring a certain freedom to move on with one’s life. So, it seems right to say “the truth will set you free”.
And this is what I thought Jesus had said in John’s Gospel. But on closer examination, he says: “The truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). Because Jesus isn’t talking about a psychological state, nor is he making a political point, as the Jews seemed to have thought. Rather, Jesus is saying that the Truth transforms us and does something to our very being; Truth changes us. In John’s Gospel, we know that Jesus is the Truth, so we’re being told that Jesus is going to transform us. The all-creative Word of God will re-create us, make something new of us: we will be “made free”.
Now, it’s often said that what this means is that Jesus will make us free by causing us to choose what is good and true so that the more our acts conform to these, the more free we become; it’s a kind of moral freedom. But, again, I think this implies more a being set free from an old way of living, and admittedly, the reference to slavery to sin does lend itself to such an interpretation. But I want to explore something more existential, more fundamental, and perhaps, more mystical.
Who is it who is fundamentally Free? God. Only God is so free that he could create things. Only God is so free that he can become Man, and then undergo suffering on the Cross. Only God is so free that he can be Love, and even be sin, taking on our sins in Christ’s flesh. All these paradoxes are signs of God’s utter freedom. God is Free. So, when Jesus says the Truth will make us free, I wonder if this is a reference to our divinization. For Jesus Christ will make us, re-create us in his grace, so that we are one with God. Elsewhere, the language is of becoming sons of God in the Son of God. Hence, Jesus also says in today’s Gospel: “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed”(Jn 8:36). That is to say, if the Son makes you God, you will be God indeed. It sounds almost scandalous, but then, this is what grace does: Through Jesus God divinizes Man.
And an image of this work of divinization is found in the First Reading. The furnace is made seven times hotter, that is perfectly hot. Fire stands for love, and perfect Love is God. So, Mankind, represented by the three young men, are placed in the furnace of divine Love, that is immersed and heated by God’s grace, so that we are purified and perfected and made like the fourth man who is “like a son of the gods”(Dan 3:25). It is Christ, of course, and so, divine grace proves us in the furnace of God’s Love until we become like the Son, made sons of God. Thus the Truth makes us Free.
What does this fiery furnace of divine Love look like? It is the Cross. During Passiontide, we are focussed on the Cross, and reminded, therefore, that every disciple is called to take up the Cross of sacrificial love, and so, follow Jesus into new life, even the divine life of God himself.
The serpent had tempted Adam and Eve to doubt God’s goodness and wisdom, and so, led to Man’s downfall. Refusing to depend on God, Man is cast out of the Garden and has to learn to fend for himself in the wilderness. But God goes in search of them, sending Moses to lead them out of the wilderness and back into a Land, a garden flowing with milk and honey. But in the wilderness Israel has to learn again to trust in God and his goodness and Providence. Adam and Eve had failed to do this when they bit into the fruit at the serpent’s bidding. So, now, when Israel fails again to trust God and they grumble against him, they feel the bite of their sin and unbelief. And this bite is fittingly administered by serpents, the very creature that first tempted Mankind into sin.
This is fitting because it reminds us that sin carries in itself our own punishment. For sin causes the separation of ourselves from God’s friendship, and brings a kind of disorder to one’s emotional life and one’s use of reason so that we find it hard to think clearly and rationally and to choose to do what we reason to be good and true. So, the disordered struggle to live the good life within ourselves and with others is the punishment of sin; we feel the fiery serpent’s bite which leads, ultimately, to death. Hence St Thomas says, we can “call sin punishment by reason of what sin causes, as Augustine says that a disordered soul is its own punishment”.
Notice that it is not so much that God punishes the sinner, but rather that our freely-chosen sinful acts, which reject the Creator’s wisdom and goodness, cause a state of disorder and moral confusion in Man. Hence, sinful acts are punitive because they deprive us of the harmony and peace and order for which we long. Thus we remain outside the Garden and in the wilderness. So, if God were to really want to punish us, he would leave us unrepentant, would abandon us to our sinful ways, and leave us without any help or guidance, nor call us to repentance. This state of being left to remain in unrepented sin, to “die in your sins” (Jn 8:24) as Jesus says today, is what Scripture refers to as “the wrath of God”.
So, when the people of Israel call for God not to be angry, they are calling for him to save them from the bite of sin and its poison. Thus, God’s mercy towards Israel is shown when he moves them by his grace to repent, and when he provides a remedy for their sin, an antidote. He calls them to look at the serpent, which is to say, to recognize their sins so as to repent of them. And as God once provided the solution for Israel and had mercy on them, so God has now provided for all of humanity. Jesus is the one and only Solution to humanity’s fundamental problem of sin.
Thus we need to look to him and, as he says to the Jews, believe that “I am He” (Jn 8:24). For we must learn what Adam and Eve and the grumbling Israelites failed to learn, namely to trust in God’s goodness, to believe that he is faithful to his Word, and provides the Solution.
So, when Good Friday comes and Christ is lifted up, let us look with faith at the antidote. In the Crucified One we see the destruction and violence wrought by sin, we see how Mankind is disfigured, beaten up, left dying because of sin. For thus you and I had been punished by our own sins. But at the same time we see too, on the Cross, our God of mercy and love who comes for our sake and for our salvation to bear the punishment of all Man’s sins – our sins – in his own body. Thus the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.
His Body, risen and glorified, defeating sin and death, thus becomes the medicine for our souls. In the Eucharist we come with faith to receive this Body, the true fruit of the Cross, the Tree of Life. We doubt no longer but taste and see that the Lord is good. In faith we receive the fruit of Mary’s womb, who saves us from the effects of that poisonous fruit of the Tree that Eve had eaten in Eden. And thus, we are restored to Paradise, brought out of the wilderness into the heavenly Promised Land.
Passiontide, the time when we turn our minds to Christ’s final weeks, begins on Sunday, and so the mood in the Gospels has been changing; they are menacing. For we heard earlier this week that the Jews wanted to kill Jesus, and this is heightened today: “Is not this the man whom they seek to kill?” (Jn 7:25). Today’s first reading gives us an insight into the real motivations behind this murderous hatred for Christ. It is because he is the Truth, and he shines the light of truth on Man’s sinful hearts.
Often people kill off God in their lives, and they can use the state of the Church, or the behaviour of the clergy, or the popular claim of some scientist or writer or even an entertainer as the purported reason to do this. And perhaps they believe at the time that this is the reason. But in fact, the true reason is a moral reason. For God; Jesus; his Gospel; Christ’s Church “is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God… He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us” (Wis 2:12-15).
And so, just as Adam and Eve after their sin hide their faces from God, for “the very sight of him is a burden”, so when we sin we too hide our faces from God. Or rather, we hide God’s face from ourselves because we cannot bear the look of Truth. For our sins reveal the truth about who we are and what we really desire; it’s an inconvenient truth for us sinners. For as Rowan Williams says, sin is “the state of revolt against truth”.
So, we find that many would kill God off: saying God does not exist, or that his Church has no authority to teach in this or that arena, or that there is no such thing as absolute Truth and certainly not in matters of spirituality and religion. Because Truth, if we admit it exists, is such that he would possess us, convert us, change us. And this requires humility. As Pope Francis said, “truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us” (Lumen Fidei, 34).
The journey of Lent is a journey from falsehood to the Truth. Hence, it is a journey towards the Cross. Those who sought to kill Jesus do so because, as Wisdom says, “Let us see if his words are true and let us test what will happen at the end of his life” (2:17). And these words are ironic. Because Truth is being put to the test to see if it is true. So, they crucify Jesus, and thus, on the Cross, he shows that his words are true. As Rowan Williams says: “Jesus, hanging on the cross, says to us, ‘This is what your untruth means”; we would kill Truth.
But what else happens on the Cross? Scruton says: “In the moment of sacrifice people come face to face with God”. So, at the end of his life, Jesus the innocent Victim of our sins shows that God is Love. And the one from whom we had hidden our faces is revealed to us. We see the truth. But not just the truth of Man’s sinfulness but the truth of God’s nature. God is mercy and love, long-suffering in patience and compassion, ever-ready to forgive. God is with us, sinful humanity.
And this truth, if we dare to see it, if we dare to allow it to embrace and possess us, will redeem us and save us from all our untruth, from our sinful revolt against Truth. Thus we enter into Passiontide and prepare for the new life that Easter promises.
In medieval English parish churches, two great images faced you as you looked from the nave towards the sanctuary and altar: a Rood Screen with the Crucifixion, and painted on the archway above that, the Last Judgement, or the Doom. So, the medieval parishioner would have had the Cross and the Final Judgement in sight whenever they came to church to worship. And so should we today.
What does it mean to have these images, these eternal realities, in mind? In looking at the Cross, we contemplate God’s mercy and the depths of his saving love. But the Cross is also our judgement. For as Jesus’ enters his Passion and takes up his Cross, he says: “Now is the judgement of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out” (Jn 12:31). For the Cross reveals the cruelty and violence that sinful humanity inflicts on Man; it also shows the suffering and torment borne by all those who are victims of this sinful world. Hence, the world is judged, that is, to say that our world is faced with the stark truth of its sinful choices. For we are judged by the truth of what we do. Hence, Christ who is Truth itself, hangs on the Cross. Very often, people cannot bear to look at the Crucified One and contemplate the Cross, because we just cannot face up to the Truth. This, too, is why so many fear the thought of judgement, fear even confession, because they cannot face up to the truth of who they are and what they have freely chosen to do.
But to be only filled with fear or shame would be to forget that the Cross is also proof of God’s undying love and mercy for sinners; a Love who seeks us in order to raise us up to new life. I was in the Sistine Chapel last summer, and I was able to stand at the High Altar, looking up at Michelangelo’s great depiction of the Last Judgement. But as I stood there I noticed that the huge Crucifix on the Altar stands right in front of the painting of the Gates of Hell. So, the Cross of Christ literally blocked the way to Hell. But for it to do this I had to look and see the Crucified One. This is to say, I have to own up to the truth of my sins, to be judged by the reality of my sinful acts. But at the same time, as I acknowledge my sins, then I experience, too, God’s mercy and his saving love on the Cross. But we can’t just have love and mercy without the truth of our sinfulness. This is what judgement means.
Thus, in a poem on the Last Judgement, Pope Bl John Paul II (whose 9th anniversary of death is today) wrote: “It is granted man once to die, and thereafter, the judgement! Final transparency and light. The clarity of the events – The clarity of consciences –”. Judgement brings clarity; the light and transparency of truth to shine on what we have done but that light which shines on our deeds is also the light of love. The Doom, or Last Judgment painted on the walls of our churches were a reminder, then, of this final judgement, and St John speaks of it in today’s Gospel: “the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice” (5:28). It is the voice of Truth.
However, St John’s Gospel, unlike the other Gospels, also has a more imminent view of judgement. We hear today: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (Jn 5:25). So, the Doom painted in the medieval church, or in the Sistine Chapel, is a perpetual reminder of our daily judgement. For every day, in the deliberate acts and moral choices we make, we are making judgements which reveal the truth of who we are; what we truly love in life, and where we’re headed.
Do we listen to Christ’s Word? Do we honour him by obeying his teachings? Ultimately, do we act with love? If we do, then we rise from the deadliness of sin and move towards Jesus. If not, then as the Catechism put it: “By rejecting grace in this life, one already judges oneself [and] receives according to one’s works” (CCC 679). Thus the Crucifixion scene, too, was a daily judgement because it reminded us of Christ’s sacrificial love, and called us as disciples to do likewise every day until, as St John of the Cross says, “in the evening of life we will be judged on love alone”.
At the start of Lent we were told to remember that we would return to dust and ashes, that is, that we will die and be judged. So, today, in mid-Lent, we’re reminded again of judgement; of Christ’s Truth but also of God’s eternal mercy and love. So, if you have sinned, don’t let fear or shame keep you from going to him in Confession. For God’s judgement is always also one of mercy and forgiveness, and his Love raises us from sin’s death to grace’s new life.