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.
As any choir director or Cantor knows, Holy Week is full of music and singing. Indeed, Holy Week opens with singing. And as St Augustine says, only the Lover sings. So, yesterday, we heard the song of the children of Israel, welcoming Jesus into the city of Jerusalem. It is an image of our souls welcoming Christ with faith into our hearts. And today the song is taken up by the prophet Isaiah in today’s First Reading. For what we’ve heard is often called the first Song of the Servant. It is a poetic text in which God, the divine Lover, sings to Israel, to us.
The last time we heard this Song of the Servant was on the feast of the Lord’s Baptism. Then, Jesus was anointed by the Spirit to begin his mission as Saviour. Today, the song is heard again, and it crescendoes throughout Holy Week as Christ’s mission of saving love comes to its peak on Calvary.
As the Lord says in this love song, his Servant, Jesus, will “open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa 42:7). And this is what Christ does for Mankind on the Cross. Our eyes are opened to see the depths of God’s love for sinners. And by his Cross and Resurrection, he has set us free. Thus, on Holy Saturday night at the Easter Vigil, our two Elect will be baptised. Through this sacrament they will be released from their captivity to Satan and sin, and will be united to God in love so that at last they may see God face to face. In a similar way, God’s grace has been at work in our lives. Through the holy season of Lent, God has been working to move us to repentance, and thus to draw us closer to him in love.
We may think we’re such great sinners, or commit the same sins many time, or we might still be afraid to go to confession. But today’s Gospel encourages us. For the greater our sins, then the greater our repentance, the more deeply we can know God’s loving mercy. As Jesus says in St Luke’s version of today’s Gospel: “I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Lk 7:47). Hence, through repenting of her many sins, Mary has known the extravagance of God’s saving love for her. Thus she shows her love for Christ her Saviour in such an extravagant way. In contrast, Judas, who is unrepentant and hardened by sin, who has no need of the Saviour and so doesn’t experience God’s mercy and love, is unable to understand Mary’s gesture of love.
For only the Lover sings. God is singing to us this week. Can you hear his song, calling us to righteousness and justice (cf Isa 42:6)? Calling us to repent and so, be forgiven. If we do, then we can take up the song too, for only one who knows he’s loved and loves back can sing; only the lover sings. The repentant sinner is just such a singer. So you and I are called this Holy Week to take up the song of grace and mercy, a love duet with God.
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.
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.
"The Gospel of the Lord", I said, which means: This is God’s Good News for us. And you said, "Thanks be to God". But did you mean it? Did what I’ve just read sound like good news to you? Was it something you were thankful for? Or did it sound like a burden, like an impossible demand, like yet more pressure? Should I have said: "The Bad News of the Lord"?!
But of course, the Gospel is not bad news. So, where’s the good news in today’s reading? Today’s passage is actually just part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which takes up three whole chapters of St Matthew’s Gospel; it’s quite significant. And the good news in the Sermon on the Mount is that it holds up a vision of who you and I are called to become.
It’s not surprising if you and I feel greatly challenged and somewhat disturbed by the Gospel today because we haven’t quite lived up to the Sermon on the Mount. Because the only person who has fulfilled the Law perfectly is Jesus Christ himself. Only Christ has loved so perfectly that he doesn’t just fulfill the external demands of the Law but the purity and goodness of heart, the love, that animates the Law. For the Law, ultimately, is fulfilled by Love, and Christ is Love incarnate.
So, when Jesus presents the New Law today, his Law of Love, he is also in effect saying: “Come, follow me” (cf 19:21). For Jesus Christ is who you and I as Christians are called to become. Now, this sounds impossible, and if it were, then today’s reading would be bad news. But in fact it is good news precisely because it isn’t impossible. I grant you it is not easy. It will require sacrifice – we will have to take up our cross and follow him (cf Mk 16:24) – but it is not impossible.
As Our Lady was told, “With God nothing will be impossible” (Lk 1:37). And this is the point; here is the good news. Because of Christ’s Incarnation, God is with us; his grace is given us so that nothing will be impossible. So, if we co-operate with God’s grace then we will be re-made in the image and likeness of Christ; we will learn to love as he does, and so, fulfill Christ’s Law of Love. As St Thomas says: “What is primary in the New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit, shown in faith working through love”. So, the good news today is that the Sermon on the Mount is a possibility because we have been given this grace of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it has become a reality in the lives of so many saints, and of countless other Christians whose lives of grace are still hidden. So, the vision that is held before us today by the Sermon on the Mount is the vision of Christian sanctity; of the triumph of God’s grace in the lives of his saints. As the Dominican moral theologian, Servais Pinckaers says: “The purpose of the Sermon is to show us what the Holy Spirit wishes to accomplish in our lives here and now through his grace, if we respond to him with the Yes of faith, with the eagerness of hope, and with the availability of love”. Hence St Augustine has said that the Sermon on the Mount is “a perfect model for Christian living”.
And yet, to many people – even those who call themselves Christians – the Sermon on the Mount seems too hard, too unrealistic; an unlive-able ideal, especially in the 21st-century. Hence, many pressurize the Church to abandon Christ’s teachings found here and elsewhere, such as his teaching on divorce or the grave sinfulness of lust. But the Church doesn’t invent teachings, and if she did why would she choose such unpopular ones? In truth, the Church’s sole task is to faithfully hand on the Gospel she has received from Jesus Christ even when it is difficult to do so, even when people say these teachings are “irrelevant” or “outmoded” or, in our age, impossible.
But the New Law is only impossible if God’s grace is futile; if the Holy Spirit is powerless; if Christ is without Wisdom and Truth. And the Church can never say this. So, we Christians can never abandon Christ’s teaching.
In 2009 a debate hosted by ‘Intelligence Squared’ was held in London. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world’, and before the debate began only about 38% of the audience were for the motion. But by the end of the debate, those who said the Catholic Church was a force for good in the world had decreased to 12.5%; the largest swing ever in an ‘Intelligence Squared’ debate.
By way of contrast, consider that around the year 360 the Roman Emperor Julian had written a letter complaining that his attempts to revive the Greek and pagan religions in the Roman empire were not as successful as he’d hoped precisely because the Catholic Church was being seen by too many as a force for good in the world. He noted that “the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause”. And he also bemoaned that “it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [the name given by Julian to Christians] support our poor in addition to their own”. So, by their good works – the kind that the prophet Isaiah mentions – the early Christians gave glory to God the Father, and at the same time they were valued by society; they were valued as salt and light for the world.
So, a Lay Dominican said in our recent Dominican Seminar in Leeds in January, we Christians should have such a positive impact in our present-day society that, if we were gone, we would be missed. So, at the very least, I think the ‘Intelligence Squared’ debate should give us pause for thought.
What has changed? Some might say that the world has just lost its taste for salt; society no longer wants what we offer. But I don’t think the 4th-century Roman empire was all that different from ours; it has always been hard to peddle salt in a world already flavoured with so many exotic spices and tastes. So, as Pope Francis observed, “Some people nowadays console themselves by saying that things are not as easy as they used to be, yet we know that the Roman empire was not conducive to the Gospel message, the struggle for justice, or the defence of human dignity” (Evangelii Gaudium, §263). Nor was it any easier when St Paul preached to the thriving Roman city of Corinth in the 1st-century. Corinth was itself a city on a hilltop, shining with the light of Greek philosophy, cultural achievements, and rhetoric. But faced with this St Paul brought a humble and unsophisticated message: “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Yet the Truth of this Gospel message would shed a light that outshone the Roman empire.
So, perhaps it is that the salt has lost its taste? How does this happen? If we look again at the image that Jesus uses, there is an interpretation of the cultural context behind Jesus’ words that is rather compelling. In Palestine where wood is scarce, cakes of dried animal dung are used as fuel. And these light up ovens made of earth. It is a common practice still seen today. However, 1st-century Palestinians also placed a flat plate of salt on the bottom of these ovens to activate the dung fuel. For the salt had a catalytic effect that helped the dung to burn, thus resulting in fire and light, and ultimately, the bread that was being baked in the oven. After a few years, a chemical reaction causes the salt to lose its catalytic effect, so it has to be thrown out and replaced; it has lost its saltiness.
So the salt, as it were, grows tired after a while and has to be renewed; it is no longer capable of igniting fires. So, too, a Christian community can grow tired and insipid, or even, to use the literal meaning of the Greek word in the Gospel, ‘foolish’ (cf Mt 5:13). If one has lost the savour of the Faith, one is no longer capable of acting as a catalyst that transforms the culture; of producing the light that comes from our works of practical mercy and justice; of igniting the fire of sacrificial love in hearts. And so, the world only sees such Christians as fit to be thrown out and trodden under foot; many, it seems, might not miss us if we are gone. A good few may even throw a party!
How, then, shall our saltiness be restored? How shall salt be renewed so that it is again a catalyst for love and a force for good? Only by our being transformed by an encounter with “Jesus Christ and him crucified”. Thus, Pope Francis said that “Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is nothing else than the culmination of the way he lived his entire life. Moved by his example, we want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world” (EG, §269). What the Pope is alluding to is the Beatitudes, which are found in the verses immediately preceding today’s Gospel (Mt 5:3-12). And this is fitting because it is by becoming men and women of the Beatitudes, and so becoming more like Christ Crucified, that we are salt of the earth, capable of firing up the world with God’s transforming love.
Recently, there has been much hope for change and renewal in the Church but in fact reform does not simply come about from changing structures, or from papal decrees, or overhauling the Roman Curia. All this may be of some import, but they can amount to nothing if the most basic and essential change does not happen. Indeed our concern with official reforms and Ecclesial politics and debate can be a distraction from this most vital reform, namely, the conversion of one’s heart and the reformation of one’s mind – of my heart and mind – to Jesus Christ and him crucified. For our history shows that in every age it is not structures but saints who have reformed Christ’s Church and transformed the world.
Hence, at a time of great internal strife in the Church, the Dominican mystic St Catherine of Siena said: “I have slept in the bed of negligence. This is why so many evils and ruins have befallen your Church”. Or, when Chesterton was asked what was wrong with the world today, he replied “I am”. Therefore, Pope Francis has said quite emphatically: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her” (EG, §3).
Will you and I dare to take up this daily invitation from Christ and his Vicar?
Mark tells us that Jesus has been going throughout the towns of Galilee, so when the leper approaches him, we can suppose that the leper’s done something very bold: he’s entered a town. For the leper was not just someone who was diseased, he was also a social outcast, excluded from towns, and left to fend for himself in the countryside. So, for him to approach Jesus took great courage, and as he entered the inhabited areas, he had to cry out “unclean, unclean” to warn people; it was rather humiliating. But he dares to do this because he is confident that Jesus can heal him.
And Jesus does: “I will; be clean” (Mk 1:41). The result is that Jesus exchanges places with the leper. For it is Jesus, now, who can “no longer openly enter a town”, and it is Jesus, finally, who is condemned to die outside the walls of Jerusalem. What we see is not just the physical healing of a leper but a kind of parable, an enactment of what sin does to Man, and God’s loving and merciful response to our predicament. For Jesus comes to take away our sins, and in doing so, he “becomes sin”, as St Paul put it (cf 2 Cor 5:21). Thus, Jesus, for our sake, becomes the outcast leper. On the Cross, Jesus suffers the violence and isolation that sin inflicts on humanity, and he dies outside the city for sin excludes Mankind from the city of God. So, in the person of Jesus Christ, God is reaching out to touch sinful humanity, represented today by the leper. Through his incarnation, God touches Man, and so he heals us of sin, and imparts new life and restores communion. Indeed, Christ effects a new creation through grace that enables us to enter the city of God, heaven.
This is the essence of the good news of salvation, and the joy of being saved by Christ is irrepressible. Hence the leper cannot keep from speaking about what Jesus has done for him – he evangelizes. Thus Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness” (§1). For “if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” (§8).
However, this joy of encountering Jesus as our Saviour does require us to first acknowledge that we are sinners. We need the courage and humility of that leper who goes to Jesus and says: “If you will, you can make me clean” (Mk 1:40). So, we accuse ourselves, like that leper, of being ‘unclean’, of being sinners. And this is can be humiliating and difficult. But not if we do so with that leper’s confidence in God’s mercy and redeeming love, knowing that Jesus wills to forgive us, heal us, and make us whole. Thus, Pope Francis said about himself in his first major public interview: “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon”. And because the Lord has looked upon us and touched us, we sinners can be joyful. This is the what it is to be a Christian. Hence on Easter night, we hear these words: “Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice… O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”
But it seems to me that, all too often, many Catholics do not grasp this. For example, the former Irish President, Mary McAleese said the following in a recent talk to the Royal Society here in Edinburgh. She said: “I don’t like ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’. If you are the so-called sinner, who likes to be called that?” From the perspective of the world it is true that being called a sinner is terrible. It means being shunned by society, being treated like a leper and subjected to the merciless scrutiny of the Media – just look at how Nigella Lawson was treated. But this is not God’s way, and not the Catholic way.
From the perspective of Christ and his Church, being called a sinner means that I can call Jesus my Redeemer. Being a sinner means that Jesus has come in search of me, forgives me, gives his life for love of me. O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
The greatest sadness for our society is that it clearly doesn’t know this. And so, sin is either denied or ignored so that we have no need for a Saviour. Hence, faith in Christ is considered ‘irrelevant’ and outmoded. Or, those who do sin are treated as lepers: harshly judged, cast out of society, and beyond redemption. Hence, Mrs McAleese can say: “If you are the so-called sinner, who likes to be called that?”.
But God’s Word to us sinners – to all humanity, then – is a Word of mercy, of forgiveness, of rehabilitation. So, let all sinners go to him with hope and confidence. As Pope Francis wrote: “Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy… Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew” (§3).
In this final week of Christmastide after the great Epiphany to the Magi, the lectionary presents us with a series of epiphanies, of moments when God reveals himself to humanity; times when divinity is so near to us. Hence, we’ve heard of great signs of healing, miraculous works of feeding, and Christ’s power over the elemental storms. For in these diverse ways, Jesus reveals his divinity and that he is God-with-us.
In today’s Gospel, we could say that St Luke sums up these epiphanies, these signs of God at work in the world, especially through healing miracles. Tomorrow’s Gospel will reiterate this as we hear of the healing of a leper. However, although physical healing is an important sign of God’s presence among us, there is something else which St Luke adds especially. For although Luke is principally quoting Isaiah 61:1-2, he has inserted a line from Isaiah 58:6, where the prophet outlines the features of a fast pleasing to God. So, into the prophecy of what Christ, the One who is anointed by the Spirit, will do, St Luke adds that he will “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Lk 4:18).
Now, of course Christ has, fundamentally, by his incarnation, set Mankind free from the oppression of sin and death. Thus, the psalm which we have been hearing every day since the Epiphany, when this was revealed to all nations through the Magi, says: “From oppression and violence he redeems their life” (Ps 71:14). However, we should beware of simply spiritualising what Christ has accomplished. This, it seems, is St Luke’s concern. Thus, he inserts a line from the practical works of mercy and justice given by Isaiah in chapter 58. And if we look there we find these words: “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bond of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free… Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn…” (Isa 58:6-7).
Therefore, the light of God’s presence among us, the epiphany of God’s glory shines on us when we are just and loving to the oppressed and needy; when we show practical mercy and compassion to the poor. Our first reading reiterates this by saying: “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). But, then, St John suggests that we have seen God, or rather, his son Jesus Christ. We have seen him because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). So, we see Christ in other human persons, dwelling in their flesh, in our flesh.
For through his incarnation, Christ has united his divinity to our human flesh; he has redeemed humanity in the flesh. So, “the flesh is the hinge of salvation”, Tertullian says. Hence it is in the flesh that God is seen and that his salvation for all peoples is revealed. For as Isaiah says, the hungry, homeless, and naked are “[our] own flesh”. Thus, when we care for our own flesh, meaning, not just our own bodies, but for every body; loving all peoples who are oppressed by poverty, violence, and injustice, then, in our acts of justice, mercy and of love, God is seen and his glory is revealed – they are an epiphany.
The great refrain of Christmastide is: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14), and we recognize that in the Babe of Bethlehem, divine Love is made visible. Today’s feast picks up on these themes in its own way. For, as our Collect said, the Holy Innocents followed Christ “not by speaking but by dying”. So, words are insufficient – they have to be followed up by action; love has to be made visible in the flesh. What the Holy Innocents do, or have done to them, is that they die for Christ, in his stead.
Originally, today’s feast celebrated the Flight into Egypt. But very early on the Church was moved – by a motherly instinct, shall we say – to honour these Holy Innocents who were killed by Herod. In doing so, the Church broadened her understanding of Christian martyrdom. Martyrdom, witnessing to Christ, does not just encompass those who explicitly and consciously choose to die for Christ, such as St Stephen. We see today that martyrdom includes an implicit discipleship; an anticipated following of Christ who said that there is no greater love than to die for a friend (Jn 15:13). For in the death of the Holy Innocents, truly actions speak louder than words. They die for Christ, who is the truest Friend of Humanity. But they also die as victims of a tyrant.
The megalomanic’s lust for power, and the cut and thrust of politics made these Holy Innocents of Bethlehem the victims of violence and military might. And as innocent victims of the world’s evil, these saints are being honoured today as the first martyrs to be redeemed by the grace of Christ and suffer the so-called ‘baptism of blood’.
To my mind, today’s feast has a particularly contemporary resonance. Each year, I think of the millions of unborn babies in the womb who have been killed – victims of those who wield the power and presumed right to choose whether these holy innocents live or not; victims of gender politics, and our sinful world.
But this year, when we have seen so much warfare and violence especially in Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, the Middle East and Africa, I think, too, of the many children whose innocence is killed and whose lives are ruined by power, politics, and violence. The UN estimates that there are “300,000 child soldiers in at least twenty countries in the world today. As well as being forced to fight, children are used as spies, couriers, cooks and cleaners. Girls are often forced into sexual slavery”. And, “right now, children are fighting across the [African] continent: in Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some are abducted or forcibly recruited, others are driven to join by poverty, abuse and discrimination, or to seek revenge for violence enacted against them or their families. Children are more likely to become child soldiers if they are separated from their families, displaced from their homes, living in combat zones or have limited access to education. Children may join armed groups as the only way to guarantee daily food and survival… these children are responding to economic, cultural, social and political pressures”. And all of them are, in some way, victims of tyranny, power, and the corruption of our world that matches and even exceeds king Herod’s.
So, it is for all these innocents that I pray and offer this Mass today. May the Christ Child have mercy and redeem them by his grace, and may the Holy Innocents in heaven pray for them. And, moved by a motherly instinct, may we – may the whole Church – work for the eradication of these and the other abuses of children, always giving voice to the voiceless – but not just in words but also in actions. For they, too, long to see the Love of God made visible in Christ, that is, in us, his Mystical Body on earth.
Students and various people often ask me: How do I know it’s true? And I have certainly asked myself this, too, about the Gospel; about what we’ve just heard. But here’s a thought: you just couldn’t make it up! Every other religion is about a wise teacher, a moral guide who points to a way of life, an ethic. Christianity isn’t. It’s about a person, who says he is God. It’s about relationship. And tonight God is born as Man so that he can be with us.
But what do I mean, you couldn’t make it up? Well, look at the cast of characters that are assembled at Jesus’ birth. The titles given him in Isaiah are grand, but the circumstances of the birth of this “Wonderful Counsellor, [the] Mighty God” are shockingly, even scandalously, ordinary: smelly shepherds, refugee parents, homelessness. And later on in his life, this “Prince of Peace” gathers around him rough fishermen, notorious public sinners, uneducated folk, children and women – who were considered by society then to be weaker and less worthy than adult men. But this assemblage of humanity at its most raw and real is the court of the “newborn king”. And then, moreover, he’s born in a cave. When God comes to the earth he made, he really enters into, even onto the very rock of the planet earth; with a bump, as it were. And then he’s laid in a feeding trough, a reminder of that most mortal of acts – that we need to eat to fuel ourselves and survive. So, when God becomes Man, he really does so vividly; surrounded by the stuff of humanity, the geological matter of the earth, and the acts of our mortality.
This, then, is what God has chosen for his birth as Man. But I suspect it wouldn’t have been our choice for him. In fact, it’s almost embarrassing to say that here is our God made Man, and that when he came to us this is the best reception we could give him. You couldn’t, indeed, wouldn’t make it up - not like this at any rate. And sometimes it seems we’ve been making up for it ever since, through splendid art and warm music, saccharine sentiments, and idealized Christmas card scenes that can distance us from the reality of that first Christmas night.
For there is something about the Nativity that is rather disturbing. It turns the world upside down, and upsets all our conventions and expectations. No wonder some people find it too hard to believe in. We’d rather keep God in his heaven, and maintain a ‘them’ and ‘us’ between the sacred and the profane.
But the truth isn’t like this. God has become Man, and so the sacred is bound up with the ordinary; God acts in and through frail fallible humanity and its circumstances, and we often don’t see how. There is the difficulty, then, of trusting that the holy Catholic Church is God’s instrument of salvation when we know how flawed we can be, or, indeed, the difficulty I have in obeying my superiors! And yet, God has become Man, and so, the extraordinary happens through the prosaic; God’s grace comes to us through (very) ordinary signs and means. So, there is also the difficulty of believing that the Bread and Wine become, at Christ’s Word, his Body and Blood, or that you and I are temples of the Holy Spirit, or, indeed, that what we freely choose to do now has eternal consequences. For what the Incarnation does is to challenge Mankind with a truth that we Dominicans have been trying to preach for eight centuries: Matter matters. And this is the truth we contemplate tonight.
But as we look at Christ in his manger, with his parents and the shepherds huddled around, we’re faced with another truth that we may find somewhat inconvenient or uncomfortable. And this, I think, is also why the Incarnation can be so hard to believe in. Because, if we did, tonight’s mysterious birth necessarily changes our perspective and outlook. So, when we look again, we see that our world’s refugees are Mary and Joseph; the cold and struggling homeless are this baby Jesus – our Lord! Which means that those who we consider least in our earthly kingdoms; those hungry and disenfranchised who all too often have no place at society’s table – nor even at our Christmas table – they are the greatest in God’s kingdom. And this means, then, that we should serve them, reverence them, love them.
If Christianity is about any ethic it is this - that the weakest and neediest are loved and honoured; that the greatest sinner always finds the warmth of God’s mercy and the communion, the embrace, of the Christian community. But here is the consolation and joy that I find in the Incarnation. Because I know that this means that Christ has come for me. I, a sinner – someone who sometimes struggles with uncertainties and doubts, too; who is weak and inconstant; a disciple who often doesn’t learn, and a Christian who can behave very un-Christ-like. For I know, too, that it is precisely for people like me that Jesus has come with “healing in his wings”, with mercy, grace, and forgiveness. And it is for us sinners that the Church exists to be God’s arms to embrace; God’s legs to run and help; God’s mouth to whisper tender words of absolution and wisdom. This, too, is a central truth – a beautiful truth – of Christianity.
All this flows from what we celebrate tonight. This is what – no, who – our Christian faith is about: God has become Man in the person of Jesus Christ, a vulnerable newborn baby. And, as with every newborn babe, so Christ’s birth brings an inconvenient truth, perhaps, but also a most beautiful truth; a truth that is hard but also so wondrous and strange, you couldn’t make up. A truth about the goodness of God’s creation and God’s faith in humanity. Hence the Jesuit theologian, Avery Dulles, says: “The Incarnation does not provide us with a ladder by which to escape from the ambiguities of this life and scale the heights of heaven. Rather it enables us to burrow deep into the heart of the planet earth and find it shimmering with divinity”.
This is what we believe and proclaim tonight. It happened, as we heard, in Bethlehem of Judea, “in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad, [in] the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome; and [in] the forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus”. God has entered human history and our material world, and he is ever with us. Thus the Christmas lights make sense. They express what rings true: that because of the Incarnation, our world shimmers and sparkles with divinity.
I often return to this passage of Romans. St Paul describes the interior struggle with sin which I think we all experience and know intimately. We are attracted to God, and we know the Gospel to be true and good; we want to love Christ. But we are pulled in another direction by sinful habits and addictions. This inclination to sin, which we all have due to the wound of original sin, is called concupiscence (cf CCC 405). And so, there is a struggle in the Christian moral life, an ongoing spiritual struggle in which we learn to master our sinful inclinations by becoming more open to grace, and more attracted by divine Love. The Second Vatican Council thus said: “Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield [of life] man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity” (Gaudium et spes, 37).
Sometimes, this struggle, this spiritual battle, can just seem exhausting. But St Paul exclaims that there is deliverance, there is help from Christ. The struggle is tiring when it is waged alone, but doesn’t Jesus say to us: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Mt 12:28)? For it is when we experience our weakness and our helplessness against sin, that we need to turn to God for mercy and for strength. We need his grace.
In a way, Jesus’ frustration in the Gospel can be related to this. We see the storm and scorching heat of sin and temptation coming, and yet we do not know what to do, and we think we can withstand its onslaught alone. What we must do is turn to God, and seek his refuge and help. Few of us do this, I think, but it is precisely in the heat of our temptations and as we are falling that we need to pray to Jesus, who alone is our Saviour and Deliverer, who is the Mercy and Love of God.
And the prayer that I think of in particular is this ancient one, from the ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’. A certain monk of the Egyptian desert in 5th century, struggling with sin, prayed: “Lord, whether I want it or not, save me, because, dust and ashes that I am, I love sin; but you are God almighty, so stop me yourself. If you have pity on the just, that is not much, nor if you save the pure, because they are worthy of your mercy. Show the full splendour of your mercy in me, reveal in me your love for men, because the poor man has no other refuge but you”.