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.
This morning the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, a gathering of some 250 bishops joined by some religious and married laity, have begun their meetings in Rome. The bishops have come together to pray, listen, reflect and discuss; to find ways to support, strengthen and encourage the Christian family, to consider the challenges facing family life today, and so to better present and live out Christ’s vision of the family to the world. So, the Holy Father said in the Synod’s Opening Mass yesterday: “the Lord is asking us [bishops] to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of [God’s] loving plan for humanity”.
All of us know that families and married life are places of great beauty, love and care. But we also know that they are places where we can be deeply wounded. This is part of the sinful human condition and this occurs whenever we relate with one another. The role of God in all this is bind up our wounds and to teach us to love one another as neighbours, as Christ does. So today’s Gospel shows us the compassion and mercy that is essential in our dealings with one another, even as God had bent down in compassion and mercy through the Incarnation of his Son in order to bind up our wounds and heal us of sin and enmity.
The family plays a central role in God’s vision of love because it is here that we encounter our first neighbour – our parents, our brothers and sisters, our spouse. Do we pass by without daring or wanting to notice their wounds, or do we love them enough to take the risk of loving and healing them? Every act of love which opens us up to another person makes us vulnerable and so involves a risk. This is why families can be such painful places. And yet, it is in the risk of loving that we become like Christ, and it is he who, ultimately, can and will heal our vulnerabilities, the wounds we inflict on one another. Hence, every marriage and family must have God who is Love at its heart for he is the Creator and Doctor of the human heart.
Let us love him above all for it is the love of God which grounds and makes possible our love for our neighbour, for our spouses and families. It is he who softens the hardness of our hearts (cf Mt 19:8) so that we can notice our neighbour within our families and marriages and see the hurt they suffer – oftentimes because of our own carelessness and sinfulness – and so, turn to nurse them, to seek forgiveness, and to love them as tenderly as Christ the divine Physician does.
The role of the Church, then, is to help and support married couples and families so that they can learn to forgive and love one another as God has forgiven us and loved us in Christ. The Church is also to be that Inn of Healing wherein the man or woman, wounded by other people (especially in our families) can be healed and recover, and so, continue on his or her journey to heaven. But whatever way the Church does this, whatever proposal is offered to meet the challenges facing families today, whatever is done to support marriages, it has to be true to the Gospel and Christ’s teachings as St Paul says to the Galatians. Only if we remain focussed on Christ, the Good Samaritan, and do as he teaches do we find compassion and true mercy that heals and lifts up. Hence St Paul warns: “there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you let him be accursed… again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed”(Gal 1:8-9).
These words of Scripture, too, must surely be on the minds of our bishops as they gather for the Synod in Rome today. Mercy must be faithful to the truth of the Gospel, to the mind and vision of Christ for the family – there is no other Gospel. So, let us pray for our bishops that, as we said in the Collect, they may “know what is pleasing to [God] and then pursue it with all their strength” (Mass for a Synod).
The fishing town of Bethsaida was home to Peter, Andrew and Philip, the first of the apostles. And it was here that Jesus healed a blind man, and nearby, he fed five thousand. And the name of the town, some say, means ‘House of Mercy’. This town is thus an image of the Church which is the definitive House of Mercy. For the Church is home to the apostles, founded on their witness and teaching. In her the blind are healed through the gift of faith in the sacrament of baptism, and in the Church, Christ feeds the multitude with the Eucharist.
Just as Christ worked miracles and did great things in Bethsaida (as well as in Capernaum), so now Jesus continues to act and do great wonders in his Church, for he is her Head, her Bridegroom, and she his Mystical Body and beloved Bride – the “sacrament of salvation” as Vatican II says. Within the Church’s walls, sinners are reconciled to God and one another, those who walk in darkness and sin are enlightened by grace, and those who hunger for love are fed. Thus, she is the House of Mercy because in the Church sinners are called to repentance, strengthened, and empowered to live a new life in Christ. This is what mercy truly means – that people are called to repentance and have the means of doing so, and of living a new and risen life in the grace of Jesus Christ with the power of the Holy Spirit. Mercy means that Jesus offers forgiveness and a new changed way of living after the death of mortal sin.
That a genuine encounter with Divine Mercy entails repentance and necessitates change on our part is evident from today’s Gospel. Jesus’ wrath is for those who, despite having had such signs of mercy and compassion extended towards them; despite the wonders he worked and graces he gave, would not repent and change their lives and follow him. It would be better, indeed, if the unrepentant people had remained ignorant as the people of Tyre and Sidon had been, rather than to have seen Christ’s works and heard his teaching and remained indifferent or to persist in living sinful lives. The result of this, Jesus says, is that one shall be “brought down to Hades” (Lk 10:15).
In our time, then, Jesus continues to work wonders and call many to repentence through the teaching and sacramental ministry of the Church. It is within the Bethsaida, the House of Mercy, that is Christ’s Church that we encounter Christ’s mercy and receive sanctifying grace. So, let us hear her teaching, heed her invitations to repentance, and so, receive new life, and even eternal life. For as Jesus says: “He who hears you [the Church] hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me”.
In August this year I joined some 12,000 Catholic scouts and guides who, over the course of a week, walked on short pilgrimages to the small town of Lisieux where a huge domed basilica stands on a hill overlooking the town. But the grandiose scale of this Shrine, which is necessary because of the hundreds of thousands who flock there every year, is juxtaposed with the central virtue of its Saint. As the verse from St Matthew’s Gospel that is carved on the basilica’s facade explains: “For whoever humbles herself will be exalted” (Mt 23:12). And then, in the tympanum over the central doors, there is a figure of Christ with a child, and this verse: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:4). For today’s saint modelled her life on the Child Jesus, and so strived for a humble and simple child-like love for God.
At the age of just 15 in 1887, Thérèse Martin who was born of saintly parents, was given special permission by the Pope to enter the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux. On becoming a nun, she took as her religious name, Thèrése of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. And these two appellations indicate the core of her spirituality. She described her life as a “little way of spiritual childhood” in which she looked with child-like confidence at the loving and tender face of God in Jesus Christ.
In today’s Gospel, discipleship of Christ and living in the joy of the Kingdom means looking towards him who always looks on us with kindness, mercy and love. St Thérèse teaches us to focus on the Holy Face of Jesus and so to love him. As she says: “We have merely to love Him, without looking at ourselves, without examining our faults too much.” So, in the Gospel, the one who “looks back” (Lk 9:62) is the disciple who looks back on his past sins, on his faults and weaknesses, and he is scared by the demands of discipleship; the hard work of plowing over our old lives so that new shoots of a new life in Christ can spring up.
But St Thérèse teaches us to take courage in Christ. It is the courage of a child who is learning to walk in the ways of the new Christian life, learning to live the life of grace. And she says we should not look back on our sinfulness with anxiety but look up to the Holy Face of our Saviour who is here to help us. But we do need to keep looking to him, and keep trying, keep willing to love him and to live as a child of God. Often we stop trying because our pride is wounded, and we cannot stand to be reminded of our failures and weaknesses which is why we need the humility of a child, and confidence in God’s merciful love.
A charming example from St Thérèse’s writing explains this. She says: “Think of a little child that is learning to stand but does not yet know how to walk. In his desire to reach the top of the stairs to find his mother, he lifts his little foot to climb the first stair. It is all in vain, and at each renewed effort he falls. Well, be this little child: through the practice of all the virtues, always lift your little foot to mount the staircase of holiness, but do not imagine that you will be able to go up even the first step! No, but the good God does not demand more from you than good will. From the top of the stairs, He looks at you with love. Soon, won over by your useless efforts, He will come down Himself and, taking you in His arms, He will carry you up… But if you stop lifting your little foot, He will leave you a long time on the ground.”
So today, let us be encouraged on our pilgrimage of Life that takes us not to a domed basilica in a Normandy town but to the high halls of Heaven. Along this journey, let us focus on Christ’s Holy Face. Let us gaze at him with love and allow him to look at us with love during Adoration of the Eucharist after this Mass. And let us also go to Confession for through this Sacrament we take another step up the staircase of holiness, and God comes to lift us up. With every step we take, may St Thérèse accompany us and teach us her little way.
Many of you will probably have had your parents come to Edinburgh this week, and I suppose you’ll have been making new friends, and finding your way around the city, and maybe seeing some of its tourist sights. Although this is my fourth Freshers’ Week, I’ve been doing this too. So, my mother came to stay and spent the week with us, and I met a group of French seminarians last Monday. Between taking my mum to see Holyrood Palace and going to the CSU barbeque, I squeezed in a very quick tour that ended up in the National Museum of Scotland. We rushed around from one room to the next but one display made us stop and had us transfixed with morbid fascination.
The Frenchmen thought it was a French invention from the 18th-century. So, they were amazed to discover that some two centuries before the French Revolution, in Edinburgh in 1564, the Scots were using a machine in public executions for beheading people. It’s called ‘The Maiden’, and over 150 people have died by it. And here it was, in the museum, taking centrestage in one of the rooms; we stopped and just looked.
Today’s feast also seems to put at centrestage an instrument of execution and death, and it may appear somewhat gruesome or shocking, or even repulsive, to celebrate the cross. For execution on the cross was shameful, humiliating, the worst kind of death devised by the Roman Empire for those deemed public enemies. And it would indeed be morbid and gruesome to celebrate the cross were it not for who the Victim of the Holy Cross is, and what he accomplished through this instrument of deathly torture.
For Christ Crucified is the Victim of Love, divine love. As St John says: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16a). Have you ever fallen in love and given your heart to someone else? It’s entails a kind of sweet pain, I think. Well, in becoming Man, God gives not just his heart but his whole self, his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity to you and to me. And the agony of sacrificial love is displayed for all to see on the Holy Cross. For when Jesus freely chose to mount the wood of the Cross, he chose to show the world the depths of God’s love for Mankind. His arms are stretched out horizontally to breaking point to embrace sinful humanity, so that in his own Body, Jesus reconciles God and Man, and he also draws us closer to one another. Vertically, he is stretched upwards to the heavens, for he is the Bridge that makes it possible for us to cross over to his Father in heaven, and to be united to God in friendship.
At the same time, Christ’s wounded and bleeding Body on the Cross reminds us of the sufferings and torments of humanity. We have all seen this summer the gruesome and horrific things that Man is capable of inflicting on their fellow Man including crucifixion. So, looking at the Cross, then, we see what our sins do to one another, and also to ourselves, and to God in Christ. For sin not only harms our neighbour but it also wounds and disfigures us; it makes us barely recognizable as rational human beings; it causes human misery and suffering, which Jesus, through his Passion and Death on the Cross, chooses to share in. Indeed, St Paul says that for our sake [God] made [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin (2 Cor 5:21). What this means, I think, is that Jesus on the Cross shows us the effects of sin in his broken body so that when we look at Christ Crucified, we also see sinful Man. We see ourselves, in fact, in the way that God sees us sinners: as wounded, frail, and mortal people in need of mercy, healing, and compassionate love.
Hence, as St John says, “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world” (Jn 3:17) but to save and heal and lift us up. And so, when we look up at the Crucified One, we look not into eyes that accuse us, or condemn us, or make us feel guilty. And if that is what you see, then you need to look again. Today’s feast, then, invites us to stop and just look at the Holy Cross. As Moses said to the people of Israel, we need to look and live (cf Num 21:9). For what we look into are the eyes of the Divine Mercy, and the Victim who we see raised up on the Cross is the Victim of Love. So when St John says that “whoever believes in [Jesus] should not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3:16b), he means, first of all, that we need to believe who the Victim on the Holy Cross is: he is God’s Love and Mercy made visible who has come not to condemn and accuse but to forgive and reconcile us. Jesus is stretched out on the Cross to re-unite heaven and earth; God and Man.
And this is what Jesus accomplished on the Cross. For by reconciling us to God in friendship, Christ makes it possible, as the Gospel says, for us to not perish (as human beings naturally would) but to have eternal life by becoming like him: not just human but also divine; one with God who is Life and Being itself. But how does he do this, and what does this mean?
Well, think of what we do every time we come to Mass, and whenever we receive Holy Communion with the right disposition. The very word, communion speaks of an intimacy and unity with God that is born of love. For in the Mass what happened once and for all on the Cross is made present for us; we stand on Calvary with the Crucified One. Thus, in the Eucharist and in Holy Communion, we experience and taste how “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”; Christ gives himself entirely to you and to me in one great Act of sacrificial love as he once did on the Cross.
This is the Mass, and while you are here in this University you have an opportunity that will be unmatched later in life. You have the chance to come to Mass every day with relative ease and convenience because there are two Masses in this chapel every weekday, and there are at least another four at different times of each weekday in churches within 15 minutes walk from here. If you know the pain of falling in love, do you know, too, the agony of unrequited love or of being distant from your Beloved? Do not let God’s gift of himself – a daily Eucharist – go unwanted and unrequited. But let us do our utmost to come to Mass as often as possible with gratitude, with adoration, and with love. It’s not just the highpoint of your week but should become the centre of your day, of your life.
For it is through the Eucharist that we are made one with God and so receive eternal life; through the Eucharist that the Crucified One is lifted up on high, and we with him. For the Eucharist is Christ who is the “living bread which came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51). And when we receive the Eucharist we receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Risen Lord Jesus so that we, too, may be lifted up with Christ in the Resurrection, and be “highly exalted” into heavenly glory as he was (cf Phil 2:9). As Jesus says to Nicodemus, only he has ascended into heaven (cf Jn 3:13), so we need to be united to him through the Eucharist if we’re to share in his resurrection, ascension, and eternal life; if we’re to be united with God in undying love.
Therefore, we don’t glory in an instrument of torture today, nor are we morbidly fascinated by it. Rather, we rejoice in what Jesus has done for us through the Cross, and is doing for us now in this and in every Holy Mass. As the Entrance Antiphon said: “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered” (cf Gal 6:14).
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.
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.
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.