The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
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”.
Yesterday, we celebrated the feast of the 3rd bishop of Antioch, who travelled from Syria to Rome to be martyred. Today, we celebrate another saint of Greek descent who was probably from Syria, became a Christian in Antioch, and witnessed to the Faith too, but in a different way, principally through his preaching and his writings. One of the Gospels, is attributed to him, and he is also the author of the sequel, the Acts of the Apostles which recounts the growth and missionary activities of the early Church under the direction of the Holy Spirit.
St Luke had accompanied St Paul on some of his missionary journeys, as we hear in today’s First Reading, and he is mentioned elsewhere as a physician. Thus he is the patron saint of doctors. Tradition also holds that Luke had painted an image of the Virgin Mary and Child Jesus, thus he is also patron of artists. However, it seems to me more likely that this tradition is symbolic. What it expresses is the fact that we have St Luke to thank for the most beautiful portrayals of the infancy of Christ, and of the Virgin Mother. Some have said that he learnt these truths from Our Lady herself because there are some things that only she would have known.
Hence, it is from Luke’s Gospel that we learn of the Annunciations to Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph; of the birth of Christ and the angelic visitation to the shepherds; of the Presentation in the Temple; and of Christ’s childhood. Today’s Collect mentions St Luke’s special love for the poor, and we see an example of this in St Luke’s telling of the birth of Christ. Where Matthew has wise men, Gentiles from afar, who come bearing precious and prophetic gifts, Luke has shepherds, representatives of poor and ordinary folk, who come to worship the King of the shepherds who is born in poverty. And in the Magnificat, St Luke recounts that Mary says: “[God] has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree” (Lk 1:52). Also, in St Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus says, simply: “Blessed are the poor” (Lk 6:20).
Some say that Luke’s love for the poor comes from his being a physician. Because, some say, he wasn’t so much a doctor for the rich, but more like a skilled pharmacist who travelled among poor communities dispensing medicines and help. But I think that Luke is properly thought of as a healer because of how he portrays Jesus. The Lord says in Luke 5:31-32, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” And then Luke goes on to include various parables and images of God’s mercy and forgiveness which heals humanity of our greatest wound and illness, namely, sin. Hence, for example, St Luke alone recounts the parable of the Prodigal Son, a famous portrayal of God’s healing love and mercy.
So, through his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, St Luke painted for us the Jesus whom we know and love: a God of mercy and compassion who comes to heal and save us. Through Luke’s preaching and writing, he has said to us: “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Lk 10:9b). Hence we thank God for St Luke’s witness today, and we ask him to pray for us that the Gospel will bear fruit in our lives.
"I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with splendour, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts" (Hag 2:7f).
We might think, from this, that God is greedy for treasure and wealth, and that he is will enrich his Temple. But I think we can read Haggai’s prophecy in a more Christ-centred way. St Lawrence, the 3rd-century deacon of Rome was martyred when he gathered together the poor, the lame and the beggars of Rome, and he said to the Roman Prefect, “Here are the treasures of the Church”. And he is right. The poor and needy are the treasure of the Church because, as Jesus says, he, our Lord, is found in and among them; Christ is present in these, the least of our brethren (cf Mt 25:34-40). Hence, today’s saint, Vincent de Paul, a French priest of the 16th-century who was renown for his practical love, even reverence, for the poor. As he said: “If you consider the poor in the light of faith, then you will observe that they are taking the place of the Son of God who chose to be poor”.
So, we can see Haggai’s prophecy in a new light, as saying that God will pour into his house, that is his Church, all the treasure that is the world’s poor and needy. Thus the Catholic Church is still the largest charitable organization and network in the world, working always with a preferential love for the poor to serve and help the needy. And it is these works of charity, what the Church traditionally calls the seven corporal acts of mercy, that are her splendour. So, when Haggai says that the Lord will “fill this house with splendour” and that the silver and gold is his, we need not think of the gleam of shiny metal, as such, but of the splendour of mercy and compassion, the beauty of charity, that was given by God to the saints.
Thus St Vincent said: “The Church teaches us that mercy belongs to God. Let us implore him to bestow on us the spirit of mercy and compassion, so that we are filled with it and may never lose it”. So we pray that God will fill us with such splendour of mercy and compassion just as St Vincent was so that we can also carry out the corporal acts of mercy. Indeed, St Vincent is the patron saint of the Church’s charitable works. And the corporal acts of mercy are: to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to shelter the homeless; to visit the sick; to visit the imprisoned; and to bury the dead (cf Mt 25:34-46).
A final thought on giving to the poor, on what is called ‘charity’ these days. When the Lord says in Haggai that “the silver is mine, and the gold is mine”, he is articulating the foundation of Jewish and Catholic social teaching. All the wealth of the earth is God’s such that charitable works become about service; they are exercises in justice, for we are giving to the poor what is their due; what is rightfully theirs. The rich tend to think that all that they earn belongs to them and no one else. But Catholic social teaching holds that everything belongs to God, and the rich and privileged are his servants, who have a duty to re-distribute what they have with the poor. Hence, St Vincent de Paul said: “The poor are your masters. You are the servant”.
Yesterday we recalled how God moved king Darius to order the re-building and re-dedication of God’s Temple. This was an act of pure grace, an unmerited gift from God, “a brief moment [of] favour” as Ezra says in his prayer today. But because of this favour from God, the remnant of Israel had a “secure hold within [God’s] holy place” so that God could “brighten [their] eyes and grant [them] a little reviving in [their] bondage” (9:8). So, Ezra is saying that first God manifested his mercy and grace through a great unmerited act, and then, after that, the people were able to be enlightened by God’s grace and teaching so as to be freed from sin. The proclamation and action of God’s grace comes first, and then afterwards our gradual response of repentance, and the reform of our moral life. This is what the book of Ezra, and his prayer in today’s First Reading shows.
And this pattern of God’s gracious activity continues in the Gospel. Here, the apostles are being sent out as missionaries to bring the message and reality of God’s grace not just to Israel but to all Mankind. And the message they preach is that “brief moment [of God’s] favour”, of pure unmerited grace, in the coming of Jesus Christ. For he is the true Temple, who has come to give sinners a “secure hold”, so that gradually as we grow in friendship with Christ, we can be taught by his wisdom, freed from sin by his mercy, and rebuilt by grace until we also become temples – temples of the Holy Spirit. All this, of course, is what our life in the Church, the Body of Christ - his Temple – is about, but it follows on from the initial proclamation of God’s grace.
This initial proclamation is just what the apostles are sent out to do in today’s Gospel. Thus their mission is urgent, and the apostles are to be completely unencumbered so that they can move swiftly from place to place. Even the message is pared down to the basic essentials so that they can move on; they do not linger, or even pause to argue and convince those who did not welcome them. Their mission is just to proclaim a “brief moment” of God’s grace and favour, just enough to give sinners a “secure hold within [God’s] holy place”, that is, in Christ’s holy Church, which is a place of healing, mercy, and forgiveness. The apostles’ basic pared down message, and our message as missionaries in our world today, is that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). All the rest, such as the way of Christian discipleship, our response of repentance and moral reform, will come later, as Ezra shows.
This, I believe, is what Pope Francis meant when he said last week: “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you… Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn”. He was not thereby changing the moral teaching of the Church, nor saying we should utterly ignore everything else as petty rules. Rather, he was focussing us, as the apostles were focussed, on the initial proclamation of God’s pure unmerited act of grace, on the essence of the Good News, on that “brief moment of [God’s] favour” that is necessary for a missionary Church setting out on the New Evangelization.
So, let us “go and proclaim the Gospel of the Lord”: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners!
Christ’s words in today’s Gospel could well apply to today’s popular saint, Pius of Pietrelcina, a Capuchin Franciscan who is commonly known as ‘Padre Pio’.
Jesus says: “No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a vessel, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, that those who enter may see the light” (Lk 8:16). And so, it seems that Padre Pio was lit up like a lamp to draw many souls to Christ, the true light. For many miracles are connected with St Pius, notably the miracle of the stigmata which conformed him to the Crucified Lord in a unique way.
St Pius was the first priest to ever receive the sacred stigmata, the five wounds of Christ. On the 20th of September 1918, he had celebrated Mass, and was praying in church when the Crucified Lord appeared to him, and then, St Pius says: “I became aware that my hands, feet and side were pierced and were dripping with blood”. He bore these wounds for fifty years until his death in 1968 in the Franciscan friary of San Giovanni Rotondo in southern Italy. And for him, the stigmata were a great source of embarassment, misunderstanding even from the Pope and the Vatican, and suffering which he tried to hide. But, as we heard in today’s Gospel, “nothing is hid that shall not be made manifest” (Lk 8:17), and, so, many flocked to him and performed scientific tests on him because of these wounds which emitted a fragrance like violets. Apparently someone once asked him if the wounds hurt, and he replied: “Do you think that the Lord gave them to me for a decoration?”
But why did the Lord give St Pius the stigmata? We return to today’s Gospel which says that the lamp is lit to shed light, to be seen. And so, it seems, that God worked wonders through St Pius so that Christ, the suffering merciful Christ, might be seen in him; so that the light of Christ’s love could be manifest. Hence, throughout his life, thousands flocked to Padre Pio for confession, to receive the Eucharist, and came for healing. Today, his shrine is the second most visited Catholic shrine in the world. And because of his acquaintance with suffering, Padre Pio established a hospital in 1956 called the ‘House for the Relief of Suffering’. 60,000 patients a year are served by this hospital, and it is considered one of the most efficient in Europe. So, this man was lit up like a lamp for God’s glory and to bring souls to Christ.
However, we might wonder why God chose Padre Pio? Today’s Gospel says: “to him who has will more be given” (Lk 8:18). So, it would appear that there was something already in Padre Pio, in his openness to God’s grace, that prepared him to be given even more. He was born to a poor family who had very little. Thus, as is so often the case with the poor, St Pius learnt to depend entirely on God’s goodness, to be thankful for what he had, and to be rich in faith and love. At 5 he dedicated his life to God, and he loved to pray, especially the Rosary. But he was also a sickly boy, often ill, and he once said “I am fully convinced that my illness is due to a special permission of God”. Such faith, such openness to God’s grace and the mystery of our mortal suffering, must have prepared him for the grace of the stigmata. At 15 he joined the Capuchin Franciscan friars, and after his ordination was noted for the deep piety and contemplation with which he said Mass - sometimes it would take him hours to say one Mass. Again, such prayerful union with Christ Crucified in the Mass, in his priesthood, and in his religious life (for St Francis of Assisi had also received the stigmata), prepared him to be visibly marked as a living image of Jesus on the Cross. Thus, to him who had more was given.
So, we pray today for St Pius’ intercession, that we, who are also lit up by God’s grace and given so much, may also draw others to Jesus through our imitation of Christ in works of love and mercy.
What an intriguing parable we have today - possibly one of Jesus’ most difficult. So, how might we understand the situation presented in today’s parable?
In Jesus’ time, the steward was responsible for managing his Master’s land; a fund manager, in today’s terms, perhaps. And his job was to maximize the profit from the Master’s land by negotiating as much produce as he could from the tenant farmers, or those who took out loans from the rich man; he was expected to maximize returns on the Master’s investment. But the steward was reported to be in dereliction of duty because he was “wasting his [Master’s] goods” (Lk 16:1). So, we might say that investment returns were not as high as could be expected. Indeed, the Master was losing his capital. So, the steward was rightly sacked.
But should his job performance earn him the epithet ‘dishonest’? It doesn’t seem that he was embezzling the profits – taking a cut and enriching himself. Otherwise, he need not have considered begging or relying on the hospitality of his Master’s tenants when he became jobless; he could have enjoyed a happy retirement with his dishonest gains. But there were none, it seems. But perhaps he is rightly called the ‘unjust steward’ since he did not do his Master justice by getting as much as he could for his Master from his debtors. Maybe. But, I think, maybe he was just an incompetent steward.
However, in what happens next, there is an element of dishonesty. Because, although he was going to be sacked, and thus was not in a position to represent his Master any longer, he continued to pretend that he was, and he proceeded to reduce the debts, thus further wasting his Master’s goods and reducing his profits. So, he was just incompetent to begin with, and then he went about being purposely so, in order to gain friends for himself at his Master’s expense! But what were these amounts owed that the steward wrote off? Was it simply what was due to the owner from the use of the land, or was it interest on a loan? Since the Jewish Law did not allow for interest to be taken on a loan, it might well be that the steward was writing off the interest charged by the Master, thus making the Master’s contracts just in the eyes of the Law. Could it be, perhaps, that the rich landowner was guilty of the kind of actions – maximizing profit at the expense of the poor – spoken against by Amos in our First Reading? If so, then it seems, maybe, the steward was righting a wrong committed by his Master rather than maliciously trying to incur yet more losses for him.
Perhaps. This might explain, if we buy this interpretation, why the Master didn’t do what was lawful to him under the Mishnah, which was to sue the incompetent steward for all the losses he’d incurred. Neither did the Master just rescind those deals made by the steward, which he could have, since they were made without his authorization. Moreover, we have to consider if he just didn’t rescind the contracts because to do so would have made him unpopular with his debtors and tenants. After all, they were probably already celebrating the Master’s generosity (since they thought the steward was acting on behalf of the Master), so the Master was probably reluctant to disabuse them of this belief, and so he had to absorb the loss. In return, he won the adulation of the tenants, and, possibly, just deals in the eyes of the Law. Hence, the Master gained, too, the mercy of the Lord. This might account for the rich man’s mercy towards the steward.
But we need to note, what is it that is praiseworthy about the steward’s actions. It is not incompetence, as such, or being unjust; still less, dishonesty. Rather, the steward is commended because of his prudence, that is, how decisive he is and quick to act for a future advantage. He’s also being commended because he is clever enough to use money to win friends, including, it would seem, his Master’s admiration.
So, what can we learn from this parable? It’s often said that we’re being taught to use money to win friends in heaven, that is, to give generously to the poor; for you to become benefactors so that the poor mendicants, like us Dominicans, can pray for you! And I wouldn’t want to contradict this sound principle, taught by some of the early Church Fathers. But, I think there is something more.
I was tempted to read the shorter version of today’s Gospel, which omits the parable of the prodigal son, because this parable had already been read on the 4th Sunday of Lent (10 March 2013). Then, we could just focus on the two shorter parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep. However, hearing the same parable twice within six months, and especially one as familiar and well-loved as this, offers us all a challenge, which is to look again at what Jesus says. We’re used to thinking that the prodigal son stands for all repentant sinners who will be joyfully welcomed and embraced by God. Hence, “there is joy… over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:10). And this is true. But what else might this parable reveal about God?
Let’s look again at its context. The parable is unique to St Luke’s gospel and it is being told as a response to how the Pharisees and scribes react when they see Jesus eating with allthe tax collectors and sinners (Lk 15:1). The Pharisees are scandalized, thinking that tax collectors were unclean sinners, and so, to be avoided, lest they too become unclean.
There is something of this sense of holiness as purity in the First Reading. God is far off on a high mountain, with Moses as his intermediary. God is unapproachable, almost as though to come close to sinners would contaminate him, or because mankind would be destroyed in the presence of the Holy One. Indeed, ideas about the necessary separation between the clean and unclean, the earth and the heavens, the material and the spiritual, holiness and sinners still persists even today. It sometimes gives rise to a kind of dualism that can foster deep feelings of ‘unworthiness’, or resentment about God and the Church, or the compartmentalization of faith from the rest of life.
But, in becoming Man, Jesus Christ reveals a deeper truth about God, about his relationship with creation, and the depths of his love and mercy. God doesn’t just relent and forgive as our First Reading says, but he goes in search of us as the first two parables of today’s Gospel shows. And in the third parable, that of the prodigal son, Jesus reveals just how extravagant God’s searching love is.
In fact this parable elaborates on what Jesus has done, which so provokes the Pharisees.
preached at a Youth Festival in Castlerigg Manor, Keswick
Jesus tells his disciples about his death and resurrection. But the response is a “great sadness”. Is it not the same for us? We may have heard the Easter story many times, and heard again and again that God loves us. But, then, when bad things happen; when we’re confronted by death, illness, and suffering, we’re overwhelmed by grief, filled with great sadness. Or, maybe we’ve been telling our friends about Jesus and what he’s done for them, but somehow, the message of the resurrection just doesn’t get through. So, we’re like the disciples in today’s Gospel. Jesus himself is telling them about his death and resurrection, and they respond with sadness. Why?
Maybe because the Resurrection has become like an abstract theory we just talk about, or a theological and philosophical problem to be solved. But it’s first of all a divine reality that needs to be experienced in our earthly lives. The Church, our parishes and communities, you and I need to have really experienced the Risen Lord Jesus if we’re to be authentic witnesses of the resurrection. If we’re to have faith in the resurrection, then we must experience something of what Easter is; we need to have touched the risen Lord just as St Thomas did on the Sunday after Easter. Like him, we need to have touched the Divine Mercy of God. And the people we reach out to must also be able to do this too: to come into contact with the Church, Christ’s Mystical Body, and through her – through us, you and me – to touch God’s mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and unfailing love. Only then will the resurrection we hear about and preach become something experienced; a love that brings joy in sorrow, comfort in distress, and hope in times of grief.
And where do we encounter this love? Where is Jesus’ death and resurrection revealed? How can we touch the Divine Mercy, the Body of Christ? In his recent letter, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis says that it is in the sacraments that we encounter God (cf §40). So, if we really want to come into contact with Christ, we need to pay attention to the sacraments, to the Liturgy and what God is doing here through visible signs.
It is especially in the Eucharist that Christ comes to us and gives himself to us. On Easter Sunday, the opening verses of the Mass are: “I have risen, and I am still with you”. For it is in the Mass that the Risen Lord is with us; he is the Living Bread which comes down from heaven. The first Mass, we recall, was celebrated on a night of deep sorrow, just before the Crucifixion and death of Christ, but, even then, it was full of the promise of the resurrection. So it is for us today. Our times of sorrow and grief can be lightened by the promise and comfort of the Resurrection, when Jesus comes to us in the Mass; Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.
So the Mass is firstly an experience of the Incarnation. Because, customarily Mankind is separated from God by our bodiliness; our mortality which brings with it human sickness, pain, and sorrow as well as its many pleasures and joys. But because he loves us so much, our God bridges this gap, becoming Man in Jesus Christ. The Immortal One shares our mortality, even to the point of suffering and dying for us, and with us. So, we hear in the Mass: “This is my Body, which will be given up for you”.
But God does even more. Christ’s incarnation and death on the Cross bridges an even greater gap which is the alienation between God and Man caused by sin. For even when Jesus suffers the violence, hatred and destruction of humanity’s sin, his love for sinful Man is not extinguished. No, God’s love rises from the grave, and Jesus befriends us, inviting his disciples – you and me – to touch his wounded side. Such divine mercy; such trust in humanity’s goodness; such undying love is what redeems us, and gives us new life. To touch the Divine Mercy, which is what we do when Jesus entrusts himself to us in Holy Communion, is to experience the resurrection, and to live anew in the love and friendship of God. Ultimately, this is an experience of being forgiven, of being loved, and so, being allowed to love in return. Hence St John Chrysostom says: “Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave”.
But we live in an unforgiving world, and mercy is all too rare. Even in the Church, this can sometimes seem to be the case. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, if, without an experience of God’s mercy and love, our message of Easter faith doesn’t bring joy but indifference or even sorrow! People react like the disciples today: they hear but they do not understand because they have not seen and experienced the resurrection.
Which is why our Holy Father keeps reminding us, especially if we’re to newly evangelize our communities and nation, that we need to be agents of God’s love and mercy. But first we need to have experienced it for ourselves. So, go to Christ in the sacraments, in confession and in the Eucharist. Come, and, as Pope Francis says: “Let us be renewed by God’s mercy, let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives too; and let us become agents of this mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish.”
So, today’s First Reading calls us to love God, and to “love the stranger” and to “see justice done for the orphan and the widow”. This means, like Christ, our God who came to be with us, we’re called to go to the margins, to love those we find strange and difficult, to befriend the alienated. As Pope Francis says: “We shouldn’t just wait for the wounded to come to us, we need to go out and search for them”. So, we Christians are members of God’s ‘search and rescue team’, and God wants us to become executors of his justice for the orphan and widow.
Yes, literally, but also, consider: so many of our contemporaries, our peers, our friends, are orphaned, because they do not know the love of God as their Father. And our contemporaries are widows, too, for so many in our society think that God is dead. God, who has wedded himself to Man through Jesus Christ, they think is dead. But he isn’t. As Jesus says: “they will put him to death, and on the third day he will be raised to life again”.
So, we are called to be witnesses to the resurrection; called to show our contemporaries that Jesus is risen, that God is alive! All people will know this, and have the joy of Easter when they touch God’s divine mercy. When, through us – through how we treat others and live together – they experience a new life, a new civilization, a holy communion arising from forgiveness, compassion, and unfailing love.
A couple of years ago when we were making our Province’s vocations video, the filmmakers asked me if I had any photos to illustrate the compassion of St Dominic, say, in healing miracles. I trawled through hundreds of photos but could find no healing miracles as such. So, we used the one image I had – and not a very clear one, at that – of St Dominic raising a dead man to life! If any of you get bored to death by this sermon we might need his help again. But St Dominic, to be honest, was not really well-known for his healing miracles – not in his lifetime, anyway – unlike St Martin de Porres, for example.
However, after his death, many went to St Dominic’s tomb in Bologna, and were healed. But the brethren were typically incredulous until a bishop got them to move his body to a more accessible shrine in 1233. For Dominic was making good his deathbed promise to be of more help to his brethren than he had been in his lifetime, interceding for them from heaven and healing many people. Hence, the responsory we sang last night at Vespers, ‘O spem miram' reminds our father Dominic of his promise to help us because he was “famed for healing sick bodies by so many miraculous signs”. It is fitting, then, that on this feast which recalls St Dominic's death – his birth into heaven on 6 August 1221 – we should ask for his intercession, and pray with and for our sick.
But the ‘O spem miram' makes a challenging request of our holy father Dominic for the able-bodied friars, and indeed, for the whole Dominican family. We sang: “Bring us the help of Christ to heal our sick mores”, that is our behaviour, our ways, or our moral actions. Really, this is a prayer for reform, for the grace of being more authentically converted to Christ, which is the focus of the Year of Faith, and, indeed, the hope of any genuine pilgrimage; that we may journey nearer to Jesus, the health or salus, ‘salvation’, of our whole being, body and soul.
This idea of on-going conversion and reform, of moving closer to Christ animates today’s Gospel. And the bar is set high – the commandments will not be relaxed – so that we will continue to strive throughout our lives. But if we are discouraged or wearied by this constant striving for Christian perfection, then something is wrong. Because we will always be inadequate for the task. Rather, as the ‘O spem miram' says, we need “the help of Christ”, and we ask St Dominic to intercede for us that we may receive that help, that grace from Christ to carry on our Christian journey, travelling upon Christ, who is the Way. Thus, Jesus says: “I have come… to fulfill” the commandments (Mt 5:17); not you, not me, but he. He fulfills the commandments, and we will do so with Christ, united to him by his grace and loving mercy. This is our prayer today. So, the call to reform and conversion is a call for us poor sinners, this “band of poor ones” as the Gospel acclamation put it, to readily turn to Christ for mercy and healing, and to cling to him in ever-deeper love.
If we do, then he will use us as salt and as light, and in the process draw us closer to himself. The doctor applies salt, or a saline solution, to sterilize wounds and prevent infection. So, the Divine Physician uses us in his work of healing the world. Through good works, through our solidarity with the sick and suffering, through our being here in Lourdes, we are being salt. But, as the salt is applied to the wound to prevent its spread, so we Dominicans are especially to be applied to those places where our world and our Church is wounded. Through dialogue we hope to foster healing and wholeness, to prevent the gangrene that would give rise to schism and amputation from the Body of Christ. St Dominic famously conversed with an Albigensian innkeeper all night, and this incident was, essentially, the start of the Order. But in order to bring the innkeeper closer to Christ, so as to be healed by Truth, Dominic needed patience, courage, wisdom, persistence, and humility. These virtues are what makes the salt tasty, appetizing, or indeed, wise, as the Greek text of the Gospel indicates. So, we pray that through St Dominic’s intercession God will give us the same ‘saltiness’ so that many will come “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).
What about light? Well, the Light of the world wants us to be his rays penetrating into the dark places of our world, our human condition. So, through our Faith in Christ, our joy and humour in community life, and our quest for the light of Truth through study – all aspects of a Dominican Pilgrimage, I hope – we are being shiny. We shine so that others can be drawn out of the isolation and darkness cast by sin and error into the brightness of Christ’s Truth; a light which shows that God is love, mercy, and communion. Thus, St Dominic had a love and concern for the common life of the brethren and nuns, a cheerful disposition, and an attention to study – but never at the expense of pastoral care for the poor and suffering. So, we pray that the life and mission of the Order may, likewise, “give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16b).
For Dominic glorified God in this life and from heaven. For in his lifetime he healed many of their spiritual wounds by teaching Christ’s saving Truth, and after his death, he saved many from physical illness by miracles of healing. Thus he carries out the Order’s mission of “preaching and the salvation of souls”, bringing salvation, salus, that is health, wholeness and well-being for the whole person, body and soul. So, he is fittingly called “Doctor Veritatis”; doctor of Truth; teacher of Christ.
Therefore, we, who are all sick in some sense, turn to this doctor today and say: “Fulfill, O holy father Dominic, what you have promised, and aid us by your prayers. Bring us the grace of Christ that converts, reforms and heals our lives”.
- preached at a retreat focussed on the Encyclical, Lumen Fidei
Prayer is fundamentally an act of faith, and we exercise that faith by praying, that is, by asking, seeking, and knocking. This does not mean simply asking for whatever we want and expecting God to do as he’s told. Rather, it means having persistent confidence in God’s ability to grant whatever we ask, but at the same time, trusting that God is our loving Father, who will always give to us, his children, whatever he chooses for our greatest good. So, we should pray persistently, asking God always for what we need.
But it is likely that God, who knows all things and always wills the best for us, will answer our prayers in ways we don’t expect, that are more creative than our solutions, and that bring about our deepest joy and greater freedom. Or sometimes, we have pray persistently because it is thus that we learn what we truly desire. For what we see in our First Reading is an extraordinary dialogue between God and Abraham. As he seems to bargain with God, there is, in fact, a testing of Abraham’s faith and of his desires, so that, through prayer, Man learns to ask for what humanity truly needs, which is to see God’s justice and mercy, to experience compassion and love. And God does answer humanity’s longing for mercy, not immediately. Not even definitively through Abraham, but through Christ. Because it is when Christ becomes Man, and hangs on the Cross, that we see God acting most perfectly to save the whole world – every sinner. And he does so for the sake of just one righteous Man: Jesus Christ. For Christ is God’s final answer to Abraham’s prayers, and indeed, the prayers of every human person.
As we read in Lumen Fidei: “the life of Jesus now appears as the locus of God’s definitive intervention, the supreme manifestation of his love for us. The word which God speaks to us in Jesus is not simply one word among many, but his eternal Word (cf. Heb 1:1-2). God can give no greater guarantee of his love, as Saint Paul reminds us (cf. Rom 8:31-39)” (§15).
So, when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, they are asking to share in his perfect confidence in God’s love, to enter into that same relationship of love that is between the Son and the Father. Hence, Jesus teaches us that prayer is an act of faith, of trusting in the Father’s love and care for us. And we can rely on God because he has given us his Son, who offered himself on the Cross for the salvation of all. So, Pope Francis says: “Christ’s total self-gift overcomes every suspicion and enables me to entrust myself to him completely [and] Christ’s death discloses the utter reliability of God’s love above all in the light of his resurrection” (Lumen Fidei, §16, 17).
As such, our Christian faith is a resurrection faith. This means that we trust in God’s activity in the world and in our lives, with the sure and certain hope that our God of Love is bringing good to fruition, even when things seem difficult and challenging. For Jesus reveals that ours is a God of the Living, a God who brings Life out of death, and whose creative Love is more powerful and liberating than sin, evil and suffering. There are many questions that we and our contemporaries may have, but faith means that we trust that Jesus Christ shines a light on these difficulties, and that in him – in his life, death, and resurrection, we find an answer to the deepest longings and questions of humanity. Hence, Lumen Fidei says: “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light” (§57).
So, we need to continue to seek those answers by remaining close to Christ and contemplating his life and words, putting our questions to him, with the confidence that he will bring light to our darkness - not instantly, but in God’s good time. This requires of us a patient endurance, a contemplative hope like Our Lady’s, waiting for God’s to reveal his good plan in time. And as Pope Francis says: “time propels [us] towards the future and encourages us to go forward in hope”.
And we have this hope because of what Jesus, who is Truth and Love, has promised us: “The one who asks always receives; the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will always have the door opened to him”. So, let us turn to him in persistent prayer, asking, seeking, knocking. May the door of Faith be opened even wider for us so that we may enter, through it, into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.