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.
Faith is never something just personal and private. It is always communal and relational, and so, we see today that faith in the resurrection requires that we trust the eyewitness account of another; believe in the testimony of other people. But it seems that this might involve believing the sort of people one might not usually trust or consider reliable.
For as the Holy Father reminded us recently, “according to the Jewish Law of the time [of Christ], women… were not considered reliable, credible witnesses”. Yet Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene. And she wasn’t just any woman, but one who had been in the grip of demons – addicted, lost, and desperate – and so, probably doubly-excluded. And what about the two disciples in the countryside? Their testimony was admitted by the Law. But these were two men who were fleeing in despair, overcome by what they’d thought was the defeat and failure of Jesus. One might say they were cowards who’d abandoned the rest of the group in Jerusalem. But Jesus appeared to them too. Jesus chose these people – the disregarded, the weak, and the marginalized; those whom one might well dismiss, distrust, and begrudge – as the first eyewitnesses to God’s greatest work.
Why? Because faith in God is founded on faith in other people, on a relationship of truth and friendship between people. So, when our human relationships breakdown and become dysfunctional, faith in God becomes very difficult, or risks becoming completely individualistic, a projection of mere self-belief. But faith, and especially faith in the resurrection, requires that we believe others, trust in a community of witnesses. And so, the risen Lord reconciles and heals the brokenness of our human relationships by first appearing to those who are in some way excluded and unwanted. Thus, it becomes necessary, if we’re to have faith in the resurrection and participate in its grace, to trust, value and listen to every human person, beginning with those who are considered least in our world.
However, sometimes our faith in others is lost because of the wounds inflicted on us by some others, including members of our community, our Church. We can no longer trust such people, and perhaps the other disciples felt this way about the two who had left them to flee to Emmaus. But, again and again this week, when Jesus appears, he tells his disciples to see and to touch his wounds. This requires great trust, of course, but moreover, to ask the very people who had in some way caused those wounds to do this requires mercy and forgiveness. And thus, the risen Lord heals and transforms our fractured human relationships by first forgiving us, teaching us to be merciful, to avoid hardness of heart, and, so, to forgive others as we have been forgiven. In this way, we come to experience the peace of the resurrection.
Forgiveness, mercy, and faith in humanity, which includes all in God’s risen life, is the new-ness of the resurrection that we are invited to believe in. So, our resurrection faith is never merely private and personal but is always communal and relational because it elicits my trusting another, forgiving others, and loving my brothers and sisters; faith in Christ’s resurrection transforms me and transforms our world through a new belief in people, through friendship. Isn’t this what the Lord desires when he says to us: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation”? (Mk 16:15)
God, who is pure Act, does not ever rest because he sustains the universe, and holds all that is in being. If God ever rested, so to speak, all existence would cease! Hence, the rabbis understood that the language in Genesis about God resting on the Sabbath is just a figure of speech; an encouragement for humanity to rest so that we are not enslaved to our work but are mindful to take time to maintain our relationship with God and neighbour. But, fundamentally speaking, God is always at work, acting to sustain all that is. Only God is exempt from keeping the Sabbath.
This doctrine of creation, and this divine exemption from the Sabbath rest is what Jesus has in mind when he says: “My Father is working still, and I am working” (Jn 5:17). It’s a breathtaking statement of his divinity, his equality with God. No wonder the Jews are shocked.
Moreover, as evidence that God worked on the Sabbath, the rabbis pointed to the fact that people were born and died on the Sabbath. This is to say that God gave life and he gave judgement on the Sabbath. Jesus claims that he, as Son, also does these divine works. Hence, “the Son gives life to whom he will” and the Father “has given all judgement to the Son” (Jn 5:21f). These claims further intensify Jesus’ identification with the Father; Jesus is God.
But today’s discourse, of course, has to be seen in relation to yesterday’s Gospel, to the healing of the man who had been lame for thirty-eight years. It is this work that Jesus likens to the Father’s work on the Sabbath of giving life and judgement. For it is the work of the Son to bring life, too, but not in the same way as the Father does. Rather, the Son brings life by healing all that excludes us from communion, from life and love in community. So, after that lame man was healed, Jesus later found him in the Temple, in the hub of the Jewish community where he is reclaiming his place in society in relation to God and to his fellow Man. Indeed, that man was healed and freed by Christ so that he can do what the Sabbath demands, namely establish and maintain a just and good relationship with God and neighbour. As St Paul says: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).
The Pharisee raises himself up while simultaneously putting others down. This is typical human behaviour whenever we compare ourselves to other people, and it’s easy for any of us to fall into that trap. Many have been publicly doing so in response to recent events affecting our Archdiocese. But, if we must compare ourselves to others, maybe we should look to Christ. And then we shall recognize a fundamentally humbling truth about ourselves, about every human person, which is that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” as St Paul says to the Romans (3:23).
As such, every one of us needs to say: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. We have nothing to boast of, for any good we do is rooted in God’s grace, in his goodness. For God loves and saves us, and prompts us to good deeds, not because of who we are but because of who he is. God loves us because he is good, not because we are.
But, of course, we’re hesitant to look at Christ or even at the saints for comparison. We find ourselves making excuses and justifying why we’re not more like them. It’s much easier, much more comforting to compare ourselves with other people, especially notorious sinners. Because when we compare ourselves to Christ, we see the truth of who we really are. And this truth hurts, so that we might feel “torn to pieces” and “slaughtered… with the words from [God’s] mouth” (Hos 6:5), indeed, slaughtered by God’s Word of Truth, by Jesus Christ.
However, the truth will also set us free – free from illusions, from a false image of ourselves, and a stagnating self-righteousness and isolating pride. It is our false image that is being torn to pieces, and our false self that is being slaughtered so that we are restored to a true relationship with God and our neighbour. We are, after all, not so different from our fellow sinners. And we are all – I am – in need of God’s mercy. And this, too, is the work of God’s love. For only when he have a “humbled, contrite heart”, and stand before God in truth, as a sinner, can his Holy Spirit raise us up to new life. As Hosea says: “[God] will raise us up, that we may live before him” (6:2). God raises us all up, but only when our false selves have first been put down.
As the crocuses paint the Meadows with spring colour, and the spring flowers behind the altar bud forth, and the gentle rain soaks into the ground, we know that spring is approaching. Hosea uses the image of the return of spring as a sign of God’s love; it is a sign of hope. Ever faithful, no winter of human sin can be an obstacle to God’s love, and God renews his Covenant with Israel, with us, not because of who we are, or because we deserve it, but because of who God is.
God is a faithful and loving God, a merciful God whose generosity and goodness is like the spring, bringing life and colour where there is pallid cold and death. So, the Lord says: “I will heal their faithlessness; I will love them freely” (Hos 14:4). It is God’s divine initiative to love us and heal us despite what we have done and who we are.
And because God has first loved us, so, we can love him (cf 1 Jn 4:19). For loving God is a work of his grace, relying on his initiative. As Hosea says: “from me [God] comes your fruit” (Hos 14:8b). On our part, we only need to be open to God’s grace and love, like the soil that is receptive to the gentle soaking rain. As God’s grace imperceptibly seeps into our heart and his love warms it, so, what had been cold and dead through sin will gradually show signs of new life.
First, the tender shoots of understanding that strengthens in the light of the knowledge of God’s goodness to become the strong upright stem of the will, choosing to obey God’s commandments, which finally flowers in charity – active deeds of love for God and neighbour. Again, as the prophet says: “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them” (Hos 14:9).
So, during Lent, let us rejoice and be confident of the faithful love of God, and allow his grace to penetrate our hearts, for this is our springtime, a time of renewal, growth, and being strengthened in the Lord’s love.
In our trek across the Lenten desert today, we encounter not just one but two bushes. For the parable in today’s Gospel can be juxtaposed with our First Reading, which recounts Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. For the early Christians, the burning bush came to be seen as a symbol of the Virgin Mary, who was consumed by the fire of the Holy Spirit but whose virginity remained untouched. But, by co-operating with God’s grace, Our Lady became most fruitful, and she bore the most beautiful fruit of all: Jesus Christ.
In contrast, the parable presents a tree or bush which is barren; for three years it has produced no fruit at all. As such, it is fit only to be cut down and burnt up. This bush, I think, could well stand for us sinners if we do not co-operate with God’s grace. For although our loving God is ever-ready to save us from the barrenness of sin, God can only do so with us, and never without us. This means we have to engage our human freedom and act; we need to choose to co-operate with God’s grace.
This involves a change of heart, acknowledging our need of God’s forgiveness. Co-operating with grace entails repentance and willing a conversion of life that is made concrete in the sacramental means that God has chosen. And for some, this means will be as strange and as startling as the burning bush! But, it is the way that God has established. So, it is ordinarily in the sacrament of Confession that we truly encounter the living God (as Moses did), and we come into contact with God’s purifying fire; we are opened to his transforming grace, and receive his mercy and forgiveness. In the holy ground of the confessional, God says to each of us: “I have seen your affliction and heard your cry, and I am here to deliver you”. And, like Moses, we can choose to go to the Lord. Or we can choose to turn away and not co-operate with God’s grace, remaining fruitless. But if we go as Moses did, then we will see a great sight, and experience the wonders of God.
But the transforming work of God’s grace is often slow and gradual, and sometimes hard and messy, too. It is like gardening, and we have to repeatedly return to the confessional just as we repeatedly dig up and weed our gardens, and even, pile on the manure. So, in the Gospel parable, a gardener asks for a year’s reprieve for the barren tree. Here, I’d suggest that the gardener is the divine Vinedresser, God himself, and the year given for the barren tree to bear fruit is our lifetime. As such, each day of our lives is God’s grace-filled time, in which he patiently cares for us and coaxes fruit from our barren, sinful state.
God’s desire and plan is that, over a lifetime’s co-operation with his grace through repeatedly using the sacrament of reconciliation, we, the barren bush would become a burning bush. For, as we co-operate with grace, the Holy Spirit will inflame us with charity, divine love. And God’s grace is a holy fire that does not consume and destroy our human nature. Rather, grace perfects us and elevates our humanity. The result of co-operating with God’s grace is that we will flourish as human beings and flower in virtue, so that, we too, like Our Lady, will bear that most wonderful fruit, Jesus Christ. For grace transforms us so that we become Christ-like, partakers in the beauty and being of God.
Spring is a time for gardening, so, Lent (coming from the Old English word for spring) focuses our minds on God’s cultivation of grace in our hearts, and the vital role of confession in that, so that we are fruitful. The journey towards holiness, of course, takes not just forty days but the entire ‘year’ of our lives. But none of us knows how long that – our lifespan – will be. So, in the time we have, each precious day, let us make good use of the means God gives us, the sacraments, to receive his mercy and forgiveness, and to grow in his love.
- preached to the Edinburgh Cathedral Divine Mercy Group
Every instance of mercy in the world is a co-operation with God, a revelation of his provident activity and presence in creation. We don’t know, at the time, what will become of our response to the soft gentle promptings of God’s grace, but we get caught up in Providence, in the movement of God’s love and mercy that is bringing the world to its consummation, to final salvation. So, whenever we co-operate with grace, we are participating in some way in God’s work of salvation, co-labourers in his vineyard.
So it is that Joseph is saved from the jealous hatred and ruthlessness of his brothers by Reuben who was only just brave enough to step up and suggest a more merciful action on the part of his brothers: “Shed no blood”. Thus, Joseph would become God’s instrument for the salvation of Jacob and his sons from famine, and from this house of Israel came the Messiah, the Saviour of us all. Caught up in this great divine plan of salvation was Reuben and his small act of mercy. He didn’t dare to oppose his brothers outright, and indeed, he planned to deceive them, but this openness to grace, however small, was enough for Providence to act, and to bring good out of evil.
But as God brings good out of evil, then, out of goodness itself, out of a will totally given to God, which freely co-operates with the Holy Spirit, God does so much more – he transforms the entire world. This is what the life and death of Christ exemplifies, for from the total self-offering of Christ, from his perfect obedience, God raises up a new creation and breaks the reign of violence, sin and death. As the psalm quoted by Jesus says; “This was the Lord’s doing and it is wonderful to see”.
Hence, we can take heart this Lent. For, although we may feel that we often fail and are so stingy in giving ourselves to God, he can bring good out of the little that we offer him. He gives us freedom so that whatever we freely offer to God, however small, or even mixed in motive, he will purify, bless, and increase, associating us with his great work of salvation; of mercy and of love, which exceeds anything we can imagine. But if he can do such good with so little, imagine what God can accomplish if we give him our whole hearts, our life and our will?
Christ is the Bridegroom of his Church, the lover of every human soul, and he gives himself to his Church for her protection, cherishing her, clothing her, loving her, and dying for her on the Cross. As St Paul says: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). As Bridegroom, Christ gives us an example of sacrificial love. And it is this example that we’re to follow when he is no longer physically visible on earth; when the Bridegroom is, in a sense, taken from his Bride after his ascension into heaven.
Because every one of us, as Christians, have been anointed as types of Christ, baptised into union with him. So, each of us is called, in some sense, to be the Bridegroom, lovers of every human person. Now that the Bridegroom is taken from us, it is you and I, his disciples, who are called to be Christ in the world, to embody God’s love, mercy, and compassion to all people. For this is what fasting entails. Not giving up food, or just some other creature comfort as such, but to love as Christ, the Bridegroom loves – sacrificially.
Hence, as Isaiah says, we’re called “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke… to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh…” And this last phrase, “your own flesh” is reminiscent of marriage, wherein “two shall become one flesh”. St Paul thus says, in an echo of Isaiah, that “no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body” (Eph 5:29f).
So, through our union with Christ in baptism, through our membership in his Body, we’re called to protect, cherish, clothe, and love other people sacrificially; to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mk 12:31) for “no man ever hates his own flesh.” This, then, is what our Lenten fast is about – not just sacrificing those things we enjoy, but to learn to enjoy sacrificing for others, that is, to learn to love like Jesus, the Bridegroom loves the Church, his Bride; to learn to love other people with our bodies.
For as Saint Teresa of Ávila said:
“Christ has no body now but yours No hands, no feet on earth but yours Yours are the eyes through which He looks compassion on this world Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world Yours are the hands Yours are the feet Yours are the eyes You are His body Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
It is sometimes said that Christianity is a “religion of the book”, that our faith is founded on the Bible, which is the word of God. But this isn’t entirely accurate. The Word of God, properly speaking, is not a book but a person, the Risen One who is thus “living and active” (Heb 4:12). So, Christianity is about following the person of Christ; our faith is founded on Jesus, the eternal Word incarnate. As St Bernard said: “Christianity is the “religion of the word of God”, not of “a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word”.
The very beginning of Hebrews speaks of this incarnation of the Word: “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son” (1:2). The letter then picks this theme up again, speaking of the “good news” spoken to God’s people of Israel and also to us [cf 4:2], but “the Word which they [the people of Israel] heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith” (4:2b). So, we are exhorted to do differently: to believe in the Word, in Jesus Christ, to obey him, and, so, to enter into God’s rest (cf 4:3, 11).
But Hebrews also says that this Word of God judges us, searches us, and knows us intimately; we are “laid bare” before him. This would be frightening were it not that Jesus, because he is just and because he knows us so well, also knows what we long for, what humanity needs. Ultimately, what the restless human heart desires is to rest in God. What the sick need is a doctor; sinners need a Saviour. Hence we’re exhorted to believe in Christ who is the Saviour and Physician given to us by God. We’re exhorted to obey him and take the medicine prescribed, namely, to enter into communion with him, to enter and rest in him, in his “living and active” Body, the Church. For is it not here, through the Church and her sacraments, that we “may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16)?
Recently, I’ve been to watch Les Misérables the movie a second time, and I would recommend it to you. Some words sung by the saintly Bishop seem to sum up the message of God’s Word, and of his holy Church, whose duty is to continue Christ’s mission of healing and mercy so that we can enter into God’s eternal rest. He says: “There is wine here to revive you, there is bread to make you strong, there’s a bed to rest ‘til morning – rest from pain and rest from wrong”.
I recently mentioned in conversation that someone I knew refused to have medical check-ups or see the GP (General Practitioner); he hadn’t seen one for almost 20 years. I know someone else – a family member, actually – who refuses to see the dentist, preferring tooth decay, and waiting for his tooth to fall out rather than to seek medical help! Both these approaches, I think we’d agree, are somewhat irresponsible but perhaps we can be sympathetic and accept that they stem from some kind of irrational fear. Nevertheless, such fear needs to be confronted and gently and gradually overcome, for the sake of a greater good, namely, bodily health and dental hygiene. But if this is advisable for our bodily health, what about our spiritual health?
In the Sacrament of Confession, Christ is our healer; the confessional is his clinic and surgery. He invites us to come to him, and he desires that we should go to him in Confession, like those crowds in the Gospel, for his healing and forgiveness. In Christ’s response to the mother-in-law of Simon, we see how he treats us if we go to him. At once, he stretches out his hand to lift us up. This is a hand of friendship, of compassion, and of mercy; he wants to help us up. And then, when we are raised up from sin, completely forgiven in the sacrament of anything we confess, we are empowered by God’s grace to serve others, that is, to love and obey Christ, and to love our neighbour.
But even if we’re not sick, not suffering because of serious, or mortal sin, we’re encouraged by the Church to go regularly, as we would for medical check-ups, and confess our everyday faults. As the Catechism says: “The regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit” (CCC 1458). So, regular and frequent Confession keeps us spiritually healthy, and I would recommend at least once a month.
However, it may be that some people are still reluctant to use this Sacrament. It cannot be because of impeccability. Because as St Paul says: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Hence, St John says: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8). So, perhaps, it is because of some previous bad experience, or fear of the sacrament. This is perfectly understandable; I feel a little worried, too, sometimes, when I go to Confession as a penitent. But, as with the fear of the GP or the dentist, this fear (or whatever the obstacle is) has to be confronted and gently and gradually overcome, for the sake of a greater good, namely, our spiritual health and our eternal salvation.
And today’s reading from Hebrews offers us some perspective and encouragement. It tells us that “because [Christ] himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” (2:18). This is what he longs to do for us in the sacrament of Confession: to help us, to heal us of sin’s fever, and innoculate us with his grace. And if Christ has been tempted so that he can be sympathetic, this is even more true for the priest who is not only tempted but is in fact, like everyone else also a poor sinner, also in need of Christ’s forgiveness, and who also finds himself, often, on the other side of the confessional as a penitent. The Catechism reminds the priest, as such, that he is “not the master of God’s forgiveness, but its servant” (CCC 1466). Thus, like Simon’s mother-in-law, we priests have also been given Christ’s hand of friendship, raised up by God’s mercy from sin, so that we can serve God and serve you, our brothers and sisters, by being instruments of “God’s merciful love for the sinner” (CCC 1465) in the sacrament of Confession.
Walking on water is what God does. So, too, is drawing the nations to himself by a divine light, and healing, and feeding the people in the wilderness, as we’ve been hearing in the Gospels since Sunday. All these epiphanies, which are the focus of the Lectionary in this last week of Christmastide, are based on what the people of God expected God to do when he manifested himself. Thus, Jesus reveals himself to be God through a well-established language of divine signs and activities. And the implication of the Evangelist is that had the disciples been attentive to these signs they would have recognized him immediately as the One who “tramples the waves of the sea” as Job had put it (9:8).
Except that we often don’t see what we do not expect. How often have I walked past a parishioner, and because I am not in my habit, they just do not recognize me! But, more significantly, no one had expected God to share our human nature, to be born in a manger, to eat and drink with sinners. So, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, God spoke an unfamiliar language and gave us unexpected signs. These were signs that revealed God to be perfect love, a love that casts out all terror and says to sinful humanity (who has reason to fear God) these awesome words of mercy, compassion and love: “Take heart, it is I; have no fear” (Mk 6:50).
The most perfect of these signs, of course, is Calvary. There, God does what nobody ever expected God to do. So, he astounds us by showing the whole world that suffering and dying for the sake of sinful Man is what God does. It is an epiphany, indeed, a wondrous theophany, for Christ reveals on the Cross that God is love – long-suffering, patient, merciful, humble, all-forgiving Love.