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.
- preached to the Lay Dominican Fraternity in Edinburgh
Today we speak, rather unusually, of St Thomas and mean, not our brother Aquinas, but the apostle who first brought the Faith to Syria and Persia and then India; to this day Keralan Christians, still happily flourishing, are also called ‘Thomas Christians’. The Church in Syria, too, has survived until now and until recently Syria had, reputedly, the only village to still speak the mother tongue of Christ, Aramaic. But, it seems, no longer. The ancient Christian community in Syria is struggling now for its survival, and in the persecuted Christian communities of the Middle East, the Body of Christ is bleeding, wounded and raw.
We can see, if we choose to look on the internet – or occasionally in the mainstream Media when they’re interested – the wounds in Christ’s Mystical Body, the “print of the nails” (cf Jn 20:25), so to speak, imprinted in Syria and Iraq, as well as the former lands of Persia. These lands, which St Thomas had once evangelized, and so, united to the Body of Christ, are now scarred by persecution.
As Dominicans, we have even more reason to know this pain and suffering because we have family, brothers and sisters in St Dominic, who are trying to live out their Dominican vocation in Syria, in Iraq; indeed, they are trying to survive. You who will make profession tonight as lay Dominicans, or even you who will become a candidate, a ‘novice’, are joined to them.
In the words of St Paul, “you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens” (Eph 2:19) – a fitting enough word, I suppose, given the oft-cited ‘democracy’ of our Order. But if you are no longer strangers, then ‘they’, those around the world who share your profession are no longer just ‘them’, either; not strangers any more but fellow Dominicans, brothers and sisters in St Dominic and, more fundamentally, in Christ. The blood that flows in our veins, as Christians, flows in theirs too: the precious blood of Christ. And Christ’s blood, now, doesn’t just flow but bleeds out from the wounds in his Body the Church, our Body.
The first challenge for us today, then, is to, as it were, see the wound in Christ’s side and put our finger in it (cf Jn 20:27). Many in our world, tired and perplexed, would turn their faces away, but we Dominicans must look and see the suffering of our brothers and sisters; must feel the pain and tragedy of the situation; and we need to be wounded by the injustice and outrage of what is happening to our fellow Christians – and not just in the Middle East but all over the world. As Pope Francis said recently, there are more martyrs and persecuted Christians in our day than at any other time in history. Only when we truly feel the enormity of what is happening can we be moved enough to act for justice and peace, both through socio-political action and through ardent prayer.
And because we pray and are a people of faith, we also believe that nothing is beyond our Lord and God’s power to save and raise up, even if from the grave. The situation in Syria and Iraq is grave, and we may well not see the way forward. But Jesus says: “Do not be faithless, but believing” (Jn 20:27). At this time, then, we Christians are called to join with our persecuted brothers and sisters in a great act of faith and hope: to pray unfailingly. For we believe that although Christ died and was buried, he rose from the dead. For God did not allow the Body of Christ to suffer decay but he was raised to new life. Can not the same be said for Christ’s Mystical Body? God will also vindicate Christ’s Church in Persia, in Iraq, in Syria, and so on. Christ’s Mystical Body will rise from the dead, with the scars from the many wounds inflicted on her members in these places, but she will be, ultimately, victorious, forgiving, and bring peace.
For this is what the apostle St Thomas was a witness to. “Peace be with you”, the Risen Lord said (Jn 20:26). So, this was the Gospel that Thomas first preached in those lands: a Gospel of hope in the resurrection; a Gospel of peace through Christ’s saving death; a Gospel of the final triumph of divine love. May this Gospel sustain our brothers and sisters in faith and hope. May it move us Dominicans to action on their behalf, as a ‘holy preaching’ for the salvation of souls, and may St Thomas – both of them! – pray for us all.
As we heard in yesterday’s first reading, king Joash, in his youth, was quite a rebel. Indeed, he made possible the overthrow of the idolatrous queen Athaliah and, together with the priest Jehoida, returned Judah to the worship of God. But now, decades later, Joash has lost the rebelliousness of youth, and he goes with the flow. Despite the advice from another young rebel, Zechariah ben Jehoida, the king capitulates to the majority view, wrong though it is, and so, Judah lapses back into idolatry which is the cause of its downfall.
Today’s saint who died at the young age of 23 in 1591, also tells of the rebelliousness of youth. Like the young king Joash he rebelled against the spirit of his age to turn to God, to truth and a life of virtue. As the heir to a Mantuan noble family, he was being prepared for warfare and political intrigue even from the age of 4. But from the age of 7 he would rise early to say the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and many other prayers and devotions which he’d learnt from St Charles Borromeo and St Robert Bellarmine, both great reforming saints of his time whom he’d met. Soon, he began teaching catechism classes to younger children, and it was clear that he disliked the courtly life of his time. So, he rebelled against his parents’ wishes; he rebelled against the military life and politicking that was expected of a nobleman; he rebelled against the sinful conventions of his time and embraced God and virtue. He told his family he wanted to become a missionary priest. Thus he wanted to serve God alone, and not money or any other worldly thing (cf Mt 6:24f).
But his parents tried all kinds of ways to persuade him otherwise, including getting bishops to try and dissuade him, and sending him on an 18-month tour of Europe so he could see what he was missing out on. But St Aloysius was adamant, and at the age of 17 he renounced his inheritance and went to Rome to join the Jesuits. His father gave in, and said in his letter to the Jesuit Provincial that he was handing over “the most precious thing I possess in all the world”.
However, St Aloysius’ rebellion was not only societal, and did not only challenge the mindset of his times. His rebellion was also personal, and it touches humanity in every age because it was about our passions. From the age of 9, St Aloysius vowed perpetual virginity to God. Now, every adolescent knows the temptations of the flesh, and St Aloysius, it seemed, was no exception. His own writings showed that, like any teenager, he experienced strong sexual passions, but unlike most adolescents, he did not give in to them. The majority in our world would have us think that abstinence and virginity and chastity is impossible. But this is what St Paul, in his letter to another young man, St Titus, called being “slaves to various passions and pleasures” (Titus 3:3). In our time, especially, many young people – and the not so young – experience enslavement to pornography. And this, too, is a serving of a master other than God.
St Aloysius, then, inspires all with his youthful rebelliousness against the slavery of sin and unchastity. For true freedom comes from having the courage and strength to go against one’s own sinful desires and to do what is right and pleasing to God; to have God alone as Master. Hence, St Aloysius undertook significant acts of penance like fasting and sleeping in a cold room on the hard floor, and he continued a life of deep prayer. For the work of sanctification, of giving one’s whole life and being to God, is only possible through discipling one’s will so that one co-operates with God’s grace, and learns to live a life worthy of our Christian vocation. For this reason, St Aloysius is patron saint of youth who teaches us that penance – the disciplining of our desires – is necessary if we’re to live chastely, that is, if we’re to love whole-heartedly and purely.
Hence, unlike king Joash, St Aloysius never turned away from God but through penance clung to God and his ways. Thus, he did not suffer a tragic downfall but rather rose to heights of holiness through works of charity and self-sacrifice. For St Aloysius eventually died as a result of heroically nursing plague victims in Rome. For this reason he is also patron saint of both of AIDS sufferers and their caregivers.
So, St Aloysius’ is the kind of holy rebelliousness that I think Pope Francis had in mind when he told millions of youth at World Youth Day last summer to make a “lìo”, a disturbance, a noise in our society. May he pray for us, for all young people, and for his brother Jesuits that we may rebel against sin and serve God as our one Master.
With language that is strongly reminiscent of the Song of Songs, the prophet Hosea closes with a love song, a passionate plea from God for Israel to return to him. There is something almost plaintive about the way God appeals to his Beloved people. But God is not just speaking to Israel. Today, he speaks to every human soul, to you and to me. For God is in love with Mankind.
As such, St Catherine of Siena called God a “mad Lover”, and she said to him: “Are you indeed in need of your creature? It seems to me you are for you behave as if you could not live without her… Why then are you so mad? Because you have fallen in love with what you have made! You are pleased and delighted over her within yourself, as if you were drunk for her salvation. She runs for you and you go looking for her. She strays and you draw closer to her. You clothed yourself in our humanity and nearer than that you could not have come”. So, the ultimate sign of God’s mad love for us is the Incarnation, which we celebrated on Tuesday, the feast of the Annunciation.
We need to dwell on this beautiful mystery; to marvel in God’s mad love for us, and to know in faith that Christ’s Incarnation is prolonged in the Eucharist. For our “mad Lover” clothes himself not just in our humanity, but even in bread and wine so that he can come so close to us, and be intimately united to us. This is the total love of God for us, that he gives us his whole Self – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – in the holy Eucharist.
Lent, which comes from the Old English word for Spring, is thus a time for us to listen for God’s love song again; a time to allow the divine Lover to woo us and seduce us; a time to soak up God’s grace, which falls like gentle dew so that we will “blossom as the lily” (Hos 14:5) and “flourish as a garden” (Hos 14:7). Lent is thus an opportune season to revel and grow in God’s love, which is why the feast of the Annunciation fittingly (often) falls in our Lenten springtime, to remind us of this. Praying before the Eucharist, coming to Mass, meditating on the Incarnation: these are ways to contemplate that ours is a God who loves us with his whole heart, his soul, his mind and strength.
Only when we know this can we love God in return. Only when we know God’s abiding love for us can we love ourselves. And only then can we love our neighbour too. It’s often said that the Lenten exercises of prayer, fasting and almgiving are about loving God, loving ourselves, and loving our neighbour. And this is true. But first of all – and we can never have enough of this – Lent invites us to pray and come here to Mass so that, as Hosea says, God can “heal [our] faithlessness [and] love [us] freely”. We are here to be loved.
Do you know others who are not here, who long for love? Then call them to come: Come here to Christ in the Eucharist; come here to be loved. As Pope Francis says: “[M]ay this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to… the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ”. For this is how we can love our neighbour as ourselves: by bringing others here so that they can know and experience the love of Jesus Christ too.
Jesus reveals Satan’s tactics to us today. The strategy of demons, that is, of those fallen angels who have permanently rebelled against God, is to divide and conquer. For they know, as Jesus affirms, that “every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste” (Lk 11:17). Hence, the Devil is called in Greek diabolos, which comes from the verb diaballo, meaning to divide, to cause confusion, and so, to lie. So, the demons divide and conquer us by lying, as we saw the Serpent do to Eve and Adam. And by sowing confusion and doubt concerning God’s authority and goodness and wisdom, again, as the Serpent did in Eden.
Only yesterday, we heard how Moses extolled the wisdom and goodness of God revealed in his Law. As such, the Law was a mark of God’s closeness and intimacy to his people, of his loving care for Israel. And yet, as Jeremiah says today, Israel repeatedly doubted the wisdom and goodness of God’s Law, and instead, they “walked in their own counsels… and went backward and not forward” (Jer 7:24). The temptation, then, for each of us to turn from God and distrust him is ever present because the demons are ever watchful to do this, to deceive, to divide us, and so to conquer.
Hence, so many things – a myriad temptations – distract and divide us; our attention is scattered and unfocussed, and our desires are jumbled and confused. As Pope Francis said in Lumen Fidei, “Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: ‘Put your trust in me!’” (§13). Any good thing, any pleasure, any person becomes an idol if it is preferred over God; if we believe that they promise a happiness, a satisfaction, a peace that can, ultimately, only be found in God. As Pope Benedict said to young Catholics in Scotland in 2010: “There are many temptations placed before you every day - drugs, money, sex, pornography, alcohol - which the world tells you will bring you happiness, yet these things are destructive and divisive”. Hence, these temptations divide us, and conquers us, so that the heart is turned away from God, and becomes stubborn and evil, as Jeremiah says (cf. 7:24).
Which is why we need this season of grace, this time of Lent, to recollect ourselves. Or rather, we need Jesus to gather that which is scattered (cf Lk 11:23). So, Pope Benedict said: “There is only one thing which lasts: the love of Jesus Christ personally for each one of you. Search for him, know him and love him, and he will set you free from slavery to the glittering but superficial existence frequently proposed by today’s society”.
During Lent, then, we search for Christ. We want to know him better and love him more, so as to be gathered with him in a pure and undivided, un-scattered, heart. How? The Catechism, citing St Augustine, says: “‘Pure in heart’ refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith. There is a connection between purity of heart, of body, and of faith: The faithful must believe the articles of the Creed “so that by believing they may obey God, by obeying may live well, by living well may purify their hearts, and with pure hearts may understand what they believe.” (CCC 2518).
As those who are preparing for baptism at Easter typically receive the Creed in this week of Lent it is fitting that we, the Baptised, are reminded of this too so that we may be gathered into the unity of Christ and his Mystical Body the Church.
Today’s great feast fittingly comes in the midst of Lent, not so much as a respite from its rigours, but as a call to enter even more profoundly into its essence. For as St Joseph and Our Lady went in search of the child Jesus, so, he helps us to seek Our Lord. And as St Joseph would lead Jesus and Mary into the Egyptian desert, so, he leads us more deeply into the desert of Lent. For St Joseph, who is silent throughout the Gospels, shows us by his example that faith invites a silent contemplation so that we can listen to God’s voice and meditate on the mystery of God made visible in Jesus.
As Joseph Ratzinger, our Pope Emeritus, once said: “Let us allow ourselves to be ‘filled’ with St Joseph’s silence! In a world that is often too noisy, that encourages neither recollection nor listening to God’s voice, we are in such deep need of it”.
Silence can be something that we are initially uncomfortable with, and it can be filled with our many thoughts and worries and anxieties. St Joseph had his share of questions and troubles too, as he pondered Mary’s miraculous pregnancy; as his young family had to flee from Herod as refugees; as he frantically searched for his lost son in Jerusalem. But in all this turmoil he remains silent, strengthened by his steadfast faith in God’s goodness and Providence. Angels direct his actions, by which we can understand that in his silence he listened for God’s Word, and he acted upon it. So silence, which begins with difficulty, eventually takes us, as through a desert, to a place of communion where we can be close to God and be comfortable in his Presence.
In the silence of deep prayer, which we’re invited into especially during Lent, we encounter Christ; silence gives rise to the eternal Word. This is who St Joseph contemplated in his silence. Tenderly holding the infant Jesus in his arms, as he’s often shown in art, Joseph pondered the wonder of God’s Love made flesh. This kind of silence, when we are with someone we love, is deeply communicative. As Joseph Ratzinger observed, “It is often in silence that we observe the most authentic communication taking place between people who are in love: gestures, facial expressions, and body language are signs by which they reveal themselves to each other.” This is the kind of loving silence that St Joseph invites us to join him in, if we will stay and adore the Blessed Sacrament after this Mass.
Finally, St Joseph’s silence, which is not empty but filled with love and faith, teaches us the only possible response, sometimes, when we’re confronted by the mystery of God. Ours is a world which craves words and explanations; comments, and opinions, and analysis. But, God is not a part of our world; he is its Creator, the Source of all being, and thus completely Other from all that is. So, as St Thomas Aquinas said, “This is what is ultimate in the human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know God.” So, St Joseph could only be silent before the great mystery and unknowability of God. As Joseph Pieper said concerning St Thomas, but which can also be said, I think, about St Joseph: “His tongue is stilled by the super-abundance of life in the mystery of God. He is silent, not because he has nothing further to say; he is silent because he has been allowed a glimpse into the expressible depths of that mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech…” Hence, Joseph Ratzinger said, “In speaking of God’s grandeur, our language will always prove inadequate and must make space for silent contemplation”.
When things go wrong and there’s an emergency, who do we turn to? If you’re like me, you’d probably go to your father or mother. But I confess that most of the time, I’m not very good at keeping in contact with my father. And maybe some of you can identify with this, and even feel that it’s your duty to keep in touch with your parents? And this can become how we see prayer, too. A duty, a bit of a chore, but not as fun as spending time with friends.
Nevertheless, we know that, like our parents, God is always our Father who supports us, who is here for us, and he loves us. And so, we turn to him when we’re in need and especially in an emergency. So Queen Esther, for example, goes straight to her heavenly Father in an emergency and prays for help. How often have we done the same? But when Jesus taught us to call God our Father, I don’t think he means for us to behave with God in the same way as we would our earthly fathers, that is to say, to simply regard God as dependable and well-loved, someone we can always turn to and ask for things, but at the same time not someone we’d want to add to our Facebook friend list – not really.
Often, I think we can have that kind of relationship with God: it’s very father-to-child, which can be good in that we know to trust and depend on him, but at the same time, it’s not quite friendly. A similar thing can happen to a priest, and someone brought this home to me recently. A priest, he said, was like his father – and thus, loved, respected and relied on especially when in one was in trouble – but he wasn’t a friend; he wasn’t someone he’d just spend time with. And so, in his eyes, there was a necessary distance between us.
It strikes me that we can see God in a similar vein too, as someone who we keep distant from us because he’s not our friend, but he is our Father whom we know we can turn to when we have a need, and especially in emergencies. Hence, we pray when we are in dire straits but otherwise, we tend not to. Prayer thus becomes a chore, or a duty, like keeping in touch with one’s parents.
My confrere, Fr Simon Tugwell OP once wrote that “Prayer is not another part for us to act, another skill for us to master, another subject to study for an examination: it is a relationship, and a relationship with God”. And this is the key issue. What is the nature of our relationship with God? Is he just “our Father who art in heaven”, and so, nicely far-away up there? Is that one reason why we struggle with prayer perhaps?
But Jesus doesn’t want God to just remain as a distant Father like this. Or as a Cosmic King whom one turns to in emergencies like Queen Esther does. Thus he says to his disciples: “I call you friends” (Jn 15:15). And so, following on from this, St Thomas sees the whole Christian life and the giving of grace as being about our befriending God. Friendship, then, is the relationship that God wants with us. If so, then prayer is no longer a duty and a chore, but something comfortable, enjoyable and desireable. Just as we want to spend time with our friends, so St Clement of Alexandria said that “prayer is keeping company with God” – it’s hanging out with God who is our truest Friend.
So, during Lent, maybe we can consider what the nature of our relationship with God is. How do we regard him? Just as a distant Father whom we turn to now and again, or as our Friend and our ‘Abba’ whom we simply delight in wasting time with? For that is what Henri Nouwen called prayer. And if we’re not so friendly with God yet, then this is what Lent is inviting us to do: to work on our friendship with God; to just learn to simply keep company with him; to come ‘hang out’ here with Jesus in his home.
One of the images of Lent is that of going into the desert or the wilderness, for so Jesus did for forty days, and the people of Israel for forty years. However, what comes with the image of the desert is a place of blistering austerity, of hard stones and discomfort, of unpleasantness. No wonder, then, that so many people dread or fear the rigours of Lent; it can appear almost masochistic!
But I think we need to look at Lent from God’s perspective. Today’s Collect prays for God to “look with compassion” on us, and to give us his “protection”. In the book of the Apocalypse, the Woman clothed with the Sun, who stands for the Church, is taken by God “into the wilderness” for her protection, to keep her safe from the Dragon (Apoc 12:14). And, the prophet Hosea says that God will “bring [his beloved people] into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” there (Hos 2:14). So, during Lent, God leads us, his beloved Church, into the wilderness for our protection, so that he can allure us and woo us, and show us his compassion. Hence in the reading we’ve heard from Isaiah, he says: “The Lord will always guide you, giving you relief in desert places” (58:11).
And how does the Lord show compassion? How does he give us relief? How does Lent protect us? In the same way, I think, that the Sabbath does. The latter part of Isaiah’s reading for today, the Saturday after Ash Wednesday concerns the Sabbath, which was given to Mankind as a gift from the Lord. All too often we can see it as an inconvenient commandment – that we are to keep the Sabbath holy – which, if we even remember it, gets in the way of work or shopping or other things we’d rather do than go to church. But as Jesus has said, “The Sabbath is made for man” (Mk 2:27). So, it’s not for God’s sake that we keep the Sabbath holy, or go to church, or cease from servile work – it’s for our sake.
Because, again and again people have come to me saying that they are stressed, over-worked, and feel enslaved to their desks and jobs. Like the dragon of the Apocalypse, our work and the demands of a competitive work culture, our deadlines and economic targets can threaten to consume us. But Life lived like this is imbalanced. So, the Sabbath is God’s way of ensuring a balance is kept in our life, that we not only work, which is vital for mankind’s dignity – there is something debilitating about unemployment as well as idleness – but that we also rest. For in the Sabbath rest we discover God who is a communion of persons, we discover the divine dignity that is fundamental to our humanity. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, thus explains that the Sabbath is the “still point in the turning world, the moment at which we renew our attachment to family and community… [It is] the one day in seven in which we live out all those values that are in danger of being obscured in the daily rush of events; the day in which we stop making a living and learn instead simply how to live”.
So, too, Lent is like an annual Sabbath. As Jesus called Levi away from his work in the tax office, so we are called to follow him into the wilderness each Lent. For God calls us into the desert to protect us; to speak tenderly and compassionately to us; to restore our spirits and strength, and recall us to “live out all those values that are in danger of being obscured”. So, during Lent, if we take up the opportunities it provides, we learn to re-discover community through almsgiving; we learn to re-balance our life and its priorities through fasting. And, most significantly, we learn “simply how to live”, indeed, how to love through prayer. For through prayer know that we are loved; through prayer Christ calls us away from the wild-ness of our world to follow him into the Lenten wilderness where we can rest in God’s love, where God can speak “tenderly” to Man.
The prayer Actiones nostras, which was prayed as the ‘Collect’ today, is an ancient prayer of the Roman church. In the Dominican rite, it was said just before Mass began for it is a prayer fittingly said at the beginning of any task or good work. So, as we embark on our Lenten journey, taking up our Cross with Christ and following Jesus, it is fitting that we begin this task of Lent, the good work of these 40 days, with this prayer.
A more literal rendering of this prayer might be: ”Prompt – or go before – our actions with your inspiration, we pray, O Lord, and further them – or continue them – with your constant help, that every one of our works – or our service – may always begin from you, and through you be brought to completion”.
The truth being expressed in this prayer is that God’s grace is necessary for every good work, every holy action. It is God’s grace that prompts Man to act, his grace that accompanies and sustains the good act, and his grace that brings it to completion. Hence, as we begin the season of Lent with God’s grace, we do well to pray that God will give us the grace to persevere over the next six weeks, and that all our actions, all the good resolutions we’ve made this Lent, will end well and be perfected by God’s grace. Thus, prayer, which teaches us to rely on God’s goodness and mercy, is a vital and foundational part of Lent.
As Pope Francis said yesterday: “Lent is a time of prayer, a more intense, more diligent prayer… In the face of so many wounds that hurt us and that could harden the heart, we are called to dive into the sea of prayer, which is the sea of God’s boundless love, to enjoy its tenderness”.
There is this sense in today’s Collect, too, of our every action being immersed in God’s love and goodness. There is no angst and gritted-teeth violence against our wills, but rather, we allow God’s grace to support and sustain our good actions; we turn to him and rely on his goodness, mercy, and love to bring our good works to completion. If we’re immersed in God’s love and mercy like this, then even our failures and falls are not fatal but are forgiven, and we can be picked up by God’s grace to continue on our Lenten journey.
At the same time, today’s First Reading reminds us that we do need to use our human freedom to choose the good, and to will it, to desire it. So, prayer helps form our choices, and stirs up in us a desire for that which is good and true so that we can freely choose life and blessing, as Moses says (cf Deut 30:19). For God’s grace will not do violence to the human will – there must be a graced co-operation between God and Man.
Hence, Jesus calls us to “take up [your] cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). Because if we follow Christ; if we remain close to him through prayer as we carry our Cross each day – whether in Lent or throughout our lives – then we do not struggle alone. Lent, and indeed, the entire Christian path of discipleship is not a lonely journey, not simply a matter of my human will power. Rather we are called to walk with Christ, co-operating with his grace which goes before, sustains, and completes our good actions. Thus Jesus is with us, carrying our Cross with us. But it doesn’t end at Calvary. As the ‘Prayer over the People’ for today says, Jesus leads us along “the ways of eternal life” to God himself, who is “the unfading light”.
This afternoon the Holy Father went to the basilica of Santa Sabina, which has been the ‘headquarters’ of the Dominican Order since 1220, to celebrate Mass and mark the start of Lent. Since the earliest centuries the Pope has travelled from one church to another in the city of Rome celebrating the Liturgy in a different church of his diocese each day of Lent. And the church of the day is called the statio or ‘station’. The word is used in a 2nd-century Christian text to refer to a fast. Hence today is one of just two days of fast and abstinence left in the Western Church. Today we fast and keep our station.
But it’s still a rather strange use of this word. If we look further back, we find that the Latin word statio is derived from a Roman military use. It means to stand on post, or on guard. So, the Pope gathers in a church to stand guard with the Christian people, and the church itself became called a statio, a guard-post. Hence, in today’s Liturgy we also find military language being used in our prayers. A more literal rendering of our Collect would go like this: “Grant us, O Lord, to begin the station/guard-post of the Christian’s military campaign by taking on holy fasts, so that as we begin to take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of abstinence and self-restraint”. It’s a very striking prayer dating to before the time of Pope St Gregory the Great, and the basic idea is that we, as a Church, have paused to take up our station, to stand guard, during the holy season of Lent.
The weapons we take up as we stand guard are our fasts. As in a diet, or fitness regime, so, too, during Lent, we make a special effort to train and discipline our bodies by fasting – less food, less sleep, less beer and wine, perhaps. We also take up the weapons of prayer, and of charitable giving. Together with fasting, these are the three exercises of Lent that are mentioned in today’s Gospel. All three are essential and they go together. Indeed, I would suggest that without prayer, which focuses us on God who is the end and goal of all our good actions, the other two will fail or become ends in themselves. Otherwise, giving alms can become a way of making ourselves feel better rather than an act of justice and love, and fasting can become like a challenge of one’s own will power rather than a means of spiritual combat.
Which brings me to my final point. Who are we battling? It is true that we are all, in some sense, battling against our own sinful habits, weaknesses, addictions; training our spirit to be stronger and more full of faith, hope, and love. But no soldier simply battles against himself. Rather, each of us Christian soldiers are daily called to fight the Enemy. In Biblical Greek, the word for enemy or adversary is diabolos, or in Aramaic, satanas. The Enemy is not some vague notion of evil, or just our own weakness, or a psychological construct. Rather, the Devil – so Scripture and the Church teaches us – is a real creature whose will is fixed on evil and on thwarting God’s plan for our salvation by seducing us, tempting us, to choose sinful acts. And his most successful ploy is to get us to think he doesn’t exist!
Therefore, in Lent, we are summoned together to train and take up arms against the Devil. How? St Peter put it this way: “Be sober, be vigilant. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Pt 5:8f). Again the language is military – we’re to be vigilant, keeping watch, keeping guard soberly and attentively, and we’re to put on the armour of our faith. This means that we’re to place our trust in God, relying always on his goodness, mercy and love. With such firm faith in God as our armour, we can then take up our weapons of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. So that we know who our fellow soldiers are in this military campaign, we can look to the sign of the ashen Cross on the forehead; a sign of Christ’s victory over death and sin. So, my fellow Christian soldiers, let us take up our battle station – this, our Lenten fast. And let us shame the Devil and, with Christ’s grace, help, and strength, defeat sin and the Evil One.
"O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you?" Jesus asks. It’s quite surprising to hear Jesus speak like this, with such exasperation. And then he adds: "How long am I to bear with you?" (Mk 9:19).
How long? The response I think of is the one which two despondent and confused disciples give Jesus at the end of a long walk to Emmaus on Easter Sunday. In St Luke’s Gospel, the risen Lord is just as exasperated with his disciples; he calls them “foolish men, and slow of heart to believe” (Lk 24:25). And yet when these two respond and say: “Stay with us [Lord] for it is toward evening”, he does (cf Lk 24:29).
Because we are slow to believe, and have so little faith, we need him to stay with us. For it is evening and the light of faith is dim. And so, we need him to stay with us. And because Jesus loves us, because he knows our need, he does; he stays. He stays with us – he is here with us – in the Eucharist. And the Eucharist is called the mysterium fidei, the mystery of faith, because we need faith to recognize that here, in the Most Blessed Sacrament, our request has been granted, that our prayer has been heard: Jesus, our God, is here with us.
But do we really know this? Do we truly believe that Jesus is here, waiting for us in the tabernacle, waiting for us, this faithless generation, to come to believe, and so, to come and adore him? As St Josemaria Escriva said: “When you approach the tabernacle remember that he has been waiting for you for twenty centuries.” I think, in honesty, the only response we can give is that of the man in today’s Gospel. He says: Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24).
Hence, when we approach the Eucharist, we ask Our Lord to help our unbelief, to give us still more faith so that we can believe that he is truly present here – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – and so we kneel, bow, and adore this sacrament. Indeed, we approach him in this sacrament with “prayer and fasting” (Mk 9:29). For as Jesus tells his disciples this casts out certain spirits. As we pray to the Lord in the Eucharist, speaking to him who stays with us here, we cast out the spirits of doubt and unbelief. Jesus is here! And as we fast before we approach the Eucharist, preparing ourselves to receive him in Holy Communion, we cast out the spirits of irreverence and casualness before so great a mystery. Our God is here! This is the Mystery of Faith, that Our Lord is here at our request: “stay with us, Lord; help our unbelief”. And so he does. Jesus stays with us, under the appearances of bread and wine, waiting here in our tabernacles.
Thus, through this Sacrament of his Body and Blood, Jesus teaches us to trust his Word, to have faith in him, to believe. He says to us, as he did to St Thomas the apostle: “Put your finger here… and put out your hand…; do not be faithless, but believing” (Jn 20:27). Then, let us come let us adore this great sacrament, and respond as St Thomas did: “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28).