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.
Today’s first reading is well-known: David, who we heard yesterday has been anointed by Samuel, goes to meet Goliath in battle, and armed with just a sling and a stone, he defeats him. David, then, is the anointed one, a christus and will also be king. Thus the Fathers of the Church saw him as an important representative figure of the Christ, who would also rule as a king of David’s royal line. In this way of reading the Scriptures, which is called typology, what David does points to what Jesus Christ will do and perfect. Or as St Augustine put it: “The New Testament is hidden in the Old: the Old is made clear by the New”. The Scriptures, then, are read in the light of Christ as we do on Easter night, reading the Old Testament in the light of the Paschal candle.
Goliath, then, stands for sin and death. Because he comes to threaten and destroy God’s people. So too, sin destroys our life with God, which can only be restored by grace and repentance. Like the people of Israel and Saul’s army, we are in need of a champion, a Saviour to rescue us from sin and death.
David is described as handsome and youthful, a shepherd called from the fields to lead God’s flock. So too, Christ calls himself the good shepherd, although the word kalos in Greek means more than just ‘good’. It means beautiful and attractive. Hence, many early Christian images of Christ often portrayed Jesus as a youthful and handsome shepherd in the image of David the shepherd king. For Jesus is the king who comes to shepherd us, and to draw us by the beauty of his life, his teaching and his person to the eternal youthfulness of life in heaven.
The sling that David uses is, typically made of wood, shaped as a Y with two arms. So, too, Jesus uses the wood of the Cross, shaped like a Y with two arms, to defeat sin and death. The five stones that David has points to the five wounds of Christ crucified, for as Isaiah says “by his wounds we are healed” (Isa 53:5). And the one stone that stuck and killed Goliath is Christ himself, for many places in Scripture refer to him as our rock (such as today’s responsorial psalm, Ps 143:1), or as the stone on which our lives can be built.
So, by his Passion and Death on the Cross, Jesus has conquered sin and death, and he rises victorious from the battle as the Champion of humanity and gives us eternal life. We find this language of battle in the Sequence hymn for Easter week, for example, which says: “Death and life contended in a spectacular battle: the Prince of life, who died, reigns alive”.
Some also say that David buried Goliath’s head near Jerusalem, and the place became known as Golgotha, which means ‘the place of the skull’. And, of course, it is on Golgotha that Jesus was crucified; there, above Goliath’s skull that the son of David comes to definitively conquer sin and death, and so, win the victory for God’s people, and indeed, for all humanity. Because of Christ, then, we can “have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
This, then, is what Christ has accomplished, and we who are baptised and anointed as christus, too, will share in his victory through grace and repentance. And this, repentance, is important. For it is not just that Christ has won the victory – we need to make it our own too. We do this by repenting of our sins, which means we turn to God as David did. We turn to God in all our little skirmishes and battles against our sins. We turn to him in humility, disarmed and inexperienced as David was; we rely on his mercy and strength, as David does; and we say what David said: “the battle is the Lord’s” (1 Sam 17:47), and Jesus is our rock on which my life is founded.
At first glance we might wonder, why is Isaiah told to “comfort” God’s people, and then, we hear “all flesh is grass… the grass withers” (40:6f)? So, it would seem that we’re meant to be comforted by being told we’ll all die very soon, and our youthful vigour and beauty is as ephemeral as cut flowers!
But, of course, this is true. We’re often confronted with the fact of our mortality; that life is brief, and all will die, and, sometimes, unexpectedly. But the prophet assures us that death is not the end – this is how he comforts us. For he says that our “warfare is ended” (Isa 40:2). This means that our struggle with suffering and human frailty comes to an end. Death, which is a result of sin, is ended for “iniquity is pardoned” (ibid.).
How? “The mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isa 40:5), he says. Our God speaks, and what he speaks is the Word, the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ. “The word of our God will stand for ever” (40:8), Isaiah says. So, here, in nascent form, is a prophecy of the Incarnation: that, as St John will say and as we will hear on Christmas day, the eternal Word, who is God, “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). And through his becoming Man, the Immortal united himself to human mortality so as to rescue us from suffering, sin, and death. The image Isaiah uses for this saving work of Christ is beautiful. He, the strong shepherd tenderly gathers humankind, the weak and delicate lambs, in his arms; God carries our humanity in his bosom, and leads us into the pastures of heaven. There, in heaven, the meadows are evergreen – the grass does not wither and the flowers bloom for ever. Thus, through Christ’s incarnation, humanity is united to God, and can come to share in his divinity and so, have eternal life. For, even though we die, death is not the end. Because we are now united to God through Jesus Christ, so, the weakness of our human mortality which might have just ended in death is now strengthened by Christ. For Jesus, is “the Lord God [who] comes with might” (Isa 40:10), with the might of his resurrection.
So this is what the incarnation of Christ promises us. This is the comfort of the Christmas story. Hence, St Hilary sees in today’s Gospel the comforting truth that God, leaving the ninety-nine sheep, which stand for the heavenly host of angels, goes in search of Man, who is represented by the one lost sheep. The Son is born for us because the Father does not will any of us, his “little ones should perish” (Mt 18:14). Thus, there is, rightly, much rejoicing at Christmas.
But do we rejoice like sheep – just celebrating, drinking, and making merry because everyone else does? Or do we rejoice like the Shepherd who, Jesus says, rejoices because he’s found his lost sheep? This is to say, will we share God’s joy in the salvation of Man made possible by Christ’s becoming Man?
These apocalyptic readings continue to be a challenge to our faith. When the centre of our world collapses, and disaster and calamity hits us, when we feel besieged and surrounded by desolation how can we respond?
Many people will wonder where God is. They may feel abandoned by him, or punished by him, or bereft of God’s love and support. Or many will say, in the face of great natural tragedies, that there just is no God, or he doesn’t care. Many will react, as the Gospel says, with perplexity, fear and foreboding (Lk 21:25f).
And what about us? What about you and me?
Today, Jesus assures us that when disaster strikes and our world falls apart, he is coming, and our “redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:28). In other words, when others interpret terrible events as the absence of God, we, who have faith, who rely on his Word, know that God will come, and, indeed, is with us when catastrophes happen. Why? Because our God is Love, and Jesus is for ever, the “Son of man” (cf Lk 21:27), i.e., God-with-us.
Just this kind of faith was expressed by the early Christians in the face of death and persecution. On the ancient sarcophagi in which they buried their dead they carved an image of Daniel in the lion’s den. For them, the story we’ve heard in our first reading was a prefiguration of Christ’s Resurrection. And so, this image was placed on their tombs as a sign of their faith that they could enter the lions den of persecution, enter the pit of death and even stand in the lion’s jaws of death, and yet, they believed that they would not suffer annihilation. Rather, like Daniel, they would emerge victorious and free.
Because the just man in whom they placed their hope and trust was not simply the prophet Daniel but the Just One himself, our God and Redeemer, Jesus Christ. So, when disaster struck; when the jaws of death closed in; and when the world came to an end, they looked to Christ. As Jesus says to his beloved disciples, to you and me, today: “when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:28).
For with faith in the Resurrection and the Just One, we do not look down in despair; nor look wildly around in bewilderment; nor close our eyes in fear. We look up. We look up at Christ. We raise our heads to look at Christ our Head. And we unite ourselves to him in faith, in hope, and in love. We cling to our Redeemer who is ever near, who is “coming… with power and great glory” (Lk 21:27).
With this in mind, we can see why St Martha said what she did when her brother had died; when her world had, in a sense, ended, and Jesus asked if she believed that he is the resurrection and the life. She said: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27). May such faith be ours too. Amen.
Music and singing are integral to any celebration. We see this in today’s first reading where the people of Israel rejoice for eight days “with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals” (1 Macc 4:54). They had endured persecution; the Maccabees had fought and suffered; and now they celebrate their victory with music and song.
This is fitting today as we celebrate the feast of St Cecilia who is the patron saint of music. She was a 4th-century Roman martyr who was killed for the Faith. It is thought that she was beheaded in her family home, and it’s still possible to visit the site under the basilica of St Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome. As she died, Cecilia was said to have sung to God “in her heart”.
So, like the Maccabees, St Cecilia had endured persecution, she’d resisted and suffered – they tried to boil her alive to begin with! – and, then, as she was being killed, she sang. This is quite bizarre if we think about it because Cecilia saw her dying – her martyrdom – as a victory to be celebrated with music and song.
However, the Preface for Martyrs in our Liturgy says the same thing. In the struggle of the martyrs, God gives them “ardour” and “firm resolve” so that they can remain faithful to Christ even to accepting suffering and death, and so, in their death there is “victory” over those who oppose Christ. What is this victory we celebrate, then? It is the triumph of grace, and indeed, the victory of Love. For only love for Jesus Christ can move someone to accept death. So, St Cecilia dies for Truth, for the integrity of her faith, for fidelity to Jesus rather than to renounce him; she dies for love of him.
We find this idea, of dying for love’s sake, quite often in romantic love, especially in what McCartney called “silly love songs”. And St Cecilia’s martyrdom might seem like a version of this kind of love. But is it? Did St Cecilia simply sing a silly love song as she died? Well, the martyr is not just someone totally in love with God and who dies out of fidelity to her conscience, to her love. There is something more, I think, that she witnesses to.
The martyrs’ death is an act of witness to the fundamental Christian belief in the truth that God’s love is stronger than death. This means that we believe and we hope in the final resurrection of our body. We believe that the death of our bodies, even under great suffering, is not the end of life. Because, we believe that the Christian is so united to Christ that even if we die as he did, we will also rise just as he did. Hence the YouCAT says: “Eternal life begins with Baptism. It continues through death and will have no end” (No. 156).
We will rise to eternal life with Christ because Love – God himself – is eternal and Christ, the living Word of God is the final word. His is the song of victory, and so, we too can sing that triumphal song with him. St Cecilia thus died with a song in her heart. Not a silly love song, but a celebratory Easter song. It’s significant that the Jews celebrated their victory for eight days, for Easter is often called the eighth day because it is the day of a new creation, of life after death, of eternal life. So, with Christ, we, who have died with him in baptism, and who have endured the trials and sufferings of this life, shall also rejoice and sing with him for eight days, that is, for all eternity in heaven.
This is what St Cecilia bore witness to. May she pray for us that we may share her faith, her hope, and her love for Christ.
Death is the end. It is a cut-off point for many things. Illness and suffering for example, in which death may be seen as a relief and a release. But it’s also a cut-off point for various relationships. My religious vows are only made until death. So, after death, it seems, I am not longer a Dominican. The same is true for the bond of marriage which is also only made until death. After death, it seems, no one is still married. And this may be seen by some, I dare say, as a relief and a release but for many it will be a surprise and maybe even a shock. And yet, that is what Jesus affirms in today’s Gospel.
The reason for the end of marriage at death is that marriage, from Jesus’ point of view, serves a temporal purpose; it is for “this age” (Lk 20:34). It’s for pro-creation and for the raising of children in a family. As such, marriage serves the common good of society and ensures the continuation of humanity; it is ordered to Life, and, more specifically, life on this earth; this life, this age. Hence Timothy Radcliffe said in The Tablet: “Marriage is founded on the glorious fact of sexual difference and its potential fertility. Without this there would be no life on this planet, no evolution, no human beings, no future”. In a recent article on the Huffington Post a newly-wed man said a similar thing. Seth Adam Smith said: “love and marriage isn’t for you. It’s for others… for family… for your future children”. And this article went viral because it appeared so fresh and new. And yet, in rather more turgid language, this is what the Code of Canon Law, repeating words from Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, says: “The marriage covenant… of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children” (CIC 1055 §1). Today in this Gospel, Jesus gives us the implication of this understanding of the very nature of marriage, which is that in the agelessness of heaven, all temporal concerns such as the procreation and education of children, the transmission of new life through the marital act, and thus the marital bond itself will cease. So, Jesus says that those who rise from the dead “neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more” (Lk 20:35f). What this means we can barely imagine since the inevitability of death and its finality is always before us especially in this month of November.
But we have a glimpse of the strangeness of the risen life in today’s Gospel: there will be no marriage, no sex. And also, no eating or drinking. As St Paul says: “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). What is striking, I think, is that these basic bodily activities are taken away at death but… they are not entirely gone. Rather, what they signified for us human beings remains and is intensified. St Paul hints at this. The conviviality of the banquet and shared meal – which is why human beings don’t just feed but dine – endures and strengthens; there is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”.
So, what of marriage and the marital act, then? As we know, the marital act between husband and wife is never just about pro-creation although this is always essential. But there is more. For human beings don’t just mate but make love. Thus, sex is always unitive and strengthens the mutual bonds of love and commitment between a couple. And so, I think we can say that in the risen life, love and unity, which is what the sexual act signifies in this life, remains and is intensified because in the life to come we will be caught up in God who is Love itself, and in the communion of the Holy Trinity who is most perfectly One. Pope Francis pointed to this two weeks ago when he said to families in Rome: “True joy comes from a profound harmony between persons, something which we all feel in our hearts and which makes us experience the beauty of togetherness, of mutual support along life’s journey. But the basis of this feeling of deep joy is the presence of God, the presence of God in the family and his love”. In heaven, then; in the life of the resurrected, this joy and harmony and love which is only glimpsed in our family and marital lives on earth is brought to perfection as we see God face to face and live for ever in his presence, in him.
Why do we pray? Is it to get something? Is it to change God’s mind? If we think of God as an unjust judge, then we’re likely to pray like needy widows who will cajole and nag God until he changes his mind and gives us what we want. Prayer, then, is about persistent nagging. But is this why Jesus tells us this parable – to encourage us to wear God down? To keep telling him to do good things? I don’t think so.
A different vision of prayer is offered in the first reading. Following Origen, I think such Scripture readings of historical violence and warfare need to be understood spiritually as a metaphor. This is an image of life, and often we can feel very embattled with skirmishes in our family life, at work, with colleagues, and with our own sins and weaknesses. Life, in short, can be like a battlefield. Hence prayer is necessary so that we prevail and win the final victory. But I think it’s noteworthy that prayer doesn’t change God’s mind, as such, but it is part of God’s loving Providence. Moses’ prayer co-operates with Joshua’s battling so that there is a necessary correlation between the two, and both Moses and Joshua have the same goal and outcome in view.
This is the vision of prayer that St Thomas Aquinas holds out for us. He sees prayer as our learning to co-operate with God’s will so that we broaden our vision of what is good for us, and choose the better outcome that God has planned for us. And God has foreseen from all eternity that this should happen because of our prayers. As such, when we pray it is not God’s mind that we seek to change but ours.
We often forget that the Scriptures, the New Testament, is a product of sacred Tradition, that is to say, of truths handed down by word of mouth and example, from one generation to another. St Ignatius bears witness to this because his writings testify to the faith of the 1st-century Church, linking us to the apostles and the sacred Tradition they taught, the memory of Christ’s life that men like Ignatius, the so-called Apostolic Fathers kept alive. It is quite likely that only in the lifetime of St Ignatius did the Gospels come to be written, so we celebrate today one of the eyewitnesses to our Faith; one who knew the Apostles, converted to Christianity, and learnt the Faith of the Risen Lord from the Apostles. St Ignatius would later become the third bishop of Antioch from the year 70; St Peter had been the first bishop of that apostolic See.
In recalling this, we recall too the ancient Church of Syria, for when St Ignatius was sent to Rome to be executed in 107, the historian Eusebius says that Ignatius “was sent from Syria to Rome and became food for wild beasts on account of his testimony to Christ”. On this journey to Rome through Turkey and Greece, Ignatius wrote six letters to the local Christian communities through which he passed, and one to the bishop of Smyrna, St Polycarp, a disciple of St John the Apostle, who was also martyred in 155. The letters he wrote were addressed to the Church in Smyrna, Philadelphia, Rome, Tralles, Magnesia, and Ephesus.
These letters are a precious witness to the living Tradition of the Church and our apostolic faith. As Pope Benedict XVI said: “In reading these texts, one feels the freshness of the faith of the generation which had still known the Apostles. In these letters, the ardent love of a saint can be felt”. For St Ignatius’ writings show his deep desire for union with God through love, which was reflected in the unity of the Church as a communion of love, held together in charity by her bishops, priests, and deacons. For, as St Paul says today: “God is one” (Rom 3:30).
It was this deep love for Christ and for the Truth of the Gospel that would lead St Ignatius to his death in the Roman Colosseum. Thus he followed the example of sacrificial love given by Christ, the king of martyrs. But his martyrdom doesn’t just show his love for Christ, but also his hope and his faith. For martyrdom makes no sense without belief in Christ’s Resurrection. So, St Ignatius of Antioch, by his writings and his blood, witnesses to the Church’s fundamental faith in the Resurrection; a faith that is ours today, and that we’re called to share with others.
In doing so, these words from St Ignatius are worth remembering, and they echo Christ’s criticism of the lawyers in today’s Gospel. St Ignatius said: “Christianity is not a matter of persuading people of particular ideas, but of inviting them to share in the greatness of Christ. So pray that I may never fall into the trap of impressing people with clever speech, but instead I may learn to speak with humility, desiring only to impress people with Christ himself”.
May St Ignatius pray for us, for the Church in Syria, Turkey, and Greece, and for all who would preach the Faith, that we may always impress with Christ himself, that is, through love.
"Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men" (Lk 9:44). But when the disciples heard it, they were afraid and confused. But the remembrance of every martyr confronts us again with these words from the Lord. That he was delivered up to death at the hands of men, and then, in John’s Gospel, we also have these words from Jesus: "Remember the word that I said to you, `A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you…’" (15:20). And so, we may well feel afraid, worried, and confused. Surely this promise of persecution doesn’t apply to me?
This, too, is the story of at least one of the sixteen martyrs whom we remember today: St Lawrence Ruiz of Manila who was martyred in Nagasaki; one of the Dominican group of martyrs persecuted, tortured, and killed in Japan. St Lawrence’s story is, to my mind, the story of the reluctant martyr, the disciple who was understandably scared of Christ’s words to his disciples today: “the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men”.
For in 1636, Lorenzo Ruiz was accused of being involved in some crime in Manila, and if he was found guilty, he would have been delivered into the hands of men and executed. Lorenzo feared that the Spanish authorities would be prejudiced against him since he was born of Chinese and Filipino parents, and so he fled to the Dominicans for help. He had been educated by the Dominicans and hired by them as a scribe, was a member of the Rosary Confraternity, and sacristan at the Dominican church in Binondo, a suburb of Manila. So, he turned to them for help to flee the Philippines, leaving behind his wife and children. Clearly, he was afraid and, I suppose, hoped to come home later on.
But he never did, because he went from the frying pan into the fire. Lorenzo boarded a ship with Dominican missionaries whom he thought were headed for Macao, but instead the missionaries were going to Nagasaki to help the persecuted Christians of Japan. Lorenzo, then, was in the wrong place at the wrong time; he had hoped to escape death, but within days of arriving in Japan he was arrested, delivered into the hands of men, and fourteen months later he died from terrible torture on the 29th of September 1637.
And yet, this frightened refugee, before he died, was able to say with resolute boldness: “Although I did not come to Japan to be a martyr… however, as a Christian and for God I shall give my life….” He was offered a chance to renounce his faith and live, and yet, when faced with the Cross, he embraced it with profound freedom. How come?
St Luke’s Gospel suggests that “did not understand [Christ’s] saying, and it was concealed from them, that they should not perceive it”. But the time will come, when it is necessary, when they, and we, will understand, when the grace of the Holy Spirit acts to give us understanding, and to strengthen us for the grace of martyrdom, of bearing witness to our faith when we’re persecuted for it. This, at least, is what San Lorenzo Ruiz’s life tells us.
And what he understood was that the Son of man “has to be delivered into the hands of men”, so that whenever and wherever this happens to us, his disciples – whether it be Manila, or Nagasaki, Pakistan, Syria, or even Edinburgh – Christ is there with us. And because God is with the martyr, one with the persecuted Christian, so, in faith, he hears in his heart the words of the Lord in Zechariah: “Sing and rejoice… for lo, I come and I will dwell in the midst of you”. Thus, Lorenzo Ruiz was able to say with courage, hope, and joy: “Had I many thousands of lives I would offer them all for him”.
For his faith was also founded on this other promise of the Lord: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore” (Apoc 1:17f). This is the focus and foundation of our Christian faith, the faith of St Lawrence Ruiz and every martyr. May their prayers and example strengthen our faith.
It seems sensible that if we take up a fight, we mean, or indeed, hope to win and defeat our foe. And yet, if we say someone has “put up a good fight”, we don’t necessarily mean that person has won, but that he has battled with integrity and honour; she has fought well. So it is with the martyrs who are killed, and so, seem to suffer the ultimate defeat. And yet, they have fought the good fight. They teach us what this means for a Christian.
For us to fight well, with integrity and honour means that even in the face of violence and integrity we choose what is good and true to being a Christian. That means, we choose to love, and so, are faithful to Christ even to the end. In this way, the martyr makes “the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Tim 6:12), and becomes a marturia, a witness to the hope of eternal life with Christ.
The first among today’s martyrs, St Andrew Kim Tae-Gon once said: “We have received baptism, entrance into the Church, and the honour of being called Christians. Yet what good will this do if we are Christians in name only and not in fact”. For him, and for his 102 companion martyrs of Korea, then, being a Christian in fact meant that when they were persecuted, tortured, and threatened, they chose to fight the good fight by remaining faithful to Christ. Hence, they died for the Faith, and followed Christ to the Cross, confident that they would also rise with Christ to eternal life. Thus, although death seems like a defeat, their faith in the resurrection of Jesus gave them hope of the final victory and vindication of Love over evil.
Every Christian will have these battles to take up, even if they’re not always as dramatic as that of the Korean martyrs. But, as St Paul reminds Timothy, each of us will struggle with temptations, the love of money and prestige, envy and the other addictions and desires of this world. And we will struggle, too, against the powers and politics of our world. Each of these will involve a fight of some kind. In all our fights, may we always be faithful to Christ, acting as Christians not only in name but in fact. That is to say, let us always choose love, and so, to follow Jesus.
For then, we will have fought well, and will have won, even if we have to sacrifice much. For even though St Andrew Kim and his companions lost their lives, they gained unity with Christ, who is “the Resurrection and the Life” (Jn 11:25). Thus, we honour them, and ask them to pray for us and for the Church in Korea.
When Jesus raises the only son of the widow of Nain, he does so with his words. God’s Word is creative; it is by his Word that the heavens and the earth were made. So, now, by his Word, Jesus works a new creation, and restores the young man to life. But what is interesting in the Greek text is that Jesus does not use the passive form, “Be raised”, but the active form, “Arise”, or in other translations “Get up”. So, although Christ is the cause of the miracle, the recipient is not entirely passive but co-operative.
It is the same in the Christian life of grace. Although God is the giver of all grace, and the cause of our being alive in the Holy Spirit, even so, we have to be open to his grace and co-operate with it, willing and choosing each day to live the new life that was first given to us in baptism. In baptism, we were raised to a new life, but to get up and live this life, we need to actively be involved and want to live as children of God.
Now, the first thing the young man does is to speak. It is a sign that he is truly alive because he breathes in before he does this distinctively human act. So, too, we who have come to new life in baptism also take in the breath of the Holy Spirit, and then speak the praises of God and profess the true faith, enabled to share the life-giving Gospel with others.
Hence, the words which we speak are meant to build-up, restore order, and secure a better future. For this is what Christ gave to the widow of Nain when her only son was given back to her by Christ’s Word. So, we Christians, and especially bishops, as St Paul suggests today, are called to share in the work of Jesus Christ, using words to bring new life, unity, and peace.
With this in mind, as our diocese prepares for the ordination of her new bishop this coming Saturday, let us pray for Mgr Leo Cushley.