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.
Jesus truly died, was buried, and rose again from the dead. And the risen Lord Jesus was seen by hundreds of people, individually and in large crowds. Although the actual event of Christ’s resurrection wasn’t seen by anyone, the person of the risen Christ was seen by many including St Paul; he is an eyewitness. Some eyewitnesses had already died but many of these eyewitnesses would go on to become witnesses in another sense: they would become martyrs, a word which comes from the Greek marturia meaning ‘witness’. By willingly suffering and dying rather than to deny the truth they’d seen – the truth that Jesus Christ died and rose again – the eyewitnesses witnessed to the fact of Christ’s Resurrection and their belief in the word of the risen Lord Jesus. For he promised that all who believe in him and receive his Body and Blood will also, at last, rise from the dead and share in the glory of his Resurrection.
This is the Gospel which was preached to the Corinthians, and which was preached to us, and it is for ever true and valid no matter how long ago it happened. Like the Christians of Corinth, we today, and Christians down the ages and in every place, have always needed faith. Faith, as St Thomas says, is belief in the testimony, the witness, of some human being. This means that it requires that we trust what others have told us they’ve seen and experienced. Ultimately, St Paul appeals to the Corinthians to trust in the hundreds of eyewitnesses including himself, which is why he says that some of those eyewitnesses are still alive, implying that if one wanted to one could check with them.
But St Thomas, following St Paul, makes a distinction between believing through faith and knowing by sight. The latter is more certain knowledge, and only some have seen the risen Lord; the rest of us have to believe them, we have to put our faith in what they’ve seen and what they’ve told us. In short, we believe what we receive through the proclamation of the Church, the community of believers who can trace their lineage in unbroken continuity to the apostles, the eyewitnesses of the Resurrection, and also to the saints and martyrs, the witnesses of Christ’s promises.
The Church, therefore, is essentially a community built on trust, on faithfully handing on what we’ve received; this is the dynamic of faith. But we’re not passive recepients of the faith, either. For faith is a divine gift, and the Holy Spirit also stirs up in us charity, which is how our faith in the risen Lord is lived. Charity, after all, is a participation in the vibrancy of the living God, and it is Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, who thus makes it possible for us Christians to rise from the deadliness of sin through forgiveness, through loving our enemies, and to find new life through repentance and good works. Which ever country we come from, or live in, we Christians are called to witness to this; to live our faith.
Today’s saint, John Macias, a Spainiard who travelled to Peru and joined the Dominicans there, is an outstanding example of this. As a lay brother, he was the porter of his convent, and he spent his days welcoming the destitute, feeding the hungry, and praying for the most needy, especially the souls in Purgatory that they might soon enjoy the glory of the Resurrection. As such, St John witnessed to the truth testified by St Paul and the eyewitnesses – he bore witness to the Church’s faith in the Risen One. Through his life, then, and by his works of charity, he witnessed to the fact that the Church is a community built on trust – faith in the word of another –; a community founded on personal relationships of love and kindness, and he added his voice to the countless saints and martyrs of every nation and age who bear witness to the power of the risen Lord.
This is the democracy of the communion of saints; the power of charity that is made available to us through Christ’s Church and her sacraments, the true meaning of freedom which is the choice to love and live as Christ did. Ultimately, this is the only Yes or No choice that matters. With St John Macias and all the saints, let us always bear witness to our faith in the risen Lord and live in the hope of eternal life.
The sorrowful Mother of God is ever-present in our world. In Gaza, Iraq, Syria her icon comes alive in those images on our screens of hundreds of women veiled in black, their faces contorted with grief at the death of their children. In Nigeria, her sorrowful face is seen again in the anguished faces of those mothers pleading for the return of their girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. In our own community, she stands alongside those mothers who have lost a child, or have a child who is suffering a terminal illness. Sorrow, distress, death – such is the human condition; such is living and loving in a fallen world.
All of us will know or have encountered death and disease. And for some, the experience of having a loved one suffer and die – nursing them and holding them – is extremely hard to endure. One suffers with the one who is sick or dying, and such experiences can shake one’s faith. Such is the pain of human compassion, literally, suffering with the other. So, today we recall that Our Lady is the compassionate mother who suffers with her Son on the Cross. As she is also our mother, so she suffers with us and shares our sorrows and pain.
Because Mary shares in the redemptive suffering and death of Our Lord on the Cross, Our Lady of Sorrows is Queen of Martyrs. Hers is the martyrdom, that share in the Passion of Christ, that comes from the union of love that is uniquely hers: the union of her Immaculate Heart to the Sacred Heart of her Son. But as a martyr she witnesses, also, to how a Christian lives and copes with sorrow and grief; as our mother, she teaches us by her example.
So we see that throughout her martyrdom, as she stands at the foot of the Cross, she looks to Christ and is turned towards him in love and in faith. So, too, in our hard times, in the loneliness of our grief and distress, let us turn to God and not away from him. We look to the Cross and are saved, as we were reminded yesterday. For in turning to Christ who suffers on the Cross with us, we are opened to the grace and strength that he gives us to carry the Cross of our discipleship. And our turning to God is a sign of faith, of confident hope that he will, at last, turn our sorrows into joy, as happened to Our Lady. Hence Catholic tradition tells that Our Lady was the first to see the risen Lord, even before St Mary Magdalene and the other apostles as the Bible recounts, because Our Lady, who shared most deeply in Christ’s sorrow, merited this honour of being the first to experience the joy of the Resurrection.
Countless Christians throughout the world, very many of whom are women and mothers, are themselves mothered by Our Lady of Sorrows. This is the beauty of what Christ does on the Cross: he establishes a relationship of love, compassion and care between his Blessed Mother and all the baptised. So in our suffering and grief – a daily martyrdom for many people – Mary holds us and leads us to to her Son, to hold to Christ in faith and hope. Thus we share in Christ’s redemptive sufferings on the Cross, we share the pain of love and compassion, but Our Lady assures us that we will also share in the joy of Christ’s Resurrection and glory. Today’s feast, then, confirms us in our Christian faith and hope.
Daily we are reminded of the powers of death and destruction, of the havoc and horror wrought by wicked people. The evils of the Islamic State; the likelihood that terrorists could strike with similar brutality in our homeland; the threat of the Ebola virus: this has been a summer of death and anxiety. So one line in today’s Gospel, one promise, drew my attention. Jesus assures us: “The powers of death shall not prevail against” his Church.
This is not a promise that life will be easy, or even that we will not suffer or know pain. Nor is it a promise that we will not die. This is impossible since these are essential to our mortal human condition. However, it is a promise that the powers of death shall not prevail. What does this mean? For many death is simply the end; the power of death is precisely its finality. But Jesus assures Peter and thus, his whole Church – you and me – that death is not final. Death has been robbed of its dreadful power. And this is because of who Jesus is and what he has done for Mankind, for you and me, for his Body the Church.
With a divine insight, St Peter acknowledges that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. This is to say that Jesus is Anointed with divine power and authority, and that he is truly the Living One. So, guided by the Holy Spirit, St Peter is able to proclaim faith in the Resurrection. And today we’re being asked if we can do likewise. Indeed, every day we’re being asked to share this faith by affirming in our hearts who Jesus is. For even if the headlines were not as dire as they are, we are still tested by the trials of our frail and changeable human condition – by illness, cancer, emotional anguish, depression, crushing loneliness. Our faith is challenged by these as Peter’s was.
If we look at the next few verses right after today’s Gospel passage, we read that Jesus explains to his disciples that he will need to go to Jerusalem and there “suffer many things… and be killed” (Mt 16:21). Peter takes Jesus aside and says “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Mt 16:22). And Jesus famously rebukes Peter saying: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt 16:23). What does all this mean?
It tells us that like Christ and with Christ we human beings will still need to suffer and die. Peter wants to avoid this, which is why Jesus rebukes him. Why is mortality necessary? Why? We do not know, but as St Paul says to the Romans: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33). That is one response of faith: faith in God’s wisdom and goodness. But faith gives us another more powerful response which we see in the courage and steadfastness of the Christians of Iraq and of countless martyrs over the centuries. It is faith in the Resurrection, faith that Jesus is the “Son of the Living God”. For by his death and resurrection, Jesus has overcome the powers of death; death’s terrible finality shall not prevail against Christ’s Body, the Church. Instead, the Body of Christ – that is, you and me – will be raised from the dead just as Jesus, our Head, was raised to eternal life and unending joy. This is the faith St Peter proclaims today, this is the faith of the Church and her martyrs, and this is our faith through baptism. Hence one of the Memorial Acclamations in the Mass says: “Save us, Saviour of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free”. Yes, Jesus has saved us and freed us from the powers of death. So our faith rests on the rock of who Jesus is: he is the Saviour of the world.
What would it mean if Jesus were not the Living One revealed by the Holy Spirit to St Peter and the Church? What does it imply to think that Jesus was Jeremiah or one of the prophets, or John the Baptist, or Elijah?
Today’s first reading is taken from the continuous readings of Jeremiah that we have been following during the week. And it is most fitting at this time. The lamentation of God’s people could well be found on the lips of the countless Christians who are currently being persecuted and ruthlessly murdered all over the world. “Let my eyes run down with tears night and day,
and let them not cease… If I go out into the field, behold, those slain by the sword!… We looked for peace, but no good came; for a time of healing, but behold, terror” (Jer 13:17–19). So, the prophet gives voice to the suffering of the Christians of Iraq, of Nigeria, of Syria, the Central African Republic, Pakistan, China, and many other places.
At the same time, the prophet also lends his voice to the suffering of peoples throughout the world who endure disease, famine, sickness. He says: “If I enter the city, behold, the diseases of famine!… Why hast thou smitten us so that there is no healing for us?” (Jer 13:18f). Death and illness: this is the lot of humanity labouring under the sin of Adam; thus is our mortality. Hence Jeremiah says: “We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, and the iniquity of our fathers, for we have sinned against thee”.
So in the Gospel we see that St Martha and her family have shared in this, the common fate of sinful Man. Her brother has fallen ill and died, and Martha and Mary are grief-stricken. However, Martha knows that God has the cure to Mankind’s mortal condition; Christ is the cure for death.
Thus she goes to him, and she says with faith: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27); she believes that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, that he will put an end to sickness and death. And so, St Martha speaks for us Christians, for every Christian who suffers and grieves, for the Christian martyrs and those who are persecuted, for the sick and for you and me. She says: “Yes, Lord, I believe”.
I believe, you believe, that Jesus will raise us from the dead, so that even “though [we] die, yet shall [we] live” because “whoever lives and believes in [Christ] shall never die” (Jn 11:25). So, today’s Gospel and this feast invites us to renew our faith in Christ, the Resurrection and the Life. Whatever ails us, however we may lament and grieve, we’re invited to share the faith of St Martha, and to trust in Christ, “he who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27). He comes to suffer alongside us. He comes to die with us, and to raise us to new life. He comes to give us a share in his final victory over sin, death, and evil. He is with us now, and feeds us with himself, the Living Bread. He promises: “Whoever eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:51).
So, with St Martha and all the saints and martyrs with whom we are united in one holy communion, we cry out: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Apoc 22:20).
Today’s saint was the only woman to have founded a religious Order, that is a family of consecrated life with both men and women. The Bridgittines were established in Vadstena in 1346 which became the heart of Swedish Catholicism. She was a mystic and received revelations of Christ’s Passion known as the ‘Fifteen Prayers of St Bridget’. She was consulted by theologians and kings, and like St Catherine of Siena, wrote to the popes in Avignon to try and persuade them to return the Papacy to Rome. She travelled the breadth of Europe, going on pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, Jerusalem, and finally to Rome where she died in 1373 at the age of 70.
For these reasons, St Bridget is a worthy Patron of Europe; one of six. But most of this St Bridget did in her years of widowhood from 1344, what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “second period” of her life. Today I wish to just draw attention, instead, to the first period of her life, which is no less saintly, no less worthy of emulation by Christians today.
St Bridget had been happily married for 28 years to Ulf Gudmarsson, a governor of an important district of the Kingdom of Sweden. So, she lived a courtly life, and she had been born into the Swedish royal clan. With the wealth and influence at her disposal she built a hospital, engaged in charitable works for the good of the poor, and was invited by the Swedish king to go to court and introduce his French queen to Swedish culture. We often see this pattern of holiness for courtly women of this time. St Margaret of Scotland, St Elizabeth of Hungary and other such royal saints follow the same pattern. What they teach us today is that money and power are not obstacles to holiness. Rather, they can be a means to sanctity if we use what we have for the good of others, for God’s work. I am reminded of Mrs Charlotte Jefferson-Tytus, for example, who in her widowhood was encouraged by fr Bede Jarrett OP to become benefactress to the Order. Together with him she was the foundress of Blackfriars Oxford, and even of this Edinburgh priory.
However, charity begins at home. Hence, St Bridget’s goodness also had a positive effect on her husband and children. Through her influence, Ulf began to take his faith more seriously and with her he became a Franciscan tertiary. They went on pilgrimage to Compostela, and towards the end of his life, he retired to a Cistercian monastery, having agreed with Bridget to live as ‘brother and sister’. In the context of its time, this is seen as a deepening of one’s desire for God, and so St Bridget offers us an example of a Christian wife, who thus helps her husband to grow in holiness. In this way she loves God and her first neighbour, her spouse, and she shows us how the vocation of marriage is a path of sanctification.
St Bridget was also a mother. With Ulf, she had four boys and four girls. One of her daughters, Catherine (Karin) would travel with her to Rome and is also a canonized saint, and this can be seen as a mark of how effective a teacher she was, how positive the influence of this saintly woman. From St Bridget, then, we learn how beautiful and important the work of a mother and a wife is; how vital mothers are for handing on the Faith, for their civilizing effect, and making a domestic Church, a home. We are grateful!
But all this can make St Bridget’s life seem quite charmed and fortunate. However the lady who founded the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, with a special devotion to the Lord in his Passion, and who first received a vision of the Crucified Lord when she was just 7 was no stranger to suffering. At the age of 12 her mother died, so she had to be given into the care of an aunt. Her four sons died young, two of them while on Crusade. And when her husband died, when she was just 41, she grieved deeply for the one whom she said she’d loved “like my own body”. So many wives endure widowhood, and so many mothers know the pain of losing a child. St Bridget, then, shares their experience and sorrow. How did she cope? By abiding in Christ’s love. As we hear in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20). Thus, as the Gospel says, we are filled with Christ’s joy, with faith in the Resurrection which St Bridget knew would follow on after she’d suffered the Cross with Christ.
- 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.
What makes you angry? St Thomas says that anger is a response to perceived injustice. So, we can feel anger when we think we’ve been treated unfairly, when our dignity (or pride) has been violated, or when we see someone being treated unjustly. Anger, then, serves to stir up activity that would redress an injustice. As such, St Thomas says that anger, properly ordered, is at the service of justice. Indeed, he says it is praiseworthy to be angry for right reasons, that is, when justice is at stake.
St Thomas’ stance on anger is surprising since it was traditionally classed as a ‘deadly sin’, and yet St Thomas believes anger is more complex and ambivalent. He knows, of course, that very often our angry response to a perceived injustice can be disproportionate, unjustified, vengeful, misdirected and unreasonable. In these cases, it would be a vice. However, it is not always so. Indeed, it would be wrong, St Thomas says, not to get angry in some circumstances.
And this is how we can look at God’s anger. It’s true that the term anger is applied to God analogously. For the eternal God is unchanging and thus is not prone to emotions as we, ever changing human creatures are. Nevertheless the Bible uses the language of God’s wrath in order to convey something important about God.
For anger tells us that someone cares deeply. Just consider what it means if we say we’re never angry. It means that we don’t care enough to bothered by a wrong, or to be stirred up to redress an evil. But God cares very deeply indeed, and in particular, he cares about the poor and oppressed; those who are treated unjustly. Thus the prophet Amos is clear that God is furious about the grave injustices committed by Israel and especially by their elite, and he will put an end to sin and injustice. In very graphic language, the prophet says of God: “Behold, I will press you down in your place” (Amos 2:13).
Anger, we’ve said, stirs us to action to redress an injustice. Thus God is stirred to right action to respond to sin, injustice, and hatred in his creation; to put things right. Hence God becomes Man, and his angry judgement of a sinful world is revealed on the Cross (Jn 12:31). We call this the Passion of Christ, and indeed, it is on the Cross that God in Jesus Christ does experience emotion. He experiences passion, as in deep love and care for humanity, and so, because he cares so deeply, he also experiences anger. This righteous and just anger takes Jesus to the Cross where he dies for our salvation; that we might live.
And anger, we know, is also deeply powerful – it can fuel great activity; it can be a fearsome force. No wonder then that on Easter Sunday everyone from the Roman soldiers to the apostles and women disciples are frightened and fearful. For on that day, God’s powerful anger is revealed in the resurrection of his Son from the dead. On that day, then, as Amos foretells, “he who is stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away (2:16). Hence they go running away from the empty tomb (cf Mk 16:8), the scene of God’s great anger.
Earlier this month there was a bit of a kerfuffle over fairy tales. Richard Dawkins was said to have condemned them because they hinder “a spirit of scepticism” in children. But so many rushed to defend the fairy tale, or what Philip Pullman and others have called ‘wonder tales’, that Professor Dawkins had to clarify his position. So, he said: “What I actually think is that fairy tales can be wonderful” because they are “stimulating the imagination”… “stretching the imagination of children”. But wonder tales are fundamentally about the wonder of the world itself, and so, authors have argued that fairy tales “are wonders, disturbing and astonishing, yet encoded, oblique renderings of experience. Fairytales, still, are all about things that are happening”. Hence, years ago, another Oxford professor, J.R.R. Tolkien, offered his defence of fairy tales and fantasy. He said: “actually fairy-stories deal largely… with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting”.
So, there is an element of the fantastic, the magical and wondrous in today’s first reading; this is a kind of wonder tale, stretching our imagination but grounded in fundamental truths and founded on something that really happened. What does the story of Elijah being taken up in a fiery chariot have to teach us?
A number of the saints stress that all we can know is that Elijah was taken from the sight of his followers, but only Elisha was privileged to see something extraordinary; a kind of revelation. We can get caught up in the question of what actually happened, but this misses the point of a wonder tale. Hence St John Chrysostom, for example, says that this story says “nothing more than is necessary” which is to give us “a hope of the destruction of death, and of the overthrow of the devil’s tyranny, and that death will be done away”. So, for the Golden-Mouthed Doctor, the tale of the end of Elijah’s life on earth stretches our imagination, causing us to dare to hope that death, which is the fundamental thing in this story, is nevertheless not the definitive end.
The references to the whirlwind, to fiery chariots and horses all speak of tremendous power, divine power. For earlier on we have seen how God manifests his power by sending down fire from heaven, and God is also spoken of in the Scriptures as being present in the wind. So, fire and wind are references to the divine presence and activity. As for chariots and horses, these are often found in the psalms as images of power, of rescue, and military might.
As such, this story of Elijah tells of God’s great power which can work to rescue Mankind from death, defeating our final Enemy, as St John Chrysostom says. Hence, the ascension of Elijah is a promise of the Resurrection; our imagination is being stretched to apprehend the wonderful works that God can and will do for us. Hence in early Christian art found in the catacombs and carved into marble sarcophagi, the Ascension of Elijah is included as an expression of our Christian hope in the resurrection of the body and of life everlasting, as we say in the Apostles’ Creed. So, the story of Elijah stretches the human imagination to conceive of what God’s power accomplishes.
Except that, if we think about it, Elijah’s wonder tale was really a kind of preparation for the Jewish people, an anticipation of what was to come, a stimulation of the imagination so that Jewish thoughts of the afterlife move on from a shady existence in Sheol to something more, namely, the resurrection of the body. For what could only be imagined by our Jewish forefathers, prophesied and revealed by today’s story of Elijah, came to pass and found its fulfillment in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our Christian hope, then, is founded on this historical fact, and we will rise by his power.
Thus the 11th-century Cistercian abbot, Guerric of Igny said: “the Flesh of Christ is the provision for our journey; His Spirit is our chariot. He is the Food, He is the Chariot of Israel, and the Horseman thereof.”
It’s the fiftieth and final day of the Easter season today but the Gospel takes us back to the first day, to the evening of Easter Sunday, when the Risen Christ first appeared to his apostles gathered together. So Christ comes to his Church and imparts his peace and mercy by giving the Holy Spirit, the grace of forgiveness for sins. Fifty days later, on Pentecost Sunday, the apostolic Church is gathered together again. Now, the Holy Spirit appears to the apostles, and gives to the Church the gift of tongues.
So, whereas on Easter Sunday, Christ the eternal Word breathes over the apostles, and gives the Holy Spirit, today on Pentecost Sunday, the Holy Spirit breathes over the apostles as they heard a sound “like the rush of a mighty wind” (Acts 2:2), and the Spirit gives them the eternal Word. Hence, as soon as the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles, the Church catholic, in many different languages, begins to preach “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11). For this is what the Church is for: she exists to communicate to all peoples what God has done.
What God has done, his mighty works – this is crucial. Because, very often it can seem that we Christians are here to do good works, to carry out works of social justice, of education, health care and so on. It is true that the Catholic Church is still the single largest charitable organization delivering humanitarian services and aid in the world, and all this good work, we must say, comes ultimately from God as we human beings co-operate with his grace and live out his commandments. As St Paul says: “there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one” (1 Cor 12:6).
But, as we know all too well, the Church – or, really, the Christian people – often also fails to do good works. In fact, we Catholics have been complicit in some very bad works. This week’s news from the recent history of the Irish Church – at least, as the Press widely reported it – shocked and dismayed me, as I am sure it would have horrified you and so many other people too. And so, as we gather today for Pentecost, for this feast which is often called “the birthday of the Church”, some might wonder if we have much cause to celebrate. What do we, a Church of sinners, have to say to our world especially on Pentecost Sunday?
We live in an age that is distrustful of power and institutions; wary of the Establishment and elite. All too often our trust in those in authority has been betrayed, and so we are, rightly I suppose, reticent to believe. For some time now, the Gospel has been proposed and taught from a position of power and influence, by a Church that is allied to the organs of Government and authority. And for our contemporaries who are wary of power and its abuse, then the Gospel and its preaching, which is the raison d’être of the Church, can be perceived as a kind of myth that perpetuates the hold of these power institutions over ordinary folk. In this way of perceiving things, science and reason are held up as great liberating forces to break the stranglehold of a credulous Church, its medieval myths, and its lust for power over consciences.
But this, in fact, is the myth of our age; a fundamentally false one.
For during this Easter Octave, we have not encountered credulous apostles. On the contrary, these men are unbelieving, hard of heart, and slow to believe. They’re a rather skeptical bunch – the kind of incredulous reasonable people that our modern-day Dawkins-fan would be proud of. Nor have we encountered powerful and manipulative institutions, out to perpetrate a myth of Christ’s Resurrection so as to control the poor masses. Au contraire, the apostles are “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13). Moreover, the first witness of the Risen Lord is a woman, whose witness was typically scorned and disregarded by those in power in 1st-century Palestine. And the next two witnesses were two deserters, fleeing Jerusalem for the country; country bumpkins, even, we might say. So, Christianity’s key event, without which the whole Faith implodes, relies on the witness of poor ordinary disorganized folk. This truly grassroots movement, so removed from the power and elitism and smug certitude of certain modern-day academics, thinkers and scientists, began among the powerless, the un-respectable, the ignored; little people.
And yet those first eyewitnesses of the Resurrection, beginning with Mary Magdalene and other women, then the Two headed to Emmaus, then the Eleven remaining apostles, and some other common folk, simply would not be ignored. No earthly power, not even the might of imperial Rome, could silence them. These little people made a big claim.
Because they pro-claimed Truth. As St Peter, speaking for the whole Church and for subsequent generations of Christians said, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Even today, the powerful Media would silence the voices of the little people, of our brothers and sisters, the persecuted Christians of Syria, Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Sudan and countless other places besides. But they, like St Peter and St John, cannot be silenced. Their willing suffering and martyrdom eloquently proclaim that “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who [the authorities had] crucified, God [has] raised from the dead” (cf Acts 4:10). This is the simple Truth they – and we – must proclaim. This is not so much a doctrine, but a person. We preach the Risen Lord whom we encounter above all in the Eucharist.
But, if we’ve truly encountered Christ in the Mass, then the way we “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Lk 16:15) will reflect our Eucharistic Lord. He comes to us in humility and gentleness, with mercy, compassion and love. Thus our preaching goes forth. And not with power or institutional force or arrogant triumphalism either, but with the unstoppable boldness and urgency that comes from having seen and heard the Living Lord. Hence St Paul says, we speak the truth in love (Eph 4:5).