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.
We human beings encounter the reality of the world around us, we know, through the senses; through our sight, touch, hearing, and taste. Hence in today’s Gospel Jesus invites his disciples to encounter the reality of who he is – that he is the Risen One – through the human senses. They hear him speaking to them, and he says, “See my hands and my feet”; “Handle me” (Lk 24:39); and then, he eats a piece of broiled fish. Thus, all four senses of sight, touch, hearing and taste are used to verify the reality, the truth, of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. He invites them to know that “it is I myself”, Jesus himself and not some simulacrum of him. This was how Jesus made himself known to his disciples that first Easter Sunday.
But now for us, Jesus makes himself known to us, in the way that he once did when he encountered the two disciples in Emmaus. As St Luke says: “they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of bread” (Lk 24:35). Why does Jesus choose this mode of being present to us, his disciples? Because we are on the road too. We, too, are like the Israelites who celebrated the Passover with unleavened bread, prepared for travel. We, too, are like these two disciples, on the road. For we are a pilgrim Church, a people on the road, making our way through life towards our home and destination, which is heaven. Hence, Jesus is present for us, and makes himself known to us as he once did to the disciples in Emmaus: in the breaking of bread; in the Eucharist which becomes our Bread for the journey or, as Tolkien put it, Waybread.
The Eucharist, though, is truly the Mysterium Fidei, the Mystery or Sacrament of Faith. In it, once more, the Risen Lord Jesus is encountered and not some simulacrum of him. “It is I myself”, Jesus says, which is why the Eucharist is consecrated by Christ’s Priest in the first person: “This is my Body; This is my Blood”. However, unlike the disciples in today’s Gospel, we cannot rely on our senses of sight, touch, or taste to encounter this reality. As St Thomas says, “Seeing, touching, tasting fail to discern Thee”. But rather, we rely purely on the sense of hearing, or to be more precise, we rely on faith, believing in the Word of God whom we hear speaking. So, St Thomas puts it like this: “How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed. What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do; Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true”. Hence, we believe that the Risen Lord is wholly present in the Eucharist; he makes himself known to us in the breaking of Bread because he has promised to do so. “I it is myself”. For we human beings know not just through our senses but through faith in God’s Word.
But this just seems too good to be true, sometimes. St Luke uses a rather strange and unique phrase in today’s Gospel for this. The apostles “disbelieved for joy” (Lk 24:41). So, too, when we encounter the Risen Lord in the Eucharist, we can find ourselves disbelieving for joy. Not because we doubt Christ’s Word or the salvific truth taught by his Church, but rather because the Eucharist is just such a marvel of divine love, such a daily miracle of God’s faithfulness to humanity, such a sign of divine mercy and humility, that we can’t fully grasp the depth of this great Mystery of Faith. As St John Vianney said: “If we really understood the Mass, we would die of joy.”
What we can do, however, is to just be present here in the Mass, and worship. So, as he once did for the disciples, we ask Jesus to open our minds (cf Lk 24:45), and to make us his witnesses – evangelizers of the joy we have in knowing the risen Lord Jesus Christ through the gift of faith.
St Matthew’s Gospel is emphatic that the risen Lord Jesus first appears to women. Two women, in fact, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (Mt 1:28), “mother of James and Joseph” (Mt 27:56). The fact that there were two of them is significant because, as St Paul (echoing Jewish law) says, “any charge must be sustained by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (2 Cor 13:1). So, there must be at least two witnesses to establish a fact. However, Jewish tradition did not allow women to serve as witnesses in court. Neither were slaves, or children, or the deaf and blind, or notorious sinners admitted as witnesses.
But the Risen Lord comes to these two women, and reveals himself to them, and allows them to touch his glorified body. For as Jesus had said and shown through his ministry in Galilee, he was born for sinners; he came to heal the deaf and blind, to bring freedom to slaves, and he called children to him. In Christ God had come to reach out to the weakest and marginalized of society; those whom society and men of law and power reject, Jesus calls and embraces.
So, after his Resurrection, Christ comes again to these women who stand for all those whom official society had marginalized or held as weak and not-good-enough. And as God had reached out to them in Jesus, so now they reach out to Jesus. They “took his feet and worshipped him” as God (Mt 28:9). Hence, you and I who are sinners, who were blind and deaf because of sin have been healed by Christ’s grace and mercy shown on the Cross. And we, who are reborn in baptism are like little children, who can now approach and embrace the risen Christ “for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:14).
Let nobody, then, feel too weak or sinful or small or unworthy to reach out to Christ. Let no one be afraid. For the Risen Lord comes in search of such people – not of the proud and self-righteous – but of the humble and weak. Of those, perhaps, who feel they’ve not kept a very good Lent, or are still tempted and sinful. These are the ones the Risen Lord seeks, and he says to us, to you and to me: “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28:10). He comes to us today in the Eucharist, and he allows us to reach out to him, to touch him, and receive his healing mercy and grace.
And to those of us who come here to worship Jesus as God, and who have encountered the Risen Lord in these Easter sacraments, Christ gives us a command: “Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (Mt 28:10). Because Jesus is for ever God and Man, so his brethren refer not just to the apostles but to all of Mankind. So the women, that is, we, are told by the Risen Lord to tell all peoples that we have encountered him. And we’re to tell them to “go to Galilee” where they will see him too. What might this mean? Galilee, as I’ve suggested, was where Jesus first ministered to the little ones, to the needy and poor and unloved of society. So, we Christians are to go out among the marginalized and poor. As St Matthew’s Gospel says we will see Christ among the least (Mt 25:40).
However, we’re also to go among those who are sinners, who are still blind and deaf to Faith and to Christ’s Word. And we’re to tell them the Gospel of salvation, to open their eyes to God’s love in Christ, so that they, our fellow sinners, can also see the Risen Lord Jesus. “There they will see me” (Mt 28:10). For where he is needed most – in the despairing and skeptical hearts of 21st-century men and women – in our modern-day Galilee, the Risen Lord will be there. He reaches out to his brothers and sisters, made so deaf by false philosophies, so blind by Rationalism, so poor by lack of Faith. But he relies on you and me to tell them the Good News that he is risen, so that they, too, can see the risen Lord, and reach out to touch him, and worship.
A few years ago, when I was a younger and even more inexperienced deacon, I was invited to a Catholic comprehensive school in Essex. And I went into a class of 16 year olds, dressed in my full 13th-century habit to take some questions. And all they wanted to ask about was sex: talk about Daniel in the lions’ den… But I survived to tell the tale! It’s fitting, then, that the image of Daniel in the lions’ den is one of the earliest Christian depictions of Resurrection hope, found on sarcophagi in Rome.
But not all the questions were about sexual matters. One boy hoped that I would do his homework for him, and so he asked me: ‘What is the relevance of the doctrine of the resurrection for today’? A good question. As I walked through the Meadows yesterday and watched everybody enjoying the sunshine, seemingly oblivious to what was happening in our little hidden chapel, this question came to mind again: what is the relevance of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection; of these three sacred days, the Triduum, we’ve been celebrating?
And here is, more or less, what I said to that boy. We begin with Christ’s Passion and Death, his suffering on the Cross. So, we think, too, of the suffering of all humanity; of the people of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Central African Republic, and so many other spots forgotten by us and the Media. As I was on my way yesterday to visit the sick of our parish, I considered, too, the pain and suffering around us and in our own lives, so much of which is unseen. Suffering is very immediate and it touches each of us at some time and in some way, directly and indirectly. Then we begin to see how very relevant the resurrection of Jesus Christ is.
For we believe that God became one of a us, a human person who suffered, died, and was buried. In Jesus Christ, our God became present to human suffering, so that when we suffer, God is there. So, ours is not a God who is distant from us, but a God who bore our sins and pains and all that belongs to our human mortality in his own body. He, the Crucified One, bore all that on the Tree (cf 1 Pt 2:24). Each generation is overwhelmed by evil, suffering and sin in our world, and we rightly ask, ‘Where is God’? But the God whom they – we – interrogate is One who we beheld taking up his Cross, struggling under its weight to Calvary, and disfigured by torture and anguish on the Cross. And so, the mystery of sin and evil suffered is given meaning even if we don’t – and I think can never fully – understand it. But it has meaning because of today, the day of Resurrection.
Easter is typically celebrated with loud music and triumphant singing, but if we pay attention to the Gregorian chants given to us by the Church, we note a different mood altogether. There is a certain ambivalence of tone; the musical mode chosen is not triumphant but still hesitant. Why? Because we still live in suffering and witness it around us every day. Nevertheless, the music and text for the Entrance chant of today’s Mass strikes a note of reassurance. “I have risen, and I am with you still, alleluia”. This assurance of Christ’s living Presence, with us in our suffering; with us in the Eucharist which is always a sacred memorial of his Passion; Christ with us still, no matter what happens to us, is the tone for Easter Sunday that the sacred Liturgy wants to teach us.
For it is Christ, risen from the tomb, who gives meaning to all that befalls us. It is his Resurrection and the promise it holds for us that gives meaning to our suffering, our death; to the Cross we carry each day; to the dying in baptism and in daily martyrdom that we endure for the sake of his Name. It is the resurrection that gives meaning to the crucifixion of humanity… in Haiti, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, the Philippines; on our streets where the homeless lie, and in the slums where the poor scavenge for scraps in rubbish dumps, and in our homes torn apart by violence, selfishness, disharmony. And in our hearts too, pierced by the insults, humiliation, and indignity that others mete out to us. All this pain, sadness, and suffering, where Christ is present only makes sense, or has any meaning because he is the Risen One; because he is risen and is with us still.
God’s covenant with Abraham is the bedrock of our faith. For through the incident recounted in today’s First Reading, God takes the initiative to enter into a personal relationship with Mankind; he calls Abraham and his descendants into communion with him. And our faith is founded on this promise of “an everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7). Thus, Abraham is called, in the Roman Canon, our “father in faith”.
In the covenant, God promises: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful” (17:6), and makes the gift of “all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession” (17:8). What this means is that communion with God brings life and flourishing. It is a promise, then, of salvation. We need to bear in mind that the word ‘salvation’ comes from the Latin salus which means health, well-being, flourishing. So, in the Old Testament, God is seen to have established a special relationship with Abraham and his descendants, with Israel, that promises to them health, success, and flourishing in this life so long as they are faithful to God and obey his Law. This, it seems, is what salvation entailed.
But Abraham’s faith shows its mettle when he’s asked to sacrifice his only son, his heir, Isaac. Thus the promise of physical health and material success is jeopardized. We need to wait until the Easter Vigil to hear this story recounted in the Liturgy but we want to keep it in mind today because what this incident shows is the depths of Abraham’s faith. He, our father in faith, shows us that faith encompasses the suffering, sacrifice and the endurance of all earthly sorrows and grief. And Abraham can do this because he believes above all that God is faithful and good, and so, will ultimately bring about life and flourishing. God will be faithful to his Word even in the face of death.
Hence, Abraham grasped that salvation is not so much about success and power in this earthly life but something deeper and more lasting, transcending even death. The covenant is not just a treaty for worldly gain, then, but something more profound, of spiritual significance and with its promise of rescue beyond the grave. So, when the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is read on Easter night, then we see that Jesus’ resurrection is God’s final and definitive answer to Abraham’s faith in the covenant. Here is the promised salvation, perfectly realized for all Abraham’s descendants. Because, by Christ’s Resurrection, Mankind is rescued from the privation of death, and shares in the everlasting life and health of God himself. Through Christ’s Resurrection the covenant with Abraham is perfected, and the salvation promised him is fully realized. We, who are Abraham’s descendants and heirs because we share his faith in Jesus’ Resurrection, are thus also inheritors of God’s covenant, the “new and eternal covenant” signed with Christ’s blood.
It seems that Abraham already had a glimpse of all this. For all this is what his faith signifies and anticipates. Hence Jesus says: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad” (Jn 8:56). For the day Abraham saw was the day of God’s salvation, and now, in Jesus Christ, in his saving Passion and Resurrection, that day shines out clearly. So, in the coming Holy Week we will see Abraham’s faith come to fruition so that with him, our father in faith, we can also rejoice and be glad.
Looking out onto our Spring garden behind this chapel, we are reminded that water and light are vital for life. And as this is true of nature, so it is true too of super-nature, of the human soul; for our full human flourishing in body and soul, we need not just material things but spiritual gifts that only God can give. Hence, the Gospels we’ve heard over these three Sundays have spoken of water, light, and life. For as in Spring we are made aware of these elemental gifts that are necessary for those plants to flourish and grow, so in Lent (which is an old English word for Spring) we are being reminded of what humanity needs for its fullest flourishing and growth.
We need the living waters of the Holy Spirit which wells up to eternal life (cf Jn 4:14). We need the light of Christ so we can see God (cf Jn 9:4). And both are given to Mankind in the sacrament of baptism so that we can have Life – divine life – from God the Father. So through baptism humanity becomes fully alive in the Holy Trinity. And being fully alive is what we mean by being in a state of grace. It means that we, the baptized, now live and move and have our being in the Holy Trinity. As St Paul says: “your spirits are alive because of righteousness” (Rom 8:10b).
Thus, these Gospels, with their great elemental images of water, light, and life, are read at this time of year especially for those who are preparing to receive the Easter sacraments. It stirs up in them a longing for what they will receive. But they are read for us, too, who are already baptized, to remind us of what we have received and what we still need. We need to remain alive in the Holy Spirit. Hence, Lent is our Spring-time too. Lent calls us out of the winter of our sins to receive again the water and light we need so that we can flourish and grow and become more fully alive in God. So Lent is a time of grace, inviting us to become more fully alive in God’s grace.
Just as those who are not yet baptized will come to new life in God through baptism at Easter, so, at this time, we who are already baptized are also being called to a new life in Christ. Often our sins, our weaknesses, frailties, anxieties and addictions entomb us – we are like Lazarus. Indeed, to be in a state of sin is worse: it is to be buried alive. For although our bodies live, we are already spiritually dead if we are in a state of mortal sin.
But Lent is our Spring, and new life springs forth, with God’s water and light, with the grace that comes from the sacrament of Confession. Lent is this graced time in which we examine our consciences, we do some Spring cleaning, and consider what needs changing and repenting in our lives. That charity and kindness and gentleness which is dead can be brought to new life; dry bones and dry hearts can be watered and revived; deeds hidden in the darkness of shame and guilt can be brought into the light of God’s forgiveness and mercy. And even if we’re not in a state of grave sin, Confession is still needful because it gives us grace which, like water and light for the plants, helps our souls to flourish and grow and become more fully alive in the Holy Spirit.
The Press marvelled recently when Pope Francis publicly went to confession in St Peter’s Basilica before a Reconciliation Service last week. But every bishop and priest does this, just as every Catholic must. It’s a perfectly normal and healthy part of the Christian life, and the more regularly we do it, the better! It makes us more fully alive in Christ, not least because the sacrament of Confession is a participation in the grace of Jesus’ Resurrection. If we think about it, the confessional is like the empty tomb and, having been absolved and filled with the Holy Spirit in this sacrament, we come forth full of grace like the Risen Lord bursting out of the Easter tomb. St Paul put it this way in the second reading: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8:11). So, the sacrament of Confession anticipates and is a promise of our final Resurrection in body and soul at the end of time.
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.