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 is a day of beginnings. It’s the first Sunday of Advent – the beginning of a new liturgical year. And today we also rejoice with Victoria and Sascha at another signifiant beginning – the baptism of their son Emil Louis-Christophe. And, so, it is fitting that at the start of the Church’s year we are reminded of the start of our Christian journey. It is fitting, too, in Advent that we rejoice. For this is not so much a penitential season as a quiet season of joyful expectation; a time in which we hope to “go rejoicing into the house of the Lord”, not just on Christmas day, together with the shepherds and wise men, but also on the final day, at the end of Life’s journey. We hope to go rejoicing, with the angels and saints, into the eternal house of the Lord, into eternal life with God in heaven. For this is the destination of the Christian journey, and it begins for each one of us with baptism. Hence, when Victoria and Sascha was asked what they wanted for Emil in asking for him to be baptised, they said: “Eternal life”.
The Christian journey is depicted by the prophet Isaiah in our first reading as a pilgrimage up a mountain, up to the “house of the God of Jacob”. The rite of baptism tries to give this sense of journeying too, as we move from the entrance of the church towards the lectern, where God’s Word is read, then to the font, where we are re-born to new life, and finally to the Altar. This is literally the ‘high place’, the mountain of the Lord, where we come to dwell with God and he abides with us through the Eucharist.
Our Christian life is, therefore, never static but is marked by this kind of movement towards God. Inasmuch as it is a journey up a high mountain, so, the Christian life has its struggles and difficulties. We may battle against high winds, occasionally wander off the path, or be distracted by various sights. But, we must move ever upward. In the words of the Dominican saint, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, the patron of our scouts, and patron of youth: “Verso l’alto”. We must move ever onwards “toward the top”, to the summit where God awaits us.
But, we do not struggle alone on this journey. Some of us may recall a recent climb up Arthurs Seat, where the wind was so strong that you could lean back into it and it supported one from falling. God’s Holy Spirit, the divine Wind or Breath of God, is like this. He supports us on our Christian journey if we would lean into him, and we are supported, too, by a host of saints and fellow pilgrims, by God’s holy Church. This is the reason Emil is baptised during Mass, so that we can all pray for him, and support him. No one is a Christian alone, and nobody journeys to heaven alone. We do so as members of Christ’s Body surrounded by a crowd of friends and family, by parents and godparents, by brothers and sisters in Christ.
Isaiah says: “Come, let us go up… that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isa 2:3). So, on our Christian journey, we will need not just the prayers and support of one another, but we can also learn from one another, especially from the saints. This is why we invoke their prayers in the rite of baptism. The saints have reached the summit of the Christian life, and so, they can show us the way up and help us with their prayers. In this journey, Emil can look to one of his name saints, Christopher, who is patron saint of travellers, for help. The paths that the saints have trodden before us are well-worn but arduous. We may need to lighten our load, and shed unneeded burdens and worldly attachments if we want to walk in their paths. Because the path they take is the Way of the Cross; the mountain they have climbed is Calvary. So, too, each of us can learn from the saints how to walk this way too. It is the way of our Lord Jesus Christ; it is the way of Love.
In modern times, one saint stands out for the way he sacrificed himself for the love of his fellow Man, and in doing so, he clearly reached the summit of the Christian life. His baptism found its goal, its perfection, in his martyr’s death. As he offered his life in exchange for the life of another fellow prisoner in Auschwitz, St Maximilian Kolbe, patron of the pro-life cause, shows us what it costs to reach the summit of the Christian life. It costs us love.
St Maximilian, who is Emil’s special patron because he was born on his feast day (14 August), teaches us the costliness of walking in Christ’s way of love. For love demands sacrifice. But it is precisely this Christ-like love that “shall judge between the nations… so that “nation shall not life up sword against nation [nor] shall they learn war any more” (Isa 2:4). Love heals violence, hatred and strife. And the one who follows Christ’s way of love shall “walk in the light of the Lord” (Isa 2:5). This is to say, he will share in Christ’s glory and be raised up to reign with Christ in heaven. For Love endures for ever and is stronger than death.
For many of us, the Christian life may not be so dramatic, but if we are to learn to love, then it will still be costly and demanding. Every day, situations arise which demand a sacrifice, which ask for love, or mercy, or compassion from us. These may be small instances, but many will be unexpected. Hence Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel to “be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Mt 24:44). We’re to be vigilant, then, in our Christian life. Or perhaps, we should think of it in an Advent mode. Let us be full of joyful expectation that the Lord could come at any time, and give us opportunities to love, to be kind, to be tender-hearted to him. For Christ is with us in the “distressing disguise of the poor”, as Blessed Mother Teresa said. He is all around us waiting to be recognized, served, and loved. Another of Emil’s name saints, Louis, was thus always attentive to care for the homeless and poor.
Hence, it is here in the Church, which we can truly call “the house of the Lord”, that we learn from the saints how we can walk in the Lord’s paths and find him. It is here in the Church that we support one another with prayer, friendship and love on our Christian journey. It is here in the Church that Man finds his way home to God. So, as Emil is baptised today, he indeed goes “rejoicing into the house of the Lord”!
The Byzantine church calls today’s saint the Protokletos, the first-called. Because St Andrew was the first apostle to respond to Christ’s call to follow him. This is not as apparent in the Gospel we’ve just heard but in St John’s Gospel, we learn that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist, and that he was drawn to Jesus when St John pointed to the Lord and said: “Behold, the Lamb of God”. Together with an unnamed disciple, they went to Jesus and stayed with him (cf Jn 1:35-40).
Today, we find ourselves in the place of that unnamed disciple. We hear those words, “Behold the Lamb of God”, and we are invited to go with St Andrew to Christ. But here in the Eucharist, Jesus comes under our roof; it is the Lord who condescends to come to us, to stays and remain with us. Through this sacrament, God dwells in us so that we can abide in him. So, although St Andrew is the first to be called, and the first to respond, each day we too are called; we’re also being invited to respond to God’s grace and do as St Andrew did: to follow Christ and stay close to him. And it is this on-going response, a daily ‘Yes’ to Christ that matters most. For what is remarkable about St Andrew is not so much that he was the first to go to Christ, although this requires great courage and faith. But rather, it is the fact that Andrew remained close to Jesus for the rest of his days, and continued to live with such courage and faith that he willingly suffered the same kind of death as the Lord – crucifixion. In a 6th-century text, The Passion of St Andrew, the apostle says: “Hail, O Cross, inaugurated by the Body of Christ… I come to you, therefore, confident and joyful, so that you too may receive me exultant as a disciple of the One who was hung upon you”.
Those words “confident and joyful” bring us back to today’s Gospel. St Matthew is not so much concerned about who was the first to go to Christ, but he concentrates on what being with Christ does. What does following Christ entail? “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19). So, it seems that going to Christ and remaining close to him, being friends of Christ, makes us fishers of men, that is to say, evangelizers; people who draw others to Christ. And St Andrew does so with confidence and joy.
This is something Pope Francis spells out at length in his new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. A Christian is someone who has encountered the person of Jesus Christ; someone who has, therefore, experienced the personal love and mercy of God – this is what it means for us to recognize, with St Andrew, that Jesus is the ‘Lamb of God’. The Christian disciple thus has his life transformed by love and mercy, and his heart is filled with joy, a joy which cannot be contained but must be preached to others as life-changing, transforming good news. So, Pope Francis asks us: “[I]f we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” (§8).
But to become a fisher of men means that one has to patiently, gently attract people to Christ. We fish, not with dynamite, but with light in the dark waters. As Pope Francis (citing Pope Benedict) says: “Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, [Christians] should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction” (§15).
So, today, we have been called with St Andrew to go to Christ. We are being invited to taste the goodness of God here in this sacred banquet, to witness the beauty and wisdom of Christ in the Scriptures, and so to be filled with the confidence and joy of an apostle. For each and every one of us has been called, like Andrew, to follow Christ, to remain close to him, and so, to draw others – the people of Scotland – into the joy of friendship with God.
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.
Many of us will know Saint Margaret’s chapel in Edinburgh Castle. Reputedly the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh, it dates to the reign of King David I (1124-53). But the saint we celebrate today is even older. She was King David’s mother, and she died in the Castle in 1093. But although Queen Margaret of Scotland never worshipped in the chapel named after her, it is the one remaining structure closest to her time, and, I think that through it one gets a sense of the woman and the saint we celebrate today.
This building is quite literally, a survivor. It has survived sieges, wars, and being battered by the wind, snow and rain. Margaret herself was a survivor. She was born a princess of Wessex, but not in England. Her father had been exiled from England in 1016 when the Danes invaded. So, she was born in Hungary around 1045. At the age of 12, she returned with her family to England, but when England was again invaded, this time by the Normans, in 1066, Margaret and her family had to flee to Northumbria. But a storm drove their ship off course, and they landed in Scotland. So, St Margaret was a refugee, a survivor of war, violence, and both political and natural storms.
St Margaret’s chapel, with its thick stone walls and low ceiling gives one a sense of strength, austerity, and endurance. This is fitting as St Margaret was certainly a strong person to have endured and weathered all this turmoil in her young life. But what gives St Margaret’s chapel it sense of solidity and firmness, I think, is how its rough stone walls seem to blend into the very rock on which the Castle stands. So, too, St Margaret’s strength comes from the Rock on which she built her life: Jesus Christ.
Her being founded on Christ – her strong faith in him – was expressed in spiritual works and corporal works. Thus St Margaret was renowned for her austerity, her piety and devotion. After her marriage to King Malcolm III in 1070, she would read him stories from the Bible, rise at midnight for Matins, and she invited Benedictine monks to establish a monastery at Dunfermline. In this way she sought to bring the Scottish Church closer to the rest of the Catholic Church. Her childhood on the Continent had given her a greater sense of the universal Church than people on these islands might have had, and her son David would continue her efforts in this area.
St Margaret’s firm faith was also expressed through the corporal works of mercy she carried out daily. As the website of Queen Margaret University notes: “Queen Margaret was concerned with works of mercy and giving and particularly with the care of the poor”. So, she would wash the feet of beggars, she fed orphans and the poor before herself, and she tended to the sick. And she did this because, as our Gospel reminds us, she saw Christ in them.
Finally, I think something can be said about the way St Margaret’s chapel stands humbly and often unnoticed, dwarved by the grand War Memorial and other Castle buildings around it. We’re reminded, thus, of the saint’s humility and quiet service. But also, I think, of the on-going works of charity and compassion done by countless Christian women, and men, down the ages. These are often unnoticed, too, and one can be distracted by the apparatus of the secular State, military power, and wealth. But today’s feast recalls that goodness, mercy, and love, being founded on Christian truth, are never forgotten, always precious, and stand steadfast and firm against the battering of time and fashion. Just so, St Margaret’s chapel has stood for almost a millennium.
But even when that crumbles, St Margaret herself will shine like a pearl for all eternity, radiant with the glory of Christ and all the saints.
Today we celebrate a fourth-century bishop of Tours in France, who was one of the first Christian saints to be venerated without having been a martyr. Instead, he was called a confessor, meaning someone who lived a holy life. The martyrdom or witness of a confessor is that daily dying to self; taking up one’s cross and following Christ that we are all called to.
St Martin was born in Pannonia, the Roman Province that covers modern-day Hungary. His father was an officer in the Roman army and not a Christian. But, somehow, Martin heard of Christianity and at the age of 10 he secretly asked to become a catechumen – someone who was being instructed about the Faith. At the age of 15, he was still an unbaptised catechumen when he joined the Roman army, and he served in the cavalry.
One of the most famous stories about St Martin, which is often depicted in art, comes from his time as a soldier. One day he saw a poor naked beggar shivering in the cold at the gates of the city of Amiens where he was posted. Moved with compassion, Martin drew his sword and divided his red military cloak in two, and he gave one part to the beggar. During the night, Christ appeared to him in a dream wearing that half of the red cloak, and saying: “Martin, yet a catechumen, has clothed me in this mantle”. The next day Martin went to be baptized. He was 18 years old at the time, and two years later he left the army because he desired to fight for Christ rather than for Caesar. So, eventually he was ordained, and with his mentor, St Hilary, he opposed the Arians, who denied the divinity of Christ, so effectively that he was publicly scourged and exiled from Milan to Gaul. There, he established the first monastery in what became France, but was called from the cloister to the cathedral of Tours to serve as its bishop from 371. As bishop, he was opposed by many non-Christians but he slowly converted them by his holiness of life, preaching, and miracles.
After his death in 397, the cloak of St Martin came to be venerated as a sacred relic. That cloak, called a ‘capella’ lent its name to the small church housing it, from which we get the word ‘chapel’. And the priests who guarded that cloak were called ‘cappellani’, from which we get the word ‘chaplain’.
Every year, St Martin’s feast coincides with Armistice Day, which is appropriate given his peaceable life as a soldier, and his famous act of self-giving love. May he pray for all soldiers, for those who gave their life for the sake of their friends, and for all who die as a result of war and violence. May his example of service above all to Christ, the Prince of Peace, inspire all to strive for peace and justice in every situation. In the words of our First Reading, may all “rulers of the earth” “Love righteousness… think of the Lord with uprightness, and seek him with sincerity of heart” (Wis 1:1).
Why do we have a special feast of All Saints for our Order? Indeed, are there any Dominican saints in heaven? There is a good reason for saying that there aren’t any because our vows as Dominicans only last until death. As such, any saint in heaven is no longer a member of any religious Order. This is because the saints have already reached the goal, the aim, of religious life itself. For the sacraments, and religious Orders, and religious consecration are only meant for this life, to aid us in the Church Militant. They are meant to help us, the pilgrim Church on earth who are striving for perfection, to become saints. For, ultimately, holiness is the fundamental vocation of every Christian, and religious life, and being a Dominican, is just one way to reach that common goal of attaining salvation in Christ. As the Fundamental Constitution of the Order says, we friars are “intent on procuring [our] own and other people’s salvation”.
So, why celebrate All Saints of the Order? I suspect that part of the reason is to remind ourselves that our Dominican life works; that this way of life does procure our salvation by perfecting us in charity! And it is worth reminding ourselves that this is the aim of being a Dominican. Because it’s all too easy to for our life to become just about what we do. But Dominican life is not fundamentally about preaching beautiful sermons, or thinking profound thoughts like academics, or living together in a religious frat’ house where we sing psalms now and again. Rather, as the Fundamental Constitution says: “we consecrate ourselves entirely to God by profession” so as “to ensure that by following Christ in this way we would perfect our love of God and of our neighbour”. So, the perfection of charity both for ourselves and for others is our aim as Dominican brothers and sisters. By looking at the Dominican saints in this one celebration, we are reminded of this, and we are encouraged that so many have gone before us in this way of life and become saints because of it.
Hence St Thomas Aquinas says that the religious life is, objectively, the most direct way to Christian perfection because a life of poverty, chastity and obedience – which is the kind of life Jesus himself lived – “prepares the way for a safer and more perfect observance of the divine precepts”. That religious life makes saints may not seem apparent or all that obvious, especially if you’re using me as an example. But this is not because of any lack in the Order or the consecrated life as such, but due to a stubbornness on my part, I confess. So, another reason we celebrate today’s feast is to call on the Dominican saints to pray for us. At our profession we each asked for God’s mercy and the mercy of our brethren. Today we do that again, asking for God’s mercy for our failures to live up to our vocation, seeking the grace to renew our efforts to live the Dominican life, and asking for the mercy of our holy brothers and sisters that they will intercede for us, and teach us by their example.
In the words of a Responsory at Matins today: “Grant us, Lord, we pray, the forgiveness of our sins, and at the intercession of the saints whose feast we celebrate today grant us such devotion that we may deserve to join their company. May their merits help us, who are hindered by our own wickedness, may their intercession excuse us whom our acts accuse; and as you granted them the palm of heavenly triumph, do not deny us the forgiveness of our sins, that we may deserve to join their company”. Amen.
St Charles Borromeo is one of the great saints of the Catholic Reformation, renown for his tireless efforts in reforming the Archdiocese of Milan, of which he was made bishop at the age of 27. This fact alone tells us something about the Church in the 16th-century. It was a time when nepotism was common, and St Charles, being born of an influential noble family was given ecclesiastical preferment early in life; he was made cardinal-nephew at the age of 22. One might say that the popes then did the opposite of what Christ recommends in today’s Gospel. It was, alas, often precisely their “friends or… brothers or… kinsmen or rich neighbours” that were favoured and invited to high office and feasting!
But although Charles was born into such a milieu, he did not allow himself to be corrupted by it. So, for example, when at the age of 12 he became a titular abbot, and so, received the income of that abbey, he insisted (against his father’s wishes) that the income of that abbey was only used to prepare him for the priesthood, and that any surplus belonged to the poor and was not to be used for other purposes. This was a central motif in Charles’ life - he was personally austere and overturned the conventions of the day in order to benefit the poor and needy. In 1576 when a famine hit Milan and was struck with plague, he remained in the city when other men of power fled. As bishop he organised the relief of the sick and dying, cared for the hungry by organising the religious houses of his diocese to feed around 70,000 people daily, and he used up his own funds and even went into debt in his personal efforts to feed the poor. Here indeed was one who invited “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” when he gave a feast!
Such counter-cultural action – and every effort at reform is necessarily counter-cultural – required heroic bravery and perseverance from Charles. One of his biographers said that Charles Borromeo was “austere, dedicated, humourless and uncompromising”. And he said this with admiration. For St Charles met with great opposition from his family, his peers, government officials, and from within the Church. On one occasion, someone even tried to assassinate him. The inertia of people and institutions means that anyone who strives for reform has to be heroically single-minded and determined, with a clear vision of what he or she is aiming for. Above all, the reform of any institution or society begins with the reform of the individual whose gaze is fixed on Jesus Christ. It is this all-pervading love for the Lord that made Charles Borromeo a saint.
Very often we can speak of reform, and hope for change, whether in our world or in the Church, but the only person we can truly change is ourselves. Hence St Charles strived to conform his own life to Christ, allowing the Holy Spirit to fill his heart and renew him, as today’s Collect says. And slowly, he began to win over his own clergy. Thus, we prayed in the Collect that all of us, God’s Church, might also receive that same renewing Spirit, so that, like St Charles, we will each be reformed by grace into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ.
This is possible if we want it enough, and if we are docile to the Holy Spirit; if we take St Charles’ motto to heart, namely, ‘Humilitas’. For it is humility: the emptying of ourselves and our worldly loves; coming down to earth so that we are open to learning and receiving God’s mercy, teaching, and grace; and kneeling down to the ground to serve others that will lead us to sanctity.
At this time when our new Archbishop sets about to renew and reform this Archdiocese, and indeed, when our Pope sets about to do the same for the universal Church, may St Charles pray for them, for all clergy and seminarians, and for all of us, that we may be responsive to the grace of the Holy Spirit.
A Dominican brother once said to me: ‘Christ died for our sins, so make it worth his while!’ At first this looks like an encouragement to sin more - as if I needed any encouragement - but in a sense this is what we celebrate in today’s feast. Today is All Saints, and it is the saints that make Christ’s death worthwhile. They make Christ’s death worthwhile because the stuff from which saints are made is not plaster but flesh-and-blood sinners. For it is from the clay of our sinful humanity that God transforms us by his grace, and shapes us into a thing of beauty. We become a precious vessel that he marks with his seal, and fills with his Spirit, and indeed, fills with his own Body and Blood. But for this to be the case, the clay must know its nature, and be malleable, yet able to withstand the heat of the kiln.
Today’s feast follows on nicely from last Sunday’s readings: for the difference between the publican and the Pharisee is not that one is a sinner, and the other is not. No. Both were sinners, but the publican knew he was clay… He acknowledged his sinfulness, and recognized his distance from God’s holiness, and he longed for God’s mercy. Such a person, we might say, is “poor in spirit”. And this is the beginning of wisdom, and of blessed-ness, it sets one on the path to sainthood. As a priest said to me once in confession: the path to holiness begins with this first step - the admission of our sins, and of our need for God’s transforming grace.
The one who is poor in spirit is, in many ways, like a child, and this is another image offered by today’s readings. For we are God’s children, and, I suspect, like all children we make mistakes, and are still learning. We are learning to live well, and to be truly human as Jesus is. We are learning to walk… in Christ’s Way, to speak… the Word planted in our hearts, to feed… on the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. In a sense it is in the nature of a child to be stumbling, learning, and growing, and so when we say that God loves us as his children, we also say, I think, that God loves sinners. And he loves sinners because only the one who knows he is a sinner, who is failing, stumbling, struggling, knows he needs God, and needs his help and salvation.
So, in a sense, we should rejoice that we are sinners! For don’t we hear every Easter night: “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam that won for us so great a Redeemer!” Now, some theologians argue that Christ came to perfect creation, to be its crown and completion, and that he would have become Man even if Adam had never sinned. Yes, of course, Jesus Christ is the perfection of creation, but as St Thomas Aquinas saw so clearly, Christ became Man for our salvation. And for that to be the case, he needs sinners to make it worth his while! But he not only needs sinners, but he needs sinners who know their need of salvation, not sinners who think they’re saints!
So, the first step to holiness comes from acknowledging this, and it is in essence an acknowledgement that we need God, and we have much to learn. This is why Christian life is called discipleship. It’s about being a student, or even being a child. So, we need a teacher. But as we know, we cannot be forced to learn but must want to. Which is why God doesn’t command or oblige us. Christ invites us with his promises of happiness - the Beatitudes of today’s Gospel. Sometimes the Beatitudes seem like ideals which are just too hard, or we may think we know better. But today’s feast calls to mind men and women - some who are known to us perhaps - who really embody these ideals; who have been taught by the Holy Spirit to learn from the Wisdom of Christ. We often think of the extraordinary acts of holiness of great saints. But today, perhaps, we can think of little acts done extraordinarily well by little saints. Think of the little sacrifices offered each day for Christ even in something simple like getting up early for Morning Prayer. Or think of those who quietly tidy up after us, who keep our CSU Common Room pleasant or pathways. Think, too, for example, of how often you might have had to be a peacemaker, or be merciful whether at home or at work or among your peers.
The path to holiness begins with an acknowledgement that we are sinners in need of grace. But that path winds through our kitchens and gardens, across our cars and schools, by our classrooms, common rooms and homes, and into our hearts. For it is ordinarily in these places that we hunger and thirst for righteousness… that we can seek God with a pure and undivided heart. And God’s response is always to fill us with his blessing, giving us a share in the very life of the Blessed One, so that - if we persevere in friendship with God - we might ourselves become Blessed, and join the company of his friends, the saints.
“Behold I cast out demons… today and tomorrow” (Lk 13:32) says the Lord. These words are fitting as we mark All Hallows’ Eve today and All Saints’ day tomorrow. For tonight’s vigil of All Saints, and tomorrow’s Solemnity are full of light, hope and power, which casts our darkness, sin, and evil.
For in focusing on the saints, the Church fills our minds with light, so that we can look upon who we hope to become by the power of God’s grace. The path which the saints have trod is the one that we have to take too. For the Way is Christ himself, and if we follow him all the way, we shall be led to Jerusalem, to the place of sacrificial love. So, Jesus says, “I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following” because it only by going this way towards self-giving love that the demons are cast out. Only love casts out fear, brightens the darkness, and conquers sin. Only love triumphs over the Evil One and the powers and trials of this world. Christ grounds us in this love, and unites us with him so that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39). Nothing. For we are Christ’s; we belong to him and we live and move and have our being in Love. So, as St Paul says, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37). By the power of God’s grace, we too will share in the victory of Christ’s undying love. This is the promise that awaits us if we choose to follow the Way of the saints, the Way of Love.
Tonight a parable is being played out on our streets as ghouls and demons are seen to roam the streets. It seems to me this only makes visible what is truly happening all the time, albeit invisibly. For St Peter warns us: “Be sober, be vigilant. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour” (1 Pt 5:8). So, this vigil night of All Saints calls on us to be vigilant in our spiritual lives so that we remain on the Way of Love, remain in a state of grace. So, tonight the vital choices of the Christian life are enacted in that simple question: “Trick or treat”. Do we allow ourselves to be tricked by the Devil’s lies, and so, choose sin, or do we treat ourselves to the sweetness of virtue, and co-operate with God’s grace? When the lion comes roaring, or the fox, the Devil, tries to trick us, we shouldn’t panic as chicks can do when separated from the hen. Rather, let us flee to Christ and allow him to gather us under his wings. Let us stay close to him, warmed by his love, and united to him under the wings of his mercy and love.
And Jesus adds: “And the third day I finish my course”. This is a reference to the Resurrection, and again this is fitting. For the third day from now is All Souls Day, when we pray for all the faithful departed, with faith and hope in the Resurrection. We pray then that those who have finished their course with Christ will also rise with him in glory.
So in these three days, we fix our eyes on the end that awaits us, on the tomorrow and the day after of our lives. But today, in each and every “today” of our lifetime, let us be vigilant, and not allow our choices to separate us from the love of God, but walk with Christ to Jerusalem, indeed, the New Jerusalem where Love is triumphant for ever.
Today, our mind turns once more to the ancient churches of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Libya – all places where the apostles Simon and Jude are said to have preached the Gospel. They were finally martyred together in the Roman Province of Syria, hence they are mentioned together in the Roman Canon and they share a feast day.
So, today’s feast gives us cause to recall the apostolic foundations of the Church in those parts of the world, in nations which we would think of today as Islamic. It is a reminder, though, that we honour the apostles and saints above all by living and handing on the Faith they taught. Because an ancient lineage, even an apostolic foundation, is no guarantee that a society or nation or culture will keep the true Faith. Rather, each of us, who are the Christians of this generation, who hold the apostolic Faith, are the guarantors of that. For each of us are called to become apostles. Each of us, through our baptism, has been sent into this our generation and society and culture to preach the Gospel in word and deed; to bring Christ’s healing mercy and love; to identify and expel the demons of every age; and so, to join an unbroken line of witnesses of the Risen Lord. Thus Pope Francis said in his encyclical, Lumen Fidei, “Because faith is born of an encounter which takes place in history and lights up our journey through time, it must be passed on in every age. It is through an unbroken chain of witnesses that we come to see the face of Jesus” (§38).
In those countries where Saints Simon and Jude evangelized, those who have kept the Faith over the centuries as “an unbroken chain of witnesses” are heroic indeed. Many of them can be numbered among today’s two martyrs. Even in these days Christians in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Libya, and many nations besides, are undergoing a severe and terrible persecution; new martyrs are being added to heaven’s ranks. In the faces of our brothers and sisters in these lands, faces marked by human suffering, sorrow and anguish, we see the face of Jesus on the Cross. We pray today that they will persevere and triumph with Christ, that they may be raised in glory with him, and join the apostles in the company of heaven where they will see God face to face.
And we ask Saints Simon and Jude to pray for us too. That we may have the courage and grace to withstand the dangers to Faith in our time, to withstand the storms of being Christians in our present society and culture, and hold fast to the apostolic Faith and teaching. As we hear in the letter of St Jude: “But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 1:20f). Amen!