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.
If we find “an eye for an eye” a rather barbarous approach to personal justice, it shows how influenced we are by Christian ethics both individually and as a society. Because this Levitical injunction (cf Lev 24:20), which is also found in the Code of Hammurabi and in Roman Law, was originally a genuine advance in morality and public justice. It was meant to limit the penalty exacted for wrongs done to the person so that revenge was not limitless. One could not, as certain ancient Chinese codes sometimes allowed, eliminate an entire clan because of a wrong done to one person!
But as Gandhi observed wryly: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. So, Christ’s teaching goes beyond this reciprocal version of justice with its idea of giving to each person what is his or her due. Once more, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount challenges the wisdom of the world with God’s wisdom, which is characterized by love. For God loves all alike, both the just and the unjust (cf Mt 5:45). This is his Way.
However, it would be a mistake to think that Jesus is therefore telling us in today’s Gospel to be pushovers; that we’re neither to fight nor even to flee but are to passively give in to evil done to us, and even invite it. This appears to be what Jesus is saying: “Do not resist one who is evil”; “let him have your cloak as well” (Mt 5:39f) but, in fact, the examples of evil which Jesus uses are not life-threatening as such. So, Jesus doesn’t seem to me to be saying that we should not defend our life when it is being directly threatened, or that we should not protect the innocent from direct harm.
Nonetheless, Jesus does give us examples of evils which do injure us in some way. More specifically, they injure our very humanity and the dignity that belongs to each human being as a “God’s temple”, as St Paul put it. Because Jesus uses examples of acts which are designed to humiliate one, which treat one as a lesser being, such as when a Roman soldier would force someone to carry something thus making him a beast of burden. But should we then respond to these acts of aggression on our humanity with inhumanity, with violence and hatred? Such, I suppose is the “wisdom of this world”, and the state of our wounded and broken world exemplifies this. But, as St Paul says, such worldly ‘wisdom’ is “folly with God” (1 Cor 3:19). So, what is one to do?
Jesus teaches us a different way: his way, which is thus, God’s way. And, as the Dominican Geoffrey Preston put it so memorably, Jesus Christ is God’s way to be Man. Hence, Jesus teaches us to respond to inhuman actions not with yet more inhumanity but with true humanity; with a humanity that comes from him who is “true Man”.
In the first place, then, Christ teaches that evil is not to be met with evil; violence with still more violence. For to respond to an aggressive action with an identically mirrored reaction is to lock the human situation of animosity into a hopeless impasse. But this is not mere passivity. Rather, evil is to be met with an active freedom: with courage and virtue and the good. So, Christ urges us to stand our ground so that we are not made into victims or inferiors. On the contrary, we rise above the bullies and show them the deep injustice and inhumanity of what they’re doing. We surprise our aggressors with compassion, forgiveness, selflessness, and ultimately, love. In this way, the Christian action aims to reveal the truth of the injustice being done, and to shame the aggressor into a change of heart so that he can also find his true humanity.
This, of course, is what Jesus does on the Cross. For the Cross reveals who we are as sinners. There, the Innocent One is condemned and violently executed – an icon of Man’s inhumanity to Man. Indeed, as Rowan Williams says: “The only fully human person is seen as the enemy of humanity… [Jesus carries] the cost of our ingrained revolt against who we really are” – the cost of sin which always dehumanizes us. For when we sin, when we retaliate and react with evil and aggression, we are being less-than-human. Hence, God’s response is to call us back to our true self; to call us from sin and its inhumanity to the true humanity shown in Jesus Christ. Here, then, is the wisdom of God, and Jesus wants to restore his Spirit of divine love to our hearts so that we can be as fully human and free to love as he is; to love even in the face of evil done to us.
But how is this possible? Perhaps a few striking examples may help.
Today’s readings contrast two different crops with two fruit, both begin small - barely noticeable - and grow into something large and encompassing.
David reaps a harvest of deception and death because of his sin with Bathsheba. It begins small, with a chance event. The prophet writes quite casually: “It happened, late one afternoon…” And David sees Bathsheba bathing. He could have looked away, but instead, he lingered and took pleasure in the sight of Bathsheba’s beauty. So, the seed of desire is planted. And he waters this seed by inquiring about her; he wants to possess more of her, beginning with knowledge of who she is. And once he has this, he abuses his royal power. As we read: “He sent messengers, and took her”. And so, the small seed of an impure glance, becomes sexual desire, which is fanned into adultery. And to complete his sin, and reap its harvest of death, David finally arranges for Uriah’s death, so that he could take Bathsheba as his wife, and she could bear his son legitimately.
Our sins often start small, barely perceptible, but if we’re vigilant we can nip it in the bud, choosing to turn away rather than to entertain what begins as just a seemingly harmless glance. We can choose not to cultivate the crop of sin just as, at each stage, David could have done otherwise than to allow his impure desire to grow and develop until it bore the corrupt fruit of murder.
The following words from today’s saint, John Bosco, who was a beloved and gentle educator of poor youth in 19th-century Italy, could have been said about king David: “Some people think that they can pacify evil passions by giving in to them. This is a mistake… Our evil inclinations are like snarling dogs, nothing will satisfy them. The more one panders them, the more they demand.”
So, the Gospel today shows us that there is another crop we should cultivate. And it also begins small, and barely perceptible to begin with, but can grow enormous and change our lives, giving us eternal shelter within it. It is the seed of Christ’s grace planted in our hearts through the sacraments, and God’s grace grows so that we can rest in God’s goodness and enjoy his friendship. As St Paul says, “the kingdom of God… is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit” (Rom 14:17).
We cultivate this crop and allow it to grow by weeding out the sinful desires and habits that would choke it, by not allowing the small seed of sin to grow. Thus St John Bosco said: “Do you want to banish evil thoughts? Control your sight, taste, and hearing. Give up certain kinds of talk and books. This is the only way you will still your passions, be victorious, and enjoy peace of mind.” Now, controlling our desires, changing our habits, will require effort on our part. But we should not rely just on our will power but rely even more on God’s grace. All we need to do is to go to Jesus in prayer, in humility, in faith, and receive the graces he wants to give us to help us root out sin and to grow in his love.
As St John Bosco said: “Do you want Our Lord to give you many graces? Visit Him often. Do you want Him to give you few graces? Visit him seldom. Visits to the Blessed Sacrament are powerful and indispensable means of overcoming the attacks of the devil. Make frequent visits to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and the devil will be powerless against you.” Let us heed his advice!
Today’s Gospel continues on from yesterday’s passage, and we wondered yesterday if Jesus was somehow saying that he spoke in riddles so as to hide the secrets of the kingdom from some people. Today, it is clear that Jesus’ parables are not riddles to exclude anyone but, rather, they are used to shed light; to illuminate the secrets of the kingdom. Thus “nothing is hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light” (Mk 4:22).
For Jesus has come to reveal the hidden life of God himself; he has revealed the blessed Trinity to Mankind, showing us by his works and his words that God is love, a holy communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And the way in which we come to know this intimately is through the sacrament of baptism which is also called the sacrament of enlightenment, of illumination. For through this sacrament, that which is secret – the hidden inner life of God himself – comes to light for Man is initiated into the life of God. So, Jesus says in St John’s Gospel: “O righteous Father… I made known to them your name, and I will make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn 17:26).
Hence, when we are baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity, God’s name is made known to us, and the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us. This is the effect of sanctifying grace which is first given to us in baptism.
Now, again in today’s Gospel, Jesus repeats a phrase which we also heard yesterday: “If any man has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mk 4:9, 23). This refrain is the key to unlocking the parables and the gifts of grace given to us. “Let him hear”: this means that we have to co-operate with God; we have to be receptive to Christ’s Word, and open to his teaching, and freely choose to say ‘yes’ to God’s grace. Then, the parables do not become riddles that confuse us but shed light on our lives to teach us to live as Christ lived; then the sacraments do not become mere empty rituals but become a source of mercy and new life for me. So, let us hear; let us be open to God’s grace, and seek to do his will. In other words, let us love God. For as Jesus says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn 14:15).
Finally, Jesus says: “the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you” (Mk 4:24). St Thomas comments that “the measure of charity is the measure of one’s union with God” so the more we love God and keep his commandments, the closer we will grow to God. Indeed, we will grow so close to God that we shall partake in God’s divine nature, and share the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. This is the “still more” that will be given us: divinity itself which is what the saints enjoy in heaven. Hence, sanctifying grace which makes us saints over the course of our lives is also called deifying or divinizing grace: grace that makes us divine!
But why does Jesus say: “from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”? I think this warns us that if we will not “take heed” to hear his Word (cf Mk 4:24), if we will not be receptive to his grace and if we do not keep God’s commands, then we will fall into mortal sin, and so, lose sanctifying grace. And the sad result of this is the death of sin and of being without God. Hence Jesus says to each of us, to you and to me: “Take heed what you hear” (Mk 4:24). That is to say, let us be sure to hear Christ’s teaching, listen to his Word of life, and obey him. For God’s Word is “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 118:105), revealing to us the hidden life of the Triune God.
Today’s Gospel passage contains what many scholars agree is the most difficult part of St Mark’s Gospel. How are we to understand these verses: “And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven” (Mk 4:12f).
What this seems to suggest is that Jesus spoke in parables, or indeed, riddles (because that’s what the word parabolos could mean) in order to exclude; in order that some may remain “outside”, and so not be forgiven. But is this really what Jesus means?
To begin with, Jesus is citing Isaiah 6:9-10 which, in its original context, was about the prophet Isaiah’s foreseeing of the failure of his mission to convert the people of Judah because of their hardness of heart. In the New Testament, this text is referred to here in Mark’s Gospel, and also in John’s Gospel and St Paul’s letter to the Romans to explain why the Gospel of Christ is not universally accepted. It is not that Jesus intends to obscure God’s will from us through riddles; after all, elsewhere the Evangelists say that Jesus taught in parables precisely so that he might be more readily understood. Rather, this difficult passage is, as in Isaiah, a foretelling of the fact that not all will turn to God to be forgiven. For sin blinds us to God’s grace, and hardens our wills so that we are stubbornly unreceptive to God’s grace. So, the tragedy is that, despite the preaching of God’s mercy and grace, some will persist in their sin and so, choose to be excluded from “the kingdom of God”. We see this even today in the Media’s commentary on Pope Francis’ preaching of mercy, compassion and grace. So blind are some to the reality of sin that they think that the Holy Father’s emphasis on God’s forgiveness means that there is no longer any such thing as sin. But mercy presupposes sin!
Hence, the parable of the Sower which precedes this passage points out that God’s Word is preached generously; his grace is given to all. However not all will accept this grace and so, not all will be saved. This mystery of our salvation is rooted in the awesome gift of human freedom – we can choose to accept or reject God’s gifts, to follow the teachings of Christ and his Church or not. This mystery of our human freedom is alluded to right in the heart of the Mass. When, in the words of Consecration, Jesus says that his blood is shed “for you and for many”, this is not to say that Jesus did not die for all humanity. He did. But these words (taken from St Mark’s Gospel) also point out that not all will necessarily be receptive to God’s grace and accept the gift of salvation through the shedding of Christ’s blood.
Hence, today’s readings prompt us to pray that our hearts will not be hardened by sin but softened by Christ’s precious blood before Which we say ‘Amen’. Let that ‘Amen’ be the ‘yes’ of our wills to all that following Christ entails, so that we will not “fall away” from him but be fruitful in God’s grace. So, let me end by praying an ancient prayer said at the end of a Homily: “God our Saviour… we implore you for this people: send upon them the Holy Spirit; may the Lord Jesus come to visit them, speak to the minds of all, dispose their hearts to faith and lead our souls to you, O God of mercies”. Amen.
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.
As we stand on the eve of the feast of the Lord’s baptism we recall how we were baptized into Christ. And the Catechism, following St Paul, says that “Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God” (CCC 1213). As such, we who are baptised are sinless, aren’t we? After all, St John says: “we know that anyone born of God does not sin” (1 Jn 5:18). And yet, John also says that there is “wrongdoing” committed by brothers, that is, by fellow Christians, and he distinguishes between mortal and non-mortal sins. So, it would appear that the baptized can and do sin, as we know all too well. And sometimes, we can sin in a way that even mortally ends the life of grace and of communion with God. So, how do we reconcile this with St John’s statement that “any one born of God does not sin”? Is he contradicting himself?
Well, there are two sides to any relationship. And the relationship of being a child of God, reborn of the Father, and in communion with the Holy Trinity tells us what God does for us. The Father freely causes and sustains our filial relationship with him because we are baptized into Christ. So St John says: “this is the confidence we have in [Christ]” (1 Jn 5:14). But at the same time, while God is always faithful to us, giving us his grace and love, we have to be faithful to him; relationship is a two-way process. So, whether or not we sin depends on our free response to God’s grace; on our being open to his plentiful grace, and co-operating with it every day of our lives.
Now, God’s grace is always sufficient to help and enable us to love him and become saints. So, God is always working, St John says, to “keep [us in Christ], and the evil one does not touch [us]” (1 Jn 5:18). So, if we do sin, it is not the result of external influences, whether it is the devil or our genes or the world we live in. Neither is it because God has withheld the grace of Sonship from us. In fact, one Mass alone would more than suffice because we are given all of God’s love and saving power, and are united to his Son, here in the Eucharist. For God’s grace is always sufficient. But it is not always efficacious in us because we are not receptive or well-disposed to receive God’s graces. Indeed, sometimes we behave like we don’t want him or his grace. We resist his graces because we are drawn by other goods, and choose pleasures and ends apart from God.
Thus we find ourselves not infrequently still chasing after idols – false images of God, or of ourselves; we falsely think that lasting happiness comes from material wealth, or place so many lesser goods before God who alone is good. This is why St John’s final word in this letter is “keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn 5:21). For idolatry, that is, lies and falsehood and our being seduced by them, is the one thing that keeps us from God who is all truth. Idolatry leads us into sin because it is not the true God we love but false gods. And so, we are no longer born “of God” but of false gods.
What are we to do, then? St John the Baptist says: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). So, we must, daily, let the untruth in us decrease, and let Truth, that is Christ, increase in us. This is the process that began for us in baptism. For that sacrament is not just something done to us; now over and done with. Rather, it starts a relationship that must grow, develop, and mature. We need to come to know Christ, the “Son of God [who] has come and has given us understanding” so that we can “know him who is true”, that is, God (cf 1 Jn 5:20). How? Through prayer, familiarity with the Scriptures, and a lively interest in good theology.
For as St Thomas says, you cannot love what you do not know. So, knowledge of Christ and the true God must increase, so that our idols and falsehoods can decrease. Only then will we love God more and love sin, our false gods, less. Thus we shall see God’s grace gradually transforming Man as he freely co-operates with the grace first given in baptism until he becomes a saint, someone who is, like Christ, truly “born of God”. Every saint, then, is clearly an epiphany, for in him God’s glory is revealed.
At this time of year, a recurring question that students and others have been asking me is: “Will you be going home for Christmas?”. And although this is my home, of course, I suppose what they mean is, will I be going to see my parents and family this Christmastime? Many of our students have now gone home in that sense, and it’s been a sombre time for us as a good few will not be returning in January. We have been their “home away from home”, and now, they have returned home. But all this thinking about going home, and homes, and households seems to be evident in today’s readings too.
Isaiah, to begin with, speaks to the “House of David”, who is, as it were, God’s household. For the Lord had promised David that it would endure, and so, he will look after it, even when it is being threatened by mighty enemies. In the context of today’s reading, Ahaz’s kingdom of Judah, David’s house, is being threatened by Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel. But Judah is also, as it were, God’s house because it is in this territory that he lives in the Temple in Jerusalem. As psalm 132 recounts: “the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling: ’This is my resting-place for ever; here have I chosen to live’” (vv13f). So, God has promised to make his home in David’s capital, Jerusalem, which is within the kingdom of Judah. There, God dwells on earth and has his home among Mankind, and so, he will protect David’s house.
But rather than trust in God and his protection, Ahaz appealed for help from the Assyrians. He had to pay tribute to the Assyrian king, so he stripped the Temple and his own palace of gold, and made his kingdom a vassal of Assyria. So, Ahaz despoiled his own home, and David’s household of Judah, and, even, God’s home, the Temple.
However, even when we are unfaithful, God will always be faithful. So, Isaiah promises that despite Ahaz’s unfaithfulness, God will rescue David’s house and remain with his people. For here, in Judah, in the Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, God has chosen to live. Thus he is Emmanuel: God is with us.
The Gospel, however, gives us a more profound but mysterious understanding of how God is Emmanuel, and how he fulfills his promise to dwell in Zion and protect David’s house. For, now we are taken, quite literally, into David’s house. The Gospel takes us into the home of Joseph, who is a “son of David”; he is of David’s house. And once again God renews his promise to dwell in David’s house, and to protect and save his household, but in a way that touches the human person’s deepest needs, going beyond the merely socio-political. For God doesn’t come to rescue and save the people of Judah or Jerusalem from Assyria or Roman oppression as such. Now, he comes to “save his people from their sins”, from something much more fundamental and wicked and destructive; sin despoils Mankind itself. So, God, who is ever faithful comes now to save us from our unfaithfulness.
And God does this by making his home among us. Not in a Temple or any place, as the Jewish people might have expected. Rather, the angel reveals to Joseph a divine plan which is so radical that it is, as St Paul might say, a scandal to the Jews and a foolish delusion to the Gentiles (cf 1 Cor 1:23). It is what St Irenaeus would call the “scandal of the Incarnation”, that God would be Emmanuel, God-with-us, in such a literal way. For in Jesus Christ, St Irenaeus says, God comes “to dwell in Man”; Jesus is God with and in humanity itself.
Hence Jesus says: “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain or in Jerusalem will you worship the Father” (Jn 4:21). For God has chosen to dwell, not in a place but in a person. So, he dwells in David’s house, but not in the kingdom of Judah, as such, but in someone who is of David’s blood. God unites himself to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. So, the psalm I quoted earlier is now directed to Our Lady: the Lord has chosen her, he has desired her for his dwelling… “here have I chosen to live’”. Christ, then, becomes the living Temple (cf Jn 2:19) because he is God’s personal presence among us. As one who is both God and Man, Jesus is Emmanuel, truly and definitively God-with-us.
We said earlier that because God dwelt in the Jerusalem Temple, so he will save and protect David’s house from all who threaten it. So, now, because Christ is forever united to our humanity, dwelling in and with humanity, so to speak, so God promises to save and protect us from Mankind’s fiercest enemies: death, sin, and the Evil One. And how God does this is through grace. So, Jesus says: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23).
Notice that God can only make his home in us if we love him, that is, if we open the homes of our hearts to God’s grace; if we let Jesus into our lives. This, too, is what Joseph is being asked to do in today’s Gospel. Can he make room for the Christ Child? Can he take Mary into his home? These are the questions that we’re presented with this last Sunday of Advent, as we prepare for Christ’s birth. Will we open our hearts and lives – open it up in love and in obedience to God’s word – for the Christ Child to enter in?
If we do, then he will save and rescue us from sin, then the Holy Trinity will dwell in us, and finally, then, Jesus will take us home with him to the Father’s house. This is what St Paul alludes to when he says in the second reading that we are “God’s beloved… called to be saints” (Rom 1:7). For, because of Christ’s incarnation, heaven is our home, and the Christian life of grace is about us going home to the Father. This is the home-going journey that Christmas brings about. So, it is in this sense that I can, hopefully, say “Yes” the next time someone asks me: “Are you going home for Christmas”!
"Blessed is he who takes no offense at me" (Mt 11:6). But we might wonder, take offense at what? That the blind are given sight? That the deaf hear? That the sick are healed? Who takes offense at such wonderful good things happening? So, when the Church is engaged in works of social justice – feeding the homeless, medical missions, irrigation projects in the African desert, for example – no one takes offense, surely. Indeed, the Church’s social teaching is one of the most widely-welcomed and accessible. Hence a recent survey reported that most young Catholics agreed with the Church’s stance on social justice but were less keen on “issues of personal morality”. This is also why Pope Francis has been named ‘Person of the Year’ by Time magazine – because they are impressed by his call for a “church of healing”, a Church for the poor. So, no one, it seems, would take offense at works of mercy and justice, at good works like the list Christ has just given John’s disciples. So, why does he then say: “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me”?
We need to look at the word translated at ‘offense’. In Greek the word is skandalisthe, which means ‘scandalised’, or, more literally, stumbles over, because it comes from the word scandalon, meaning a stumbling block, a rock over which you might trip and fall. So, Jesus is saying, blessed, happy, is the one who does not stumble over me, or is not scandalised by me.
But this is still strange. Why should Christ’s good works, and the Church’s charitable activities cause scandal – assuming they’re done well, of course. Notice that when Jesus lists what is being done, he’s giving these actions as an answer to a question. St John the Baptist asked: “Are you he who is to come…?” So, what Jesus does says something about who Jesus is. Likewise with the Church’s good works, her countless charitable activities, her social justice teaching. All that we do, at our best, says something about who we believe Jesus to be. And our faith in Christ – every element of that faith, every doctrine about who Jesus is – is inseparable from our praxis. Otherwise, Pope Francis warns, the Church would become a “pitiful NGO”.
So, who do we say Jesus is? Who is the One whose birth we celebrate in just over a week? The question St John asks is one he already knew the answer to; we see this from last week’s Gospel. Had he forgotten? No. What he wants is for his disciples, and so, by extension, for you and me, to ask the question and discover for ourselves who Jesus is. With just 10 days to go, do we know who we’re celebrating at Christmas? Our celebrations say something about who Jesus is. Or at least, they should do. For Christmas without Christ is pitiful too.
So, who is Jesus? St John’s question uses the word: erchomenos, “He who is to come”. This is in fact a Greek translation of a Hebraism meaning ‘One who comes near and is present’. And the one who comes near is not just anyone – it is God. This is the prophecy made by Isaiah, that a virgin will conceive and bear a son, whose name is Emmanuel, meaning ‘God with us’; God who comes near and is present with humanity. So, when John says Jesus is the ‘One who is to come’, he is pointing to this prophecy of God being with us.
In Jesus, God is with Man in his suffering and sickness, he is with us in our diseases and dying. But God is also with us to raise us to new life, to heal and to help, to give vision, hope and fresh joy. This is what the life, death and resurrection of Jesus reveals. Hence Jesus says: “the lame walk… the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Mt 11:5). And, of course, this is what the Church continues to do through her works of mercy and healing, through her charitable activities, and especially through her sacraments and Liturgy, and her preaching and teaching. All these together serve to proclaim the Church’s faith in who Jesus is. He is Emmanuel, God with us, the One who is to come. It is this faith that animates all our good works, and so, Jesus becomes not a stumbling block but the foundation stone of our lives. It is on the rock of this faith that Jesus builds his Church (cf Mt 16:18).
Hence, Christian good works are essentially not just humanitarian aid, although the actual deeds may look identical to an onlooker. Rather, they are works of faith motivated by charity, divine love, that bring hope. Thus, all the things that Time magazine likes about Pope Francis, he is doing because he is faithful. He is being faithful to who Jesus is, faithful to the witness of St Peter, the first pope, and faithful to what Jesus has called each of us Christians to do – “Love one another as I have loved you” (cf Jn 13:34). Hence, the Church does the good works that she does, and teaches what she does because she is trying to be faithful to Christ.
And it is here that offense may be taken. Or to be more precise, that some might stumble. Matthew Yglesia, economics correspondent for Slate.com put it best when he said that he loved Pope Francis’ stance on capitalism but “there’s a lot of stuff about Jesus in his thinking that I can’t really sign on to”.
I often return to this passage of Romans. St Paul describes the interior struggle with sin which I think we all experience and know intimately. We are attracted to God, and we know the Gospel to be true and good; we want to love Christ. But we are pulled in another direction by sinful habits and addictions. This inclination to sin, which we all have due to the wound of original sin, is called concupiscence (cf CCC 405). And so, there is a struggle in the Christian moral life, an ongoing spiritual struggle in which we learn to master our sinful inclinations by becoming more open to grace, and more attracted by divine Love. The Second Vatican Council thus said: “Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield [of life] man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity” (Gaudium et spes, 37).
Sometimes, this struggle, this spiritual battle, can just seem exhausting. But St Paul exclaims that there is deliverance, there is help from Christ. The struggle is tiring when it is waged alone, but doesn’t Jesus say to us: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Mt 12:28)? For it is when we experience our weakness and our helplessness against sin, that we need to turn to God for mercy and for strength. We need his grace.
In a way, Jesus’ frustration in the Gospel can be related to this. We see the storm and scorching heat of sin and temptation coming, and yet we do not know what to do, and we think we can withstand its onslaught alone. What we must do is turn to God, and seek his refuge and help. Few of us do this, I think, but it is precisely in the heat of our temptations and as we are falling that we need to pray to Jesus, who alone is our Saviour and Deliverer, who is the Mercy and Love of God.
And the prayer that I think of in particular is this ancient one, from the ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’. A certain monk of the Egyptian desert in 5th century, struggling with sin, prayed: “Lord, whether I want it or not, save me, because, dust and ashes that I am, I love sin; but you are God almighty, so stop me yourself. If you have pity on the just, that is not much, nor if you save the pure, because they are worthy of your mercy. Show the full splendour of your mercy in me, reveal in me your love for men, because the poor man has no other refuge but you”.
The last fortnight alone has seen some very dramatic and terrifying attacks against Christians. In Pakistan, an Anglican church was attacked by two suicide bombers giving rise to the country’s bloodiest attack on Christians. 85 including children died; 120 injured. In Nairobi, the attackers of Westgate mall specifically targeted Christians. 72 executed; 240 injured. Last month, the ancient Christian town of Maaloula in Syria, one of the last places where Jesus’ mother-tongue of Aramaic is spoken, was decimated. Those who would not renounce Christ were martyred. In August, 3 days of violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt saw the destruction of 38 churches, the vandalism of 23, and Christians homes and shops burnt. To safeguard his flock, the Coptic pope cancelled Sunday liturgies for the first time in 1600 years. Since 2003, 40 of the 65 Christian churches in Baghdad have been bombed. In 2008, 500 Christians were killed, thousands injured and half a million left homeless after riots in Orissa, India by Hindu radicals. In Burma, the communist regime specifically targets Christians; unknown thousands have died, and many more been “routinely subjected to imprisonment, torture, and forced labour”. According to independent studies, “11 Christians are killed somewhere in the world every hour, seven days a week and 365 days a year, for reasons related to their faith”.
The reason for calling to mind this catalogue of anti-Christian violence is to point out that the historical context behind today’s feast day is not so remote from the present day experience of our fellow Christians. In the 15th and 16th centuries, being killed for being Christian was a grave reality too for many. The Ottoman empire was then marching across the Baltic and eastern Mediterranean, killing Christians in their wake. So, in May this year Pope Francis recalled this historical fact when he canonized 813 martyrs of the Italian city of Otranto killed by Ottoman Turks in 1480. But it wasn’t until this day in 1571 that the Ottoman threat against Christian Europe was abated by the defeat of Ali Pasha and his fleet at Lepanto off the southern coast of Greece. This victory marked a turning point in restoring peace and freedom to the Christian people.
The pope at that time, the Dominican saint Pius V, attributed this to Our Lady’s intercession because he had gathered the people of Rome to pray the Rosary on the morning of October 7th 1571. So, he instituted today’s feast to honour Our Lady, to commemorate her motherly protection, and to encourage us to pray that most Dominican of devotions, the Holy Rosary.
And it is precisely this that we should recall in today’s feast. We remember that in moments when the Christian people are being persecuted and under attack – both physically and spiritually – we need to turn to God in prayer. We do not take up arms, but take up the Holy Rosary. We do not stir up panic and alarm, but pray with confidence in Our Lady’s love and care. And we ask that through her intercession all people of good will can work with us for peace and reconciliation. For through the Rosary, our focus is the mysteries of salvation; how Christ has saved all people and called all into the unity and love that is God. Through the Rosary we seek refuge in him who is the reconciliation and peace of all Mankind, and whose victory on the Cross has brought us victory over every sin and evil including death.
The last fortnight, then, has seen many evils but also much good. Only yesterday, for example, 300 Christians and Muslims formed a human chain outside a Catholic church in Pakistan to protect worshippers within. And there have been many other such scenarios around the world as people of good will join together to create peace, build friendship, and live in harmony. The Rosary has often been used as a prayer for peace because Our Lady is the Queen of Peace, and she leads us to contemplate the face of her Son who is not just Truth but always Love. Therefore, as Pope Francis says: “As a truth of love, [Christ’s truth] is not one that can be imposed by force… Clearly, then, faith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful co-existence with others… Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith [in Christ] sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all” (Lumen Fidei, §14).
So at this time let us pray the Rosary for our many persecuted brothers and sisters around the world. As a Dominican priest in Iraq said: “We need your prayers… because I believe in the power of prayers. They can change the minds of other persons, and governments, and fundamentalist groups. Maybe they can become saints in the future - we do not know. So, I ask… everybody to pray for us”.