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.
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”.
This spectacular and dramatic narrative of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah certainly grabs our attention, and it raises many pressing questions. But what can one say, broadly and in a few minutes, about it? Often, the fate of these cities is used as a cautionary tale, to present the idea that God deals out punishment to sinners. So, “be good and don’t sin!” Or, there’s an element of retribution, of just punishment for bad people, that we may even find satisfying about this narrative. So, “nasty people will get their comeuppance!” But are these really what we’re meant to take from this story? That God is about indictment and punishment? Well, if we look around the internet, and consider popular notions about God, this does seem to be what this story is about.
But the crux of the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative, which has to include yesterday’s reading, is found in today’s final verse: “When God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow” (Gen 19:29). This little verse prefigures the saving work of Jesus Christ, and reveals God’s divine justice, which is always merciful, and shows the pattern of Mankind’s salvation. What do I mean?
What today’s story illustrates I think is this. Firstly, that sin inherently destroys us and destroys communities. This is a truth that has been unfolded through the preceding chapters of Genesis, in which sin first drives Adam and Eve, and then Cain and Abel, apart, and then whole societies break-down. On a very fundamental level, sin kills charity and gives rise to injustice and even inhumanity; to remain in sin is already ‘punishment’. What the lectionary has omitted is the earlier verses of chapter 19 that show this dehumanizing effect of sin on the men of Sodom; they become a mob, violate sacred hospitality, and behave like animals baying for the surrender of Lot’s guests. There is much speculation on just what the sin of Sodom was, but I think we can safely say that it was “very grave” (Gen 18:21), and was of both a carnal and a spiritual nature, as is often the case. Certainly, there is the sense of a great and grave injustice because the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah caused an “outcry”, presumably from the victims, that moved the Lord to send his angels to investigate (cf Gen 18:21). So, we can say, secondly, that this story shows that God hears the cry of the victims of sin, which is ultimately, all of humanity, and he acts decisively to relieve them. This divine response to save his people, of course, is also evident in today’s Gospel. But notice that Christ only acts when the apostles call upon him; when, with faith, they recognize their need of him and of divine salvation.
Why is this? Because God doesn’t save us against our will but always in co-operation with our freedom. So, we have to freely recognize our sinful state, our need of God’s mercy and forgiveness, and deliberately embrace it. If we apply this to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, we may begin to see why God didn’t simply save the entire city. Because the third point is that God can only save those who want to be saved, those who turn away from sin, and who open their hearts to God’s grace. Lot does this by opening his home to the angels; the other inhabitants refused to do this, thus persisting in their sin.
But even Lot and his family “lingered” in Sodom so that the angels had to seize them and hurry them out of the doomed city; Lot finally escapes to Zoar, a little humble place, at daybreak. We, too, can often linger with our old familiar sins, reluctant to leave them behind, but if we are open to God’s grace, with just that little bit of faith, then we can hope that God in his mercy will grab us and lead us to better, safer, higher ground, into our own humble place of Zoar where the daylight of truth shines and illuminates our actions – the truth that we are sinners in need of God’s salvation (cf Gen 19:16-23).
Finally, we return to that final verse and the fourth point from today’s story: “God remembered Abraham” and so, saved Lot. Hence, it is on account of one just man, and not even a just man in the town of Sodom, as such, but vicariously on account of Abraham that God saves. God’s justice is shaped by his mercy and influenced by the prayers of the just one. So it is that God wills to save all humanity rather than allow us to die in our sins, because of the saving work and intercession of Jesus Christ, who is truly the Just One.
But, like the apostles, we still need to admit our perilous state, choose to turn to him, and say, with the little faith given us, “Save, Lord, we are perishing” (Mt 8:25). If we do this, we can be confident that the Lord will do as he’s always done from the days of Lot and of Abraham, our father in faith: he will act decisively to rescue us from destruction. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Thus the Gospel illuminates our reading of the Old Testament, so that Sodom and Gomorrah is not reduced to a cautionary tale of divine retribution but offers us insight into divine mercy and our need to co-operate with divine redemption.
The Holy Spirit is called the parakletos, the One-Who-Is-Called-Alongside you and me. He stands beside us, as our friend, but also as our counsellor and advocate. The language being used here is deliberately legal, and one calls to mind a courtroom situation in which we stand accused. Often, many people think that God accuses us of our sins, or we might blame ourselves and feel downcast because of what we’ve done, or it may look like the Church is pointing fingers at people to condemn them as sinners. But this cannot be; it’s diabolical. Because, quite simply, the one who accuses us, the one who blames us, and points fingers at us, and wants us to stand condemned of sin is not God, and not his holy Church, but the Devil. The Devil is the diabolos, the one who hurls his accusations across at us. It is he who attacks you and me with recriminations, and so, causes fear and troubles us. But Jesus says: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27). Because against the prosecution of the Devil stands the parakletos, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in Jesus’ name to defend us, to raise us up through his grace, to restore us to peace.
For the peace that Christ gave us, which he won for us through his death and resurrection, and which we have through baptism, had been disturbed through sin. We experience a kind of disintegration in ourselves when we listen to Christ’s words, hear his teaching and say we love him, but we do not keep his word; we do not love him enough. So, sin splits us apart, and that is what the diabolos, the one who throws things apart, always wants to do – divide, splinter, and disintegrate. Thus, we find that we might know something to be good and true, we want to behave as children of the light, redeemed by Christ, but we don’t. We use our human freedom to choose our older ways – those more familiar and comfortable sins that our wills are too weak to resist. St Paul describes the situation vividly: “ I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…” (Rom 7:15). And then, when we fail and fall, the Devil keeps us down, standing on our backs and telling us how rotten, how guilty, how hypocritical we are. It’s the kind of thing an unforgiving and judgmental Press metes out on public sinners, only far worse.
But in this darkness of sin and despair, as we’re being prosecuted and accused, we need to call out for our defence attorney; we just lack the ability to defend ourselves against so wily an Enemy. The Holy Spirit, we’re assured today, is the parakletos; we just need to call on him, and he will come alongside us as our defender. He comes to plead our case, to counsel and convince us. And what does he say?
It’s been so blustery lately that if you’re withdrawing money from the cash machine you need to be careful to hang on tight to the cash. A few days ago, I saw someone lose his grip and the wind snatched the notes away, and they were blown out of his reach! So, we need to keep a firm hold, particularly on valuable things, and especially in bad weather.
This is what Jesus does to us. He holds on tight so that nothing and “no one is able to snatch” us out of his hands. Because we are so precious to him, each and every single one of us. For every human being – all life – is created by God. So, he is our Father and his love sustains all that is. And we have been given to the Son, meaning that we belong to Christ. “We are his people and the sheep of his pasture” as we said in our psalm response. And because we’re his Christ “the Good Shepherd… laid down his life for his sheep and willingly died [for us] his flock” (cf Communion antiphon). He does this so that we are redeemed from sin and death, so that we can have eternal life, so that we can be for ever united to him in love. That’s what we call ‘heaven‘ – being one with God in perfect love.
So, we’re hard won, and bought at a great price – through Christ’s own suffering and death – and Jesus did this for us because he loves us. Therefore, because you and I are loved into being and sustained in love by the Father, and loved into salvation and eternal life by the Son, and united to God through the love of the Spirit, we are precious. You and I, and every human person is of infinite value to God, created to share in his divine dignity. And we, who have been baptised, have been elevated by grace to share in divine Sonship so that we’re not just sheep but are one with the Lamb, one with our Lord Jesus Christ on his Father’s throne.
Hence, because we’re so precious to Jesus, he hangs on to us, and he will not let anyone or anything snatch us away from him. As St Paul said: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? […] No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:35. 37-39).
Rather, in all our trials and pain, Christ is hanging on to us. For he keeps a firm hold, particularly on us who are precious, and especially in stormy, windy, turbulent conditions. When we are suffering and sick and stressed; when we are demoralized, depressed and doubtful, Jesus is holding on to us very tight. So, in today’s Gospel he assures us that he knows us, his beloved flock. He knows how we suffer and what we endure in this life. But he wants us to know, too, that he loves us, especially in difficult times, and that he will never let us be snatched away by evil.
This, it seems, is the only instance in which the Word of God writes. Or does he? Although our translation says both times that Jesus “wrote with his finger on the ground” (Jn 6b, 8), in fact the Greek words are slightly different, so that we could say that Jesus was, at first, doodling or drawing with his finger on the ground. Only the second time does Jesus actually write with his finger on the ground, and what he writes is the subject of much speculation. But, in a sense, it can’t have been very important because something drawn in the sand or in the dusty ground or, indeed even more so, in the clean ground, is ephemeral; it doesn’t really have any substance and doesn’t last. Perhaps it isn’t intended to.
The idea of Jesus – God – drawing, and the essentially transient nature of something written in the dust are two images I want to focus on to help us think about sin from a divine perspective. Many of us human beings can obsess about sin, or, maybe, we think we should, and, indeed, others who are not Catholics definitely think that we do. Catholics (and especially priests), it is said, are obsessed about sin, and especially the sexual kind. But I think that today’s Gospel can help us to think again about sin, and its part in our Christian life.
Sin, properly understood, is a lack, a deprivation. Something is missing in sin, namely the full and proper good that God desires for our flourishing. Hence, my Dominican brother theologian, Herbert McCabe describes the privation of sin and evil as a no-thing, like the lack of wool that constitutes the hole in my sock. That hole is a deprivation, a lack, without being and substance. Thus it is an evil in that it lets the cold attack my feet. Similarly, darkness is the absence or deprivation and lack of the full good that is light. So, understood in this way, sin is a lack of good, a deprivation of true fulfillment and satisfaction, a no-thing without being, and lacking in lasting substance. Sin is, we might say, like something written in the sand.
Notice, though, that this does not mean that sin is unimportant or doesn’t matter. That hole in my sock, or the darkness that causes me to stumble certainly does matter, but strictly speaking, we are talking about the effects of sin, and not the sin itself which is, according to the teaching of St Thomas and the Catholic tradition, a lack of good, no-thing. The word ‘naughty’, I think, nicely captures this understanding of sin, that sin is, well… naughty, and at the same time, naught, no-thing, a deprivation. As the 15th-century English mystic and saint, Julian of Norwich put it: “Ah, wretched sin! What art thou? Thou art naught. For I saw that God is all things; I saw not thee. And when I saw that God has made all things I saw thee not”. So, sin lacks being, it lacks good, it is naught.
But the mystics and saints have another insight into sin, which, although it is no-thing, has a profound impact on our lives and on others. As I have said, the effects of sin are not nothing, not least in that, because of sin, Christ is nailed to the Cross. Nevertheless, our sins can be said to be like Christ’s drawings in the sand. What do I mean?
The Pharisee raises himself up while simultaneously putting others down. This is typical human behaviour whenever we compare ourselves to other people, and it’s easy for any of us to fall into that trap. Many have been publicly doing so in response to recent events affecting our Archdiocese. But, if we must compare ourselves to others, maybe we should look to Christ. And then we shall recognize a fundamentally humbling truth about ourselves, about every human person, which is that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” as St Paul says to the Romans (3:23).
As such, every one of us needs to say: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. We have nothing to boast of, for any good we do is rooted in God’s grace, in his goodness. For God loves and saves us, and prompts us to good deeds, not because of who we are but because of who he is. God loves us because he is good, not because we are.
But, of course, we’re hesitant to look at Christ or even at the saints for comparison. We find ourselves making excuses and justifying why we’re not more like them. It’s much easier, much more comforting to compare ourselves with other people, especially notorious sinners. Because when we compare ourselves to Christ, we see the truth of who we really are. And this truth hurts, so that we might feel “torn to pieces” and “slaughtered… with the words from [God’s] mouth” (Hos 6:5), indeed, slaughtered by God’s Word of Truth, by Jesus Christ.
However, the truth will also set us free – free from illusions, from a false image of ourselves, and a stagnating self-righteousness and isolating pride. It is our false image that is being torn to pieces, and our false self that is being slaughtered so that we are restored to a true relationship with God and our neighbour. We are, after all, not so different from our fellow sinners. And we are all – I am – in need of God’s mercy. And this, too, is the work of God’s love. For only when he have a “humbled, contrite heart”, and stand before God in truth, as a sinner, can his Holy Spirit raise us up to new life. As Hosea says: “[God] will raise us up, that we may live before him” (6:2). God raises us all up, but only when our false selves have first been put down.
“Others, to test him, sought from him a sign from heaven” (Lk 11:16). Just as in the wilderness, when Jesus encountered Satan and was tested, so the same Greek word is used again here; Jesus is being tested, tempted, not alone and in a secluded place, but now among the crowds, presumably in a town. And this is not the last time that the devil returns to tempt and test the Lord.
This dynamic of repeatedly being tested and tempted to vainglory, pride and power is important because it shows that Jesus has to make a conscious choice again and again to embrace his mission, to remain faithful to his Father’s call, to walk the way of the Cross for our salvation.
There is a certain theory, very popular in moral theology, called the ‘fundamental option’, which basically says that once we’ve made a radical commitment, a fundamentally free choice for God and to follow Christ, then it is unlikely, even if we were to commit morally grave acts such as murder or adultery, to change that orientation towards God. But this theory is dangerously flawed, and contradicts Scripture and the moral tradition of the Church. Because, as our First Reading reminds us, it is possible for a people who are radically committed to God in a Covenantal bond, to turn from him. And this happens because each sinful act we commit rejects God’s wisdom to some degree. We prefer our own wisdom, the allure of sin, the pressure of the crowds, our addictions and our emotions. And, so, we turn from God towards ourselves and the crowds. Hence, Jeremiah says: “They did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward” (Jer 7:24).
Jesus’ rejection of the crowds’ temptation in today’s Gospel thus reminds us that in every moral decision that we make with freedom and knowledge, we have a genuine choice that has consequences for our moral orientation. We are formed by our deliberate actions either in God’s image, through grace, or in our own sinful image. So, we’re urged in our psalm response to listen to God’s voice “today”. In doing so, we reject Satan and his temptations, and we allow the Holy Spirit to lead and direct us. Hence, the Spirit, who is called “the finger of God” casts out the demons that would lead us astray. And the “kingdom of God”, or more properly, the rule of God comes upon us. Because when we reject sin and embrace God’s call, listening to his voice, to Christ his Living Word, and we turn towards him, then God’s rule, his reign of love, is “upon us”.
In this way, every time we affirm our fundamental “yes” to God, we are tested and strengthened by our moral decisions again and again to embrace our Christian vocation, to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and follow Christ (cf Mt 16:24). But a heart that is divided cannot stand. So, if today we should hear the Lord’s voice, let us not harden our hearts to him (cf Ps 94:8).
In the surprising event of the Incarnation, and in the unexpectedness of the All-Powerful God becoming a helpless baby at Christmas, something is revealed about God. That ours is a God who does extraordinary things through the ordinary; the divine working alongside the human. And also that ours is a God who comes to us, who seeks his beloved people because he has seen our need of him, of Jesus, whose name means ‘God saves’. For that is why he is born and calls us to follow him: for the sake of our salvation.
Nathaniel, it seems, understands this in a moment of infused grace, of divine insight, when Jesus says he saw him under a fig tree. For, as St Augustine explains, the fig tree stands for Adam’s sin, since our first parents hid themselves with fig leaves after they’d sinned. Hence, Christ “saw the whole human race under the fig tree”, which is to say that God saw, he understood our plight and had compassion on us in our sinful condition. Hence he comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ who is God’s mercy and love incarnate. And he comes to lift us up from under the fig tree, from under the shadow of sin. This is what Nathaniel recognizes – that here is the God of mercy and compassion coming to save him. And he realizes, too, that God comes in ordinary and unexpected ways, “from Nazareth”.
So, too, God comes to us in real and active works of love, in kindness and generosity to the stranger, in the speaking of truth in charity, in acts of goodness, of reconciliation and forgiveness. Hence St John asks: “If any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” For it is through little, ordinary but often unnoticed and taken-for-granted good and genuinely human ways of acting, of opening our hearts to another, in seeing one’s need and responding generously that God becomes present. He takes flesh in us, and he acts through love to heal us of sin’s wounds, and restore us to friendship with him and our fellow man.
However, in this ordinary way, God also does extraordinary things. Because the more we love in deed and the truth, in fact, the more we resemble our Father, who is Love; the more we become like Christ as we bear in our own flesh the marks of love. So, through love and our grace-prompted openness to love, God will not only save us from sin, but he will give us something even greater. Jesus promises us that we will “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man”. Because by the gift of grace, which is first given to us in baptism, we are not only forgiven of our sins but are promised a share in divine life when we shall see God as he really is (cf 1 Jn 3:2). And this is the supernatural divine end to which our works of love lead us. Because, following Christ who is love incarnate, we are moved by the Spirit to walk along his way of the Cross, of self-sacrificial love, and, so, share in Christ’s glory.
There is a 15th-century English carol that begins: “Adam lay ybounden, Bounden in a bond”. Because it rightly recognizes that sin is a bind. Sin enslaves Mankind so that he is no longer truly free, and cannot enjoy the freedom that God intended for his children. As the Catechism teaches: “The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to ‘the slavery of sin’“ (CCC 1733). For Mankind was given freedom in the first place so that he can choose the good, and be able to love. As the Catechism says, “the more one does what is good, the freer one becomes” (ibid.). So, ultimately, we are created with free choice so that we can know and love God who alone is good, so that we can say ‘Yes’ to God, and, so, fully embrace Love. For without freedom we cannot love; freedom precedes love and makes love possible.
But Mankind, since Adam, had been “bounden in a bond”, and, so, humanity became subject to sin, prone to choosing evil over the good and true. Mankind was thus unable to find perfect freedom, and so, unable to attain the perfection of love. For freedom precedes love and makes it possible. But our freedom was diminished though not completely lost by Adam’s bondage to sin. As the Catechism put it: “As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin” (CCC 418).
So, humankind is in need of liberation, in need of a Saviour for no one can free himself. So, God acts to sets us free, and he does this without any compulsion or merit on our part, but purely gratuitously, out of pure love for us; God desires our human freedom and flourishing. The theological term ‘prevenient grace’, which occurs in the Offertory Prayer of this Mass, refers to this: that God freely chose out of love to act on our behalf and heal us of our sin, to liberate us.
And so, to bring about the liberation of all humanity through Jesus Christ, God prepared for the birth of Love by establishing freedom. For freedom precedes love and makes love possible. So, by a unique act of prevenient grace, God freed the Blessed Virgin Mary from the harmful effects of Adam’s sin; she is “preserved” from the stain of sin. Released from Adam’s bond, Mary is given such grace that she always chooses the good and true. She is completely orientated towards God, so she is completely free. Hence in her ‘Yes’ to God, Mary exemplifies human freedom in a way that no other human creature has, but which God intends for each of us.
Our Lady’s complete human freedom bears fruit in perfect love, for freedom precedes love and makes love possible. So, Mary’s freely-given ‘Yes’ makes it possible for the incarnation of God - Love himself. And this Love, born for us at Christmas, sets Mankind free from Adam’s bondage. For Jesus is our liberation, our salvation, our freedom. And as St Paul says, “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1), which is to say that we have been freed from sin so that we can, in co-operation with the grace of Christ, choose good, choose love, choose to say ‘Yes’ to God. Thus we become as free as Our Lady is.
Therefore, that medieval English carol ends: “Ne had the apple taken been, the apple taken been, Ne had never our ladie, Abeen heav’ne queen… Therefore we moun singen: ‘Deo gratias’!