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.
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’!
In many countries today is celebrated as St Nicholas’ day, and small gifts are given to children in memory of the original Santa Claus who was the 4th-century bishop of Myra on the southern coast of Turkey. When I was a novice in Cambridge, we would leave our shoes out on the evening before the 6th of December, and on the morning of St Nicholas’ day, we would find little parcels of chocolates and other sweet treats in our shoes. This custom is based on one of many stories involving St Nicholas.
It is said that Nicholas heard of a poor man in his town who had three daughters. As the poor man could not afford to supply their dowry, the three girls were likely to remain unmarried, and thus in peril of being sold into slavery. So, on three separate occasions, St Nicholas anonymously threw bags of money to supply dowries for the three girls. These sailed through the open window of the house where they lived and are said to have fallen into shoes which the girls left to dry by the fire. Others say the money was wrapped in stockings, hence, sweet treats in shoes or stockings.
But, it’s important to notice that in fact St Nicholas’ gifts and legendary generosity were not about indulging a sweet tooth nor simply giving children stocking fillers to amuse and entertain them. His actions were much more important, fundamentally grounded in what people needed, namely, freedom. St Nicholas’ good deeds and generosity actually changed lives by providing opportunities for the poor, raising them up above the rich and powerful, as Isaiah suggests in the first reading. For many people, God’s salvation and liberation is first experienced through social justice, through being freed from cold and hunger, liberated from slavery to addictions, released from the helpless situations into which poverty traps him or her.
So, in taking practical actions which set people free, our actions – like St Nicholas’ – reflect the fundamental liberation that we have been given in Jesus Christ: a freedom from sin which is never just spiritual but which also affects the whole human person in spirit and body. As the Catechism says: “In its various forms - material deprivation, unjust oppression, physical and psychological illness and death - human misery is the obvious sign of the inherited condition of frailty and need for salvation in which man finds himself as a consequence of original sin” (CCC 2448).
Hence, the Church works to bring Christ’s liberation to the whole human person, setting us free from all that is evil. So, she has a “preferential love for the poor” which calls us to “work for their relief, defense, and liberation” (ibid.). This kind of good work, a practical, life-changing, saving work; an advocacy for the oppressed, the poor, and down-trodden of society, is precisely what Jesus praises in the Gospel as “the will of my Father in heaven”. So, today’s Gospel warns us that merely having a perfectly orthodox faith in the Lord, but not acting on that faith to put love into action is dangerous. This is the challenge of the Gospel to us today: that as the Lord has come to set us free, so we are called to set others free and to oppose injustice, so that the poor, the unloved, the marginalized will also know the advent of our salvation in Christ. In short, we’re called to be like the true Santa Claus.
Back in February, a certain English Archbishop said in The Guardian: “I personally don’t feel in the least bit persecuted. I don’t think Christians should use that word”.
I found this a startling statement, not least because the Lord says to his disciples: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (Jn 15:20). And, again, in today’s Gospel, the Lord says to his disciples, that is, to us: “They will lay their hands on you, and persecute you…” (Lk 21:12). The Lord’s words to us are not meant to be alarmist – for that is what some so-called ‘moderates’ call any talk of ‘persecution’. Rather, it is realist, for our fallen world is always struggling against God’s goodness so that there is a tension, a kind of conflict between the world and the true disciple of Christ. This is a reality each of us is intimately aware of in our own struggle against sin. And the Second Vatican Council put it like this: “[A] monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested. Caught in this conflict, man is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good, nor can he achieve his own integrity without great efforts and the help of God’s grace” (Gaudium et spes, §37).
So, it is not a question of if we will be persecuted but of when. Hence, Jesus teaches that if we are his faithful followers, then we can expect to be persecuted, for “the servant is not greater than his Master” (Jn 15:20). Indeed, Christ’s teaching is that persecution – being hated, excluded and reviled for the sake of his name, that is, for the sake of Truth – identifies us as God’s servants, so that we shall be called ‘blessed’ (cf Lk 6:22). We should not bury our heads in the sand, then, but stand ready, steadfast and rely entirely on God’s wisdom, strength and truth.
But, of course, the Archbishop may be right to opine that we’re not persecuted in Britain, if he understands the word narrowly to refer only to actual imprisonment and bloody killings. That is not yet our plight, although this is a reality faced by hundreds of millions of Christians around the world. For this reason Christianity is recognized to be the most persecuted religion in the world. However, without meaning to diminish the horror and suffering endured by Christians in places like Nigeria, Pakistan, Gaza and Egypt, persecution can also be much more subtle and less dramatic.
Today we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral church of Rome. The church was built by the Emperor Constantine, completed in 324, and is in an area of Rome near the Colosseum called the Lateran, hence it is commonly called the Lateran Basilica. Because the cathedra, the teaching seat of the bishop of Rome, the pope, is kept inside the basilica, it is regarded as the “Mother and Head of all the churches in the City and in the World”. So, we celebrate today’s feast as a sign of our unity with the Holy Father, and our love for him. We pray that he might exercise his infallible teaching office with courage and compassion so as to draw all people to Christ, who alone is the way, the truth and the life.
The official name of the Lateran basilica is the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran. In this name we note the spiritual significance of today’s feast and of any church building. For the church building is a symbol of Christ our Saviour into whom we are incorporated through baptism, and who is made known to us through the evangelists. For through the living water which flows from the side of the Temple, that is, from Christ’s pierced side on the Cross, we are washed of our sins, healed and saved by grace, and raised to a new life with Christ, as members of his Body, the Church. So, the Catechism says that “churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ” (CCC 1180).
Hence, in recalling the dedication of the Lateran Basilica, and thus, of all churches, we recall that each one of us, as Christians, were dedicated to God at our baptism; we became living temples of his Holy Spirit, and became spiritual stones that make up Christ’s holy Church. Every time we enter a church building, and bless ourselves with holy water, we remind ourselves of this: through baptism, we are incorporated into Christ’s Body, and have communion with him. All of us have received this grace through and in the Church, for we are never saved apart from Christ’s holy Church. As St Cyprian said in the 3rd century: “You cannot have God as your Father if you do not have the Church as your Mother”. So, in celebrating today’s feast, we also give God thanks for the gift of Holy Mother Church, that through her sacraments and her preaching of the Gospel, all people may come to a knowledge and love of the Most Holy Saviour.
But perhaps in thinking of the Church, we see also her institutional shortcomings and the sins of her leaders, and we wonder if Christ will cleanse the temple of his Church. These words from the 6th-century saint Caesarius of Arles, which are read at Matins, should give us pause for thought: “Whenever we come to church, we must prepare our hearts to be as beautiful as we expect this church to be. Do you wish to find this basilica immaculately clean? Then do not soil your soul with the filth of sins. Do you wish this basilica to be full of light? God too wishes that your soul be not in darkness, but that the light of good works shine in us” so that the world may see our charity and give glory to our Father in heaven.
Father Leon Dehon, founder of the Priestly Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Congregatio Sacerdotorum a Sacro Corde Iesu) also known as the Dehonians, celebrating Holy Mass. According to former privilege granted to the missionaries in China,