The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
Every evening our Holy Mother the Church takes up the song of our blessed mother Mary as we sing her ‘Magnificat’ at the culmination of Vespers. Today’s feast recalls the context in which it was first heard, and so, invites us to reflect on the context and meaning of Our Lady’s words.
The meeting of Our Lady and St Elizabeth, of the holy Forerunner John and of Our Lord, is a pivotal moment in salvation history. For everything that the People of Israel longed and hoped for, all that the prophets foretold and the kings anticipated in their victories is now brought to fruition. The greatest of Israel’s prophets, St John the Baptist, leaps with exultation in the womb of his mother. Thus Israel recognizes, in the words of Zephaniah, that “the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more” (3:15b). And this sense, that God’s people need not fear any more because God is in our midst, takes salvation history into the future, until the end of all time. Henceforth, because Jesus is Emmanuel, forever more God-with-us, Mankind need not fear. For, as Zephaniah says, “the Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory” (Zeph 3:17a). Yes, because of Christ’s Incarnation, and by his Passion, Resurrection and Ascension into heaven, Man already knows his final victory over sin and death. Thus, not only Israel but all peoples in every generation can sing and exult. It is in this context that the Church catholic, she who is the Mother of humanity, takes up Our Lady’s song every evening.
All of salvation history is thus encompassed in the Magnificat, hence we find present, future, and past tenses in Our Lady’s song. Mary magnifies and rejoices in God now, and she prophecies that she will be called blessed. But at the same time she recalls what God has done. To be precise, the Magnificat doesn’t use the past tense as such but what in Greek grammar is called the aorist aspect. The aorist “describes an action as simply having happened”. So, with one aorist verb after another, Mary proclaims that God “has shown strength… has scattered the proud… has put down the mighty… has filled the hungry… has sent [the rich] away” (Lk 1:51-53).
All this God has accomplished by becoming Man, through the saving work of Christ’s Incarnation. Mary’s song is essentially an act of faith; she knows she need not fear any more. For because of the Incarnation, Mary knows what the end of Mankind’s history is: God is victorious and conquers all sin and evil. And she knows this even though in her own lifetime, she would have seen and experienced on-going hunger, oppression, and injustice. Nevertheless, Mary speaks of these things as simply having happened, in the aorist aspect. Why? Because she believes that the final Word belongs to God, and he has spoken his Word of victory, of justice, of love in the person of Jesus Christ. That Word has become flesh and dwells in Mary’s womb, and so, she can say with faith that the Lord God is in our midst, a warrior who gives victory (see Zeph 3:17a), whose Incarnation spells the end of evil, even as it is being worked out in every generation.
So, when the Church sings Our Lady’s Magnificat each evening, she shares in Mary’s faith and hope, she carries the same Word of love within her. For as we read in the Book of the Apocalypse, God has already won the victory for Mankind, and as Julian of Norwich said, in the end “all manner of things shall be well”.
However, I think there is also a challenge in the Magnificat. At the eve of the day, it acts as a retrospective, it invites us to reflect on how this day we have co-operated with God’s grace so that the hungry are fed, the proud are thwarted, and injustice is put right. Even if we feel lowly and perhaps inadequate to the task of transforming the world, nonetheless as Our Lady says: “he who is mighty has done great things for me”, for we, too, have received God’s grace; his Word also dwells in us through the Eucharist.
Thus, we are challenged by Our Lady’s words and her example to let our personal history and deeds be caught up in God’s working out of Man’s salvation history. By co-operating with grace, as the saints did, we participate in Christ’s final victory over sin and death, so that at last, like Our Lady and the saints, we too will be called “blessed”.
In this final week of Christmastide after the great Epiphany to the Magi, the lectionary presents us with a series of epiphanies, of moments when God reveals himself to humanity; times when divinity is so near to us. Hence, we’ve heard of great signs of healing, miraculous works of feeding, and Christ’s power over the elemental storms. For in these diverse ways, Jesus reveals his divinity and that he is God-with-us.
In today’s Gospel, we could say that St Luke sums up these epiphanies, these signs of God at work in the world, especially through healing miracles. Tomorrow’s Gospel will reiterate this as we hear of the healing of a leper. However, although physical healing is an important sign of God’s presence among us, there is something else which St Luke adds especially. For although Luke is principally quoting Isaiah 61:1-2, he has inserted a line from Isaiah 58:6, where the prophet outlines the features of a fast pleasing to God. So, into the prophecy of what Christ, the One who is anointed by the Spirit, will do, St Luke adds that he will “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Lk 4:18).
Now, of course Christ has, fundamentally, by his incarnation, set Mankind free from the oppression of sin and death. Thus, the psalm which we have been hearing every day since the Epiphany, when this was revealed to all nations through the Magi, says: “From oppression and violence he redeems their life” (Ps 71:14). However, we should beware of simply spiritualising what Christ has accomplished. This, it seems, is St Luke’s concern. Thus, he inserts a line from the practical works of mercy and justice given by Isaiah in chapter 58. And if we look there we find these words: “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bond of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free… Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn…” (Isa 58:6-7).
Therefore, the light of God’s presence among us, the epiphany of God’s glory shines on us when we are just and loving to the oppressed and needy; when we show practical mercy and compassion to the poor. Our first reading reiterates this by saying: “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). But, then, St John suggests that we have seen God, or rather, his son Jesus Christ. We have seen him because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). So, we see Christ in other human persons, dwelling in their flesh, in our flesh.
For through his incarnation, Christ has united his divinity to our human flesh; he has redeemed humanity in the flesh. So, “the flesh is the hinge of salvation”, Tertullian says. Hence it is in the flesh that God is seen and that his salvation for all peoples is revealed. For as Isaiah says, the hungry, homeless, and naked are “[our] own flesh”. Thus, when we care for our own flesh, meaning, not just our own bodies, but for every body; loving all peoples who are oppressed by poverty, violence, and injustice, then, in our acts of justice, mercy and of love, God is seen and his glory is revealed – they are an epiphany.
These past few days are, for so many people, precious time to spend with family and friends. Hence we began the New Year, too, with Mary, who is Mother of God but also our mother, our family. And today, we look to friendship, celebrating the feast of two friends from Cappadocia; doctors of the Church who worked together to challenge the Arian heresy.
At Christmastide, when we ponder the Incarnation, it’s worth recalling the truth that these saints defended: that Christ was fully divine as well as fully human. Only then could we receive what Jesus has promised us, as St John says, namely, eternal life (cf 1 Jn 2:25). So, St Gregory says: “He takes on my flesh, to bring salvation to the image, immortality to the flesh… We need God to take our flesh and die, that we might live”.
From a common love for this truth, a love for the true person of Jesus Christ, and from their common friendship with him, came their life-long friendship with one another. Indeed they were such firm friends from the time they first met as students in Caesarea around 340, that the Church, rather unusually, honours them both on the one same feast day. This is fitting since St Gregory describes their friendship like this: “We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit”.
But their closeness, their love and friendship for one another flowed from their love for Christ, and their common desire to know, love and befriend Christ strengthened their friendship with one another. So, St Gregory said: “When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper. The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning… Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come”. For the friend of Christ desires virtue because he wants to please him, to imitate him, and to love what he loves.
These are the characteristics of genuine friendship: to share interests and loves. And in the case of St Basil, this was marked by a great love for the poor because they are so well-loved by Christ, indeed, they are Christ. So, as bishop of Caesarea, St Basil began a huge project to feed the poor and help the sick and needy. And his teaching, which expresses the Church’s own social teaching about our duty to share with the needy what is theirs by right, are as striking and powerful as ever. He said: “The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit”. But this makes sense if the poor are Christ, our dearest friend. Why would we not help?
As a new year begins, and we have our goals and pursuits for 2014, we’re invited to pause and to look at these two friends; these saints who were ardent for truth and wisdom and also friends to the poor because they desired, above all else, to be friends of Jesus Christ. As St Gregory said: “Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians”. If we haven’t yet, perhaps we can make this our resolution too?
Students and various people often ask me: How do I know it’s true? And I have certainly asked myself this, too, about the Gospel; about what we’ve just heard. But here’s a thought: you just couldn’t make it up! Every other religion is about a wise teacher, a moral guide who points to a way of life, an ethic. Christianity isn’t. It’s about a person, who says he is God. It’s about relationship. And tonight God is born as Man so that he can be with us.
But what do I mean, you couldn’t make it up? Well, look at the cast of characters that are assembled at Jesus’ birth. The titles given him in Isaiah are grand, but the circumstances of the birth of this “Wonderful Counsellor, [the] Mighty God” are shockingly, even scandalously, ordinary: smelly shepherds, refugee parents, homelessness. And later on in his life, this “Prince of Peace” gathers around him rough fishermen, notorious public sinners, uneducated folk, children and women – who were considered by society then to be weaker and less worthy than adult men. But this assemblage of humanity at its most raw and real is the court of the “newborn king”. And then, moreover, he’s born in a cave. When God comes to the earth he made, he really enters into, even onto the very rock of the planet earth; with a bump, as it were. And then he’s laid in a feeding trough, a reminder of that most mortal of acts – that we need to eat to fuel ourselves and survive. So, when God becomes Man, he really does so vividly; surrounded by the stuff of humanity, the geological matter of the earth, and the acts of our mortality.
This, then, is what God has chosen for his birth as Man. But I suspect it wouldn’t have been our choice for him. In fact, it’s almost embarrassing to say that here is our God made Man, and that when he came to us this is the best reception we could give him. You couldn’t, indeed, wouldn’t make it up - not like this at any rate. And sometimes it seems we’ve been making up for it ever since, through splendid art and warm music, saccharine sentiments, and idealized Christmas card scenes that can distance us from the reality of that first Christmas night.
For there is something about the Nativity that is rather disturbing. It turns the world upside down, and upsets all our conventions and expectations. No wonder some people find it too hard to believe in. We’d rather keep God in his heaven, and maintain a ‘them’ and ‘us’ between the sacred and the profane.
But the truth isn’t like this. God has become Man, and so the sacred is bound up with the ordinary; God acts in and through frail fallible humanity and its circumstances, and we often don’t see how. There is the difficulty, then, of trusting that the holy Catholic Church is God’s instrument of salvation when we know how flawed we can be, or, indeed, the difficulty I have in obeying my superiors! And yet, God has become Man, and so, the extraordinary happens through the prosaic; God’s grace comes to us through (very) ordinary signs and means. So, there is also the difficulty of believing that the Bread and Wine become, at Christ’s Word, his Body and Blood, or that you and I are temples of the Holy Spirit, or, indeed, that what we freely choose to do now has eternal consequences. For what the Incarnation does is to challenge Mankind with a truth that we Dominicans have been trying to preach for eight centuries: Matter matters. And this is the truth we contemplate tonight.
But as we look at Christ in his manger, with his parents and the shepherds huddled around, we’re faced with another truth that we may find somewhat inconvenient or uncomfortable. And this, I think, is also why the Incarnation can be so hard to believe in. Because, if we did, tonight’s mysterious birth necessarily changes our perspective and outlook. So, when we look again, we see that our world’s refugees are Mary and Joseph; the cold and struggling homeless are this baby Jesus – our Lord! Which means that those who we consider least in our earthly kingdoms; those hungry and disenfranchised who all too often have no place at society’s table – nor even at our Christmas table – they are the greatest in God’s kingdom. And this means, then, that we should serve them, reverence them, love them.
If Christianity is about any ethic it is this - that the weakest and neediest are loved and honoured; that the greatest sinner always finds the warmth of God’s mercy and the communion, the embrace, of the Christian community. But here is the consolation and joy that I find in the Incarnation. Because I know that this means that Christ has come for me. I, a sinner – someone who sometimes struggles with uncertainties and doubts, too; who is weak and inconstant; a disciple who often doesn’t learn, and a Christian who can behave very un-Christ-like. For I know, too, that it is precisely for people like me that Jesus has come with “healing in his wings”, with mercy, grace, and forgiveness. And it is for us sinners that the Church exists to be God’s arms to embrace; God’s legs to run and help; God’s mouth to whisper tender words of absolution and wisdom. This, too, is a central truth – a beautiful truth – of Christianity.
All this flows from what we celebrate tonight. This is what – no, who – our Christian faith is about: God has become Man in the person of Jesus Christ, a vulnerable newborn baby. And, as with every newborn babe, so Christ’s birth brings an inconvenient truth, perhaps, but also a most beautiful truth; a truth that is hard but also so wondrous and strange, you couldn’t make up. A truth about the goodness of God’s creation and God’s faith in humanity. Hence the Jesuit theologian, Avery Dulles, says: “The Incarnation does not provide us with a ladder by which to escape from the ambiguities of this life and scale the heights of heaven. Rather it enables us to burrow deep into the heart of the planet earth and find it shimmering with divinity”.
This is what we believe and proclaim tonight. It happened, as we heard, in Bethlehem of Judea, “in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad, [in] the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome; and [in] the forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus”. God has entered human history and our material world, and he is ever with us. Thus the Christmas lights make sense. They express what rings true: that because of the Incarnation, our world shimmers and sparkles with divinity.
Today is a day of beginnings. It’s the first Sunday of Advent – the beginning of a new liturgical year. And today we also rejoice with Victoria and Sascha at another signifiant beginning – the baptism of their son Emil Louis-Christophe. And, so, it is fitting that at the start of the Church’s year we are reminded of the start of our Christian journey. It is fitting, too, in Advent that we rejoice. For this is not so much a penitential season as a quiet season of joyful expectation; a time in which we hope to “go rejoicing into the house of the Lord”, not just on Christmas day, together with the shepherds and wise men, but also on the final day, at the end of Life’s journey. We hope to go rejoicing, with the angels and saints, into the eternal house of the Lord, into eternal life with God in heaven. For this is the destination of the Christian journey, and it begins for each one of us with baptism. Hence, when Victoria and Sascha was asked what they wanted for Emil in asking for him to be baptised, they said: “Eternal life”.
The Christian journey is depicted by the prophet Isaiah in our first reading as a pilgrimage up a mountain, up to the “house of the God of Jacob”. The rite of baptism tries to give this sense of journeying too, as we move from the entrance of the church towards the lectern, where God’s Word is read, then to the font, where we are re-born to new life, and finally to the Altar. This is literally the ‘high place’, the mountain of the Lord, where we come to dwell with God and he abides with us through the Eucharist.
Our Christian life is, therefore, never static but is marked by this kind of movement towards God. Inasmuch as it is a journey up a high mountain, so, the Christian life has its struggles and difficulties. We may battle against high winds, occasionally wander off the path, or be distracted by various sights. But, we must move ever upward. In the words of the Dominican saint, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, the patron of our scouts, and patron of youth: “Verso l’alto”. We must move ever onwards “toward the top”, to the summit where God awaits us.
But, we do not struggle alone on this journey. Some of us may recall a recent climb up Arthurs Seat, where the wind was so strong that you could lean back into it and it supported one from falling. God’s Holy Spirit, the divine Wind or Breath of God, is like this. He supports us on our Christian journey if we would lean into him, and we are supported, too, by a host of saints and fellow pilgrims, by God’s holy Church. This is the reason Emil is baptised during Mass, so that we can all pray for him, and support him. No one is a Christian alone, and nobody journeys to heaven alone. We do so as members of Christ’s Body surrounded by a crowd of friends and family, by parents and godparents, by brothers and sisters in Christ.
Isaiah says: “Come, let us go up… that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isa 2:3). So, on our Christian journey, we will need not just the prayers and support of one another, but we can also learn from one another, especially from the saints. This is why we invoke their prayers in the rite of baptism. The saints have reached the summit of the Christian life, and so, they can show us the way up and help us with their prayers. In this journey, Emil can look to one of his name saints, Christopher, who is patron saint of travellers, for help. The paths that the saints have trodden before us are well-worn but arduous. We may need to lighten our load, and shed unneeded burdens and worldly attachments if we want to walk in their paths. Because the path they take is the Way of the Cross; the mountain they have climbed is Calvary. So, too, each of us can learn from the saints how to walk this way too. It is the way of our Lord Jesus Christ; it is the way of Love.
In modern times, one saint stands out for the way he sacrificed himself for the love of his fellow Man, and in doing so, he clearly reached the summit of the Christian life. His baptism found its goal, its perfection, in his martyr’s death. As he offered his life in exchange for the life of another fellow prisoner in Auschwitz, St Maximilian Kolbe, patron of the pro-life cause, shows us what it costs to reach the summit of the Christian life. It costs us love.
St Maximilian, who is Emil’s special patron because he was born on his feast day (14 August), teaches us the costliness of walking in Christ’s way of love. For love demands sacrifice. But it is precisely this Christ-like love that “shall judge between the nations… so that “nation shall not life up sword against nation [nor] shall they learn war any more” (Isa 2:4). Love heals violence, hatred and strife. And the one who follows Christ’s way of love shall “walk in the light of the Lord” (Isa 2:5). This is to say, he will share in Christ’s glory and be raised up to reign with Christ in heaven. For Love endures for ever and is stronger than death.
For many of us, the Christian life may not be so dramatic, but if we are to learn to love, then it will still be costly and demanding. Every day, situations arise which demand a sacrifice, which ask for love, or mercy, or compassion from us. These may be small instances, but many will be unexpected. Hence Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel to “be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Mt 24:44). We’re to be vigilant, then, in our Christian life. Or perhaps, we should think of it in an Advent mode. Let us be full of joyful expectation that the Lord could come at any time, and give us opportunities to love, to be kind, to be tender-hearted to him. For Christ is with us in the “distressing disguise of the poor”, as Blessed Mother Teresa said. He is all around us waiting to be recognized, served, and loved. Another of Emil’s name saints, Louis, was thus always attentive to care for the homeless and poor.
Hence, it is here in the Church, which we can truly call “the house of the Lord”, that we learn from the saints how we can walk in the Lord’s paths and find him. It is here in the Church that we support one another with prayer, friendship and love on our Christian journey. It is here in the Church that Man finds his way home to God. So, as Emil is baptised today, he indeed goes “rejoicing into the house of the Lord”!
I was on a course recently, and was told that they’d avoid using the ‘D-word’, death. Instead, they referred to an end-of-life experience. When I mentioned this to Fr Fergus, he said that Wittgenstein would have said that death wasn’t something one could experience. I agreed, as I’d had similar thoughts at the time, but I didn’t think the people running the course were ready for a philosophical discussion!
However, today’s Gospel does present us with a rather vivid end-of-life experience, as Abraham and the rich man (customarily called ‘Dives’; rich in Latin) engage in a conversation in Hades, or Sheol, a shadowy place beyond death that is neither heaven nor hell. And it’s this end-of-life experience, this discourse that I want to focus on. What philosophy, what wisdom does this parable offer us today?
Now, many will focus on the obvious moral of this story, especially since it is coupled with Amos’ warning to the decadent and complacent rich in the First Reading, which is that we, who have plenty, should have a care for the poor. There is no doubting the importance of this “preferential love for the poor” for us Christians. Central to the wisdom of Christian morality is that people are not only our brothers and sisters, and so, in a sense, our own flesh and blood, but they are also our Lords and Masters. For it is Jesus “in the distressing disguise of the poor”, as Blessed Mother Teresa put it, who is at the door, waiting for scraps, for compassion, for some human kindness, to fall from our table.
And we do, occasionally, need to be shaken from our complacency. Today’s readings seem aimed at doing just that. They invite us to re-examine how we live, and ask if you and I do truly care for those in need. Do we even notice the plight of our fellow Man, or do we retreat into comfortable platitudes and lifestyles? But these are not really the questions I want to raise today.
Rather, what I want to focus on is the last part of the dialogue of Abraham and Dives. The rich man asks that Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers lest they suffer his fate. But Abraham says: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them”. But Dives argues that they would more readily listen to a ghost. Abraham replies that “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead”.
"I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with splendour, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts" (Hag 2:7f).
We might think, from this, that God is greedy for treasure and wealth, and that he is will enrich his Temple. But I think we can read Haggai’s prophecy in a more Christ-centred way. St Lawrence, the 3rd-century deacon of Rome was martyred when he gathered together the poor, the lame and the beggars of Rome, and he said to the Roman Prefect, “Here are the treasures of the Church”. And he is right. The poor and needy are the treasure of the Church because, as Jesus says, he, our Lord, is found in and among them; Christ is present in these, the least of our brethren (cf Mt 25:34-40). Hence, today’s saint, Vincent de Paul, a French priest of the 16th-century who was renown for his practical love, even reverence, for the poor. As he said: “If you consider the poor in the light of faith, then you will observe that they are taking the place of the Son of God who chose to be poor”.
So, we can see Haggai’s prophecy in a new light, as saying that God will pour into his house, that is his Church, all the treasure that is the world’s poor and needy. Thus the Catholic Church is still the largest charitable organization and network in the world, working always with a preferential love for the poor to serve and help the needy. And it is these works of charity, what the Church traditionally calls the seven corporal acts of mercy, that are her splendour. So, when Haggai says that the Lord will “fill this house with splendour” and that the silver and gold is his, we need not think of the gleam of shiny metal, as such, but of the splendour of mercy and compassion, the beauty of charity, that was given by God to the saints.
Thus St Vincent said: “The Church teaches us that mercy belongs to God. Let us implore him to bestow on us the spirit of mercy and compassion, so that we are filled with it and may never lose it”. So we pray that God will fill us with such splendour of mercy and compassion just as St Vincent was so that we can also carry out the corporal acts of mercy. Indeed, St Vincent is the patron saint of the Church’s charitable works. And the corporal acts of mercy are: to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to shelter the homeless; to visit the sick; to visit the imprisoned; and to bury the dead (cf Mt 25:34-46).
A final thought on giving to the poor, on what is called ‘charity’ these days. When the Lord says in Haggai that “the silver is mine, and the gold is mine”, he is articulating the foundation of Jewish and Catholic social teaching. All the wealth of the earth is God’s such that charitable works become about service; they are exercises in justice, for we are giving to the poor what is their due; what is rightfully theirs. The rich tend to think that all that they earn belongs to them and no one else. But Catholic social teaching holds that everything belongs to God, and the rich and privileged are his servants, who have a duty to re-distribute what they have with the poor. Hence, St Vincent de Paul said: “The poor are your masters. You are the servant”.
Pentecost is often called the birthday of the Church, and so, we tend to think of it as commemorating something new, as marking a beginning, a birth. But in fact, if we consider what the Jewish feast of Pentecost, also called the feast of the First Fruits, was about, we can look at it differently. Pentecost was the the completion of a seven-week long celebration begun just after the Passover, and it marked the harvest season, when the first fruits of a new harvest were offered to God in thanksgiving. As such, Pentecost was a day of expectation and a culmination; it marks the kind of ending that harvesting implies rather than the beginning that is implied in sowing.
Hence the great signs of Pentecost when the Spirit descends on the Church are also evocative of harvesting: wind, as from a winnowing fan to separate the wheat from the chaff (cf Mt 3:12), and fire, as in traditional harvesting methods to bring fertility and new life to the harvested land. So, at Pentecost, God the Holy Spirit comes as the harvester and he comes to “renew the face of the earth” (Ps 103:30).
But this Pentecostal harvesting is the culmination of what began fifty days earlier on Easter Sunday. For the risen Christ is, as St Paul says, the “first fruits” of a new creation (cf 1 Cor 15:20). And it is he, as first fruits, who was offered to the Father, being taken up into heaven at his Ascension. And now, on the fiftieth day, the climax of the Paschal celebrations, the Spirit comes to harvest and offer up to the Father those first fruits of Christ’s new creation, namely, Christ’s holy Church who stand for a humanity renewed and transformed by the power of Christ’s resurrection. Thus, the Spirit comes to harvest you and me, we who are baptized into Christ. And, so, we are being offered with Christ as first fruits to the Father; we’re being raised up by the Spirit to new and everlasting life with God. As St Paul put it: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also” (Rom 8:11).
However, if the day of Pentecost was the great moment of God’s harvesting, then this is a moment which continues to this day. For the Church, who is animated by the Holy Spirit, lives ever in the Pentecostal moment, called in every age to renew and transform the whole world through the preaching and living out of the Gospel. Time and again, Christians have failed in this calling, but the Spirit comes as wind and fire to separate wheat from chaff, to burn out impurities with God’s fiery love, and to renew the face of the Church. Thus, the Church, and each of us individually, must call out each day: “Lord, send forth your Spirit, and renew us”.
And the Spirit who comes, and who renews us by bringing to our remembrance all that Jesus has taught us (cf Jn 14:26b), will also send us out as labourers into God’s harvest. This missionary imperative was put into action on Pentecost day. The tongues of flame loosened the tongues of the disciples so that they could preach the Gospel to all nations. It is in this sense that we can speak of the birthday of the Church. Because the Church was born for mission. She exists to “bring to remembrance” before all peoples what Jesus said and did. You and I, as members of the Church, are here for others, for the good of the world; we exist as a Church to be sent out to serve our brothers and sisters by bringing them the Gospel. As Pope Paul VI said: “[The Church] exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection”. Our chapel, which looks out onto the world, and with the Altar of Christ’s sacrifice and the tabernacle of God’s dwelling with us so visible to all passers-by, is a constant reminder of this: that we, the Church, exist to evangelize. We’re here in order to go out into God’s harvest, into the world, as labourers, collaborating with the Holy Spirit to “renew the face of the earth”.
But what does this renewal, this collaboration with God, mean concretely? Let us look again to the Biblical origins of Pentecost.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn 13:34). The last time we would have heard these words in the Liturgy would be on Maundy Thursday in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, just before the Gospel account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. These words, then, re-enforce what was heard in the Gospel of Maundy Thursday: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14). Hence, it is rightly understood that Christ’s commandment that we love one another is borne out in serving one another, in works of social justice.
Therefore, our parish embarked on a charitable project this Lent that sought to serve the needy and poor – not so much to wash their feet as to help provide feet, in the form of prosthetic limbs. We have raised about £3500 for Olivia Giles’ ‘500 Miles’ project through a variety of initiatives. And as Olivia suggested on Friday night when we presented a cheque to her, it is through such acts of generosity and love in a Christian community that we demonstrate that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. For the Lord says: “all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).
But this understanding of love as social justice is not new. It is already found in the Old Testament, and it is rooted in the Jewish prophets. For example, Micah 6:8 says: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” What is different is that the New Testament adds a mystical dimension to this because in serving the marginalized and oppressed it is our poor, naked, hungry God, Jesus Christ himself, whom we serve and love.
However, vital though it is, there is more to Christian love than just social justice. Hence, our Liturgy re-visits these words of Christ, his new commandment to us, in the light of the resurrection. What has changed? Christ has risen from the dead, and so, destroyed death. He has put an end to the hold that sin, evil, and death had over Mankind. He has made “all things new” (Apoc 21:5a), re-creating the heavens and the earth. Because of Christ’s resurrection, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Apoc 21:4). The disciples of Jesus Christ, who touched and saw and heard the risen Lord, knew all this to be true. Through faith, we also experience the risen Lord and know his Word to be true.
With an Easter faith, then, how is Christian love expressed? What more needs to be done in addition to serving one another and doing justice? Love is expressed through bringing hope to others: hope in the resurrection; hope that comes from faith in the new creation brought about by the risen Jesus; hope in God’s mercies that are ever new.
Therefore, the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows us how we’re called to love one another as disciples of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Love impels the first disciples to travel far and wide, risking the perils of the journey, to preach the Gospel. They could have been content to just keep the faith to themselves, or considered it too risky and imprudent to stand up against the Jewish authorities and the mighty Roman empire. And, as we’ve seen in previous weeks, after the Crucifixion, they were full of fear and confusion. But once the Holy Spirit had descended on them there was no stopping them.
“It is your face, O Lord, that I seek; hide not your face” (Ps 26:9). These words from psalm 26, cited in the entrance antiphon, and repeated in our responsorial psalm express the fundamental longing of the human heart: to see God’s face. St Augustine famously put it this way: “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in you”. And the philosopher Roger Scruton, in his 2011 Gifford Lectures, argues that this existential restlessness, experienced as a deep loneliness, is intensifying because we, as a society, have tried to hide from God’s face. But God, Scruton says, is “avoidable only by creating a void. This void opens before us when we destroy the face – not the human face only, but also the face of the world”.
What Scruton has in mind is the modern stripping away of our human personhood and relations by institutions – banks, government, shops and corporations who see us merely as faceless consumers and customers; the loss of public spaces and the faceless architecture that isolate us from one another; the consumption of people as faceless objects of sexual desire through the endemic spread of internet pornography. The result of all this, Scruton says, is a “godless void” that confronts us. But Lent, I think, if it is practiced well, tries to seek again the face of God, saying: “It is your face, O Lord, that I seek; let not your face be hidden from me”. And today’s Gospel reveals how this happens.
At first glance, this seems improbable because when Peter, James and John look upon the face of Jesus on the mountain, we’re told that “the appearance of his countenance was altered” (Lk 9:29). So, instead of God’s face being revealed, it is hidden once more. Jesus’ face changes as he prays on the mount of the transfiguration, and his clothes become dazzling so that he cannot even be looked upon; his face is hidden from us, even altered, so that he cannot be recognized. This is because, traditionally, God’s face cannot be seen. As the Lord said to Moses in Exodus: “You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:20). Rather, God revealed himself by entering into Covenantal relationship with his people as he did with Abram in the first reading, and through the Law and the prophets. Hence, in the transfiguration, Christ is revealed in glory as God between Moses and Elijah, revered in Jewish tradition as the ‘living ones’. The fact that this occurs up on a mountain also reminds us of the hiddenness of God’s face, for it is on a mountain that God tells Moses that “you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen”. And it is on a mountain that Elijah encounters God, but he does not see his face, but only finds him in a “still small voice”. God is heard but unseen just as in today’s Gospel. For, God’s face is, typically, hidden from us.
But the incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity changes all this. Now, God has a face, the face of Jesus. Hence, when Peter says he would like to remain on the mountain he is rebuffed, or at least, ignored. For humanity is historically more familiar, and so, more comfortable with an unseen God – the faceless God of our modern post-Christian society. But the incarnation challenges this. We’re now to listen to God’s Son, and, although it’s not explicit, the demonstrative “This is my Son” indicates that we’re to look at him; look at God’s face in Jesus Christ.
The problem is that we often do not see Christ’s face today; we fail to recognize him, and even avoid looking at God’s face. Let me explain what I mean. In today’s Gospel, mention is made of Jesus’ “exodus, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem”, and a few verses from the end of today’s Gospel passage, St Luke says that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem”. It is for this reason – going to Jerusalem – that Peter, James and John had to come down from the mountain of the transfiguration with the Lord so that, in Jerusalem, God might reveal his face to them, to all humanity.