The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
Today is a day of beginnings. It’s the first Sunday of Advent – the beginning of a new liturgical year. And today we also rejoice with Victoria and Sascha at another signifiant beginning – the baptism of their son Emil Louis-Christophe. And, so, it is fitting that at the start of the Church’s year we are reminded of the start of our Christian journey. It is fitting, too, in Advent that we rejoice. For this is not so much a penitential season as a quiet season of joyful expectation; a time in which we hope to “go rejoicing into the house of the Lord”, not just on Christmas day, together with the shepherds and wise men, but also on the final day, at the end of Life’s journey. We hope to go rejoicing, with the angels and saints, into the eternal house of the Lord, into eternal life with God in heaven. For this is the destination of the Christian journey, and it begins for each one of us with baptism. Hence, when Victoria and Sascha was asked what they wanted for Emil in asking for him to be baptised, they said: “Eternal life”.
The Christian journey is depicted by the prophet Isaiah in our first reading as a pilgrimage up a mountain, up to the “house of the God of Jacob”. The rite of baptism tries to give this sense of journeying too, as we move from the entrance of the church towards the lectern, where God’s Word is read, then to the font, where we are re-born to new life, and finally to the Altar. This is literally the ‘high place’, the mountain of the Lord, where we come to dwell with God and he abides with us through the Eucharist.
Our Christian life is, therefore, never static but is marked by this kind of movement towards God. Inasmuch as it is a journey up a high mountain, so, the Christian life has its struggles and difficulties. We may battle against high winds, occasionally wander off the path, or be distracted by various sights. But, we must move ever upward. In the words of the Dominican saint, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, the patron of our scouts, and patron of youth: “Verso l’alto”. We must move ever onwards “toward the top”, to the summit where God awaits us.
But, we do not struggle alone on this journey. Some of us may recall a recent climb up Arthurs Seat, where the wind was so strong that you could lean back into it and it supported one from falling. God’s Holy Spirit, the divine Wind or Breath of God, is like this. He supports us on our Christian journey if we would lean into him, and we are supported, too, by a host of saints and fellow pilgrims, by God’s holy Church. This is the reason Emil is baptised during Mass, so that we can all pray for him, and support him. No one is a Christian alone, and nobody journeys to heaven alone. We do so as members of Christ’s Body surrounded by a crowd of friends and family, by parents and godparents, by brothers and sisters in Christ.
Isaiah says: “Come, let us go up… that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isa 2:3). So, on our Christian journey, we will need not just the prayers and support of one another, but we can also learn from one another, especially from the saints. This is why we invoke their prayers in the rite of baptism. The saints have reached the summit of the Christian life, and so, they can show us the way up and help us with their prayers. In this journey, Emil can look to one of his name saints, Christopher, who is patron saint of travellers, for help. The paths that the saints have trodden before us are well-worn but arduous. We may need to lighten our load, and shed unneeded burdens and worldly attachments if we want to walk in their paths. Because the path they take is the Way of the Cross; the mountain they have climbed is Calvary. So, too, each of us can learn from the saints how to walk this way too. It is the way of our Lord Jesus Christ; it is the way of Love.
In modern times, one saint stands out for the way he sacrificed himself for the love of his fellow Man, and in doing so, he clearly reached the summit of the Christian life. His baptism found its goal, its perfection, in his martyr’s death. As he offered his life in exchange for the life of another fellow prisoner in Auschwitz, St Maximilian Kolbe, patron of the pro-life cause, shows us what it costs to reach the summit of the Christian life. It costs us love.
St Maximilian, who is Emil’s special patron because he was born on his feast day (14 August), teaches us the costliness of walking in Christ’s way of love. For love demands sacrifice. But it is precisely this Christ-like love that “shall judge between the nations… so that “nation shall not life up sword against nation [nor] shall they learn war any more” (Isa 2:4). Love heals violence, hatred and strife. And the one who follows Christ’s way of love shall “walk in the light of the Lord” (Isa 2:5). This is to say, he will share in Christ’s glory and be raised up to reign with Christ in heaven. For Love endures for ever and is stronger than death.
For many of us, the Christian life may not be so dramatic, but if we are to learn to love, then it will still be costly and demanding. Every day, situations arise which demand a sacrifice, which ask for love, or mercy, or compassion from us. These may be small instances, but many will be unexpected. Hence Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel to “be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Mt 24:44). We’re to be vigilant, then, in our Christian life. Or perhaps, we should think of it in an Advent mode. Let us be full of joyful expectation that the Lord could come at any time, and give us opportunities to love, to be kind, to be tender-hearted to him. For Christ is with us in the “distressing disguise of the poor”, as Blessed Mother Teresa said. He is all around us waiting to be recognized, served, and loved. Another of Emil’s name saints, Louis, was thus always attentive to care for the homeless and poor.
Hence, it is here in the Church, which we can truly call “the house of the Lord”, that we learn from the saints how we can walk in the Lord’s paths and find him. It is here in the Church that we support one another with prayer, friendship and love on our Christian journey. It is here in the Church that Man finds his way home to God. So, as Emil is baptised today, he indeed goes “rejoicing into the house of the Lord”!
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.
Christ is the Bridegroom of his Church, the lover of every human soul, and he gives himself to his Church for her protection, cherishing her, clothing her, loving her, and dying for her on the Cross. As St Paul says: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). As Bridegroom, Christ gives us an example of sacrificial love. And it is this example that we’re to follow when he is no longer physically visible on earth; when the Bridegroom is, in a sense, taken from his Bride after his ascension into heaven.
Because every one of us, as Christians, have been anointed as types of Christ, baptised into union with him. So, each of us is called, in some sense, to be the Bridegroom, lovers of every human person. Now that the Bridegroom is taken from us, it is you and I, his disciples, who are called to be Christ in the world, to embody God’s love, mercy, and compassion to all people. For this is what fasting entails. Not giving up food, or just some other creature comfort as such, but to love as Christ, the Bridegroom loves – sacrificially.
Hence, as Isaiah says, we’re called “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke… 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…” And this last phrase, “your own flesh” is reminiscent of marriage, wherein “two shall become one flesh”. St Paul thus says, in an echo of Isaiah, that “no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body” (Eph 5:29f).
So, through our union with Christ in baptism, through our membership in his Body, we’re called to protect, cherish, clothe, and love other people sacrificially; to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mk 12:31) for “no man ever hates his own flesh.” This, then, is what our Lenten fast is about – not just sacrificing those things we enjoy, but to learn to enjoy sacrificing for others, that is, to learn to love like Jesus, the Bridegroom loves the Church, his Bride; to learn to love other people with our bodies.
For as Saint Teresa of Ávila said:
“Christ has no body now but yours No hands, no feet on earth but yours Yours are the eyes through which He looks compassion on this world Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world Yours are the hands Yours are the feet Yours are the eyes You are His body Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Before I joined the Order I spent a year working in the Philippines in the parish of San Lorenzo Ruiz which was in one of the poorest parts of Manila. Around a hundred thousand people lived within the parish boundaries, many in slums and make-shift shacks. The river that ran next to the church was black with pollution and scum, and apart from a few scraggly coconut trees, most of the neighbourhood was built-up with concrete everywhere. Barely a green plant or flower was to be seen – this was an urban wilderness, and the soil was dry and barren.
But the parish priest was determined that the church compound should be different. He raised flower beds and planted tropical flowers, fruit trees and other green plants. Volunteers from developed Asian countries like Korea and Japan came to help cultivate these beds, and at the time when I saw this these lines from the prophet Isaiah came to mind: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom”.
However the beauty and fecundity of the parish compound was symbolic, as it is in Isaiah’s vision. The blossoms point to the salvation, the abundance of life, that God gives to his people. It points to the hope of the resurrection, which promises that even in the face of dryness and death, God can bring vitality and new life. In the parish of San Lorenzo Ruiz, I saw that these truths of our faith were symbolized by the planting project, but, more significantly, the resurrection and salvation won for us by Christ was anticipated by the works of charity and mercy, of hope and love carried out in the parish.
There, those who were weak and needy were strengthened and helped. The blind and sick were given free healthcare thanks to ‘medical missions’ from staff and students of Manila’s Dominican-run hospital. Volunteers from abroad came to teach in the parish school, thus opening the eyes of poor children to knowledge and new opportunities. The poor who were rendered dumb and voiceless were given a voice as the priests spoke up for them, advocating with mayors and local authorities for legal reform and social justice. And those who were made lame by corruption and oppression were helped so that they could walk towards brighter futures.
Through these good works of social justice, of practical help and works of active charity, Isaiah’s vision of salvation was actualized for the poor of Dagat-dagatan in Manila. So, I realized that wherever we are, through our good works, our advocacy for justice, and our outreach to those in need, both materially and spiritually, we proclaim that God “will come and save you”; that he is active and present in his Church. For our acts of Christ-like charity, of mercy and compassion – no matter how small – become like flowers in a desert of loneliness, drops of living water for a world thirsting for the Gospel of God’s love, forgiveness and healing.
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.
At first glance this Gospel seems very similar to last Sunday’s in that Jesus is proving to his disciples the physicality of his risen body. He’d asked Thomas to reach out and touch his wounds, and today, it seems, Jesus asks for some food to eat as an indication that he’s not a ghost. However, today’s Gospel is like last Sunday’s in another more important way. Last week, I suggested that being invited to touch Christ’s wounds is an expression of his trust, of forgiveness, and renewed friendship. And this week, we see yet another expression of reconciliation and divine mercy: Jesus shares a meal with his disciples.
For the Greek phrase enopion auton that is literally translated as “he took it [the fish] and ate before them” can also be translated idiomatically as he ate ‘at their table’. And, as this scene immediately follows on from St Luke’s account of Christ’s appearance to his disciples at Emmaus, the theme of table fellowship is continued. At Emmaus, Christ was known “in the breaking of the bread”, and here, back in Jerusalem, the risen Christ is known through the eating of fish. And the use of bread and fish is not accidental but is full of symbolism because, earlier on in the Gospel, Christ had fed five thousand with just five loaves and two fish. So bread and fish are signs of God’s providence for his people, for his miraculous presence among us, creating a new world in which all “ate and were satisfied”. Moreover, bread and fish were early Christian symbols of the Eucharist, the table fellowship at which all are fed and satisfied by Christ himself. So, just as the Emmaus account points to Christ’s abiding presence in the Eucharist, so today’s Gospel continues Luke’s point about being able to recognize the risen Lord in the Eucharist. And as Jesus eats the fish at the table of the disciples as a sign of friendship, forgiveness, and reconciliation, so St Luke is reminding us that the Eucharist is our Christian sacred meal of friendship, forgiveness, and communion with God and one another.