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.
Last July, Pope Francis famously said: “Who am I to judge?”, and it caught the world’s attention. The Holy Father had been asked about those with a homosexual orientation, and citing the Catechism, the Pope responded: “A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will—well, who am I to judge him?” And for some Catholics this was controversial; for many others, this was misunderstood as a papal moral license to do anything.
And yet the Holy Father’s attitude echoes that of the Householder in today’s first parable: “No… Let both grow together until the harvest”. That is to say that judgement of one’s good or ill is delayed until the harvest time when Christ will come as Judge. Until then, the Church is like that great tree in the second parable that shelters all the birds of the air. Christ’s Church is called, then, to be a refuge for sinners, a resting place for the weary, a home for all those who are seek truth, goodness and beauty; all kinds are invited to come and nest in her branches. And if anyone has seen a tree full of birds, it’s quite a lively noisy place, as they tweet away and, presumably, disagree and dialogue with one another.
But if judgement is made, and only those who agree with one another are gathered together, and all those who are judged ‘bad’ are excluded, then there is just silence, and hums of mutual agreement. Rather, the third parable has a vision of somewhat more confidence in the good and the true – it naturally attracts and grows and nourishes, like leaven in the dough. Interestingly, this, I think, is one of the instances when God is likened to a baker woman, mixing dough with the leaven of righteousness and truth, causing the dough of the Church and our world to rise up with the leaven of his grace.
Nevertheless, there are zealous servants who fear the damage and confusion caused by those who are deemed weeds. Who are these weeds? Pope Francis, I suppose, was thinking of people who are homosexual, who are written off by Christians and others because of they’re gay. It’s not difficult to find such zealous servants around especially in the Church - just yesterday, I read this sentence in a blog: “A lesbian who accepts her sexuality already defies church teaching just by existing”! But there are others, especially in the world, who would weed out and write off convicted pædophiles. Others still are written off because they’re deemed liberals or conservatives. Indeed, one can consider as a weed a whole range of labels and identities – based on what periodicals one reads, or what language one worships in, or what one does in the bedroom, and so on. But the bottom line is that the zealous servants believe that the Sower’s pure field, which should have only yielded good wheat, has been contaminated and confused by weeds sown by the Enemy.
But the Head of the Household, that is, Jesus Christ says: “Let both [weeds and wheat] grow together until the harvest” in case “in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them”. Here we see the patience of God, and his confidence in the power of grace to transform the sinner, to move one to repentance. As we said in our psalm response, the Lord is “good and forgiving”. But he can only be forgiving, only show mercy, towards someone who chooses to repent. This means, someone who we choose to include in our conversation and allow to nest in the tree of the Church; to grow in the field of the Lord. If they are judged immediately, and then excluded and weeded out now, there is no more opportunity for growth and change, less chance for repentance, no place for mercy and for God to show that he is good and forgiving. For because God is good, so we believe that he will also send the grace that moves us to repentance, to seek and receive forgiveness for sins.
In fact, those who would judge and act now to weed out the sinners have a more fundamental problem. They lack faith in the power of God’s grace. There is a kind of spiritual despair – the lack of hope – in believing that the evils of the world is stronger than the good; that the Enemy has won the war simply because he has won a skirmish or a battle. But the spiritual battle for the salvation of a soul is not over until the harvest time. Until then, God’s grace is still active and powerfully at work, even though it is unseen like the leaven in the dough, like the grain of mustard seed germinating underground. Until harvest time, repentance is still possible; a human person is still capable of change and conversion – that is our hope. And it is this hope, countering the despair and hopelessness all around us, that motivates the Church especially under Pope St John Paul II to oppose the death penalty, and to oppose the ‘Assisted Dying’ bill. Why? Because until one’s natural death, until harvest time, no zealous servant in the form of doctor or State should execute judgement and uproot the weeds.
This same hope of growth and repentance, then, this same faith in God’s redeeming grace, this same love of the whole human person and his whole life is what underlies the words of the Holy Father, when, echoing the Householder’s attitude, he says: “Who am I to judge?”
These are the words of a patient farmer who wants the Church to be that field in which both weeds and wheat can grow together. Because while there is growth and while there is time before the harvest, then there is also time for conversion, for change, for repentance. This requires, of course, on the one hand, that Christ’s true teachings are proclaimed and taught clearly and well, with sensitivity to people’s lived experience especially from among the saints. On the other hand, it requires of us a humble readiness to listen, to be challenged to grow, and to be open to change. The most terrifying thing is when a human person, who by nature is changeable, obstinately refuses to change. If our mind is made up and we believe that our opinions are necessarily correct; that there is no alternative way; that ours is the final word, then our growth is stunted – we may well remain weeds.
But in contrast to this, the Gospel of Jesus Christ keeps challenging every human person to grow and change and to be supernaturally perfected in grace, to become wheat. So, our minds must be opened up in repentance, metanoia, to humbly seek the Truth who is Christ. For as Pope Francis said in Lumen Fidei, “truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us”. The Gospel and the teachings of Christ’s Church also challenge us to grow beyond the fatalism of our age to see that nobody is doomed by genetics or sexual orientation or culture to behave in a certain way. No, Christ is the Way who leads to our fullest human flourishing and deepest joy. And it is he who is the final Word, God’s one Word spoken into our human lives and world with all its limitations, our weakness and sufferings, trials and confusion. Into this world, God’s Word is spoken, and his Word is “good and forgiving”, patient and gentle, forbearing and merciful and true. His Word is Love.
And so, this parable is not about moral relativism, nor does it say that the True and the Good is unknowable. Neither does it say that the sinner should be abandoned unchallenged or unrepentant. Rather, these parables tell of God’s Word of Love, about his grace patiently and powerfully at work in the world, converting and transforming the hearts of us sinners. God keeps faith with Man, hoping for our repentance, for more than we thought we’re capable of, more than the world cynically or ‘realistically’ expects. But the question is, will we keep faith with him? As Jesus asks in St Luke’s Gospel, when the harvest time comes, will he find any faith on the earth? (Lk 18:8).
This year marks the 740th anniversary of the death of St Bonaventure, and also, incidentally of St Thomas Aquinas who was a good friend of his. There is much that these saints share in common. Both died in connection with the Council of Lyons: St Thomas had died on the way to the Council; Bonaventure, who was instrumental in preparing for the Council as a bishop, theologian and cardinal died during it. Both were mendicant friars and had defended the friars movement in Paris; both had studied and taught in the University of Paris. However, one incident (which echoes a similar one in the life of St Thomas Aquinas) shows us St Bonaventure’s priorities. When asked by St Thomas what was the source of his learning and insight, he pointed to an image of the Crucified One, and said: “This is the library, wherein I find all that I teach to others”. Thus, St Bonaventure, a Doctor of the Church, says to us: “If you learn everything except Christ, you learn nothing. If you learn nothing except Christ, you learn everything”.
The primacy of Christ in all things, and thus, the priority given to the Word of God, is central to St Bonaventure’s thought. As Minister General of the Franciscans he’d had to grapple with notions that St Francis had inaugurated a new, more spiritual and charismatic age for the Church. But St Bonaventure insisted that Jesus Christ is God’s final Word to humanity. There can be no further new revelation for in Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh, God had said all, giving himself entirely to humanity, even giving us his Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
Hence, Bonaventure said that if we seek truth, especially concerning eternal salvation, we needed to look to Christ in faith, to love him through prayer, and only then can we truly understand God’s words in Sacred Scripture. As he says: “This faith is the foundation of the whole Bible, a lamp and a key to its understanding”. And this faith, of course, comes to us as a gift from Jesus Christ; it is an ecclesial faith that we receive from Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church. Thus, as Minister General, St Bonaventure strived to unite the Franciscans more closely to the hierarchy of the Church. For this reason, I think, Bonaventure (unlike St Thomas) accepted being made Archbishop of York and a cardinal.
As a Scholastic, St Bonaventure (like St Thomas) firmly believed in the unity of faith and reason in the human quest for true knowledge. For, ultimately, God is the source of all wisdom; Jesus is Truth itself. Therefore, as a theologian, Bonaventure stressed that if we desired to know truth concerning our salvation, we needed to depend on God’s Word, and to learn from Christ. As he says: “The source of sacred Scripture was not human research but divine revelation”. For Bonaventure, then, the motivation for genuine theology was a love for Christ and a desire to know him better. Against this, he warned of the danger of intellectual pride which subjected the Scriptures to merely human reasoning and research. St Thomas, likewise, warned that “in knowledge and in every other endowment that belongs to greatness, Man finds occasion to trust in himself rather than to give himself over completely to God”.
The sanctity of these men, then, came not from their learning or formidable intelligence, as such, but from their humility and love for the Word of God. This enabled them to use their human reason to understand divine revelation, to accept God’s Word in faith and to conform their lives to it rather than to rationalize the Faith away or relativize God’s Word. This intellectual pride is the temptation in every age. Currently, we must wonder if some churchmen have not fallen into such temptation through arguing in support of the Assisted Dying Bill, or in favour of divorce and remarriage, or allowing for the ordination of women – positions which all contradict the teaching of Scripture and of sacred Tradition. The positions they advance all sound reasonable but we must always beware, as St Bonaventure teaches us, that the pride of human reason does not take precedence over the Word of God; over the divine Wisdom and knowledge that is only known through the grace of the Holy Spirit – that same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures and continues to guide, inspire, and animate Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. As such, her Magisterium cannot teach error in matters of faith and morals when it concerns our salvation.
St Bonaventure, therefore, said that only “the pious and the humble, the contrite and the devout” can learn from divine Wisdom. So, let us imitate his docility to the Word of God, and so, by God’s grace grow closer to Jesus Christ, the “Way, the Truth, and the Life”.
It is by coincidence that today’s Gospel is being read on the eve of the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, but it is a most fitting preparation for this great feast. Because the celebration of the feast of the Sacred Heart actually has two elements: consecration and reparation. So, tomorrow we will hear of the depths of Christ’s love for all humanity, a sacrificial love that redeems us, and we are called to meditate on this saving love made visible in the Eucharist, and to consecrate ourselves to the Christ by acknowledging him as ‘Lord’.
And as today’s Gospel warns us, our consecration to Christ, our calling him ‘Lord’, cannot be just lip service. We need to do the Father’s will, which means that our heart will be transformed by grace until we, too, have a sacrificial heart of love like Christ’s. Because for Christ to do the Father’s will means that he freely offered himself on the Cross, in loving obedience to the Father’s will, for the sake of Mankind’s salvation. So, we are also called to offer our hearts, our lives, our whole will to God in obedience.
But how do we obey God and listen to the Father’s will? Only with Christ’s Church, only by listening to, seeking understanding, and, then, obeying her teachings for, as Pope Francis said yesterday, “to be Christians means belonging to the Church”, and so, we are committed to the faith and teaching of the Church in its entirety. As the Holy Father went on to say: “At times one hears someone say: “I believe in God, I believe in Jesus, but I don’t care about the Church…”. How many times have we heard this? And this is wrong. There are those who believe they can maintain a personal, direct and immediate relationship with Jesus Christ outside the communion and the mediation of the Church. These are dangerous and harmful temptations. These are, as the great Paul VI said, absurd dichotomies.”
So, what we heard in today’s Gospel, from Christ himself can be related to what his Vicar on earth said yesterday. For there are those who call Jesus ‘Lord’, and claim to do great things in his name – even taking ‘prophetic’ stances – but, by setting themselves and their own teachings up against Christ’s Church, they risk having these words from Jesus said to them: “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (Mt 7:23)!
Here, then, is a call to repentance which is a necessary part of consecration to the Sacred Heart. It is a call to genuine reform which is to open our hearts and minds to the fullness of the Christian and Catholic Faith, and to give it our full assent. The one who hears this call to repentance and heeds it, Jesus says, “will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock” (Mt 7:28). It’s not accidental that this image alludes to St Peter who built the house of the Church upon the rock of Christ. So, we Catholics are likewise called to heed the wisdom of Peter and all his successors, to be receptive to “the truth revealed through Scripture and Tradition and articulated by the Church’s Magisterium” (cf Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the Bishops of England & Wales, 2010).
At the same time today’s Gospel can also refer to those of us who are priests and bishops, to the clergy who act in Christ’s name. We are being warned to practice what we preach, and to do the Father’s will faithfully and assiduously, to be close to Jesus and known to him through prayer and through a reverent attention to the sacred Liturgy; through love for the Eucharist. Thus, one of the key reasons for the feast of the Sacred Heart was to make reparation for the indifference and sins against the Eucharist of the clergy and religious especially, and then, more generally, to make reparation for the indifference and neglect of the Christian people towards the Eucharist.
It is this lukewarmness of the Christian heart that the Sacred Heart of Jesus, ablaze with love and mercy, seeks to inflame. May the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus have mercy on us all, and may he stir up in us the grace of repentance and conversion to love him more and more.
People sometimes say that Jews, Muslims and Christians worship the same God. And there is some truth in this for we can all say: “I believe in one God”. However, this is not the complete truth. For the one God who we Christians worship and profess in the Creed, who is revealed to us by Jesus Christ, and who is expounded in Scripture and Tradition, is the Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And this truth, this great mystery matters. For truth matters, especially when it concerns the highest truths about God and our salvation. Hence the Church struggled and theologians argued for centuries to understand and express its meaning, and the difference it makes is of such import that it would set Christians apart from Judaism, and gave St John of Damascus cause to consider the emerging religion of Islam in the 7th-century to be a heresy. For there is a strict monotheism present in both Islam and Judaism that we Christians cannot profess as the full truth; something essential is lacking. So, from this point of view, we do not worship the same God. Rather, as the prayers of today’s Mass say, we profess “the true faith”, of God the “eternal holy Trinity and undivided Unity”.
In fact, you have probably already professed this truth several times today. Whenever we make the sign of the Cross we invoke the Holy Trinity. And at the same time, in tracing the Cross over ourselves we say that God saves us through the Cross of Jesus Christ. So, this one action, which we probably don’t consciously take much note of, says what matters most about the God we worship and about Mankind’s salvation. Indeed this action expresses what Jesus says in today’s Gospel: that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”. (Jn 3:16).
St Paul, in today’s Second Reading, refers to the Triune God as “the God of love and peace” (2 Cor 13:11), and this can be related to the Gospel. For the Father is the God of love, who so loved us that he sent Jesus to reconcile sinful humanity to himself. The Fourth Eucharistic Prayer puts it like this: “When through disobedience [Mankind] had lost your friendship, you did not abandon him to the domain of death… And you so loved the world, Father most holy, that in the fullness of time, you sent your Only Begotten Son to be our Saviour”. The Son, then, is the God of peace, who puts an end to the disturbance and rebellion that is sin, and restores Mankind to peace and friendship with God. Indeed, Christ gives his Church his peace, which is freedom from sin and a share in his divine Sonship, union with God. In the Mass it is put this way: “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you: look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity…”. But what about the Holy Spirit? He is present, I think, in this: St Paul says, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Cor 13:12).
It’s the fiftieth and final day of the Easter season today but the Gospel takes us back to the first day, to the evening of Easter Sunday, when the Risen Christ first appeared to his apostles gathered together. So Christ comes to his Church and imparts his peace and mercy by giving the Holy Spirit, the grace of forgiveness for sins. Fifty days later, on Pentecost Sunday, the apostolic Church is gathered together again. Now, the Holy Spirit appears to the apostles, and gives to the Church the gift of tongues.
So, whereas on Easter Sunday, Christ the eternal Word breathes over the apostles, and gives the Holy Spirit, today on Pentecost Sunday, the Holy Spirit breathes over the apostles as they heard a sound “like the rush of a mighty wind” (Acts 2:2), and the Spirit gives them the eternal Word. Hence, as soon as the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles, the Church catholic, in many different languages, begins to preach “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11). For this is what the Church is for: she exists to communicate to all peoples what God has done.
What God has done, his mighty works – this is crucial. Because, very often it can seem that we Christians are here to do good works, to carry out works of social justice, of education, health care and so on. It is true that the Catholic Church is still the single largest charitable organization delivering humanitarian services and aid in the world, and all this good work, we must say, comes ultimately from God as we human beings co-operate with his grace and live out his commandments. As St Paul says: “there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one” (1 Cor 12:6).
But, as we know all too well, the Church – or, really, the Christian people – often also fails to do good works. In fact, we Catholics have been complicit in some very bad works. This week’s news from the recent history of the Irish Church – at least, as the Press widely reported it – shocked and dismayed me, as I am sure it would have horrified you and so many other people too. And so, as we gather today for Pentecost, for this feast which is often called “the birthday of the Church”, some might wonder if we have much cause to celebrate. What do we, a Church of sinners, have to say to our world especially on Pentecost Sunday?
The long discourse from St John’s Gospel, which we’ve been listening to these past weeks of Eastertide, is a revelation of God the Son to his disciples during the Last Supper. In fact, it is the apostles, the pillars of his Church, to whom Christ is speaking, and he does so within the context of the Eucharist which is the heart and source of his Church. As such, Jesus is revealing to his holy Church what he will do for her. He says: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:13).
Thus Christ promises that his Church will have the fullness of the revelation of the truth, that is to say, “everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God” (Dei Verbum, §8).
There is a tendency to think of Jesus like an absentee landlord who, after his Ascension, leaves the Church and her leaders to their own devices, to muddle along. But even if it is true that sinful human beings have often made a muddle of things, it is also true that Jesus promises his Church that he will send the Spirit to be with her, working with and through frail and fallible human instruments to teach Christ’s infallible truths concerning salvation. For as St Paul tells the men of Athens, the “times of ignorance” (Acts 17:30) have passed, and now God no longer wants us to just “feel after [God]” (Acts 17:27) but know God through the revelation that comes from Jesus Christ and his Mystical Body, the Church.
Hence in these days before the Ascension we hear again and again Jesus’ assurances that he will send “another Counselor” to his apostles, all of whom were such frightened, weak, and sinful men. Yet Jesus teaches us that the Spirit will faithfully “declare” to these apostles and their successors everything that comes from the Father and the Son (cf Jn 13f). Thus, through Christ’s Church, of which Christ is the Head and the Holy Spirit is her soul (see Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis, §57), all humanity until the end of time can be led into the complete truth.
As the Jesuit cardinal, Henri de Lubac, who had been a theological consultant at Vatican II said: “The Holy Spirit who guided the Apostle is the same who still guides the Church, and speaks by the voice of the modern popes. The path to which it commits us is the only safe one. To follow it is neither naïveté, nor syncretism, nor liberalism; it is simply Catholicism”.
But the path to which this commits us is also the path of faith. It requires that we believe Christ’s Word; that we trust Jesus’ promise that he will give the Spirit; that we have faith that God’s Spirit is actively and surely leading and guiding Christ’s Church into complete truth, despite our human failings. For we know that our God is always faithful even when we are unfaithful (cf 2 Tim 2:13). This is the God we know and worship – not an unknown god as the Athenians did – but One who we know is Risen from the dead, and who is with us now, here, in the Breaking of Bread.
What does joy have to do with commandments? On a day when many will have taken to the polls to elect MEPs, we may well be pondering this question. Will our law-makers and their European laws and dictates and commandments give us any joy? And many, having seen the candidates on offer, may well have decided not to vote since none of them can be trusted to enact laws that bring us much joy! These are some of the arguments I have heard today.
And yet, we must beware lest we think likewise about God’s commandments. All too often we can think of laws and commandments as restrictions on our freedom and happiness. Underlying this is the idea that I know best what would make me flourish. And I suppose this is true in most circumstances where the law-giver is as human and fallible as the next one. But that is not the case with Christ. The Divine Law-giver is not only Wisdom incarnate, but he is our Maker. And so, as St Augustine says, God is “more intimate to me than I am to myself”. Moreover, Christ is true Man, which means he is most fully human – thus, he is without sin. As one who is fully human, then, Jesus teaches humanity how to be most truly human; to be free of the dehumanizing effects of sin and the slavery of just doing whatever we want or feel like doing. The warped sense of freedom and happiness that predominates our common mentality these days are the very things that dehumanize us, and so make for societal and individual restlessness, and a profound depressive lack of joy.
Jesus, then, comes to save us from all this. He comes to bring joy, and he sends the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. For only a life built on Truth, that is, on God, will bring joy. Only a life shaped according to Christ’s commandments will bring complete joy. This is what Jesus promises us in today’s Gospel.
But do we trust the Divine Lawgiver? Often, we distrust commandments because we distrust the authority from which they emanate, whether it is the European Parliament, or governments, or, indeed, even the Bishops’ Conference. And often we nurse this distrust because we suspect that these bodies may not have our best interests at heart; they do not love us, we think.
Hence Jesus links the keeping of his commandments to who he is. He, the divine Lawgiver, is the Lover of humanity. He has loved us as the Father has loved him, meaning eternally, infinitely, fruitfully. Jesus could not love Mankind any more or less than he already does because his love for us is infinite. As St Peter noted, God “made no distinction between” Jews and Gentiles (Acts 15:9), and God continues to love all people indiscriminately, whether they are baptised or not, whether they are black or white, male or female, whatever their sexual orientation or political convictions. God’s love is indiscriminate and what he desires for us is our flourishing; that we may become fully alive as human beings, be truly free, and live according to our rational human natures. This alone brings joy.
As such, God’s commandments are directed towards this end; to making us as fully human as Jesus so that our joy will be complete. So, when God is the Lawgiver his commandments have everything to do with our joy. Thus, when we decide whether or not to follow God’s commandments we are in fact going to the polls, and our actions are our vote.
We are voting whether or not to trust the law-maker. Does God truly have my best interests at heart, and does Jesus really know what will bring me joy? Does this loving God still act in the world, entrusting his infallible authority and his Spirit to the Church, his Body on earth, so as to lead all humanity into all saving truth? Is Jesus really with his Church until the end of time, to shepherd us into the complete joy and peace of heaven? All these he has promised us; the Word has given his word. The question is, do we believe him? Do we love him? Do we, therefore, choose to abide in Christ’s love? Léon Bloy answers thus: “There’s only one real sadness in life: not to be a saint”. Let this be our electoral slogan too.
We live in an age that is distrustful of power and institutions; wary of the Establishment and elite. All too often our trust in those in authority has been betrayed, and so we are, rightly I suppose, reticent to believe. For some time now, the Gospel has been proposed and taught from a position of power and influence, by a Church that is allied to the organs of Government and authority. And for our contemporaries who are wary of power and its abuse, then the Gospel and its preaching, which is the raison d’être of the Church, can be perceived as a kind of myth that perpetuates the hold of these power institutions over ordinary folk. In this way of perceiving things, science and reason are held up as great liberating forces to break the stranglehold of a credulous Church, its medieval myths, and its lust for power over consciences.
But this, in fact, is the myth of our age; a fundamentally false one.
For during this Easter Octave, we have not encountered credulous apostles. On the contrary, these men are unbelieving, hard of heart, and slow to believe. They’re a rather skeptical bunch – the kind of incredulous reasonable people that our modern-day Dawkins-fan would be proud of. Nor have we encountered powerful and manipulative institutions, out to perpetrate a myth of Christ’s Resurrection so as to control the poor masses. Au contraire, the apostles are “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13). Moreover, the first witness of the Risen Lord is a woman, whose witness was typically scorned and disregarded by those in power in 1st-century Palestine. And the next two witnesses were two deserters, fleeing Jerusalem for the country; country bumpkins, even, we might say. So, Christianity’s key event, without which the whole Faith implodes, relies on the witness of poor ordinary disorganized folk. This truly grassroots movement, so removed from the power and elitism and smug certitude of certain modern-day academics, thinkers and scientists, began among the powerless, the un-respectable, the ignored; little people.
And yet those first eyewitnesses of the Resurrection, beginning with Mary Magdalene and other women, then the Two headed to Emmaus, then the Eleven remaining apostles, and some other common folk, simply would not be ignored. No earthly power, not even the might of imperial Rome, could silence them. These little people made a big claim.
Because they pro-claimed Truth. As St Peter, speaking for the whole Church and for subsequent generations of Christians said, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Even today, the powerful Media would silence the voices of the little people, of our brothers and sisters, the persecuted Christians of Syria, Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Sudan and countless other places besides. But they, like St Peter and St John, cannot be silenced. Their willing suffering and martyrdom eloquently proclaim that “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who [the authorities had] crucified, God [has] raised from the dead” (cf Acts 4:10). This is the simple Truth they – and we – must proclaim. This is not so much a doctrine, but a person. We preach the Risen Lord whom we encounter above all in the Eucharist.
But, if we’ve truly encountered Christ in the Mass, then the way we “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Lk 16:15) will reflect our Eucharistic Lord. He comes to us in humility and gentleness, with mercy, compassion and love. Thus our preaching goes forth. And not with power or institutional force or arrogant triumphalism either, but with the unstoppable boldness and urgency that comes from having seen and heard the Living Lord. Hence St Paul says, we speak the truth in love (Eph 4:5).
Passiontide, the time when we turn our minds to Christ’s final weeks, begins on Sunday, and so the mood in the Gospels has been changing; they are menacing. For we heard earlier this week that the Jews wanted to kill Jesus, and this is heightened today: “Is not this the man whom they seek to kill?” (Jn 7:25). Today’s first reading gives us an insight into the real motivations behind this murderous hatred for Christ. It is because he is the Truth, and he shines the light of truth on Man’s sinful hearts.
Often people kill off God in their lives, and they can use the state of the Church, or the behaviour of the clergy, or the popular claim of some scientist or writer or even an entertainer as the purported reason to do this. And perhaps they believe at the time that this is the reason. But in fact, the true reason is a moral reason. For God; Jesus; his Gospel; Christ’s Church “is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God… He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us” (Wis 2:12-15).
And so, just as Adam and Eve after their sin hide their faces from God, for “the very sight of him is a burden”, so when we sin we too hide our faces from God. Or rather, we hide God’s face from ourselves because we cannot bear the look of Truth. For our sins reveal the truth about who we are and what we really desire; it’s an inconvenient truth for us sinners. For as Rowan Williams says, sin is “the state of revolt against truth”.
So, we find that many would kill God off: saying God does not exist, or that his Church has no authority to teach in this or that arena, or that there is no such thing as absolute Truth and certainly not in matters of spirituality and religion. Because Truth, if we admit it exists, is such that he would possess us, convert us, change us. And this requires humility. As Pope Francis said, “truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us” (Lumen Fidei, 34).
The journey of Lent is a journey from falsehood to the Truth. Hence, it is a journey towards the Cross. Those who sought to kill Jesus do so because, as Wisdom says, “Let us see if his words are true and let us test what will happen at the end of his life” (2:17). And these words are ironic. Because Truth is being put to the test to see if it is true. So, they crucify Jesus, and thus, on the Cross, he shows that his words are true. As Rowan Williams says: “Jesus, hanging on the cross, says to us, ‘This is what your untruth means”; we would kill Truth.
But what else happens on the Cross? Scruton says: “In the moment of sacrifice people come face to face with God”. So, at the end of his life, Jesus the innocent Victim of our sins shows that God is Love. And the one from whom we had hidden our faces is revealed to us. We see the truth. But not just the truth of Man’s sinfulness but the truth of God’s nature. God is mercy and love, long-suffering in patience and compassion, ever-ready to forgive. God is with us, sinful humanity.
And this truth, if we dare to see it, if we dare to allow it to embrace and possess us, will redeem us and save us from all our untruth, from our sinful revolt against Truth. Thus we enter into Passiontide and prepare for the new life that Easter promises.
In medieval English parish churches, two great images faced you as you looked from the nave towards the sanctuary and altar: a Rood Screen with the Crucifixion, and painted on the archway above that, the Last Judgement, or the Doom. So, the medieval parishioner would have had the Cross and the Final Judgement in sight whenever they came to church to worship. And so should we today.
What does it mean to have these images, these eternal realities, in mind? In looking at the Cross, we contemplate God’s mercy and the depths of his saving love. But the Cross is also our judgement. For as Jesus’ enters his Passion and takes up his Cross, he says: “Now is the judgement of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out” (Jn 12:31). For the Cross reveals the cruelty and violence that sinful humanity inflicts on Man; it also shows the suffering and torment borne by all those who are victims of this sinful world. Hence, the world is judged, that is, to say that our world is faced with the stark truth of its sinful choices. For we are judged by the truth of what we do. Hence, Christ who is Truth itself, hangs on the Cross. Very often, people cannot bear to look at the Crucified One and contemplate the Cross, because we just cannot face up to the Truth. This, too, is why so many fear the thought of judgement, fear even confession, because they cannot face up to the truth of who they are and what they have freely chosen to do.
But to be only filled with fear or shame would be to forget that the Cross is also proof of God’s undying love and mercy for sinners; a Love who seeks us in order to raise us up to new life. I was in the Sistine Chapel last summer, and I was able to stand at the High Altar, looking up at Michelangelo’s great depiction of the Last Judgement. But as I stood there I noticed that the huge Crucifix on the Altar stands right in front of the painting of the Gates of Hell. So, the Cross of Christ literally blocked the way to Hell. But for it to do this I had to look and see the Crucified One. This is to say, I have to own up to the truth of my sins, to be judged by the reality of my sinful acts. But at the same time, as I acknowledge my sins, then I experience, too, God’s mercy and his saving love on the Cross. But we can’t just have love and mercy without the truth of our sinfulness. This is what judgement means.
Thus, in a poem on the Last Judgement, Pope Bl John Paul II (whose 9th anniversary of death is today) wrote: “It is granted man once to die, and thereafter, the judgement! Final transparency and light. The clarity of the events – The clarity of consciences –”. Judgement brings clarity; the light and transparency of truth to shine on what we have done but that light which shines on our deeds is also the light of love. The Doom, or Last Judgment painted on the walls of our churches were a reminder, then, of this final judgement, and St John speaks of it in today’s Gospel: “the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice” (5:28). It is the voice of Truth.
However, St John’s Gospel, unlike the other Gospels, also has a more imminent view of judgement. We hear today: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (Jn 5:25). So, the Doom painted in the medieval church, or in the Sistine Chapel, is a perpetual reminder of our daily judgement. For every day, in the deliberate acts and moral choices we make, we are making judgements which reveal the truth of who we are; what we truly love in life, and where we’re headed.
Do we listen to Christ’s Word? Do we honour him by obeying his teachings? Ultimately, do we act with love? If we do, then we rise from the deadliness of sin and move towards Jesus. If not, then as the Catechism put it: “By rejecting grace in this life, one already judges oneself [and] receives according to one’s works” (CCC 679). Thus the Crucifixion scene, too, was a daily judgement because it reminded us of Christ’s sacrificial love, and called us as disciples to do likewise every day until, as St John of the Cross says, “in the evening of life we will be judged on love alone”.
At the start of Lent we were told to remember that we would return to dust and ashes, that is, that we will die and be judged. So, today, in mid-Lent, we’re reminded again of judgement; of Christ’s Truth but also of God’s eternal mercy and love. So, if you have sinned, don’t let fear or shame keep you from going to him in Confession. For God’s judgement is always also one of mercy and forgiveness, and his Love raises us from sin’s death to grace’s new life.