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.
In medieval images of the Temptation of Christ, the Tempter is often depicted as a monk. But if we look closely, beneath his habit are the clawed feet of the Devil. What is the meaning of this? The artist, I think, wants to express the fact that every temptation appears good and wise, reasonable and just, and therefore, desireable to Mankind. Hence George Bernard Shaw once said: “I never resist temptation, because I have found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me”. This is precisely the point. Only those things that seem good and right and justifiable to us can tempt us. If they did not appear good and attractive we would not even begin to think of choosing them. Hence, the Genesis account we’ve just heard, which has such insight into the psychology of sin and temptation, makes this observation: Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired" (Gen 3:6).
However, as St Thomas says: “the good in view of which one acts is not always a true good [but] sometimes an apparent good”. For we can become so focussed on a particular good, so obsessed with getting what we desire that we lack perspective about the true good. It is as though we have had blinkers put on us so that we do not see the bigger picture. Every sin, therefore, involves a certain myopia because we can only see the transient good immediately in front of us but not the broader vision of the good as God knows it.
Thus every sin also involves a certain forgetfulness of God’s goodness and love. In the Genesis account, it is as though Eve forgets that God has loved her into being from nothing and has given her all that is. Instead, when prompted by the Tempter, she doubts God’s goodness and questions his Word, seeing God as a kind of restriction on her human freedom. But God is the source of all our being including our freedom; he could never be a threat to Man’s good but is, in fact, our highest Good and the Giver of every good gift.
But the tragedy of sin is that we forget this, and so we choose lesser, transient, material goods. Hence, Eve is so overcome by her desire for the good she sees in the fruit of the tree that she reaches out for it in spite of what God had said. In doing so, we’re shown by the Genesis account that every sin, at some level, involves a preference for my own vision of the good over and above God’s vision. Every sinful act, effectively says that we know better than God what is good for us and what makes us truly happy; we’d rather trust ourselves and put our faith in Man’s reasoning, Man’s knowledge than in God and his Word.
And, so, temptation leads us to choose some good, but only a partial good. We’re led to some truth, but only a half-truth. For this is the Tempter’s tactic – temptations come to us under the guise of a monk, and so, they appear wise or good. Hence Soloviev said: “Such temptations are not produced by a simple or direct denial of truth: a naked lie can be attractive, yet is tempting only in hell and not in the world of humanity. Here it is required to cover it with something attractive, to connect it to something true in order to captivate” us.
Therefore, when the Devil appears to Christ, he tempts him by appealing to something attractive, namely, bread to sate his physical hunger. Then, he appeals to something true: Jesus is the Son of God, so why not reveal his true glory to all people, lifted up by God’s angels before all in the Temple? And finally, he appeals to some apparent good, which is that Jesus should be given the whole world. Would it not be good for all peoples to be subject to Christ?
But as we can see, each of these goods are superficial. For as Jesus himself says: “What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:26). Moreover, the Devil tempts Jesus with a way to carry out his mission which would have avoided the Cross. In a similar way, Adam and Eve are tempted to attain divinity, to snatch at it, without the Cross, without having to learn to Love sacrificially. But whereas our first parents were deceived by the Devil, Jesus is not. For despite the attractiveness of the Devil’s temptations, Jesus rejects them because, ultimately, he chooses the true good which comes from God alone. He places his trust in God’s Word, and he remembers God’s unfailing goodness and love. Hence in his reply to the Devil we see Jesus’ faith in God’s goodness, his embrace of God’s wise plan, and his placing of himself at God’s service. Thus, Jesus chooses the Cross because, as St Paul says, it reveals the “power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).
Therefore, like Eve, Jesus sees that “the tree was to be desired”, but not the tree in the centre of Eden, but the Tree of the Cross on the summit of Calvary; the centre of the world. This is the Tree of Life that Jesus desired: it delighted his eyes and he saw that it was good because from it came salvation for the whole world. From the Cross, God the Father revealed the depths of his love for all humanity in the person of his Son. And from the Cross, humanity is taught to “be like God, knowing good and evil”.
Every Lent sets this lesson before us as we are invited to follow Jesus to Calvary and beyond to the risen life of Easter. But every Lent, and perhaps each day of our lives too, the Tempter also stands before us with half-truths and truncated versions of the good. With God’s grace, may we respond as Jesus does, saying, “Begone, Satan!” (Mt 4:10).
St Peter says: “Now for a little while you may have to suffer many trials” (1 Pt 1:6). Perhaps this is true, but one thing can help us alleviate the suffering, and even avoid life’s trials: money. How often have we said to ourselves: if we had more money we could do this, enjoy that, and avoid such and such a hardship? And this is true: money does provide opportunities and does save us from certain pains, or at least, I’ve lived with the destitute and seen the terrible impact of a lack of money. So, we do need money in this world, and it does buy for us good things. The problem arises when we forget who is the Giver of all good things and our priorities go askew. Hence, we heard in yesterday’s Gospel: “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well” (Mt 6:33).
If we look at a US dollar bill or coin, we’ll see these words: “In God we trust”. So, it can remind one that the good things that money buys ultimately come from God; we should trust him even above those good things. But, very often, the God in whom people really trust is the very thing on which this slogan is imprinted: Money itself, or at least, what it buys. Thus the slogan becomes a taunt. Hence Pope Francis has spoken of a “new idolatry of money” in which we “calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies” (Evangelii Gaudium, §55). And the thing about idols is that they are very well-disguised.
The rich young man who comes to Jesus in today’s Gospel did not even recognize the dominion of wealth over him until Jesus exposed it. And Jesus does this because he looked at him and loved him. Thus, by asking him to sell all he had, Christ unmasked the idol that took the place of God in the young man’s life.
We might wonder today, especially as Lent approaches: What are the idols in my life? What are the things that I cannot, indeed, will not, give up for Christ’s sake; for the sake of the Faith; for the living out of the Sermon on the Mount which we’ve been hearing these past Sundays? This coming Ash Wednesday, the Blessed Sacrament will be exposed for several hours in this chapel. I encourage you to come to Our Lord and adore him; look at him. Or rather, let him look at you and love you as he loved the young man in today’s Gospel, so that Jesus will reveal to you what are the hidden idols in your life. What are the gods, truly, in which we trust?
The point isn’t that money or worldly things are bad. Rather, when an earthly good – even another human person – or spending time with friends, or our work, or a desire for money and its security and consolations has displaced God who is the highest Good, then we have begun to trust in idols. Hence, because Jesus looked at the young man and loved him, he invited him to “Come, follow me” (Mk 10:21). This Lent is an opportunity to do this. But do we dare let Jesus look at us, love us, and so, expose our idols that we cling to and trust in so implicitly? Will we, as St Peter suggests, allow ourselves to be tested by the purifying fire of God’s love so that our faith becomes “more precious than gold” (1 Pt 1:7). If we do, then, as Jesus promises the young man, we will have “treasure in heaven”, namely, God himself.
For God alone is our treasure, our worth, our security and Giver of all good things. “In God we trust”: let this slogan become no longer a taunt but true.
Perhaps we can begin by considering what Jesus did not say in today’s Gospel. He does not say: “He who is not against us is with us”. So, there is still a distinction between those who are explicitly following Christ such as the Twelve, and those who are not.
Rather what Jesus says is: “He that is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40), and that the lone exorcist has been doing “a mighty work in my name” (Mk 9:39). This suggests that God’s grace is not limited to the Twelve, who stand for the Church. Rather God is free to grant his good gifts to all people, whether or not they are explicitly following Christ; whether or not they are Christians, therefore. As we were reminded in last Sunday’s Gospel, our Father in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). Hence, the Second Vatican Council could teach that “Divine Providence [does not] deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life” (Lumen Gentium, §16).
So, Jesus says in today’s Gospel that the apostles should not forbid the good that the man is doing in his name. For any goodness and truth comes from God. As we heard in St James’ letter last week: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (1:17).
But because there is still a distinction between those who do explicitly follow Christ and those who don’t, it doesn’t follow that the man who does mighty works in Christ’s name should not subsequently become a follower of Jesus Christ. Indeed, if the Church is to encourage all good and truth, and bring forth still more graces, then it needs to lead all men and women of good will to an explicit faith in Christ. Hence Vatican II goes on to say: “Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel” (ibid.).
It is in this light that the Holy Father said in Evangelii Gaudium, that “frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators” (§47). For this was what the apostles wanted to do: forbid the good being done, and thus control God’s grace. We’re not to do this. Rather, Christ’s Church has to facilitate God’s grace, that is to say, make it easier for people to grow in grace and virtue, to find the truth and good that every human heart naturally desires and seeks after. As such, the Church must evangelize, must bring all from merely being “for us” to being “with us” as explicit followers of Jesus Christ, visible members of his Body, the Church. Why? Because united with Christ in the Church we have easier ‘access’, so to speak, to God’s grace; more ready and sure means of growing in knowledge and love of God, and so, of being intimately united to One who alone satisfies the deepest desires of the human heart.
Thus, Pope Francis also said: “It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize” (EG, §266).
If we find “an eye for an eye” a rather barbarous approach to personal justice, it shows how influenced we are by Christian ethics both individually and as a society. Because this Levitical injunction (cf Lev 24:20), which is also found in the Code of Hammurabi and in Roman Law, was originally a genuine advance in morality and public justice. It was meant to limit the penalty exacted for wrongs done to the person so that revenge was not limitless. One could not, as certain ancient Chinese codes sometimes allowed, eliminate an entire clan because of a wrong done to one person!
But as Gandhi observed wryly: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. So, Christ’s teaching goes beyond this reciprocal version of justice with its idea of giving to each person what is his or her due. Once more, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount challenges the wisdom of the world with God’s wisdom, which is characterized by love. For God loves all alike, both the just and the unjust (cf Mt 5:45). This is his Way.
However, it would be a mistake to think that Jesus is therefore telling us in today’s Gospel to be pushovers; that we’re neither to fight nor even to flee but are to passively give in to evil done to us, and even invite it. This appears to be what Jesus is saying: “Do not resist one who is evil”; “let him have your cloak as well” (Mt 5:39f) but, in fact, the examples of evil which Jesus uses are not life-threatening as such. So, Jesus doesn’t seem to me to be saying that we should not defend our life when it is being directly threatened, or that we should not protect the innocent from direct harm.
Nonetheless, Jesus does give us examples of evils which do injure us in some way. More specifically, they injure our very humanity and the dignity that belongs to each human being as a “God’s temple”, as St Paul put it. Because Jesus uses examples of acts which are designed to humiliate one, which treat one as a lesser being, such as when a Roman soldier would force someone to carry something thus making him a beast of burden. But should we then respond to these acts of aggression on our humanity with inhumanity, with violence and hatred? Such, I suppose is the “wisdom of this world”, and the state of our wounded and broken world exemplifies this. But, as St Paul says, such worldly ‘wisdom’ is “folly with God” (1 Cor 3:19). So, what is one to do?
Jesus teaches us a different way: his way, which is thus, God’s way. And, as the Dominican Geoffrey Preston put it so memorably, Jesus Christ is God’s way to be Man. Hence, Jesus teaches us to respond to inhuman actions not with yet more inhumanity but with true humanity; with a humanity that comes from him who is “true Man”.
In the first place, then, Christ teaches that evil is not to be met with evil; violence with still more violence. For to respond to an aggressive action with an identically mirrored reaction is to lock the human situation of animosity into a hopeless impasse. But this is not mere passivity. Rather, evil is to be met with an active freedom: with courage and virtue and the good. So, Christ urges us to stand our ground so that we are not made into victims or inferiors. On the contrary, we rise above the bullies and show them the deep injustice and inhumanity of what they’re doing. We surprise our aggressors with compassion, forgiveness, selflessness, and ultimately, love. In this way, the Christian action aims to reveal the truth of the injustice being done, and to shame the aggressor into a change of heart so that he can also find his true humanity.
This, of course, is what Jesus does on the Cross. For the Cross reveals who we are as sinners. There, the Innocent One is condemned and violently executed – an icon of Man’s inhumanity to Man. Indeed, as Rowan Williams says: “The only fully human person is seen as the enemy of humanity… [Jesus carries] the cost of our ingrained revolt against who we really are” – the cost of sin which always dehumanizes us. For when we sin, when we retaliate and react with evil and aggression, we are being less-than-human. Hence, God’s response is to call us back to our true self; to call us from sin and its inhumanity to the true humanity shown in Jesus Christ. Here, then, is the wisdom of God, and Jesus wants to restore his Spirit of divine love to our hearts so that we can be as fully human and free to love as he is; to love even in the face of evil done to us.
But how is this possible? Perhaps a few striking examples may help.
Today we hear that Jesus appointed his apostles, and they are “to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons” (Mk 3:14). These words are so apt on the feast day of today’s saint, who was a successor of the apostles as Bishop of Geneva from 1602-22. Like the first apostles, St Francis de Sales did these three things mentioned by St Mark.
Firstly, the apostle is called to be with Christ. That is, he is called to be close to Jesus Christ, to know him and love him. St Francis called this being with Christ the ‘devout life’, and he was adamant that it was not just apostles, bishops and priests, monks, friars and nuns who were called to this, but every Christian. For, he says: “truly it is a blessed thing to love on earth as we hope to love in Heaven, and to begin that friendship here which is to endure for ever there”.
His most famous work, The Introduction to the Devout Life was thus a well-loved guide for all people in whatever walk of life who wanted to grow in friendship with God. If there is only one spiritual book you would read, I will recommend this, and it is freely available online. Through his attractive and sensible writing, St Francis helped countless Christians to live a devout life that is “adapted to the strength, life-situation and duties of each individual”. Truly, this Doctor of the Church has helped so many Christians to “be with Jesus”.
What happens in the devout life, as we spend time with Christ in prayer, by treasuring the word of God, and through receiving the sacraments, is that we know we’re loved by God. This is what being with Christ does: it roots us in his love for you and me. So, St Francis said: “Prayer is opening our understanding to God’s brightness and light, and exposing our will to the warmth of his love”. At the heart of all prayer and devotion is the Mass. As St Francis says: “Prayer united to this divine Sacrifice has a power beyond words… therefore, do your best to attend Holy Mass every day”. But, at the same time, he adds with great understanding that if we really cannot go to Mass because of “some unavoidable reason [then] at least take your heart there so that you attend by a spiritual presence”.
Having been rooted in Christ’s love, the apostle is then sent out as a witness to preach this love which he has experienced and known. So, St Francis was a great writer and preacher of the Gospel, and his words were renown for being so gentle, humble, and kind that he was called ‘The Gentleman Saint’ even by the Calvinist Protestants of Geneva who opposed him. Thus St Francis said: “we gain nothing by being rough in our dealings”… so, “I am firmly determined to change, by my gentleness, the attitude of those who insult me. I shall try to meet them that very day in order to greet them in a friendly way. In case I do not come across them, I will at least speak well of them and pray to God for them”. In this gentlemanly way, St Francis de Sales won over many people, and successfully preached Christ’s Gospel with love and courtesy.
Which bring us to the third task of the apostle. The work of the demons are to bring about division, anger, dissension, and error. St Francis, then, strived to expel the demons by counteracting their work with truth and love. Hence, St Francis said: “In your speech be gentle, free, sincere, straight forward, simple and truthful”. Moreover, he said that “Humility makes us perfect towards God and gentleness towards our neighbour”, for “humility drives away Satan”, while gentleness attracts others to God. And these twin virtues, I think, sum up the life and example of St Francis de Sales, who is one of my favourite saints.
May he pray for us all, that we, too, may live the devout life, and be faithful witnesses to the world of Christ’s love and truth.
preached at the Dominican Seminar in Hinsley Hall, Leeds
The streets of central Edinburgh, where I currently live, are festooned with stars; at this time of year star-shaped decorations are ubiquitous. But why? What do they mean?
Personally, a star has led me here today. As a boy schooled by the De La Salle brothers, the five-pointed star was familiar to me as their logo. It was called signum fidei for the star is the sign of faith, and it was with the La Salle brothers that my Catholic faith began. And as a man, I grew up to find that star resting above the brow of our holy father Dominic. So, here with Dominic and his sisters and brothers, I enter into a home of faith and worshipfully contemplate Truth.
But for so many others at this time, who hang those stars on trees, doors, and lamp posts, what does the star mean? Are they merely decorative, or, I wonder, might they evoke something more?
Immanuel Kant said that the “starry heavens above me… fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe”. In saying so, he echoes the psalmist who looks at the heavens, “the moon and the stars which [God] arranged”, and who is thus filled with awe and wonder at creation and our being (cf Ps 8:4f). Last summer I was out in the savanna of KwaZulu-Natal at night, and there, without any light pollution at all, I saw the Milky Way and the staggering multitude of stars for the first time. It was a truly breath-taking, exciting, awesome sight.
So, stars fascinate us; they marvel us with the vast grandeur of the created order and awe us with a sense of our place in creation. They lead us to ask questions and to seek answers. Thus their beauty attracts us, draws us out of ourselves, and beckons us on a journey, indeed, on an adventure; a quest for beauty and truth. And for millennia, people have navigated by the stars, pilgrimaging by its light to distant shores, stepping outside the familiar, but nevertheless guided by them to hoped-for destinations. As such, it seems to me that the star is, ultimately, signum fidei, a sign, an evocation, of faith.
For faith does involve wonder, awe and beauty; humility, questioning, and seeking. Faith draws us out of ourselves, and invites us on an adventure. So Pope Francis indicated in Lumen Fidei, saying that for the Magi “God’s light appeared as a journey to be undertaken, a star which led them on a path of discovery”. For “Religious man is a wayfarer; he must be ready to let himself be led, to come out of himself and to find the God of perpetual surprises” (§35). So, the stars signify something innate to our very humanity: Man’s restless search for God, and that we are capax Dei; made to know and love him.
But not everyone sees their signification, of course. In our technological age, starlight and where it leads us to is so often outshone by 21st-century lights. Many of us may have seen Brian Cox’s Wonder of the Universe on the BBC which explores the marvellous science of the stars. But although he sees the starry heavens above and invites us to share his awe and wonder, this wonder is truncated by a dogmatic atheism. The physics is deeply impressive and the knowledge of the physical sciences is brilliant but are material causes really the final word on the wonder of the universe? Do we not find that the spiritual yearnings of the human heart still remain, like starlight glimmering in the night sky but unnoticed because of the glare from an aggressively secular modern world?
For as Aristotle recognized in his Metaphysics, wonder is the beginning of knowledge, and thus, of Wisdom. Mankind seeks meaning: to perceive the wisdom of why and not just have material knowledge of how. And, try as he might, no scientist can simply dismiss that restless desire in the human soul for Wisdom. For the stars are not merely decorative, like pretty marvels to be wow-ed at on television but in the final reckoning a source of interminable wonder with no real meaning. Rather, as St Albert the Great, patron of scientists, wisely said: “the whole world is theology for us, because the heavens proclaim the glory of God” (cf Ps 19:2).
For the stars elicit a wonder and awe, a questioning and a journeying, a humble human quest that, ultimately, must have an end, a final cause. Because if we’re to safeguard our sanity, then our restless hearts must come to rest. Faith leads us to this goal: to God who speaks the final Word. So that, having attained what we desire, we experience great joy. Hence, St Matthew’s Gospel says that, at last, the Star “came to rest” over the Manger of Bethlehem, and when the Magi saw this, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Mt 2:9f).
Thus faith gives our life meaning and direction. It stirs up movement, leading us to the One who moves the stars. It guides our seeking, pointing us to the divine Seeker who comes in search of us. It is, as St John Chrysostom says, “the light of the soul”, and by its light we see Light. For in Christ, the “Morning Star who never sets”, all humanity’s awe and wonder, the deepest desires of the human heart, come to rest.
Hence this evening, we, too, rejoice exceedingly with great joy. Because the light of faith has led us here: here into this chapel, this Bethlehem, this house of bread; here, where we shall be fed from the manger of this Altar; here, where we shall rest in Christ as he, God’s Wisdom and Love incarnate, is laid to rest in us.
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.
“It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God’s gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin”.
Who do you suppose said this? It was Martin Luther in a sermon for this feast day in 1527, a decade after he’d nailed his Ninety Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s church and six years after his break from Rome. And he very nicely summarizes what the Church celebrates today.
This tells us, at the very least, that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was not something invented by the Pope in the 19th century and foisted onto Catholics, as some people might think. Rather, what Pope Blessed Pius IX did in 1854 was to solemnly confirm as a revealed truth what had been, from very early on, a “sweet and pious belief” held by many Christians. For although belief in Our Lady’s sinlessness was unanimous, an understanding of how Mary could have been uniquely preserved from the stain of original sin and yet remain a creature in need of redemption by Christ, still had to be worked out. It would take some time for a solution to develop and theologically mature over the centuries, and then a few more centuries for the theological position to settle and be accepted and finally be declared as infallible truth by the Church.
A Scots Franciscan, Blessed Dun Scotus, came up with an explanation in the 13th-century that has prevailed. He argued that prevention is greater than cure and requires more skill, and so, Our Lady, in being prevented from contracting original sin, requires the Redeemer’s ‘skills’ even more. Pope Pius IX cites Scotus in his 1854 declaration and his teaching is echoed in today’s Collect. For Scotus also said that God “foresaw” the “merits of the Passion of Christ” which redeems all from original and actual sin, and God “applied them to the Virgin and preserved her from all actual sin, and also from all original sin”.
But this understanding of Our Lady’s sinlessness and her immaculate conception is the theological fruit of centuries of pondering over the seed of truth revealed in Scripture. In the angelic greeting of today’s Gospel, Gabriel calls Our Lady kecharitomene. But this Greek form does not just denote that Our Lady is “full of grace”, or “highly favoured” as it is often translated. Rather, it is a term that is only used once in the entire Bible; Our Lady’s immaculate conception is unique, a “singular grace and privilege”, as Pope Pius IX said. And what kecharitomene denotes is that Mary is “completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace” in a way that completely transforms her and prepares her from the very beginning for her unique role in the history of salvation.
So, in this Advent season when we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ as our Redeemer, we rejoice today in what God has done “for us Men and for our salvation” in preparing Our Lady to be a “worthy Mother for [his] Son”. As she is also our Mother, may we be her worthy children by daily rejecting the lure of sin and trampling the Serpent underfoot. Through our Immaculate Mother’s intercession, may we also have the grace to say to God: “Yes. Let it be to me according to your Word”.
The venerable Bede, writing in the 8th-century, is the first to mention today’s saint, Ninian, whom he called “a most reverend and holy man of the British nation, who had been regularly instructed at Rome in the faith and mysteries of the truth”. St Ninian was believed to have begun his mission to the southern Picts in 397, making him the earliest known missionary and apostle to the Scots. He had as his missionary base – what came to be called a minster – a unique stone church known as the “candida casa”, white house. Indeed, the town in Galloway where this stood is now called Whithorn, which is derived from the Latin name of St Ninian’s minster.
Not much else is known about St Ninian and his origins, but he bears witness to the evangelizing zeal of the early Christians, to the courageous witness of the first missionaries, and the deep Christian roots of Scotland. Like St Paul, Ninian was concerned for the salvation of all people, and that the truth be known by his contemporaries, and so, what St Paul said of himself can also be applied to St Ninian: “I was appointed a preacher and apostle… a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (1 Tim 2:7). And the result of this preaching and teaching has long been evident, so that our society continues to benefit from the effects of St Ninian’s preaching today.
As Pope Benedict XVI said on this day in 2010 when he arrived in Scotland, “the Christian message has been an integral part of the language, thought and culture of the peoples of these islands for more than a thousand years. Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike”.
But it is easy for us to take these benefits for granted. Hence Pope Francis reminded us in his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, that the Christian faith has served the common good, but the faith “must be passed on in every age” lest these benefits are lost to a future generation. Thus he says: “At the heart of biblical faith is God’s love, his concrete concern for every person, and his plan of salvation which embraces all of humanity and all creation, culminating in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without insight into these realities, there is no criterion for discerning what makes human life precious and unique. Man loses his place in the universe, he is cast adrift in nature, either renouncing his proper moral responsibility or else presuming to be a sort of absolute judge, endowed with an unlimited power to manipulate the world around him”.
So, for the sake of Scotland, of our society and our descendants, we today must continue St Ninian’s work. From this stone chapel, our “candida casa”, we, too, are called to be missionaries, and we can do this if we have faith like the centurion’s in the Gospel. Let us pray, then, that as the Lord comes under our roof in the Eucharist today, he will give you and me a fresh outpouring of faith – faith like St Ninian’s that reaches out in mercy and love to a people in search of truth, peace, and lasting happiness. May St Ninian pray for us!