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.
“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!
Sometimes it seems that atheism is on the rise. But the opposite is the case. We have too many gods, and we believe in too many silly things. The latest diet fad, so-called news in the Media, the latest technology and gadgets, or anything else that the priests of our material culture and prophets of advertising preach to us. These things and ideas – “stuff” – which we obtain in exchange for so much of our gold have become our gods, our idols. As Chesterton said with his usual astuteness: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything.”
There needs to be a conversion, then, from our polytheistic faith in so many false gods, in the stuff we create, to faith in the one true God, who sustains all stuff itself with his love. For it’s not that we live in a faithless generation; we can’t be absolutely faithless because it’s inherently human to believe. Rather, we live in a generation with much confusion and misplaced faith; a kind of consumerist impatience, I think. Because we’d much rather put our faith in something that Mankind makes, the origin of which we think we know, than in Another. Hence corporations invest heavily in PR and branding, to win consumer trust, or should I say, faith. It seems that, like the Israelites, we prefer stuff, which we can control, to relationship, to Love, which is much more risky and complex, and demands patience and room for the Other. As Pope Francis said in his encyclical, Lumen Fidei, “Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands”.
But ultimately, only One is worth believing in, worth trusting, worth placing our faith in, and that One has to be true, and so, able to give us the good of everlasting happiness. Otherwise we search in vain, serially serving one created god after another, but never satisfied, never really happy. The One True God is not a thing of this material world, nor stuff we fashion for ourselves, nor the super-ego. He is Uncreated, Other from all that is, and is its Life. God is Love.
So, when the first Christians, such as St Martha, professed their faith in Jesus Christ they recognized him to be this One, to be Love incarnate. For he is “coming into the world” (Jn 11:27), and so is not a part of his creation but the One who sustains all being in his love, and love survives even death. Jesus thus says he is the “Resurrection and the Life” (Jn 11:25).
To believe that Christ is as he says is to make a radical choice, converting from the idols of our ancestors and the false gods of the prevailing culture. Hence the early Christians were denounced by Romans and Greeks as atheists. Yes, we Christians are atheists if we turn away from the gods proposed by our society and world, the gods of our own false ideas and images, the god of myself – of the ego. But what we do, in this conversion, this movement of faith, is to turn towards the Truth, towards Life, and Hope; we turn to Love.
As Pope Francis said, our Christian faith “breaks with idols to turn to the living God in a personal encounter. Believing means entrusting oneself to a merciful love which always accepts and pardons, which sustains and directs our lives, and which shows its power by its ability to make straight the crooked lines of our history”.
This is what St Martha does as she serves the true God and says to him: “Yes, Lord; I believe”. Will you and I do the same?
“Curiouser and curiouser”, as Alice famously said in discovering Wonderland. And so it might seem as we move from the mystery of the Holy Trinity last Sunday to the mystery of the Holy Eucharist this Sunday. First we profess that God is One and God is Three, and then, today we profess that what looks and tastes like bread is, in its essential substance, the entire Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. “Curiouser and curiouser”. And to many onlookers, no doubt, it seems like we Catholics live in Wonderland, where as the Cheshire Cat said to Alice, “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad”. And one of the mad and wonderful features of today’s feast, of course, is the colourful procession in which Catholics in so many places around the world follow behind the Eucharistic Lord who is taken through the streets of the city; “curiouser and curiouser”.
Each year in Oxford, several hundred people would process with the Eucharist down the busy streets on Corpus Christi Sunday. We’d be singing hymns accompanied by the Witney Town Band and carrying banners as we walked from the Oxford Oratory to the University Chaplaincy with a pause in Blackfriars for a sermon. For the unsuspecting passer-by this procession was just another one of the curiosities of Oxford, that mad place which inspired Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. But, often, I saw others stop, wonder, and ask questions, and some fell to their knees in the streets. For curiosity is not a bad thing if it provokes thought, raises questions, and inspires wonder. Indeed, curiosity is at the heart of the scientific endeavour and, St Thomas would say, at the core of our humanity for we naturally desire to know and to seek truth.
And this kind of good natural curiosity which spurs the fundamental quest for truth, is very much the foundation of today’s feast. For the sole reason we Catholics believe that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ is because we believe Christ’s Word, curious though it is. As St Thomas says: “The presence of Christ’s true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority”. And this is the authority of Him who is Truth itself so that, as St Thomas says in his Eucharistic hymn, Adoro Te devote, “Truth himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true”. And isn’t the truth of things often curiouser and more wonderful than we would initially expect?
Our readings today thus present us with the curious figure of Melchizedek, who has this one unexplained cameo appearance in the Bible. But, when Christ comes and institutes the Eucharist, then it is realized that Melchizedek wondrously prefigures the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and his use of bread and wine in the Mass. St Paul, too, doesn’t explain how the Mass is a proclamation of “the Lord’s death”. This is a curiosity to him, but with wonderment and faith, he simply delivers to us what he “received from the Lord” (cf 1 Cor 11:23). And with the same faith, the Church has treasured and handed on the Mystery of the Eucharist in every time and place. A similar faith and trust in Christ’s Word and his actions is seen in the Gospel. Here, the Twelve simply do as Christ tells them, never objecting about the madness – the miraculous wonder – that five thousand could be fed from just five loaves and two fish. Rather, they believe that Truth himself speaks truly, and so, they faithfully hand on the Mystery to others, feeding them with what the Lord has provided.
This doesn’t mean that St Paul, or the Twelve apostles, or we are just left mute and unthinking. No. The Mystery of God’s action rightly and naturally raises questions for us. Hence, the Mystery of the Eucharist has inspired great theological treatises. But our words are never enough, and our rational human minds too limited to grasp the limitless activity and truth of God. Wisdom comes from knowing that some wonders are just beyond our reach to comprehend. So, for St Thomas there is a kind of intellectual hubris, the vice of curiosity, that comes from desiring “to know the truth above the capacity of [Mankind’s] own intelligence, since by so doing men easily fall into error”, including the grave error of disbelieving the truth of Christ’s Word to his Church.
Rather, Christians down the millennia have recognized that, before the Mystery of the Eucharist, our human reasoning and words just fail us. Hence, for generation upon generation, the Church’s faith has spilled over in wonder and awe into art, music, and processions, culminating in today’s great feast with its poetry, prayers and hymns specially composed by St Thomas Aquinas. Therefore, as St Thomas says in the Sequence hymn for Corpus Christi, the Lauda Sion: “Sing forth, O Zion, sweetly sing… Dare to do as much as you possibly can to praise” this great Mystery of the Eucharist, “for no amount of praise will be enough”! Which is why, when praise is not enough, we offer our love to our Eucharistic Lord and adore him in silence. Thus the Holy Father has invited Catholics all over the world to simultaneously adore the Lord with him today, from 4-5pm.
Our curiosity, then, leads us to wonder, and then to awe-struck love, as we contemplate who God is, and we wonder at the mad, out-of-this-world, extraordinary acts of love that God does for us. He has chosen to give his whole self to us in the Eucharist, in these ordinary and quotidian signs of bread and wine, humbling himself to be really present for us under the appearances of bread and wine so that we can be loved by him, and kiss him. For the English word ‘adore’ can be said to come from the Latin, ad ore, meaning ‘to the mouth’. So this carries the sense of kissing the Lord, of loving him so intimately, which, if we think about it, is what we do in Holy Communion. We are fed ad ore by the Lord; we kiss him, and we prolong this kiss of love in our Eucharistic adoration.
This movement from curiosity to adoration is one that underscores my own conversion to the Catholic faith. Briefly, as a teenager from a staunch Protestant family, I was curious about the beliefs of my friends in the Catholic school I attended so I did some reading about Catholic beliefs and customs. But I was especially perplexed though fascinated by the Mass. I heard the resonances of Scripture in what people said during Mass, but wondered about all the synchronized movement and rote responses. Curious, I thought. And I wondered about why people genuflected to a little gold box – the tabernacle. Even curiouser, I thought. So, one day, I asked one of my friends who explained to me that this was the “Holy of Holies” where God was truly present in the Eucharist. Curiouser and curiouser. But even as he said this I felt my knees go weak. For somehow, by God’s grace, I just knew what he said to be true; I believed Christ’s Word in the Bible, and all I’d read just made sense. And so, I fell to my knees in my school chapel in Singapore, and, kneeling in silence, I adored the Eucharist for the first time. To this day, I praise and thank God for this gift of faith in the Eucharist that led me into the Wonderland of his Church. For I am no longer just curious, but have found the Kurios, the Lord.
When St Paul went to Athens he noticed an altar to an unknown god (Acts 17:23). And when it comes to the Holy Trinity, it might seem to many people that we’re also gathered around the altar of an unknown God today. For isn’t it all a bit of a contradiction? Three in one, and one in three? And what does it mean anyway? And yet, the fact that we can speak of God as Trinity, and pray to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit means that our God is not unknown to us. For Jesus said: “I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15b), and he has given us his Spirit to “guide [the Church] into all the truth” (Jn 16:13).
So, what we have been given by Christ is a privileged insight into the intimate life of God. Until Jesus revealed this to us, our human intellect could only deduce that there is a God, for as today’s psalm implies, the wonder and order of creation, of all existence, testifies to the being of God the Creator. So, our human reason, if we’re open-minded enough, can just about understand that God is, and Greek philosophy also reasoned that, ultimately, the Creator God had to be uncreated and also simple, that is, one. But all this is reasoned from created things, deduced from the effects of God as the Cause of all that is. But essentially, God, as he is, is still unknown.
But what Jesus does is to reveal to us, his friends, something of the unknown, hidden inner life of the one God. And so, he makes known to all through the Church that God is Trinity. This is something that we could never have known without divine revelation – that God is eternally Father and Son held in the mutual love of the Holy Spirit. But, we might ask, what does this mean? How can we understand this? The fact is that we shall never rationally comprehend God’s being. God who is infinite, immeasurable, and limitless is simply beyond our finite, measured, and limited intellects, and none of our images, especially since they’re drawn from created things, can capture the uncreated God. Moreover, to speak of the Trinity is to speak of the inner, unseen life of God which is beyond our investigative reach. We can’t even delve into the inner life of another person, and can barely understand ourselves and our own actions, let alone God’s. So, the Holy Trinity is a mystery, indeed the central Mystery of our faith.
But to say that the Holy Trinity is a Mystery is not to say that we shouldn’t think about God. That would be to return us to an unknown God, a kind of agnosticism. Rather, the infinite mysterious depths of God’s being is an invitation for us to think, to pray and contemplate, to study and ponder what God has revealed about himself to us. And the central action in which we do this as a Church is this: the Eucharist. For it is here in the Eucharist, God’s own gift of himself to us, that the Holy Trinity is at work, revealing himself to us. Thus the famous icon by Rublev of the Holy Trinity has the three angels seated around the Altar and the Eucharistic chalice.
So, although we gather here today around the Altar of a mysterious Triune God, this is by no means the altar of an unknown God. For ours is a God who is known and knowable, and he discloses himself to us, gives us his very self, through sacred Liturgy.
There seems to be, even among Catholics, a contemporary tendency toward agnosticism about God and the articles of faith, because it is thought that the truth about God and faith cannot be known with certainty. So, to make dogmatic statements of faith would be arrogant because we cannot really say what is true. And yet, today, Jesus says: “Your word is truth” (Jn 17:17b). This is to say, that truth can be known and found in him, the Word of God. And truth, as such, is discovered with and through the Church who continues and incarnates in every place, culture and age, the Word of God.
But how do we know this to be true? Jesus says: “For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth” (Jn 17:19). The first sense of ‘consecrate’ in this sentence is that of a sacrificial offering set aside for God. So, Jesus is referring to his Passion, to his sacrifice on the Cross, and to his resurrection. And Jesus says that he undergoes this Paschal Mystery for our sake, in order that we might be “consecrated in truth”, that is to say, that we may know; be certain of; be set apart for God through the truth. And the truth that we know from the historical fact of Jesus’ sacrificial death and re-creating resurrection is that God is Love. All who witness to this and profess this, are thus united. For we are one through this truth that God is Love, one in our faith in the incarnate Word of God; made one Body, one Church in Christ. Since this unity comes from our common witness to the truth of the Cross, St Paul can thus say in today’s First Reading that “the church of God [is] obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28b). For the Church who is consecrated in truth is born from Christ’s witness on the Cross, born from his sacrificial witness to the truth of God’s undying love.
And the fruit of knowing the truth, of being consecrated in the testimony of God’s Word, is two-fold. Firstly, the Church is held in unity. For there is a unity between what is and what we believe, such that all who hold to the faith also concur on what is, and are united. And the second fruit is that we are kept from the Evil One. For the devil is the Father of Lies (Jn 8:44) who seduces us through un-truths and half-truths, through agnosticism about the faith. So, we are kept safe from the devil’s trickery if we seek and find truth where it is to be found, namely in God’s Word and in the Church of the incarnate Word.
Hence, to learn and to expound the doctrines of the Church, to contemplate her dogmas, is not arrogance, as some seem to think. This might be so – indeed, it would be dangerous foolishness – were the Church’s doctrine merely opinion, or if truth were a weapon of the Church which she can manipulate at will. But the Church of the incarnate Word does not possess truth. Rather, she is possessed by Truth, in love with her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, and so, treasuring every word that he speaks. Through the centuries, then, all who have loved Christ have desired to know the Word of God intimately; to study and share the Church’s dogmas; to ask questions so as to deepen our understanding of them. The task of theology, and especially dogmatic theology, as such, is not arrogance but a humble desire to be consecrated in the truth, to be protected from the Evil One, and to seek unity in Jesus Christ.
Moreover, in this theological quest for truth, one is merely being human, for Mankind has a natural desire for truth. Thus, as St Thomas says, Truth, especially the ultimate truth of God and being, of life, death, and our final end must be knowable, if Mankind is not to be simply absurd. Thus, Jesus consecrates himself, revealing the truth of who God is, “for [our] sake” (Jn 17:19a), so that humanity might not be absurd but have meaning, purpose, and direction.
There has been much praise of Pope Francis’ warm personality and his evident care for the poor and marginalized. Only yesterday it was announced that the Holy Father will celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, not in his cathedral or in St Peter’s, but in Rome’s juvenile detention centre. And he will wash the feet of twelve inmates as a sign that he is going to serve the poor, the unwanted and the forgotten of society. Actions like these are “good works” that are deeply impressive, and the Media has been fixated on them.
But the Holy Father knows that what he believes and says and does is nothing new, nor by any means unique to his pontificate or to himself as a Christian. For the Catholic Church is still internationally recognized as the largest charitable organization on earth. Only two days ago, the new Archbishop of Canterbury acknowledged that Catholic Social Teaching is “one of the greatest treasures” that the Church has to offer to the world. But this teaching is still little known by many Catholics, let alone by non-Christians. So, what the Pope seems to be doing through his actions is to draw the world’s attention to our social teaching, and to highlight what so many Christians have been doing quietly since the apostles. And the reason for this, I think, is to try and rebuild the Church’s credibility and standing in our society, to re-focus on Christ. As Jesus says to the unbelieving Jews who opposed him, “even though you do not believe me, believe the works” (Jn 10:38a). So, we’re inviting a skeptical world to “believe the works” that the Church does. This is an important foundation for the New Evangelization.
But the works themselves point to beyond themselves to God who is the Father of all good. As Jesus says today: “believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father”. (Jn 10:38b) Each of us, baptised into Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit, can say the same. Any good works that we do comes from the grace of Christ for “apart from [him we] can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). And if we have an explicit faith in Christ, then our works witness to him, and to his divine authority.
It is this claim of the Church – that Christ teaches with authority, teaching, even deeply unpopular and hard truths in fidelity to him – that is often opposed. This is especially so when they stand against the ‘gods’ of modernity and so, constitute a ‘blasphemy’. But in fact, not only our good works, but also our faith, our beliefs, our world view and our moral life, all stem from our relationship with Christ and are a response to the Gospel. As Pope Francis said to the world’s journalists: “The Church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails, yet her nature is not essentially political but spiritual: the Church is the People of God, the Holy People of God making its way to encounter Jesus Christ. Only from this perspective can a satisfactory account be given of the Church’s life and activity”.
So, our good works are the start of the New Evangelization, they should lead one to the Father, to our God of mercy and love. And this work begins, not with the Pope alone, but each one of us. As Pope Paul VI said in 1975: “It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus – the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity”. Pope Francis has highlighted this with his own life. What can we do?
In recent days, the virtue of humility has been mentioned frequently, especially with regard to Pope Francis and his patron saint, Francis of Assisi. And today, as the Pope officially began his ministry, we celebrate the Solemnity of the saint of humility, St Joseph. So, let us look to his example, and consider what, really, is humility?
St Joseph’s humility is shown in his openness to the angel’s word and his willingness to do as the angel told him. Through the humility of faith, St Joseph was willing to change his plans, ideas and behaviour so as to accommodate God’s revelation, God’s loving plan for him. So often we struggle to believe, to trust in God’s Word and teaching; we hang on to our intellectual pride. But with humility, which recognizes our human limitations, not least the limits of our poor reasoning and intellect, we open ourselves to be taught by Him who is Truth; we come closer to God.
St Joseph’s humility is also shown in his silence. He doesn’t say a word in the Gospels, but he listens, observes, learns. Our noisy, Media-led world adulates humility but does not seem to know what it is. For humility is found in silence, in a pondering, patient, chaste silence which includes admitting that oftentimes we just do not know. But from this humility comes an openness to Truth, to the mystery of another person, and above all, the mystery of God. As St Thomas says: “We cannot know the essence of God”, but what we can say about God is first given to us by the divine Word, we’re taught by Another, enlightened by divine revelation. A humble openness to Truth, as such, is the basis of all science and also of theology, of a brave and committed friendship with God through faith and reason. In such silence, St Joseph cradled and gazed upon the face of God in the Christ Child.
Our world is full of questions but in fact it lacks this silent and receptive humility that is necessary if we’re to hear a genuine honest answer. For the temptation of our modern communications-driven world is for us to always try and give quick answers, snappy judgements, and people expect analysis and commentary on everything. So, this morning on the BBC’s coverage of the papal Mass in Rome, one commentator said: “Nobody knows what to expect from this pontificate”, and the next moment, the group of commentators in the BBC studio had ready answers, speculations and opinions, pontificating on what the Supreme Pontiff should do… But we could all do well to emulate St Joseph’s humble silence, especially in the face of ignorance.
However, as St Joseph also shows us, humility doesn’t mean false modesty or mere agnosticism or simple passivity. This strong fatherly saint also acts with prudence and wisdom and uses the gifts he has from God. This, too, is humility: that we recognize what God has given us and act accordingly. As a Church this means we have a duty to preach the Truth of the Gospel which we’ve been taught, to speak up for those who are persecuted and oppressed, poor and marginalized, and to love them. By preaching Christ and being his Body on earth, we love our world, we love one another, and indeed we love God’s Word. Can preaching the truth be arrogance, as some say? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin put it this way: “the fact that we have greater abilities than another does not mean that we are greater in God’s eyes… but only that we have greater responsibilities. Thinking about how much we can do in comparison to what we have done… serves as a corrective against pride and arrogance”. And there’s no arguing that there is still so much we can do to become more truly like the One whom we preach and serve: Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he accepted death on a Cross.
Like St Joseph, may we fix our gaze on Christ, and may St Joseph pray for us, and for our Holy Father, Francis.
In this fortnight before Easter, which is still sometimes called Passiontide, the readings have changed in mood. We are emerging from the themes of wilderness and journey, from exhortations to repentance and penitential acts to focus on God’s work of saving grace through the Passion of Jesus Christ. In other words, in this run-up to Holy Week we’re looking at how Jesus will save us through the events of Holy Week: his trial, suffering, death and resurrection.
The Gospel readings from St John continue Jesus’ disputation with the Jews, as Jesus invites us to ponder his identity and saving mission from the Father, but with each day the tension mounts too, as the antagonism between Christ and the Jewish religious authorities mounts. However, the First Readings, at least in the first part of this week, look at the events of Holy Week through the lens of the Old Testament. We’re being invited to look at types, or anticipations of Christ’s Passion in Old Testament figures.
Today, we’re invited to see the righteous and innocent Susanna, as a figure of Jesus Christ who was also falsely accused and unjustly tried and condemned. Susanna had two witnesses to accuse her, as the Law demanded, but these human witnesses were liars, and Daniel exposes them as such. Jesus will also be condemned by false and fallible human witnesses. But the Lord will not be saved from execution by a just human judge like Daniel. Pontius Pilate is too cowardly to let justice be done and he allows an innocent Jesus to be crucified.
However, Jesus insists that he does not need human witnesses to the truth of his identity and mission, nor indeed, a human judge to save him. Rather, God will be the just judge who rescues him from death. And by raising him from the dead, God testifies to Jesus’ innocence and the truth of his claims. Hence, Jesus’ Passion and Crucifixion is part of that divine testimony, part of Jesus’ glorification. For Jesus dies so that he can be raised by God, and so, be vindicated in the truth of what he said and did. And, as Christ is raised by the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can note that here are the two witnesses to Christ’s truth – not fallible and unreliable human witnesses but divine witnesses, God himself.
The first miracle at Cana is well-known. Our Lady, a mother, intervenes and Christ, at first reluctant, performs his first sign and changes water into wine. The servants witness this miracle happening, and when others see the sign, they believe in Christ. The second miracle, however, is less well-known but there are similarities. Here, a royal official, a father, intervenes and Christ is again reluctant. But he performs the miracle, again from afar; again, just through the power of his word. And the boy, some twenty miles away is healed from a deadly illness. The servants witness this miracle happening, and when others see this sign, they all come to believe in Christ.
Our attention, I think, can be drawn to two aspects of these two signs at Cana. Firstly, that Christ is reluctant to perform the miracle. Not because he doesn’t want to help or heal but because he doesn’t want our faith to be dependent on “signs and wonders”, on the spectacular and the miraculous. But he recognizes, too, the weakness of our faith, and so, he says: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe”. And thus he acquiesces to the intervention and performs the miracle.
However, notice that these miracles are not directly seen by those who ask for it. Rather, they experience the effects of Christ’s miraculous action. So, although Jesus does perform miracles, he doesn’t allow us to depend on them directly. Rather, we see and experience, taste and behold what Christ has done through the testimony of others, the anonymous servants. And this, in fact, is the essence of faith, which is what Christ wants to teach us.
For the first point is that faith in Christ comes through others, through the testimony of anonymous eyewitnesses. But when we believe in Christ through such testimony, then we also benefit, and come to experience his grace and goodness personally. Is this not how we come to faith in Christ? We first believe in the testimony of his Church, of the many anonymous servants who wrote the Gospels, who discerned the truth and reliability of the Scriptures, who reflected theologically, and who shared with us what they had seen and experienced. Through the witness of others, we come to faith, and we, too, become believers and witnesses.
The second point is related to this. We come to believe at the word of another. But, ultimately, we believe in the Word, in God’s living Word who is Jesus Christ. Faith, as such, is relational and dependent on trust in another person, in a living community of believers, and, above all, in a personal God who is Other. Faith is dependent on Truth, and its being told.
Hence, in a world and society, in a church community, even, where trust has broken down because of lies and deception, very little can be achieved, few wonders or signs can be performed. The only way to be freed from distrust is through the truth coming to light, exposing our falsehood. When this happens, the diabolical error would be to become cynical about the ‘institution’ or about people in general. Rather, we should rejoice when truth is told because this is the surest sign of Christ at work. God’s Word, who is Truth itself, is being made manifest, and so, he is bringing about new life, healing our deadly sickness, and transforming our water into wine; “a new heavens and a new earth” is at hand, as Isaiah says.
The question is, do we have enough faith to believe in the Truth and its inherent goodness?