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 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.
Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor”, and I had never really understood this, or I had a rather romantic notion of poverty. Truth be told, this is because I’d never really seen the poor, or shared their experience of want.
Which is why when the opportunity arose in 2003, I decided to spend a year working in the slums of Manila. I wanted to meet with the poor and share their poverty, even if only in a small way. Only then, I thought, could I actually promise voluntary poverty as a mendicant friar with a modicum of realism. Many people engage in voluntary work, take gap years to work in economically-depressed areas, and schools offer opportunities to take part in social development projects. In each case, we often think we’re bringing something of value, and we’re helping the poor. That is true, and I was no different in thinking mainly of what I had to give, what I could do for the poor.
But, in fact, the most lasting effect of my year in Manila is what the poor gave me, what they showed me and taught me. Most significantly, they opened my eyes to what Jesus meant by “Blessed are the poor”; they taught me to see what Jesus sees.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is sat down opposite the trumpet-shaped collection or offertory boxes of the Temple. People make voluntary contributions to them for the upkeep of the Temple, like the kind of boxes we see today at the entrances of museums and some cathedrals. Jesus is sat opposite these collection trumpets, watching and observing; he is people-watching. But, as the Lord God said to Samuel, “the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7b). It is this insight that motivates Jesus’ condemnation of the ostentatious scribes because their hearts are set on their own wealth, honour and status rather than on honouring God and loving the poor. For as Jesus told the good scribe only a few verses previously, to love God with our whole being, and to love our neighbour as ourselves are the greatest commandments.
And so, today in the Temple, Jesus notices how a poor widow exemplifies these commandments. She is not just near to the kingdom of God as the good scribe was, but rather, as Jesus says elsewhere: “Blessed are you poor: for yours is the kingdom of God”. For the poor widow’s whole-hearted offering, although it appears outwardly small, is in truth, inwardly far greater. And God recognizes this truth because he sees not as we do: the Lord looks on the heart.
We often fail to notice these inward things, as we find it easier to rely on outward appearances. So, Jesus calls his disciples to him; he calls you and me. Because he wants to teach us to see as he sees, so he draws our attention to the widow and explains the greatness, indeed, the blessedness he sees in her. Hence, becoming a disciple of Jesus means that we must learn to see as God sees, to see people, things, and situations with his eyes.
When the divine Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us, Jesus began his sojourn with humanity in the Virgin Mary’s womb. And for those blessed nine months of her pregnancy Our Lady was the holy dwelling place of God. As the Catechism says: “Mary, in whom the Lord himself has just made his dwelling, is… the Ark of the Covenant, the place where the glory of God dwells”.
The Ark of the Covenant was the most sacred object in ancient Israel. It was enshrined in the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem, and it was the glorious seat of God’s presence on earth; his earthly dwelling place. In Exodus, the sign of God’s presence in the Ark was shown by a cloud overshadowing the tent of meeting, the tabernacle, and God’s glory filled the tabernacle.
St Luke picks up on this imagery when Gabriel says at the Annunciation to Our Lady that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”. So, Mary becomes the living Ark of the Covenant because the divine Word dwells in her womb.
The correlation continues in St Luke’s Gospel at the Visitation, for Our Lady, with Christ in her womb, then travelled to the hill country of Judea, and Elizabeth cries out, saying: “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”.
The First Reading on these first days of Passiontide have tended to by typological, that is, they are Old Testament incidents that point to the life of Christ, and specifically, the events of the Easter Triduum. So on Monday (although we didn’t have it this year because it was the Annunciation), we had the trial of Susanna. She was a righteous and innocent woman who was falsely accused and tried by the authorities. So, she prefigures the trial and condemnation of Christ. Yesterday, we heard of the bronze serpent raised up in the desert by Moses, and any who looked at it was healed and saved from death. This prefigures the Cross, on which Christ is lifted up for our salvation. And today, the sequence of typological readings concludes with the trial and rescue of the three young men in the furnace.
For this incident prefigures the Resurrection, and more specifically, its saving effect on us. So, the three young men stand for those who have faith in God, and because of their faith, they are saved from the fires of death by Christ, who appears in the story as a fourth man who looked like “a son of the gods”. In the third and fourth centuries, this scene was often depicted in the Roman catacombs or carved on the marble coffins of Christians, as a sign of their faith in Christ and their hope in the Resurrection. A number of the Fathers of the Church also thought that the three young men, having resisted the unjust command of the king, and been consigned to death for their resolute witness to their faith, were symbols of the martyrs. And in their sufferings, Christ, the king of Martyrs, is with them to comfort them, and, ultimately, to rescue them.