Ascension Day - Homily
Posted on the 13th May 2021 in the category Resources
Mass of the Ascension with Baptism and Confirmation
13th May 2021
As given at St Gabriel's Fulbrook
St Paul wasn’t the only one to write a famous letter to the Romans. St Ignatius of Antioch (who as a youth had known St John) wrote to them as well. He was trying to get a message to them before he arrived in Rome under guard destined to be killed. In that letter he wrote these startling words, ‘Now that Christ has ascended to the Father, he’s even more visible to the whole world now than when He lived in obscurity.’ (Romans 3)
Even more visible? How? surely with His ascension Jesus’s life on earth has come to a close? Even during the forty mysterious and disorienting days after His resurrection, when as St Luke tells us (Acts 1.3) ‘he had continued to appear to [the disciples]’, He was more visible than after the awesome mystery we celebrate today.
It is certainly true that having commissioned His apostles to ‘Go to the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation’, He who now sits at the right hand of the Father has been far more widely and deeply proclaimed and known and followed for two thousand years than He was either before or after His resurrection. Was ever a command so obeyed, in word, in sacrament, in evangelism and service, through the history of the Church?
Our faith seems to depend on Him not being visible. Had Jesus simply remained on earth after rising from the dead, the faith of His followers in every subsequent generation would have still been focused on life in this world rather than on the next. The apostles’ very last question to Him proves the point: ‘Lord, is now the time you going to restore Israel’s kingdom?’ (Acts 1.6). But with Him gone from their sight, it became part of the spiritual growth of Christians (you and me, and Victoria and Tilly here) to long and desire to be with Christ whom, here and now, we can only see by faith. No less a person than St Paul said, ‘Be intent on things above rather than on things of earth.’ (Col 3.2). And of course, in heaven there will be no faith because the redeemed will see God; even better there will be no hope, because they will possess what they hope for. There will only be love, because God will be all in all (1 Cor 15.28).
So then, how can we understand Ignatius’s words, ‘even more visible’?
Let me suggest what I think he meant. Remember he was a man under arrest, being transported across modern day Turkey and Greece, on his way to martyrdom in Rome, and he was writing to the Roman Christians to say, ‘when I arrive please don’t stop my martyrdom’. ‘Only pray for me’, he wrote, ‘that I’ll not only be called a Christian but really be found to be one, so that when I’m gone my witness will live on’. A great and courageous saint.
But in the case of Jesus it is not simply that a witness living on, a memory of a person of great integrity. When Jesus seems to go from us, it is because He goes deeper in God: into what we call heaven, and what Jesus himself called the ‘bosom of the Father’ (Jn 1.18). He took human existence into God's heart. The Ascension means Jesus belongs entirely to God. And being thus with the Father, who embraces and sustains the entire universe, Christ is for ever inseparable from each one of us. Each one of us can share the intimacy of which Jesus spoke when He said, ‘[The Father and I] will come to him and make our home in him.’ (Jn 14.23)
Of course, we can draw away from him. We can live with our backs turned on him. But He always abides, and waits for us; He is always close to us. By His Holy Spirit He is always drawing the Church—and the world—deeper into the truth about our Blessed Lord Jesus.
You remember that increasingly at the end of His life, Jesus taught and prayed, and in supremely the Eucharist showed, how He would not simply be a memory, but would be a present, living and growing person within His disciples. That is the meaning of the parable of the true vine which Jesus told at the Last Supper: ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him bears much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ And with shocking clarity He had said of the Eucharist, ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, will live because of me.’ (Jn 6.56-7)
People who listen to sermons often want, quite right too, to have the connection made for them between the scriptures and their everyday life, they want the scriptures made relevant for current events. Well, dear friends, [dear Victoria and Tilly,] nothing could possibly be more relevant than this, nothing could affect your every day life more than this: that God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—lives in the members of Christ’s Body His Church, and makes himself visible in them. His Spirit is poured into us, lives within us, reminds us of Christ’s teaching, so that our minds and bodies may reveal God in all our words and actions and sacrifices. Christ is not distant from you: out of our hearing and out of our sight. He gives himself constantly and visibly in the scriptures, and His Body and Blood, in our fellowship, and in the poor. As St Ignatius said ‘Now that Christ has ascended to the Father he’s even more visible to the whole world now than when He lived in obscurity.’ (Romans 3)
The puzzle of Ascension is not whether all this is true! The puzzle is why we are not more simple and willing, to let it happen in us. What are we so scared of?
In these days before Pentecost, let us seek the advice and help of someone who knows about openness to God’s presence and growth in us: the Virgin Mary … so that Christ’s Ascension into God may be the moment of His Annunciation into us, and that, like her, the whole Church may make Christ even more visible to the whole world now than when He lived in obscurity!
St John of the Latin Gate - Lectionary and Homily
Posted on the 9th May 2021 in the category Resources
St John, Clevedon 9 May 2021
The Passion of St John (St John at the Latin Gate)
Then the righteous will stand with great confidence
1 John 1: 1—4
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to Him with her sons, and kneeling before Him she asked Him for something. And He said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’
I am delighted to be with you on this first celebration of your patronal feast in summer, and grateful too to be with Fr Brendan so soon after his appointment as your pastor.
Dear Friends, the Church is not holy by herself; in fact, she is made up of sinners. We all know it. It is plain for all to see! She is made holy, every day and night, by the Holy One of God, by the purifying love of Christ. And that is what this feast of the Beloved Disciple, St John, is about. But it’s not only about him: it’s also about you, and about me.
Various important Christian writers in the second and third centuries testify to the fact that St John died, at a very great age, at the close of the first century, nearly 70 years after the events of Jesus’s death and resurrection. No one doubted these traditions. Some say he was as old as a hundred! He died at Ephesus (in modern Turkey) where it is said he wrote his gospel. And it is from one of these writers, an African called Tertullian (De praescript., xxxvi), that we also get the testimony that, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian (81-96) John was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil in front of the Latin Gate, one of Rome’s fortified southern gates, and that he emerged from the trial without suffering any injury. Unsurprisingly after such unexpected outcome, John was banished, to the Aegean island of Patmos, from which he returned to near-by Ephesus after Domitian’s death, to live out his final few years.
Now, I suppose that since none of those details are in the Bible, we’re free to take or leave the story, despite the fact that we regularly attribute much more astonishing things to God—like the Son of almighty God being born in human form. For nothing is impossible to Him who is the very source of all power and life. So let’s think a bit deeper.
John was the last surviving apostle. Having lived so long in one of the most well connected of the early centres of Christianity, John will have heard reports come in, one by one, from across the empire, about the martyrdom of his fellow apostles and their closest collaborators. His own brother, James had been the first (Acts 12.1-2). There was no reason for John to suppose that, in the long run, he would be an exception. The persecutions of the Church would catch up with him too, eventually. Over his long life surely he would often have remembered Jesus’s words to him and his brother James, which we heard in today’s gospel, when their rather pushy mother asked Jesus for places of honour for her boys in the kingdom of God. ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?’ replied Jesus. With no idea what they were talking about, ‘We are’, they said, ‘You will’, He said: ‘oh! you will’. But only the Father can give you places in His kingdom.
And so—like the story in the book of Daniel of the three young men who emerged unharmed from the Burning Fiery Furnace—the story of John’s survival expresses an inescapable truth about the extraordinary collective witness of the Holy Apostles in the face of persecution. John met what was sure to be his own very grim martyrdom, and did not run away. He knew it was coming to him. He accepted it. Though God rescued him from it John made his sacrifice; he drank the cup that Christ drank, and for a few more years continued to serve the Church, exhorting persecuted Christians all over the empire to be steadfast in the faith and not to identify with the pagan world. He encouraged them to live the Death and Resurrection of Christ openly in order to make clear to the world the real meaning of human life and history.
All this makes us wonder how he would have approached the prospect of martyrdom and what we can learn from it. Surely we can recognize his mindset from his teaching in the new testament, and I want to draw out two aspects in particular.
First, the central content of John’s Gospel and his Letters is the work of divine love, charity. John is the evangelist who stresses the unquenchable strength of love that caused the Father to send His Son into the world of men; and the unfathomable depth of love that motivated the Son’s compassion for sinners, and His sacrifice for us all. ‘The bread I will give, for the life of the world, is my flesh’ (Jn 6.51) Jesus says. This God not only spoke, but He loved us, very realistically – loved us to the very limit of love’s sacrifice, the death of His own Son. So John’s first motive was divine love.
The second motive is his description of our response to that love. In his gospel he records Jesus saying to Nicodemus ‘He who does the truth comes to the light’ (3. 21). Each person who trusts the Lord, and does what He commands in His teaching, embracing any loss and suffering, draws ever closer and closer to the light that enlightens every person. In other words, it is our actions – not primarily our words – that reveal our grasp on Christ’s truth and the extent of our enlightenment by love. Deeds come before doctrine; understanding of the Lord, will come to you only if you carry out faithfully and sincerely the commands and good deeds the Lord teaches.
‘This is the love of God’, John wrote in one of his letters to the churches, ‘that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.’ (1 Jn 5.3—4). Several ancient writers mention that in his final years St John would constantly repeat Jesus’s words ‘Beloved, love one another’.
Being transformed by the love of God, and being united with the love of God, will then always involve the fundamental offering of our obedience to Christ if, like our Lord, we are to win souls for Christ, even if that obedience were to involve a vat of boiling oil. We shall never avoid suffering. But here we come face to face with a central Christian paradox, according to which suffering is never the last word but rather, a transition towards happiness; indeed, suffering itself is already mysteriously mingled with the joy that flows from hope. It is the means of our transformation and unity with Christ’s love.
So much of the suffering in our lives, and the lives of every other human being – our losses, our sacrifices – goes to waste. We should be offering it up obediently for God’s glory. As a consequence we would come to the light all the sooner, while also saving others around us. If, like St John, we were willing to use our sufferings, to help us to offer ourselves more profoundly, and more completely, more trustfully to Christ – to be offered with Christ, and to be transformed by Him – then it is we ourselves who, like the bread and wine we offer, would be transubstantiated by Christ, transformed into service so that through us man could know how sweet is the love of Christ!
Fifth Sunday of Easter - Gospel and Homily
Posted on the 2nd May 2021 in the category Resources
As given at St Stephen’s Wolverhampton and Holy Trinity Ettingshall
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
St John’s gospel is regularly punctuated by a kind of canon fire, when Jesus suddenly claims some form of identity with the God who, early in the Exodus (3.14), reveals himself as ‘I am who I am’. Beginning in His conversation with the woman at the well of Samaria in chapter 4 (26), when we hear his first such claim, ‘I am He’, thereafter we hear ‘I am the bread of life’ (ch 6.35), ‘the light of the world’ (8.12), ‘the door to the sheepfold’ and ‘the good shepherd’ (10.9; 11-14), ‘the resurrection and the life’ (11.25), ‘the way the truth and the life’ (14.6); and, finally, in this week’s Gospel reading, ‘I am the true vine’ (15.1, 5). Jesus is picking up one of the richest and oldest metaphors in the whole of scripture about the relationship between God and His people: the vineyard owner and the vine.
To begin with I want you to notice three things about Jesus’s use of that image in this final ‘I am’ saying. First, notice that it is the only one of the sequence where God name’s (‘I am’) is linked to something that is clearly and intentionally corporate. The Gospel makes this explicit, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’. In all the others Jesus speaks only of himself. You notice He doesn’t say, ‘I am the vinedresser, you are the vine.’ No He is the vine, but a vine cannot exist without its branches – it certainly cannot be fruitful without them, and they cannot flourish without the central trunk which holds them all together, and roots them securely in the life of God?
Second, notice that this is the final such saying makes it the goal to which all the earlier revelations are pointing. Thus far Jesus has laid bare His unity with God, fed us with the bread of His word, shone as the light of truth, led us as a trustworthy guardian and guide, revealed the promise of resurrection, shown us the ultimate way of truth and life to the limit of sacrifice. All of this so that we may live a shared life with Him who, before His ascension, pledged ‘I am with you, to the end of the age’.
And third, notice where and when it is that Jesus makes this claim: the scene of this teaching is in the final minutes of the Last Supper, during which He not only points toward His suffering and sacrificial death, but also points beyond His cross to the totally new kind of existence in the Spirit into which He will pass over after His resurrection. A new way of living is revealed by Jesus to be the goal and purpose of death and resurrection – the life together of the One and the many, the head and the body, the vine and the branches.
As the branches are joined to the vine, so you belong to me! But in so far as you belong to me, you also belong to one another. This not a metaphor, a poetic way of talking. A man – much less the son of God – doesn’t offer himself to a brutal death in order to conjure up a consoling picture!! Nor is He describing an ideal, imaginary, symbolic relationship with the very people who are just about to abandon Him to death. He is describing the life-transmitting state of belonging that He and they (and in due course we) will share on the far side of the empty tomb and the ascension. ‘I am the true vine; you are the branches’ actually means: ‘I am in you and you are in me’ – an unprecedented identification of the Lord with His Church. The same sap – that is, the same strength and grace – that flowed through Him will flow through them, through us. That is what baptism and confirmation and communion means. We’re not copying a life, imitating an example, working from a template. The life of the Christian is a sharing in the same life with the Lord and with one another.
But in case we get carried away with the beauty of the image, Jesus also told how there would be those who would outwardly by united to Him, profess their faith publicly, but would be inwardly disconnected from him, branches bearing no fruit. There would be yet other branches that were weak and in need of purification by cutting out dead-wood to make new shoots sprout. And so He speaks of His Father as a vine dresser, wielding a pruning knife.
It is impossible to imagine sharing life with Christ, which is not a sharing in the same charity and holiness. The same organism simply cannot have both the sap of grace and the sap of sin coursing through it! This vine is a community of self-less love purified by the Cross, and it is to bear the fruit of charity and holiness. And for this there must be a pruning knife, so that dead branches, weak growth, diseased foliage can be cut away.
For this we must, dear friends, live lives of prayer and repentance for sin: for our own sins, the sins of those who do not know they offend and wound God, for the sins and injustices of all mankind. Do you seriously imagine that you can come every week to Mass, never making anything more serious than a quick congregational confession of sin, and expect to be healthy fruit-bearing branches of the vine of charity and holiness? Really? Why should the vinedresser not reach for His knife? We need it! We need Him to cut out the withered branches, and prune the fruit-bearing ones so they bring forth more fruit.
‘Abide in me’ says Jesus: ‘stick by me, learn to love and to do what I do. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me … for separate from me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:4f). Saint Augustine says of these words: ‘A branch is suitable for only one of two things, to be on the vine or on the fire: if it is not healthy on the vine, it will be unhealthy in the fire’ (In Ioan. Ev. Tract. 81.3).
God has no desire to keep a person whose faith is withered, dead, fake or imitation. What’s the point of keeping life that is dried up and withered? But there is a great deal of reason to prune and perfect what is fruitful and alive, to nurture life that is joyful and self-sacrificing.
Dear Brothers and Sisters! My hope for all of you is that you may discover ever more deeply the joy of being joined to Christ in the Church, that you may find strength to confess your sins, and know the truth of Jesus’ words, ‘A disciple is not above His teacher, but everyone when He is fully trained will be like His teacher – in every respect.’ (Luke 6.40)
Third Sunday of Easter - Homily
Posted on the 18th April 2021 in the category Resources
As given at All Saints, Cheltenham
18 April 2021
Today, the Third Sunday of Easter, in the Gospel (Luke 24.35-48) we meet the Risen Jesus appearing to His apostles, who immediately think they are seeing a ghost! It was true, the Lord had changed! He was inexplicably different, and much freer than He was. Yet it was plainly Jesus, His essence and His character, only now His passion and death were also incised into his body, as His wounds made clear. Everything was physical and touchable, but everything about Him was transformed and free!
Since the Resurrection had not wiped out the signs of His crucifixion, and He wanted to remove their disbelief, Jesus showed the apostles His hands and His feet. He even asked for something to eat, and was given a piece of what we’d call barbecued fish, which He took and ate in front of them (Lk 24:42-43). Thus He sought to convince them it was the same living body which they had seen and touched and felt; but at the same time that body glorified. St Gregory the Great (the pope who sent St Augustine to Ebbsfleet, and re-founded the church in England) wrote in one of his bible commentaries: ‘the grilled fish is a pointer to Jesus’ Passion’, His suffering and wounds. ‘Jesus had seen fit’, Gregory goes on, ‘to conceal himself like a fish in the teeming waters of the human race. He let himself be caught in a net of our death, and placed on the grill, symbolizing the cruelty He suffered at the moment of the Passion’ (Hom. in Evang. xxiv.5). It is a bit of a startling image, Jesus as a barbecued fish; but it gets Gregory’s point over: Jesus’s wounds, like the marks from the hot grill, were now part of Him! They were for ever part of his glorified body.
There was probably a reason why St Luke highlighted Jesus’s attempts to persuade the apostles that He was real by eating in front of them. From very early on distortions of the Gospel were circulating and the earliest Christian writers had to ensure that the truth about Jesus was being preached. One pagan attitude that was beginning to circulate was called Gnosticism. Gnostics were certain God was spirit, but they were so narrow in their views they also thought God was against matter and the body. As a result they could not accept the Incarnation of Christ. In response the Gospel writers insisted: no, the Son of God became flesh, and He remained flesh for all eternity. Interestingly St John who was the evangelist most concerned to stress Jesus’s divinity was also the one most concerned to underline that Jesus’s resurrected body was a real body; His wounds were real wounds.
Now, you might think that’s interesting but not very relevant to your life: but that’s not true! Our contemporaries are hopelessly confused about God, and therefore (unsurprisingly) increasingly confused about being human, and about the natural world in which we live. Transcendent values and reason, and the very meaning of Christian faith, are being undermined by a kind of virus that infects not only the truth of faith, but causes the rejection of reason and truth in themselves. Holding a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled fundamentalist. It seems that being ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’ is the only attitude that people in our times can cope with, while our human egos and preferences and choices are becoming the measure of all things.
The gospels give a very different picture. Jesus is the measure of all things. In His words, His death, His resurrection, we can dependably discover the truth about of God, and the truth about our own life and salvation. In Jesus ‘the Word became flesh’; and in Him the Word remained flesh after He had risen from the dead, linking forever the meaning of God and the meaning of mankind. In that flesh and blood and bone ‘He has made God known to us’ (exeghesato Jn 1.18), and by the power of the sacraments at work in us, especially through our frequent sharing in the Eucharist, He calls us to make Him known to the men and women of our own day, and bring them the good news of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
There is an old legend in which it is said that Satan appeared to a saint claiming to be Jesus. The saint simply and cleverly asked Satan, ‘Can you show me the marks of the nails?’ Of course he could not! The wounds left by the nails, the thorns, the spear were the way the apostles recognized Christ. And that is also how our lowly bodies will be recognized, as having become by grace like Christ’s (Phil 3.21): if we have hands, scared from giving; feet, wounded in service; hearts, pierced by the burning shafts of His divine love.
Easter 2 - Divine Mercy Sunday
Posted on the 11th April 2021 in the category Resources
Divine Mercy Sunday
11 April 2021
(As given at St Mark's Church, Swindon New Town)
An audio version of the sermon can be found here
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But He said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe.”
Eight days later, His disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.
‘I will sing for ever of your mercy O Lord!’
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The gospel reading we have just heard from St John shows us the Risen Jesus going in search of His own – God urgently wanting to find and restore to His friendship those who through failure and fear during His passion and crucifixion were lost in confusion and guilt.
Notice first that it’s a gospel in two halves: two incidents, one week apart. First, Jesus appears on the night of Easter Day itself (Jn 20.19) to the disciples enclosed in the Upper Room; and then, because one of them, Thomas, was missing on that occasion, He showed himself to them again in the same place ‘eight days later’ (Jn 20.26). In these two stories, separated in time but connected in meaning, St John is teaching us what the other evangelists teach us through the parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son, and the conversion of penitent thief on Golgotha – that God longs for, and searches for, finds and draws to himself, each single soul. No single soul is beyond God’s initiative. [And that is what we shall affirm when at the moment of confirmation I shall greet each of our candidates by name – Allen, Nicky, Meisha – God has called you by name and made you His own. He has longed for you, searched for you, found you and is drawing you closer to himself.]
But I want you to notice something else, something easily missed if you are over-familiar with the story. What connects the two is that on both occasions – both on the day of the Resurrection and eight days later – our Blessed Lord showed the disciples the signs of His crucifixion (see Jn 20.20 as well as 27): those deep and abiding wounds, in His hands, and feet and side, clearly visible and tangible, carved into His glorified and mysteriously transformed Body.
Surely that is why Thomas says, ‘Well, though you speak of the wounds you saw, I will not believe your report. I must see them, and touch them for myself.’ And then when he did see them, he ‘who was the last to believe, was the first to make the full confession of the divinity of the Risen Saviour’. Thomas went far beyond what the others may have said, for he who ‘touched Christ as a man, believed in him as a God’. (Fulton Sheen: The Life of Christ, 1958).
On those two occasions it was those wounds – wounds He has never lost – that reminded the disciples not only of their failure and denial in the previous days and hours after the Last Supper; but also of their failure, throughout their time with Jesus, to understand – or even accept – His teaching, that He must suffer and die and on the third day rise again.
But that is not all. They were also the most persuasive testimony to the unconditional love for the whole of mankind which had been His motivation in giving-up His life to the power of sin and death, and proof of the greatest gift of the resurrection: His forgiveness, peace and new life.
In a word those wounds are the greatest testimony to God’s mercy.
St John Paul II made a brilliant observation about this passage (Dives in misericordia 8): ‘Here is the Son of God, who in His own resurrection experienced mercy shown to Himself, that is to say He experienced the love of the Father which is more powerful than sin and death. He who had been brought back to life is ‘the definitive incarnation of God’s mercy, its living sign’. He gives us all confidence that God’s mercy in our lives is not something small, a means to an end, an optional extra for the devout among us. It is an essential part of the largest and smallest aspects of our faith and prayer.
But how can we best understand mercy? It seems illusive; and before we know it we are off on a tangent thinking of God’s mercy in terms of human mercy – which seems to have to involve the one being merciful belittling and disempowering the one on the receiving end. But from the teaching and the behaviour of Jesus we can see that divine mercy isn’t like that at all. So let me try to use the encounter with Thomas to say a little bit about why.
The Bible gives no arguments for the existence of God. It is a story of a relationship, a series of covenants with a particular people, with plenty of moments of crisis and conflict with God, anger toward him, doubts about His intentions, and a sense of lostness when there is no real sense of His presence. The catastrophic and traumatic experience of the passion and crucifixion of Jesus was a climax to such moments. Despite Jesus’s clear teaching that the God of Israel never runs out of either love or liberty to renew His covenant, the disciples were ‘slow to believe’ the news of the resurrection. Thomas went further and refused to trust anything other than His own experience. Of course in part ‘slow to believe’ means ‘slow to understand’ what was happening – who wouldn’t be? But rather more deeply it means they were ‘slow to trust’ what was happening, because they knew, as never before, the abject failure of their love and discipleship toward Jesus in the hour of His greatest need. They knew their unworthiness and complicity. They were powerless, and they needed God to take the initiative – as He had repeatedly in the history of His people, the initiative that pours out of God simply because God is who Jesus Christ has revealed him to be – the initiative we call His mercy.
God IS the truth of His own nature; He IS Father Son and Holy Spirit; He IS an endless circulation of unconditional love and mutual justice and joy, which simply pours itself out on all that His love has created.
When that love reaches our sinful hearts and seeks entry we (who are not eternal and grow in faith only slowly) experience it in two ways: First we experience God’s truth. God sees us for the sinners that we are, our weakness, evasion, instability and wrongdoing. To be seen by such an eye of truth hurts, it stings. God sees us; and we know all our fears, pretences and evasions are exposed and judged. Such exposure would be too hard to bear did we not also, in the same moment, experience God’s compassion, the aspect of God’s love that, even while we are exposed before God, makes the truth of our condition bearable and healable. As someone once said, ‘truth makes genuine love possible; love makes real truth bearable’. Such is God’s mercy and it is the way God converts and renews our hearts. Divine mercy is how we finally accept the true God, the living God who will not be fitted into my identity and preferences. God is as the Risen Christ has revealed him: living Truth too great for me to see, but who sees, and judges, me, and because of Jesus does not turn me away but increases His mercy in me, helping me to see myself and others with the same eye of truth and love.
Thomas was not a doubter; Thomas’s problem was that he was not a truster! But when Jesus rebuked and challenged His unbelief, and bid him touch His wounds (not so he could forget the Cross but so as to make it unforgettable) divine mercy gushed forth from those wounds and Thomas saw and believed, and confessed the victory of divine love: ‘My Lord and my God’.
In the Saviour’s resurrection God’s mercy, immense and free, has won victory over sin and death; evil will never be victorious again. Dear Friends, may we be bold enough to open our hearts wide to God and to drink deep of His mercy – both His truth and His compassion – so that that His victory may also live in us, and through us may enliven and feed the lives of others.
God, merciful Father, in your Son Jesus Christ you have revealed your love and poured it out upon us in the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. We entrust to you today the destiny of the world and of every man and woman. Bend down to us sinners, heal our weakness, conquer all evil, and grant that all the peoples of the earth may experience your mercy, and find in you the source of hope.
Eternal Father, for the sake of the Passion and Resurrection of your Son:
have mercy on us and on the whole world!