+ It is almost impossible to count the number of times the Church sings “Alleluia” in the Sacred Liturgy of Eastertide as she ponders anew the reality of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead and as she continues to contemplate its implications for the life, death and salvation of every human person. Rightly does the Office of Lauds on Sundays begin with an antiphon of a ‘mere’ nine alleluias. The shattering of the bounds of death by the fact of the resurrection leaves us stammering with joy as its true meaning grows in our understanding. Nothing about our earthly life is the same anymore. Everything, even the darkest shadows of the cross, must be viewed in the light of Easter morning.
This can be difficult, particularly when our lives are full of so many concerns, and sometimes important ones. So too, the content of the Easter event is so utterly beyond our experience that merely ‘getting my head around it’ is no small feat. We may be understandably envious of the Apostles who saw, met, talked and ate with the Risen Lord. We may well identify with Doubting Thomas and yet envy him also, for Our Lord removed his doubts in a manner that was singularly decisive.
Yet even for the privileged Apostles, this formative period of grace was limited; as the Holy Gospel of today’s Mass reveals. Our Lord’s absence from His disciples was foreseen – the commencement of which we celebrate in the feast of the Ascension.
To celebrate Our Lord’s absence appears odd. It would be so much easier if the Resurrected Lord were with us still in person. And yet, as He teaches us in the Gospel, this is for the best. For His absence, whilst causing sorrow, makes way for the fulness of the Gift of Almighty God in the Person of the Holy Spirit, whose coming we shall celebrate at Pentecost.
But let us not get too far ahead of ourselves, liturgically at least. We can ponder these great feasts when they arrive. This morning, let us remain in Eastertide, awash with alleluias as it were, warmed the radiant light of Easter morning. For whilst this period of grace is limited, and whilst we live it liturgically and not historically as did the Apostles, it is nonetheless real and is given to us for our formation in that Truth which is fundamental to our faith: Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, has in his person conquered death and opened to all who persevere in following His teaching the same victory and life without end.
We’ve heard this before, of course. We sang of it on Easter night and have done so without ceasing ever since. Yet amidst the cares and burdens of daily life, the reason for all the Alleluias may even have become rather commonplace. We may not deny the Truth of the Resurrection, but other, seemingly more important things, may be of more pressing concern to us at the moment.
From the Collect of this fourth Sunday after Easter it seems that the Church’s Tradition knows and understands this reality only too well, for like a wise mother she prays that “amidst the changing things of this world our hearts may be fixed where true joys may be found.” This is the gritty reality of Christian life – even in Eastertide. This is the business of perseverance in the faith – fixing our hears where true joys may be found amidst all the trials, setbacks, temptations and worries that confront us. It is for this grace that the Church’s Liturgy begs for each of us, monk, cleric or layman or woman this morning – for our mother knows we have great need of it.
Our task is truly to pray this prayer with her, to open our hearts to the very grace we need in whatever particular situation this Eastertide finds us. For the joy of Easter is not simply the joy of the Truth of the Resurrection. “Alleluia” is not just a beautiful thing to chant. This joy and this beauty are realities for each one of us, at this time, that can transform us as thy did the Apostles, if we but open ourselves to their import. When we accept this and live from it, we come to realise why the Church cannot stop singing “Alleluia”. In this Holy Mass let us ask Almighty God for the grace to sing with her, in our hearts and minds and actions amidst the changing things of this world. +
+ The solemn festal procession of the Greater Litanies we have made this morning is of great antiquity, dating in its present form from the sixth century pontificate of Saint Gregory the Great. And it is of great importance, so much so that in conventual churches such as ours, the Mass of Rogations takes precedence over that of the Sunday (which, nevertheless, is not forgotten though its liturgical commemoration).
“Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened,” the Gospel of this Holy Mass teaches us.
This morning, with litanies and in procession we have solemnly asked Almighty God for all our needs. I say “our” needs, because none of the liturgical prayers of the Rogation procession or Mass features the word “I”. The intercession we make is not primarily about me, it is about us – it is about the Church of God as she strives to be faithful to her mission as the instrument of salvation in the world.
Spirituality in the modern period has tended to be very individualistic, and in the light of that phenomenon the Gospel of this Holy Mass may leave me stamping my foot impatiently waiting for God to deliver to me what I want – and now! However, as all Sacred Scripture, the Gospel lives and breathes in the Sacred Liturgy and in this, its natural habitat, we can see that its teaching today is not about me or my will, but about God’s Providence for us as the Church, in which each of us is privileged to share by virtue of our baptism.
“Your heavenly Father [will] give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” the Gospel teaches us this morning – not my latest demand, which may well approach the blasphemy of insisting that God conforms to my will!
If the prominence given to the Rogation Mass caused by its falling on a Sunday this year helps us to learn this lesson, it will be a truly Providential gift of God. Each of us needs to learn again and again to tear up our lists of demands that seek to hold God hostage to our own will and to ask simply for His Spirit. With that Gift, the Gift of the Paraclete for Whom in the coming weeks the Paschal liturgy longs with increasing expectation and intensity, everything else we truly need will follow.
“But when?” we are tempted to insist in our prayer. “When will God provide that which I want/need/etc.?” We can often travail and anguish in the apparent absence of God and of His gifts.
Our Blessed Lord speaks of this sadness and distress – of our experiencing sorrow whilst all around us in the world seem to rejoice - in the Gospel of this third Sunday after Easter. We must go through the pains of birth, He teaches us. That is to say, we must persevere – no matter what! – for, as Saint Benedict (drawing on the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Saint Matthew) teaches in His Rule, the monks meeting “with difficulties and contradictions and even injustice … should with a silent mind hold fast to patience, and enduring, neither tire nor run away, for the Scripture saith: He that shall persevere to the end shall be saved.” (Ch. 7) Indeed, Our Lord insists in todays Easter gospel that our sorrow “shall be turned into joy,” a joy “which nobody can take away from you.”
This is the gift that Almighty God wishes to give us. This is what we, the Church, and the world, truly need. And it is for this that we make solemn supplication through the Rogations of this day. If we do so “with a silent mind,” if we “hold fast to patience,” if we endure and neither tire nor run away from the difficulties that confront us, if we persevere unto the end, we shall receive this gift of inestimable value. We shall rejoice in that peace that is to be found even amidst the thorns of this world.
For the grace of perseverance unto that end, in ourselves and in others, let offer earnest entreaty to Almighty God at this, His Altar, this morning. +
+ The beauty of the image of the Good Shepherd, employed by Our Lord Himself in respect of Himself, shines through the centuries of the Church’s life and mission as one of the most powerful, instructive and consoling analogies in Sacred Scripture. Christian art has depicted it often. The Vatican Museums boast the fourth-century marble statue from the Catacombs of Domitilla depicting the Good Shepherd bringing home a wayward sheep on his very own shoulders. We wayward sheep can take great comfort in this.
But Today’s Gospel teaches us that Our Lord is the “good” shepherd, who not only goes after the straying sheep (cf. Mt 18:10–14; Lk 15:3–7), but who “lays down his life for his sheep.” This is extraordinary. Certainly, sheep were an important commodity in the ancient world, more so than today. And to go to great lengths to bring back a lost sheep is praiseworthy. But no shepherd laid down his own life for the sake of stupid animals!
Here we find the power and indeed the instruction of this image. For Our Blessed Lord Himself will lay down His very life for we stupid, sinful sheep. He did so on Calvary, as today’s Epistle so beautifully recounts. He would have done so for even just one of us. He did so for me. Yes, for me, worthless as I often believe myself to be, the Eternal Son of God became man and suffered and died so that I might be redeemed, receive the forgiveness necessary for my sins and live!
Here it is appropriate to recall once again the exhortation of Pope Saint Leo the Great:
“Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God's own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God's kingdom.” (Sermo 22 in nat. Dom., 3:PL 54,192C)
My brothers and sisters, there is enough here to contemplate and to sustain us in our Christian life for many a day and night. Despite my travails and worries, whatever shape or form they may take, howsoever heavy the burden of the day or no matter how dark the night may be, in this reality we find hope – indeed we encounter Hope Himself!
So too, we encounter Him unlike anywhere else – truly, substantially – at this altar where Our Lord, laid down in sacrifice, is offered for our healing and sustenance. As Saint Gregory the Great taught us at matins this morning, the Good Shepherd nourishes the sheep He has redeemed with His own Body and Blood.
This divine reality takes us well beyond the capacity of the image of a shepherd, into the reality of God’s love and mercy for each one of us. For we are not stupid sheep, but unique persons made in the very image and likeness of God, loved by Him and offered the consummation of that love for all eternity if we persevere in His ways.
No doubt this is why the image of the Good Shepherd enjoys such prominence in art and literature and in ecclesiastical teaching and preaching and is the model for and the standard by which the pastoral clergy, particularly those in high office are to be judged.
In his Rule for monks our Holy Father Saint Benedict applies the same standard to the father of the monastery, insisting that he too search out the lost sheep, that he takes care not to lose any of the sheep entrusted to his care, and reminding the abbot that on the day of judgment he shall have answerer to Almighty God for each one of them.
Such an exceptionally high standard should motivate us to pray earnestly for those with such responsibilities, for as the Fathers of the Church as well as monastic history, ancient and modern, makes very clear, the phenomenon of frightened or worldly clergy or of impotent, negligent abbots, who flee from the wolves and who look to their own interests first is, sadly, not a new one.
Indeed, the call to lay down one’s life for one’s sheep sounds a note that is utterly discordant with the worldly policies that abound in our times which seek to ‘protect’ human life at all cost, at times even preventing pastors from reaching their flock in extremis.
We must pray then, particularly in this Holy Mass, that this call is heard ever more clearly by those to whom the Good Shepherd addresses it in our day. Additionally, we must not neglect to pray that young men shall hear and attend to this same call and themselves accept the God-given vocation to lay down their lives for His sheep. +
+ "Put your finger here and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side; do not be faithless but believing.”
These words of Our Blessed Lord to Saint Thomas in this Holy Mass are some of the most beautiful in the Gospel.
They may appear to be a rebuke or a reproof. And one could understand Our Lord’s frustration when one of his chosen twelve, after all they had witnessed and had been taught, still did not believe – even when the others insisted that they had in fact seen the Lord.
But no. These are not words of reproach. They are a compassionate invitation to faith.
In a manner analogous to the divine condescension of the Incarnation itself, Our Lord humbles himself further to appear personally to doubting Thomas and offer him the ‘proof’ he demanded. Our Lord gives to Thomas all that is necessary for him to believe. There is no retribution exacted for his reticence or pride – merely a further manifestation of the reality of the historical fact of the bodily resurrection of God incarnate. Nothing less!
Doubts and fears and anxieties abound in our world, in the Church, and even at times in monasteries. They cripple us and isolate us. They lock us up and render us unable to move forward in the realisation of our God-given vocation. The talents He has given me to use for His glory remain buried. We make many excuses and may even paraphrase the protest of St Thomas by way of excuse: “Unless everything conforms to the standards I myself set, unless everything is exactly how I want it to be, I will not…” We thereby shut ourselves away from others – even from God and His Providence.
Through the reality His Body, the Catholic Church, Our Blessed Lord stands in our midst regardless of the strife that abounds around us and within us. Through her sacraments He invites us to touch Him – and indeed He reaches out to touch us – that we might believe. Again and again – in spite of our fears – he invites us not to be faithless, but believing.
This faith, as St John teaches us in the epistle of this Holy Mass, is our victory over the world and all its works, and all its empty promises. Faith in Jesus Christ, truly risen from the dead, not only gives us the hope of sharing that same resurrected life after death; it also enables us to live this life in that hope, in faith and in charity. It enables us to become and to do that which God calls us to be and has, from eternity, given us alone to do in this world.
“My Lord and my God,” Saint Thomas responded to Our Lord. One can but imagine the flood of tears that followed; strong tears of unmerited love experienced in the most intimate and life-giving manner.
My brothers and sisters, Our Blessed Lord appears to us – we, the “blessed who have not seen and who yet believe” – in the Sacred Liturgy of His Church day in, day out, year after year. Perhaps He is almost too generous in so doing, for we can easily become complacent before the singular privilege that is ours by means of our baptism – and this complacency, too, can easily cripple us.
Let this Easter day, the Octave of which we have celebrated, call forth from us, with Saint Thomas, a renewal of our faith. “Do not be faithless but believing” Our Lord challenges each one of us this morning.
Let the reality of Christ’s resurrection bring forth our tears of gratitude and love in response to the mercy and grace we have received and continue to receive at this holy altar. And let the truth of Easter day strengthen us anew in our resolve faithfully to discharge that unique mission which Our Lord Himself has given to each of us. +
+ In the midst of the dispute with the Jews that is today’s Holy Gospel, Our Blessed Lord makes this outrageous claim (amongst others): “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”
One can understand the incredulity of the Jews. This is simply not possible. A man cannot assert that he can save people from death. Nor can he make the blasphemous claim that “Before Abraham was, I am.” Not, that is, unless they are true.
My brothers and sisters this dispute brings us to the heart of Christian faith, indeed to the heart of reality itself. In it we are confronted by Truth Himself.
Our age and even at times the Church is marked by a practical syncretism which either denies the existence of objective truth or is embarrassed by it. The definitive revelation of God in history in the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ becomes simply one manifestation of God amongst many supposedly equal others. “We all worship the same God,” we hear from those who should know better. “It doesn’t matter how you worship God, or which god you worship,” others will say.
Whatever goods can be found elsewhere, and howsoever sincere in intention or act people may be in their differing religious beliefs or practices, those goods are at best partial. They are not complete. All people without exception are called to salvation through explicit faith in Jesus Christ, the unique mediator between God and man. All people are called to keep His word so that they will never see death. This Truth has been and must be the basis for all of the Church’s missionary, ecumenical and interreligious endeavours in any sphere. If it is not, we betray Christ.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”
As Lent ends and Passiontide begins these words bear close examination in respect of ourselves also. The homily of Saint Gregory the Great at matins this morning puts it very clearly:
“Let each of you ask himself if this voice of God is heard in the ear of his heart, and if he knows already if he is of God. For there are some, whom it pleases not to hear the commandments of God even with their bodily ears. And there are some who receive the same with their bodily ears, but whose heart is far from them. And there are others who hear the words of God with joy, so that they are moved thereby even to tears; but when their fit of weeping is over they turn again to iniquity. They hear not the words of God, they who despise to do them. Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, call up your own life before your mind's eye, and then ponder with trembling those awful words which the mouth of the Truth spoke. Ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.”
Am I of God in reality and not just in sentiment? This is the call to further conversion that is very much the business of our penitential asceticism. It is at the heart of the monastic vocation.
If I wish never to see death then I must take this question seriously. I must amend what needs amending and do what needs to be done in the particular circumstances of my life. Sinful habits must be broken. Virtues must be cultivated. The Word of God, not my own, must rule my life. My activities must increasingly reflect its truth so that others, too, may come to believe and live.
The stakes are high. This is truly a matter of life or death – of our own eternal life or eternal death and of that of others. The frightening reality is that we can accept or reject eternal life according to our free will, just as some accepted Our Lord and others rejected Him.
For the grace to accept Him fully and to live His Word fruitfully, let entreat God at His altar this morning. +
Thinking of a monastic vocation? Please read:
Am I called to be a monk?