Sunday, 19 April 2020
Low Sunday - the just man liveth by faith!
The texts of the Mass which the Church places before us on this Low Sunday, are centred upon the virtue of faith and are particularly poignant in the times in which we find ourselves today. In his epistle, St. John writes of faith in God which is a victory that overcomes the world. By confessing belief in the Tri-une God, we have the surest gift of faith, because we place our entire faith in Him. St. John’s Gospel records the famous passage of St. Thomas seeing and believing in the risen Christ after having expressed his incredulity at the veracity of the Resurrection. ‘Doubting Thomas’ is gently yet severely chastised by God, who present Himself before the disciple, just as He presents Himself before us in the Blessed Sacrament.
Traditionally, today was the day upon which the converts received at the Easter vigil would relinquish their white garments which they had worn in joyful celebration of their entrance into the Church. Having been received but a week prior, they would now be presented with such powerful texts in the Mass, demonstrating the fullness of the faith in Christ to which they and we are continuously called. It is this which gives rise to one of the names for this day, Domenica in albis (depositis) since it was the day upon which the new converts would put off the white garments which they had worn during the past week.
There are certain key points which can be extrapolated from the liturgical texts which have especial relevance to the peculiar situation in which many of us find ourselves in this time of global panic and hysteria. Dom Gueranger is very clear in noting that the texts all are centred upon faith. Indeed he states that it was upon this day that Christ won the perfect faith of His disciples, since they could not fail to recognise His divine power and majesty.(1) The holy abbot observes that we are called to a similiar profession of faith, completely recognising and praising the Divinity of Christ. Faith is of absolute importance in our daily lives and in the progression of the spiritual life, but it is of increased importance now, when the materialistic order of the world seems to be falling into chaos. When our surroundings are changing beyond recognition and daily life is suddenly thrown into confusion, the one constant upon which we can rely and to whom we must turn, is Christ. To do so, we must strengthen the virtue of faith.
Christ is present in the tabernacle of our souls.
In the Gospel, St. John records Christ’s divine entrance into the locked room in order to join the disciples who were gathered there. The Evangelist mentions that they “were gathered together, for fear of the Jews”. (John 20:19) Note this well - that the disciples were hidden away from the Jews out of fear for their lives. At a times when they quite justly should have been able to celebrate publicly the glorious triumph which Christ had wrought over death, the disciples were instead hoping to be forgotten by the Jews. It is into this room full of fearful men that Christ enters and shows the wounds of His passion.
Perhaps one might state that there are no similarities between this passage and our current situation, for we are not enduring any possible persecution from the populace, nor has Christ or indeed any member of the clergy been publicly put to death near us. Yet, read again and the parallels will strike you clearly. Whole nations have placed their citizens under virtual house arrest, supposedly for fear of spreading the novel Covid-19 virus. The doors are locked, and people live in every growing fear at the perceived threat of an unseen enemy. Churches have been unjustly shut by decrees of governments and bishops, and the faithful are prohibited from celebrating the joyful liturgies of Easter. We have been prohibited from doing so even behind the closed doors of a church; private, let alone public veneration of Christ has been postponed out of misplaced temporal fear.
So perhaps then, our situation is not altogether without similarities to the one depicted in the opening lines of the Gospel. Whilst the apostles hid from fear of bloody persecution, we have been forced to hide, albeit from a less merited fear of infection. Whilst they could not celebrate the public liturgy in adoration of God, we are likewise unjustly banned from such essential worship of God. The need for faith has not been so great for a number of generations.
Yet, we must develop an ardent faith in God, because it is only He who can liberate us from such a situation. Even though the doors were locked, Christ visited His disciples by virtue of His divine power and so He can visit us in the silence of our souls even though the doors of the churches are locked. In fact, faith is the crucial virtue which is necessary in these times, because without faith we will be lost to the panic and despair which is so prevalent amongst those who have lost sight of God and of the spiritual life. We can take inspiration from the many famous martyrs and countless numbers of the faithful who have endured persecution, simply for their profession of the faith. They had to suffer through a time when daily life could continue as normal, if only they rejected God and abandoned the faith. Instead, the chose to cling resolutely to the glorious faith, for which many paid with their lives.
St. John mentions that “He shewed them His hands and His side. The disciples therefore were glad when they saw the Lord”. (John 20:20). The disciples found solace and joy in the apprehension and sight of God, but not just God alone, if one can say that, but also through the evidence of His wounds. It is a beautiful passage that can be swiftly passed over, yet it contains so much depth. Just as they received a renewal of courage and joy from the sight of the resurrected Lord, with the marks of His passion, so we can also receive solace through uniting ourselves to Christ on the cross, perhaps through prayers and devotions to His holy wounds. In the times of persecution, what comfort must it have given the faithful to gaze upon the crucifix and see the torments which Christ underwent for love of them. Whilst we are cruelly separated from Our Sacramental Lord in the Eucharist, we can find great comfort through the practice of the virtue of faith and through devotion to Our Lord on the cross. It is only through the cross that we can find joy, since in our pitiful, sinful condition, we are prone to wallowing in self-pity. In turning to the cross, we see our crucified Saviour, who endured far greater sufferings that we can ever imagine. When enlightened by faith, we can view our own trials as a wonderful way of uniting ourselves to the crucified Lord, whose passion and death we have so recently celebrated.
Times of faith and purgation.
The Gospel records the doubt of St. Thomas, who could not have faith in the resurrection until he had seen for himself, Christ alive and standing before him. It was only when he could visibly see the risen Lord and place his hands into Our Lord’s pierced side, that his faith was confirmed.
We have not such occasion to approach Christ thus, to talk with Him or to place our hand into his side, and so how can we expect to enliven our already weak faith? Or yet, do we not actually have such an occasion?
For Christ is present in the tabernacles of the altars all around the world, and freely gives Himself to us in sacramental form in every Communion which we make. We do not have the opportunity to place our hand on Him, but instead have the far greater privilege of receiving Him into us. St. Augustine teaches that we are changed into Christ Himself: “and you shall not change Me into yourself as bodily food, but into Me you shall be changed”. (2) In this most beautiful sacrament we thus have a far more beautiful and intimate exchange with Christ than even St. Thomas did when meeting the risen Lord. Along with St. Paul we can utter the words, “I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me”. (Galatians 2:20).
Yet Christ also said in response to Thomas’ doubt, “blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed”. (John 20:29). This line should be of especial comfort to us during these times, when we cannot approach the Holy Eucharist as we would normally. Now, more than ever in our lives are these divine words appropriate. This time of forced removal from the sacraments, particularly from the Mass, is the time when our faith is to be tested. It can either flourish or perish. If our faith is surface deep only, then such a removal from the sacramental life of the Church will prove deadly for us. Such a faith would not be founded upon the true principles of the Gospel, but would rely upon outward signs for its stimulus. If we rely solely upon the external elements of the faith, then our own faith will not survive being deprived from them.
Thus, in order to have a true faith which will carry us through turmoil, we must be centred upon Christ, relying wholly upon Him. Whilst we cannot attend the ceremonies of the Church, we must listen more than ever to the still and small voice of calm, by which Christ speaks to us in the silence of our hearts. True, the sacramental life goes hand in hand with the interior life, yet if we cannot have access to the one, then we must strengthen the other. By developing an intimate inner union with God in this manner, we will soon return to the public celebration of the Mass with renewed faith and zeal. The Eucharistic mysteries will seem more wondrous and sublime and incomprehensible in their truths, yet at the same time we will be brought deeper into the incredible mysteries which are contained therein. If we seek to develop a faith according to the Gospel, then we can dare to hope to experience the sweetness of which the saints write, when we are once more before the altar.
St. Thomas found faith through putting his hand into the side of the Saviour: we will find a renewal of faith through placing ourselves in His most Sacred Heart and allowing ourselves to be thus enlightened about the Divine truths. If we use this time as one where we seek to deepen our faith and renew its vigour, then we can hope to receive the blessings of which Christ speaks, given to those who have not seen and yet believe.
The true practice of a lively faith.
In practicing this faith which the Mass calls us to, we ought to make use of the opportunity to truly live such a faith. What does this entail?
In short, it translates to having a firm and lively trust in God, sure in the knowledge that nothing happens without His willing so, and remembering that He has already won the victory over sin and death. His salvific death and triumphant resurrection have crushed the devil and all his demonic legions. Hence, no matter the turmoil we see before us, we have only to cling to the cross and be assured of the omnipotence and omniscience of God. When we pray, we must do so in full confidence that God hears and answers our prayers: “Ask, and it shall be given you: seek, and you shall find: knock, and it shall be opened to you. For every one that asketh, receiveth: and he that seeketh, findeth: and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened”. (Matthew 7:7) Any true and fervent prayer, made with worthy conditions, is answered by God, although perhaps not always in the way in which we desire. We have the example of the virtuous centurion, who acknowledged the power and majesty of God when making his request: “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof: but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed”. (Matthew 8:8)
Such is the faith to which we are called by order of Christ and through example of the Gospels. This is a faith which must be active however. Faith without activity cannot be regarded as true faith. For instance, we cannot imagine that the Church would have canonised any person who professed to have a lively faith in Christ, yet did not put this into practice by enduring the martyrdom which awaited those who professed belief in Christ. The martyrs are those who put their faith into visible practice.
No matter the trials which are presented to us, this faith, this living and ardent faith, must be our guiding principle. See the example of St. Charles Borromeo, who continued with his pastoral duties amidst the deadly plague which tore through Milan between 1576 and 1578. Whilst following prudence in the measures he took not to spread the virus, he ensured that the sacramental life of the Church continued. Of key note, is the fact that the saintly cleric called upon the faithful to a practice of prayer and penance, keenly aware that such plagues are sent from God and that the remedy must be spiritual, not just physical. Instead of decreasing the sacramental and spiritual life, St. Charles actually increased it.
His actions must serve as an example for us all, but particularly for our clergy. The state and ecclesial governments should be very wary of prohibiting the public life of the Church in such a manner as is currently in force, since to do so is one of the gravest signs of a lack of faith. Such actions do not manifest a firm or lively faith, but, at the worst, express a betrayal not only of the faithful, but also of Christ Himself. Instead of sealing off access to the sacraments, the faithful pastors of the Church rather counsel us to follow the example of St. Charles and to increase public and private devotion. Faith is not compatible with the abandonment of the propagation of the sacraments.
During this painful time of separation from the sacraments, we can use the opportunity to grow in love of God and strengthen our faith in Him, confident that He cannot abandon us. We ought also to pray for our spiritual and temporal leaders, that they might lead us wisely through this time, but chiefly that they might recognise the primacy of Christ the King and the desperate need that all men have, regarding access to the sacraments. The sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, are our life source in the spiritual life. In permitting us to endure such a period of separation from them, God is granting us the opportunity to join Him in suffering and to merit many graces by testing and strengthening our faith.
(1) Dom Gueranger, The Liturgical Year. VII Paschal Time - Book 1; Quasimodo Sunday.
(2) St. Augustine, The Confessions. Translated by F.J. Sheed. London, Sheed & Ward, 1984, 113.
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