Sunday, 27 December 2020

Sunday in the Octave of the Nativity - True Wisdom.

(In a shameless break from writing, the reflection for the Sunday in the Octave of the Nativity is drawn entirely from St. Alphonsus Ligouri's homily for the day.) 


"Behold, this CHILD is set for the fall and for the resurrection of many in Israel". Luke 2:34. 

SUCH was the language of holy Simeon when he had the consolation to hold in his hands the infant Jesus. Among other things which he then foretold, he declared that "this child was set for the fall and for the resurrection of many in Israel." In these words he extols the lot of the saints, who, after this life, shall rise to a life of immortality in the kingdom of bliss, and he deplores the misfortune of sinners, who, for the transitory and miserable pleasures of this world, bring upon themselves eternal ruin and perdition. But, notwithstanding the greatness of his own misery, the unhappy sinner, reflecting only on the enjoyment of present goods, calls the saints fools, because they seek to live in poverty, in humiliation, and self-denial. But a day will come when sinners shall see their errors, and shall say. “We fools esteemed their life madness, and their end without honour." (Wis 5:4.) We fools; behold how they shall confess that they themselves have been truly fools. Let us examine in what true wisdom consists, and we shall see, in the first point, that sinners are truly foolish, and, in the second, that the saints are truly wise.

First Point. Sinners are truly foolish.

What greater folly can be conceived than to have the power of being the friends of God, and to wish to be his enemies? Their living in enmity with God makes the life of sinners unhappy in this world, and purchases for them an eternity of misery hereafter St. Augustine relates that two courtiers of the emperor entered a monastery of hermits, and that one of them began to read the life of St. Anthony. "He read," says the saint, "and his heart was divested of the world." He read, and, in reading, his affections were detached from the Earth. Turning to his companion he exclaimed: "What do we seek? The friendship of the emperor is the most we can hope for. And through how many perils shall we arrive at still greater danger? Should we obtain his friendship, how long shall it last?" Friend, said he, fools that we are, what do we seek? Can we expect more in this life, by serving the emperor, than to gain his friendship? And should we, after many dangers, succeed in making him our friend, we shall expose ourselves to greater danger of eternal perdition. What difficulties must we encounter in order to become the friend of Caesar! "But, if I wish, I can in a moment become the friend of God." I can acquire his friendship by endeavouring to recover his grace. His divine grace is that infinite treasure which makes us worthy of his friendship. “For she is an infinite treasure to men, which they that use become the friends of God” (Wis 7:14.)

How great then is the folly of sinners, who, though they have it in their power to enjoy the friendship of God, wish to live in enmity with him! The Lord does not hate any of his creatures: he does not hate the tiger, the viper, or the toad. ”For thou lovest all things that are, and hatest none of the things which thou hast made." (Wis 11:25.) But he necessarily hates sinners. "Thou hatest all the workers of iniquity." (Psalm 5:7.) God cannot but hate sin, which is his enemy and diametrically opposed to his will; and therefore, in hating sin, he necessarily hates the sinner who is united with his sin. “But to God the wicked and his wickedness are hateful alike.” (Wis 14:9.)

But the misfortune of the greater part of mankind is, that instead of following the way of salvation, they foolishly walk in the road to perdition,. Some have a passion for earthly riches; and, for a vile interest, they lose the immense goods of Paradise: others have a passion for honours; and, for a momentary applause, they lose their right to be kings in Heaven: others have a passion for sensual pleasures; and, for transitory de lights, they lose the grace of God, and are condemned to burn for ever in a prison of fire. Miserable souls! if, in punishment of a certain sin, their hand was to be burned with a red-hot iron, or if they were to be shut up for ten years in a dark prison, they certainly would abstain from it. And do they not know that, in chastisement of their sins, they shall be condemned to remain for ever in Hell, where their bodies, buried in fire, shall burn for all eternity? Some, says St. John Chrysostom (Hom. de recup. Laps.), to save the body, choose to destroy the soul; but, do they not know that, in losing the soul, their bodies shall be condemned to eternal torments?If we neglect the soul, we cannot save the body"

Second Point. The saints are truly wise.

Let us be persuaded that the truly wise are those who know how to love God and to gain Heaven. Happy the man to whom God has given the science of the saints. "Dedit illi scientiam sanctorum” (Wis 10:10.) Oh! how sublime the science which teaches us to know how to love God and to save our souls! Happy, says St. Augustine, is the man "who knows God, although he is ignorant of other things." They who know God, the love which he merits, and how to love him, stand not in need of any other knowledge. They are wiser than those who are masters of many sciences, but know not how to love God.

Tell me, brethren, to which class do you wish to belong to the wise of the world, or to the wise of God? Before you make a choice, St. Chrysostom advises you to go to the graves of the dead! "Proficiscamur ad Sepulchra” Oh! how eloquently do the sepulchres of the dead teach us the science of the saints and the vanity of all earthly goods! "For my part," said the saint, "I see nothing but rottenness, bones, and worms.” As if he said: Among these skeletons I cannot distinguish the noble, the rich, or the learned; I see that they have all become dust and rottenness: thus all their greatness and glory have passed away like a dream.

What then must we do? Behold the advice of St. Paul: "This, therefore, I say, brethren: the time is short: it remaineth that . . . they that use this world BE as if they used it not; for the fashion of this world passeth away." (1 Cor 7:29-31.) This world is a scene which shall pass away and end very soon. "The time is short." During the days of life that remain, let us endeavour to live like men who are wise, not according to the world, but according to God, by attending to the sanctification of our souls, and by adopting the means of salvation; by flying dangerous occasions; by practising prayer; joining some pious sodality; frequenting the sacraments; reading every day a spiritual book; and by daily hearing Mass, if it be in our power; or, at least, by visiting Jesus in the holy sacrament of the altar, and some image of the most holy Mary. Thus we shall be truly wise, and shall be happy for time and eternity.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

The immeasurable love of Mary on Christmas night.



O blessed and happy night, on which our Saviour was born in a manger in Bethlehem! As darkness falls and quiet envelops the world, we gather at the manger to pay homage to the Infant King, who we see lying amidst shepherds and kings, between sheep and oxen, and between St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother of God. What a happy and glorious sight for the soul!

At times it can be difficult to consider how best to ‘place’ oneself into that scene. Indeed, it appears so peaceful and perfectly holy, that it almost seems rude to interrupt. Yet Christ calls us to His throne of wood and straw this night, so that we might pay Him the proper homage due to the King of Heaven and earth. How then ought one to best respond to this invitation from the newborn King?

In his meditation for the O Antiphon for the 22nd of December, Dom Gueranger sheds some light upon how best to enter the scene, by providing a deep and moving insight into the love of Mary. “The journey is almost over, and thy august Mother, consoled and strengthened by the dear weight she bears, holds an unceasing converse with thee on the way. She adores thy divine Majesty; she gives thanks to thy mercy; she rejoices that she has been chosen for the sublime ministry of being Mother to God. She longs for that happy moment when her eyes shall look upon thee, and yet she fears it. For how will she be able to render thee those services which are due to thy infinite greatness, she that thinks herself the last of creatures? How will she dare to raise thee up in her arms, and press thee to her heart, and feed thee at her breasts? When she reflects that the hour is now near at hand in which, being born of her, thou wilt require all her care and tenderness, her heart sinks within her; for what human heart could bear the intense vehemence of these two affections—the love of such a Mother for her Babe, and the love of such a Creature for her God? But thou supportest her, O thou the Desired of Nations! for thou, too, longest for that happy Birth, which is to give the earth its Savior, and to men that Corner-Stone which will unite them all into one family.”

With these words, the holy abbot reveals something of the mystery and beauty of the union of the Holy Family, particularly the bond between mother and Son. For Mary is not an august queen, who ‘bears’ patiently yet unwillingly, the petitions, prayers and approaches which we make. Nor is she a protective mother, who wishes that her Son be free from the eager, yet also hesitant, souls gathered around the manger.

No indeed - she is the mother of God and mother of all, overflowing with heavenly joy and purest love. So full is her heart of that divine joy that she cannot keep it to herself, and desires, no even longs to be able to draw others into such a joy. In this moment of the birth of Christ, we are able to understand somewhat of the immense depths of love which Mary has not only for her Son, but also for us, her children. Her love for God is so alive and so perfect, that it contains no hint of selfishness. An earthly mother might be protective over the first precious minutes with her child, yet Mary cannot wish for this. So divinely joyous is this moment that she longs to share the joy with all, to bring souls to the realisation of such beatitude, and thus, ultimately, to bring all to God. 

If we place ourselves in the scene at the manger, through meditating upon this moment, we can see her love in action. For the crowd of souls who come before the King are not turned away, but are instead welcomed in. In fact, more than this, Mary sees her children gathered to pay homage to Christ, and eagerly beckons us in. If possible, her joy grows at this moment, when seeing those devout souls at the manger, for she is able to bring others to know and love her Son. 

She is neither sombre nor sorrowful. Her heart knows only one thing – all-encompassing love of God, which manifests itself in the homage and care she proffers to her Son, and the natural eagerness with which she longs and draws souls to Him. Is there a moment more tender or more profound, than to witness the deep union of souls between our Mother and her Son? It seems as if the world should stop, when we contemplate the tender gaze which Mary imparts to her Son: which He imparts to her, and the longing they have, together, to draw all humanity into that union.

So often, the focus is on Mary at the foot of the cross, yet during this Christmas time, let the focus be upon this quiet, pure and profound scene. It is an image of perfection: the perfection of love shown by God in sending His Son to earth to save sinful man: the perfection of love which Christ has for His Mother: the perfect love she has for her Son: and the love which they have for all mankind, longing, even at that moment, for the cross, so that salvation might be wrought, and sin conquered. 

This the is the image before us this night, and it is one which can only be properly understood in the quiet of one’s heart. Just as Dom Gueranger recalls the “unceasing converse” which Mary had with Christ in her heart on her journey, we too are called to enter into an internal conversation with the Christ child and His Mother. Presenting ourselves at the foot of the manger, let us first watch and see the purest love Mary has for her Child, the infinite love He has for His mother and for us; then let us respond to the smiling summons of our Mother, who calls us to adore Him who has come to bring life and salvation to all. She whose love of God is not tainted with any affection to sin or concupiscence, longs for Him only, and to bring all to Him this Christmas night.

Mary, our sweetest Mother, lead thy children in the paths of thy Son!



Sunday, 20 December 2020

Fourth Sunday of Advent - On the Great Love of God.



“Every valley shall be filled; and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight; and the rough ways plain. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The final lines of today’s Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent will strike some as familiar, for it is of course used in the opening minutes of Handel’s Messiah. Great as that work is, the insights of St. Alphonsus Ligouri shed more light upon the text, in the manner which he has done for these past Sundays of Advent. Our saint uses the final line of the Gospel as the launch pad for the final Sunday meditation before the birth of the Infant King in a few days time.

He first points to the unfathomable depths of love with Christ has for us, a love so great that He extends His salvation to all who come, seeking to follow Him in the way of perfection. It is a love which moved Christ to come to earth in abject poverty, deigning to be born in the humble surroundings of a stable, with cattle and sheep as his stable companions. Whilst the Mother of God and her chaste spouse St. Joseph, kneel in adoration before the Son of God, he who would persecute this little Child enjoys the earthly splendour and magnificence of a throne and palace. 

The little Child, who in just a few days time will be lying in the manger in swaddling clothes, is also the same Redeemer who will be lifted up on the cross in bloody torments and death. Thus says St. Alphonsus: “He has come, and to show the immense love which this God bears us, he has given himself entirely to us, by abandoning himself to all the pains of this life, and afterwards to the scourges, to the thorns, and to all the sorrows and insults which he suffered in his passion, and by offering himself to die, abandoned by all, on the infamous tree of the cross.”

Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13) Yes, this passage is particularly linked to the final line of today’s Gospel printed above. The salvation of God, which all men shall see, is found through the salvific action of Christ’s death upon the cross - that act of love which no man hath made before nor since. Ligouri does not point too much to the cross, so as to focus attention more on Calvary than the Nativity, for that meditation is more properly made during Lent. However, he directs his listeners to the deep and crucial link which one must understand in order to more fully appreciate the love of Christ. For the love which moved Him to be born amongst cattle, rejected by the world and persecuted by kings, is the same love which drew our Saviour to the cross.

“O Christian, should a doubt ever enter your mind that Jesus Christ loves you, raise your eyes and look at him hanging on the cross..So great was the love which inflamed the enamoured heart of Jesus, that he not only wished to die for our redemption, but during his whole life he sighed ardently for the day on which he should suffer death for the love of us.” This is a profound and sombre thought with which to carry us into the last few days of Advent. Even as He lay in the manger, in that pastoral scene so beautifully captured by artists through the centuries, Christ looked and even longed for the cross, so that He might draw all men into the depths of love which He offers. 

No doubt He looked at His Blessed Mother, on her knees before her Son and Lord, knowing the piercing sorrow which His death must cause her and the part which she must play in it also. Doubtless He saw the chaos and disruption which would unfold upon creation at the moment of His death, whilst still surrounded by hosts of angels hailing the new born King at the moment of His glorious yet silent entrance into the world. 

In light of this reflection, St. Alphonsus calls us to return a similar love to Christ. He talks of the greatness of our obligation to Him and reminds us that “God wishes nothing else from us than to be loved.” “Meditation is the blessed furnace in which the holy fire of divine love is kindled. Make mental prayer every day, meditate on the passion of Jesus Christ, and doubt not but you too shall burn with this blessed flame.”

It is true that one cannot give back to Christ the love which He has given, for we are imperfect and sinful. But Ligouri counsels that through the daily practice of meditation, particularly on the passion of Christ, one can make great steps in advancing in the love of God and imitating the holy love which burned like a fire within the heart of Christ. It is a particularly useful practice to take up in the final days before Christmas, almost as a renewed effort at making a proper and holy Advent. The saint is well aware of the many graces which the Christ Child bestows at Christmas on those who come before Him in adoration, and makes judicious use of this timing to exhort his listeners to take up the practice of daily meditation. He urges us to “correspond to the love of God” so that we might be as perfectly prepared as possible for the coming of the Infant King. 

The stable is connected to Golgotha, the manger to the cross: the Infant King and our bloodied Redeemer are one and the same, God Incarnate. Thus Ligouri advises that one meditate upon the mystery of the passion and death of Christ. 

“I conclude, my most beloved brethren, by recommending you henceforth to meditate every day on the passion of Jesus Christ. I shall be content, if you daily devote to this meditation a quarter of an hour. Let each at least procure a crucifix, let him keep it in his room, and from time to time give a glance at it, saying: ‘Ah! my Jesus, thou hast died for me, and I do not love thee.’ Had a person suffered for a friend injuries, buffets, and prisons, he would be greatly pleased to find that they were remembered and spoken of with gratitude. But he should be greatly displeased if the friend for whom they had been borne, were unwilling to think or hear of his sufferings. Thus frequent meditation on his passion is very pleasing to our Redeemer; but the neglect of it greatly provokes his displeasure.”

“Oh! how great will be the consolation which we shall receive in our last moments from the sorrows and death of Jesus Christ, if, during life, we shall have frequently meditated on them with love! Let us not wait till others, at the hour of death, place in our hands the crucifix; let us not wait till they remind us of all that Jesus Christ suffered for us. Let us, during life, embrace Jesus Christ crucified; let us keep ourselves always united to him, that we may live and die with him. He who practises devotion to the passion of our Lord, cannot but be devoted to the dolour’s of Mary, the remembrance of which will be to us a source of great consolation at the hour of death, how profitable and sweet the meditation of Jesus on the cross! Oh! how happy the death of him who dies in the embraces of Jesus crucified, accepting death with cheerfulness for the love of that God who has died for the love of us!”


Sunday, 13 December 2020

Gaudete Sunday

 


Parts of the Gospel for this third Sunday in Advent, Gaudete Sunday, will no doubt be familiar to many, since it is drawn from the first chapter of John’s Gospel, of which the first fourteen verses are used as the Last Gospel at the end of Mass. It is in this Gospel that we hear the powerful, resonating words of St. John the Baptist, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaias.”

The Baptist’s words are of course the very theme for Advent, a time of making straight the way for the coming of the Christ child in a few weeks time. It can be read in another light also, with reference not just to the short time of Advent, but in light of the longer journey of the spiritual life and the ultimate goal of heaven. St. John’s words point to the matter of which way it is that Catholics are called to walk along, namely the straight way, the narrow way. 

Both in Advent and in the spiritual life generally, we are called to walk along the way less trodden, less seen and often even scorned. It is a way described in St. Matthew’s Gospel as narrow, in contrast to the way which so many choose to follow, which is wide and easy, yet leading to destruction. “Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!” (Matt 7:13)

It is by the very nature of our dignity and calling that we must walk along the narrow path, no matter now tempting and easy the other may appear. St. John’s Gospel records that the children of God are set apart from their own attachment and will, and marked by a filial relation with God. “Who are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” From Him we have received life and grace, and to Him we must return, by walking along the path of virtue. For just as from grace is given from Him to His children, we His children must offer to Him our very best, as we seek to follow Him in the straight path, which ultimately leads to the cross. 

“And of his fulness we all have received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” Grace and truth - the way to eternal life, which is given to us by Truth Himself. Preaching on this Gospel, St. Alphonsus Ligouri outlines the ways in which one might properly avail of the grace which Christ bestows, and how best to follow Him along the straight and narrow path. He outlines three key aspects in the process, diffidence in ourselves; secondly, confidence in God; thirdly, resistance to temptations. 

Diffidence in ourselves, or having a healthy mistrust in self, is a way by which one relinquishes the hold which his self-will has upon himself, and places his future in the hands of God. Christ Himself tells us that “without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) But He also gives us hope, by teaching that whilst on our own we can nothing, with Him we can achieve the highest goal and draw close to God. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you shall ask whatever you will, and it shall be done unto you.” Ligouri warns that he who trusts himself instead of God, is truly “miserable.”

In contrast, our saint writes that a healthy mis-trust of self is a safeguard against sin. “He who is afraid of falling distrusts his own strength, avoids as much as possible all dangerous occasions, and recommends himself often to God, and thus preserves his soul from sin.” This theme is developed by the spiritual writers, who advise that a healthy knowledge of self is vital in the spiritual life. It is the crucial glance in the mirror which informs us that we are not fit to do battle with the devil by ourselves. St. Thérèse writes that “only God can see what is in the bottom of our hearts; we are half-blind”. Knowledge of self is in fact a requirement for perfection; Abbé Tanquerey teaches that “if we lack self-knowledge, it is morally impossible to perfect ourselves”.

Moving next to our having confidence in God, which is a necessary consequence of mistrusting ourselves, St. Alphonsus encourages us that there is no sin which is too great for God to forgive, if we come before Him, humble and contrite. “If the Devil tells you that but little hope remains of your eternal salvation, answer him in the words of the Scripture: ‘No one hath hoped in the Lord, and hath been confounded.’ (Eccl. 2:11) No sinner has ever trusted in God, and has been lost. Make, then, a firm purpose to sin no more; abandon yourselves into the arms of the divine goodness; and rest assured that God will have mercy on you, and save you from Hell.”

Indeed, Christ’s death on the cross calls us to have confidence in Him: though His death He conquered death, and is there any transgression which He cannot forgive, having already paid the price for sin? No matter the terror in which we are placed, or the sins which we have committed, Ligouri commends us to have confidence in God, who cannot leave His children abandoned. 

The third step in following the straight way of the path of grace, is having resistance to temptations. It is of course such a basic and fundamental step in the spiritual life, yet St. Alphonsus wishes to draw particular attention to it in order that one might fully now the manner in which to respond to the trials of temptations. Our Lord always assists us in our temptations when we have recourse to Him, but sometimes, Ligouri notes, He wishes that we do much more than normal in order to prevent succumbing to the temptation. “On such occasions, it will not be enough to have recourse to God once or twice; it will be necessary to multiply prayers, and frequently to prostrate ourselves and send up our sighs before the image of the Blessed Virgin and the crucifix, crying out with tears: Mary, my mother, assist me; Jesus, my Saviour, save me, for thy mercy‟s sake do not abandon me, do not permit me to lose thee.”

Straight and narrow is the path to heaven, full of struggle and conquest of self, and temptations are often so appealing precisely because they lead away from the struggle which is necessary in order to remain on the right path. Ligouri cautions against falling onto the easy path, because its enticing features contain no reward. “Some would wish to be saved and to become saints, but never resolve to adopt the means of salvation, such as meditation, the frequentation of the sacraments, detachment from creatures; or, if they adopt these means, they soon give them up. In a word, they are satisfied with fruitless desires, and thus continue to live in enmity with God, or at least in tepidity, which in the end leads them to the loss of God. Thus in them are verified the words of the Holy Ghost, ‘desires kill the slothful’.”

The great saint closes his exhortation with a final counsel, prompting his flock to persevere always in the pursuit of sanctity. Whether it is in the short period of Advent, or in the longer pursuit of the spiritual life in one’s life generally, he urges souls desirous of sanctity to remain always on the path that is straight and narrow. “If, then, we wish to save our souls, and to become saints, we must make a strong resolution not only in general to give ourselves to God, but also in particular to adopt the proper means, and never to abandon them after having once taken them up. Hence we must never cease to pray to Jesus Christ, and to His holy Mother for holy perseverance.”

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception


 On this glorious feast of the Immaculate Conception, we have cause to turn to Mary Immaculate, the Co-Redemptrix and Exterminatrix of heresies, asking her to lead the Church as a Mother, so that her children here below might have the grace to conquer the enemies of Christ. 

The Immaculate Queen is the terror of demons and the confounding of satan. She shall crush with her heel, all evil spirits and all servants of the evil one. Her name, the Immaculata, is a battle cry which faithful Catholics have cause to use as they vanquish the foe. 

In honour of the feast, it is quite apt to turn to the words of Pope Pius IX, drawing from his Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus, with which he promulgated the feast in 1854.

The pope writes: 

Supreme Reason for the Privilege: The Divine Maternity

And indeed it was wholly fitting that so wonderful a mother should be ever resplendent with the glory of most sublime holiness and so completely free from all taint of original sin that she would triumph utterly over the ancient serpent. To her did the Father will to give his only-begotten Son — the Son whom, equal to the Father and begotten by him, the Father loves from his heart — and to give this Son in such a way thhat he would be the one and the same common Son of God the Father and of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was she whom the Son himself chose to make his Mother and it was from her that the Holy Spirit willed and brought it about that he should be conceived and born from whom he himself proceeds.

The Definition

Wherefore, in humility and fasting, we unceasingly offered our private prayers as well as the public prayers of the Church to God the Father through his Son, that he would deign to direct and strengthen our mind by the power of the Holy Spirit. In like manner did we implore the help of the entire heavenly host as we ardently invoked the Paraclete. Accordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”[29]

Hence, if anyone shall dare — which God forbid! — to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should are to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart.

Hoped-For Results

Our soul overflows with joy and our tongue with exultation. We give, and we shall continue to give, the humblest and deepest thanks to Jesus Christ, our Lord, because through his singular grace he has granted to us, unworthy though we be, to decree and offer this honor and glory and praise to his most holy Mother. All our hope do we repose in the most Blessed Virgin — in the all fair and immaculate one who has crushed the poisonous head of the most cruel serpent and brought salvation to the world: in her who is the glory of the prophets and apostles, the honor of the martyrs, the crown and joy of all the saints; in her who is the safest refuge and the most trustworthy helper of all who are in danger; in her who, with her only-begotten Son, is the most powerful Mediatrix and Conciliatrix in the whole world; in her who is the most excellent glory, ornament, and impregnable stronghold of the holy Church; in her who has destroyed all heresies and snatched the faithful people and nations from all kinds of direst calamities; in her do we hope who has delivered us from so many threatening dangers. We have, therefore, a very certain hope and complete confidence that the most Blessed Virgin will ensure by her most powerful patronage that all difficulties be removed and all errors dissipated, so that our Holy Mother the Catholic Church may flourish daily more and more throughout all the nations and countries, and may reign “from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth,” and may enjoy genuine peace, tranquility and liberty. We are firm in our confidence that she will obtain pardon for the sinner, health for the sick, strength of heart for the weak, consolation for the afflicted, help for those in danger; that she will remove spiritual blindness from all who are in error, so that they may return to the path of truth and justice, and that here may be one flock and one shepherd.

Let all the children of the Catholic Church, who are so very dear to us, hear these words of ours. With a still more ardent zeal for piety, religion and love, let them continue to venerate, invoke and pray to the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, conceived without original sin. Let them fly with utter confidence to this most sweet Mother of mercy and grace in all dangers, difficulties, needs, doubts and fears. Under her guidance, under her patronage, under her kindness and protection, nothing is to be feared; nothing is hopeless. Because, while bearing toward us a truly motherly affection and having in her care the work of our salvation, she is solicitous about the whole human race. And since she has been appointed by God to be the Queen of heaven and earth, and is exalted above all the choirs of angels and saints, and even stands at the right hand of her only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, she presents our petitions in a most efficacious manner. What she asks, she obtains. Her pleas can never be unheard.

Sunday, 6 December 2020

2nd Sunday of Advent - The Advantages of Tribulations.

 

“Now when John had heard in prison the works of Christ: sending two of his disciples he said to him: Art thou he that art to come, or look we for another? And Jesus making answer said to them: Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, the poor have the gospel preached to them.”

The wonderful works of Christ mentioned in these first lines of today’s Gospel, point to the omnipotence of God, as demonstrated in the many miracles and cures performed for all to see. Yet St. John the Baptist hears of these things from prison - a place not associated with joyous occasions or considerations of the awestriking power of God.

Commenting on these lines, St. Alphonsus Ligouri notes that John’s imprisonment is a time of great grace and joy. “In tribulations God enriches his beloved souls with the greatest graces. Great indeed are the advantages of tribulations. The Lord sends them to us, not because he wishes our misfortune, but because he desires our welfare.”

Ligouri uses this second Sunday of Advent as an occasion to draw attention to the advantages of tribulations, a timely meditation for the liturgical season. He notes that tribulations are not merely trials to be grudgingly put up with, but gifts given from on high for our sanctification and perfection.

The saint continues: “Hence, when they come upon us we must embrace them with thanksgiving, and must not only resign ourselves to the divine will, but must also rejoice that God treats us as he treated his Son Jesus Christ, whose life, upon this earth was always full of tribulation.”

What are the advantages to be gained from such tribulations then? How is it that Advent in particular is to be a time of grace, as was the prison for St. John the Baptist?

In his sermon St. Alphonsus outlines many benefits of tribulations, as well as the means by which one is to bear them. To begin with, experiencing trials allows one to see that which he could not see before, to understand that which was previously incomprehensible. Tribulation “opens the eyes which prosperity had kept shut,” says the saint. Suffering through sorrows and pains of this life, also allow one to understand more of the passion and death endured by Christ for our sake.

Next, tribulation “takes from our hearts all affections to earthly things.” Through undergoing the purification of trials, writes the saint, one learns to have a healthy dislike for the things of this world, and cling to the goods of Heaven instead. “God,” says St. Augustine, “mingles bitterness with earthly pleasures, that we may seek another felicity, whose sweetness does not deceive.”

Third in his list, Ligouri notes that those who have no trials or tribulations are often attacked by the temptations which spring from their riches. With power, fame and wealth as one’s favoured goods, it is harder to leave these aside for that which really matters. Here is where trials come as a blessing, for they do away with the temptations which naturally emanate from such a life, and force one to live supported by the providence of God. They “make us humble and content in the state in which the Lord has placed us,” according to St. Alphonsus. 

Following on from this, the saint explains that tribulations are a better way by which to atone for sin, than by voluntary penance imposed by ourselves. Voluntary works of penance, no matter how great, are still voluntary, chosen by oneself. Yet tribulations come without one’s control and often against one’s wishes. The sacrifice involved in submitting to such things is joined to the humble acceptance of the tribulation itself as an atonement for sin. “Oh! how great is the efficacy of tribulation in healing the wounds caused by our sins.” Ligouri draws our attention to St. Paul’s words also - “we glory also in tribulations, knowing that tribulation worketh patience.” (Rom 5:3)

Tribulations have an ability to focus the mind on God in a manner quite unique. Whilst undergoing the suffering in each particular trial, a soul is faced with the choice to either turn to God or to turn away from Him. Only by turning to Him, can one properly bear and embrace the trial and consequently turn it into a grace, in the manner of St. John in prison. Hence St. Alphonsus writes that trials convince us “that God alone is able and willing to relieve us in our miseries, tribulations remind us of him, and compel us to have recourse to his mercy.” 

Lastly, the great saint points out that tribulations are a means by which one might gain merit before the throne of God, grow in humility, patience, submission to the will of God and die to self. Tribulations demonstrate the lack of control which one has over the world, and point him towards God, in whom he must find his only security. Ligouri records the words of St. John d’Avila, “that a single blessed be God: in adversity, is worth more than a thousand acts in prosperity.” 

Bearing crosses patiently is a way in which to prepare a crown for oneself in heaven, according to Ligouri’s words. Indeed he points out that we ought not to even seek a reward for humbly accepting such trials, for is it not right and just that we receive sorrows as well as joys? “If we have gladly received from God the goods of this Earth, why should we not receive more cheerfully tribulations, which are far more useful to us than worldly prosperity?”

Yet despite not deserving a reward, God does indeed reward those souls who remain faithful to Him throughout persecutions, sufferings and tribulations. Temptations become for these souls, not a path to death and destruction, but a path to virtue and sanctification. Just as the prison was a time of grace for St. John the Baptist despite its hardships, so can tribulations be for those who accept them in loving union with God. “Who bear these temptations with patience, and banish them by turning to God for help, shall acquire great merit.”

Indeed, tribulations are a gift - a gift which the world cannot understand, for to do so requires the light of grace. “In fine, the scourges of Heaven are sent not for our injury, but for our good.” They are the source of sanctification and union with God.

“When we see a sinner in tribulation in this life, we may infer that God wishes to have mercy on him in the next, and that he exchanges eternal for temporal chastisement. But miserable the sinner whom the Lord does not punish in this life! For those whom he does not chastise here, he treasures up his wrath, and for them he reserves eternal chastisement.”

Trials are even a sign of favour found with God: “The man whom the Lord afflicts in this life has a certain proof that he is dear to God.” ‘And,’ said the angel to Tobias, ‘because thou wast acceptable to God, it was necessary that temptations should prove thee.’ (Tob 12:13.) Hence, St. James pronounces blessed the man who is afflicted: ‘because after he shall have been proved by tribulation, he will receive the crown of life’.” (James 1:12.) 

As Advent continues at pace, may these words of St. Alphonsus Ligouri serve as a guide for the remainder of the preparation for Christmas. May the next few weeks be a virtual prison, one akin to that of St. John, so that we may emerge at Christmas time strengthened in the path of virtue, but preferably non-decapitated. 


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