Sunday, 31 January 2021

Septuagesima Sunday - Running the race in the manner of St. Paul


    Septuagesima Sunday marks the return of purple to the Church’s liturgy, an occurrence which seems sometimes jarring when fresh from the splendour of Christmas. The many flowers, the beautiful vestments, and familiar Christmas chants and carols, are replaced as the Church begins Her journey towards Lent.

    As the liturgical seasons shift so markedly, it can perhaps be easy to become despondent with the rigours and trials which are part of Septuagesima and the rapidly approaching Lent. Christmas time has perhaps been a time of ease, and practices of the spiritual life which seemed so easy when surrounded by the cosy trappings of Christmas, now seem demanding, time-consuming, and un-appealing in the face of a more austere season. 

    Yet this is precisely why the Church chooses the texts for the Epistle and the Gospel today, in order to encourage Her children in the practice of the spiritual life, as they enter into the preparation for Lent. St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is full of the spirit of Catholic perseverance, as the great missionary describes the nature of the spiritual life.

    “Know you not that they that run in the race, all run indeed, but one receiveth the prize? So run that you may obtain. And every one that striveth for the mastery, refraineth himself from all things: and they indeed that they may receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible one. I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty: I so fight, not as one beating the air.”

    This is a key element of the spiritual life which is somewhat uncomfortable to mention, but so crucial. In pursuing perfection one must really strive for the goal. Prizes and medals are not given to all who compete, but to the victor, and it is just so in the pursuit of heaven. Paul wishes to galvanise the Corinthians, and members of the Mystical Body today, by highlighting the great risk they run in not committing themselves to the race. It is a race unlike any other, not one which can be re-run next year if one is not successful, or in which second place is some consolation, but rather a race in which one is either for God or against Him. 

    In order to certify that one stays on the right path, Paul advises the practice of mortification, a practice which is helpful even in this pre-Lenten time. “But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.” Indeed, it is perhaps advisable to accustom oneself to some small practice of mortification, so that when Lent properly begins, a faithful soul is already in the proper spirit in which to earn the graces proper to the season. It is a way by which one can begin to re-learn the spirit of self-denial, which is so necessary during Lent, but so often easily forgotten over Christmas tide.

    St. Paul continues with a warning, reminding souls that those who outwardly performed the actions of God, were not pleasing to Him. “For I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea.  And all in Moses were baptized, in the cloud, and in the sea: And did all eat the same spiritual food, And all drank the same spiritual drink; (and they drank of the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.)  But with most of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the desert.” 

    In the passage following that which is used in the Epistle, Paul continues to explain why this was the case. He notes that even though they ate and drank the spiritual drink from God, the children of God coveted evil things. Thus Paul issues another warning, so appropriate in this Septuagesima time: “these things were done in a figure of us, that we should not covet evil things as they also coveted.” The cost of coveting evil things, is incurring the displeasure of God and the loss of one’s soul.

    This reflects what St. Alphonsus Ligouri writes in his own homily for today, pointing out the meaning of the Gospel as being an instruction on the salvation of one’s soul. The text, drawn from St. Matthew’s Gospel, recounts the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, and the words of Christ: “For many are called, but few chosen.”

    “The vines of the Lord are our souls,” says St. Alphonsus, “which he has given us to cultivate by good works, that we may be one day admitted into eternal glory. Christians believe death, judgment, hell, and Paradise: but they live as if they believed them not as if these truths of faith were tables or the inventions of human genius. Many live as it they were never to die, or as if they had not to give God an account of their life as if there were neither hell nor a heaven. Perhaps they do not believe in them? They believe, but do not reflect on them; and thus they are lost. They take all possible care of worldly affairs, but attend not to the salvation of their souls.”

    With these words, the great preacher sets the tone for Septuagesima, mirroring the warning given by St. Paul, that one must not become lax, but ever remember the heavenly goal and the terrible cost of straying from the path of God.

    “Brethren, remember that, if you save your souls, your failure in every worldly transaction will be but of little importance: for, if you are saved, you shall enjoy complete happiness for all eternity. But, if you lose your souls, what will it profit you to have enjoyed all the riches, honours, and amusements of this world? If you lose your souls, all is lost.”

    Ligouri also reiterates the fact briefly alluded to earlier - namely that the soul, once lost, is lost forever. “But we can die only once: if the soul be lost the first time, it is lost for ever.” The race of which St. Paul talks, must be run in order to achieve the prize, which is union with God in heaven. Truly there is no other option nor ideal more worthy of ones entire zeal and energy.    Ligouri terrifyingly reveals that “the greatest torment of the damned arises from the thought of having lost their souls, and of having lost them through their own fault.” 

    God never permits a soul to be tried more than such a soul can handle, with the grace of God. Thus no matter the enormity of the trial which is before a soul, including the austere season of Lent, he will be able to rise to the challenge, and devote his entire energy to achieving the prize, if he but places himself in the hands of God, and relies on His grace. “You were not redeemed with corruptible things, as gold or silver, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb unspotted and undefiled.” (1 Peter 1:18-19.) 

    As the new season of Septuagesima thus arrives, heralding the great season of Lent, the Church and Her saints place before us these Scriptural passages, chosen so carefully. They serve as a firm, but tender warning, reminding faithful souls of the importance of the practice of the spiritual life, and the dangers which lie in becoming lazy or in falling away from pursuing the goal altogether. 

    With these words of Christ in one’s mind, a faithful soul is thus encouraged and emboldened to re-invigorate his spiritual life at this crucial time. “What doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul ?”



Sunday, 24 January 2021

Third Sunday after Epiphany - Faith, Hope and Charity.


Faith is the secret weapon which Catholics have in their arsenal, but so often forget to use. The virtue of faith is shown to be a key aspect in today’s Gospel, in which Christ sees the eminent faith of the centurion, who comes pleading for a cure for his servant. “And Jesus hearing this, marvelled; and said to them that followed him: Amen I say to you, I have not found so great faith in Israel.” 

    Despite many outward pious practices, demonstrative of faith and indeed hope, it is all too easy to find oneself losing faith, especially in times such as the present. With the onslaught of demoralising news, both political and ecclesial, coupled with the evident manner in which the world is ever swiftly turning away from God, the practice of faith in God, combined with a lively hope and ardent charity, is critical.  

    This attack upon the virtues, is perhaps one of the greatest victories of the devil, because it was precisely these virtues which moved the many thousands of martyrs throughout the centuries. Due to their lively faith in God, and firm hope of attaining salvation, they were able to face whatever actions their persecutors made against them. But without the practice of these virtues, the modern world will face no opposition from Catholics, because at the moment when we are called upon to make a stand, the lack of faith, hope and charity will manifest itself, and the spirit of the martyrs will be no more. 

    What then is faith? Fr. John Laux describes it thus: “Catholic faith is a virtue infused by the Holy Ghost into our souls at Baptism, by which we believe, firmly and without hesitation, all that God has revealed and through the Church proposes for our belief.” Faith carries a soul through times of difficulty, so that even if the world attacks his beliefs, he is able to cling to the tenets of the faith, precisely because they are revealed by God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.

    “This is the victory which overcometh the world, our faith.” (1 John 5:4) Faith is that by which one is “ready to make any sacrifice, even that of life itself,” writes Fr. Laux. The virtue is more poignant today than ever before, (if one can say such a thing), since most of the world places its ‘faith’ in earthly, temporal, fleeting objects, such as money, wealth, fame and the like. The object of faith for those of the world is thus completely opposed to that which Catholics hold, for as St. Thomas Aquinas notes, “Accordingly if we consider, in faith, the formal aspect of the object, it is nothing else than the First Truth.” Aquinas also teaches that faith is the first virtue by its very nature, preceding all the other virtues. 

    If faith is thus rooted in God, and is that which overcomes the trials and temptations of the world, it is only right that more attention should be given to the virtue in these times. The good centurion had such faith that Christ could and would cure his servant, that he asked Christ only say the word, and the servant would be healed. “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof: but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed.” This is surely the faith which is able to move mountains, even though it be the size of a mustard seed. 

    Fr. Laux writes that faith “is God’s choicest gift to man and man’s most valuable possession.” It is the “pearl of great price,” and as such we are duty bound, by nature of the gift of faith and our baptism, to ensure that it is ever protected from harm.  

    Faith is accompanied by the virtue of hope, for through hope we have the desire to attain God, who is the highest good, and the confidence that we can do so with His grace. “Hope is the supernatural gift of God by which we trust that God will give us, through the merits of Jesus Christ, eternal life and all the help necessary to obtain it.” Hope enlivens faith, giving the faithful soul the confidence that God does not test him more than he is given the graces to bear. “What we know by Faith becomes by Hope the object of all our aspirations and all our striving.” 

    As such, it is “absolutely necessary for our salvation,” along with faith. It must be living, firm and accompanied by a holy fear and holy distrust of self. That is to say, that a living hope influences one’s entire life, so that such a soul is constantly striving to attain that which he knows by faith.  

    In order for hope to be life-long, it must thus necessarily be firm. Fr. Laux teaches that “only perfect trust in God can give us the high courage necessary to work out our salvation in the face of obstacles necessary to work out our salvation in the face of obstacles that seem insurmountable.” If one abandons hope, then he allows the devil a victory, and the message of the world has prevailed. Indeed despair is almost a direct consequence of placing one’s faith in those objects which the world presents as a replacement for God. Hope is the virtue by which one shuns the world and the devil, rejecting the empty promises of both, and aligning oneself with the unwavering Truth.   

    Finally, hope must be accompanied by “holy fear and a wholesome distrust of ourselves.” This is not to imply some disordered hatred of self, in the manner of the world, but rather a humble acknowledgement of human failings, and a realisation that hope must be centred in God alone. “He that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall.” (1 Cor 10:12) Once more, this concept is one which is so alien to the world, since self is promoted instead of God, and therefore a healthy, holy distrust of self is never properly understood.  

     What of charity though, for a discussion of faith and hope is not complete without the third theological virtue. Charity is that which virtue by which “we love God above all things for His own sake and all things for God’s sake.” It naturally accompanies faith and hope and is described as the Queen of the virtues. Charity is the ‘finishing touch’ needed at the hour of martyrdom, for a martyr might have a firm faith, and a lively hope, but if he does not have charity, what will move him to endure the sufferings for God’s sake?  

      Charity is no simple warmth of feeling for the Divine, which could ebb and flow on any particular day. Rather it is described as “a love of preference,” residing in the will “which deliberately prefers God before all things, and is ready to sacrifice all rather than offend Him mortally.”

     “And Jesus hearing this, marvelled; and said to them that followed him: Amen I say to you, I have not found so great faith in Israel. And I say to you that many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven: But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into the exterior darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And Jesus said to the centurion: Go, and as thou hast believed, so be it done to thee. And the servant was healed at the same hour.”  

    Faith, then, is the virtue which sustains a soul through trials and torments, by which he accepts and believes the truths of God. With hope also, a soul is able to keep his sights fixed on the heavenly prize, undaunted by that which might assail him. Finally, charity provides the life-spring of the spiritual life, filling one with a desire for God above all, which moves him to aim hopefully for heaven, which he firmly believes in through faith. 

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Second Sunday after the Epiphany


    “And the wine failing, the mother of Jesus saith to him: They have no wine. And Jesus saith to her: Woman, what is that to me and to thee? my hour is not yet come. His mother saith to the waiters: Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye.”     

    Today the Church presents the marriage at Cana, as recounted in St. John’s Gospel. It is of particular note when making a Marian reflection, because it is one of the clearest examples of Mary’s role alongside her Son.  

    We encounter this Gospel one week after the feast of the Holy Family: another feast and Gospel passage which is one of the few, rare occasions in which Mary makes an appearance. Throughout much of the Gospels, she is silent, hidden, seeking not to draw any attention to herself, but point all towards God. One could say that her most ‘visible’ role is at the cross, when the culmination of her life is reached. Yet, each of the occasions in which the scriptures record the presence of Mary is for a specific purpose, and their infrequency makes them all the more precious, and important.

    This passage presents her in a very different manner to that seen upon the hill of Calvary, or when meeting Christ whilst carrying His cross. It is an altogether opposite scene, one full of joy and peace – a wedding. Yet at this wedding, disaster is about to occur, as the wine has run out. Here, our Blessed Mother intervenes: “And the wine failing, the mother of Jesus saith to him: They have no wine.” Notice first the manner in which Mary speaks to her Son, not demanding a miracle from Him, or asking what He is to do, but instead simply informing Him of the facts, certain that in His divine benevolence He will come to the aid of the happy couple. 

    And what are her next words? A simple phrase of gentle command, made to the servants: “Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye.” In a phrase that has so often been said on this blog, these few words and actions of Mary truly allow her children to understand the depth of union which exists between her and her Son. She instantly understands the words of Christ to her, and so issues the command that He be listened to, and trusted implicitly. Thus, Christ worked the miracle of turning the water in the six water-pots, into the finest wine, an action which was marked by the co-operation of His Mother.  

    There are many points one could draw out from these lines. Firstly, it should be noted how Mary is the co-operatrix in this first, public action of Christ, just as she will be in His salvific death upon the cross. She accompanies Him in the role of Co-Redemptrix for the entirety of His life, not just at certain parts. Hence it is only right and most fitting that she should be so specifically noted as being present at this miracle. Indeed, one can dare to say that Mary acted as the loving and tender Queen, pointing her Kingly Son towards the needs of His subjects. Just as she brought before Him the cause of the newly married couple, hoping to spare them the shame of running out of wine, so she also brings before Him our every need.    

    St. Louis-Marie de Montfort describes how Mary is the perfect way to reach God, because she takes our imperfect and sullied gifts, polishes them, and then presents them to God more perfect than we could ever hope to have made them. She is the perfection of Queen Mother, filled only with love for her Son, the King, and so responds to every request made of her. Just as she beckons souls to join her in silent adoration at the crib, so she calls them to the Royal throne and assists them on their pathway. This is the scene presented at the marriage of Cana, and is the scene which occurs every time one turns to her in trusting petition. At Calvary, Mary joins Christ in paying the price for sin, but at Cana she joins Him in bestowing graces upon the world. 

    Another point to dwell on is the consideration of the significance that Mary is with Christ in the moment He changes water to wine. For at the Last Supper and upon the hill at Calvary, she is with Him when He transforms the wine of the Passover, into His body, blood, soul and divinity. She is alongside Christ at each of these moments, which are so key in salvation history. Because of that, she is also present with every priest when he offers Mass, so that she can accompany her faithful sons when they utter the words of consecration in persona Christi            

    As Father Emile Neubert writes: “Take Jesus from her, and you take away her reason for existing, you take away her very life! At her place beside the immolated Lamb, Mary remains His Associate throughout eternity, in His immolation. The priest must repeat the Sacrifice each day and this Sacrifice will cease at the end of the world. Mary gave substantial existence to Christ-Priest when she gave Him a physical body. The priest gives Him a new accidental existence in giving Him a Eucharistic body. Mary offers up the Holy Victim in union with Jesus. The priest offers Him up in repeating the words of Jesus.” 

    The reason for Mary’s presence at every Mass, and at every chief moment in salvation history, is explained by nature of the fact that she is Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix. As Co-Redemptrix she accompanies Christ in every joy and in every pain, culminating in joining Him on Calvary. As Mediatrix, she bestows graces upon her children in the nature of a loving mother and queen, doing all so that they might come to know and love the Royal Redeemer. Her presence at the marriage of Cana should thus not be a surprise, since it is part of her motherly nature, her role as Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix, and as Queen of Heaven.  

    “Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye.” These are the words she utters to the servants at the wedding, and are the very same which she speaks every day to those faithful souls who seek her intercession. The words of the Memorare remind us that “never was it known, that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help or sought thy intercession, was left unaided.” This is precisely because Mary does not act through her own power, but always with and through her Son, with whom she paid the price for sin. She constantly counsels troubled souls to do what He tells us to do, in order that they may become perfect and join her in Heavenly beatitude, worshipping God. 

    In just a short reflection upon this passage, it is impossible to draw out every aspect which is contained within the text, yet the underlying truth which is to be found in the Gospel is thus: the unwavering love of Mary for God, and the constant attention which she gives to her children, so that they might grow in love and knowledge of God. 

 

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Sunday after the Epiphany - The Holy Family

 

    Holy Mother Church marks this Sunday as the feast of the Holy Family, a day which we give to meditating upon the mysteries and joys contained within the happy, holy home in Nazareth. 

Comparatively little is written in the Gospels concerning those peaceful days, which the Holy Family spent together, which necessitates that we ponder the time through our own meditations. 

Where then, is one to start in such a meditation? As ever, the Gospel points to the proper way in which to contemplate the feast well. St. Luke’s Gospel recounts the loss and the discovery of the Child Jesus, presenting the words of the Blessed Virgin: “Son, why hast thou done so to us?”

It is with these words that the Mother of God greets her Son, whom she had lost for three days. With anguish and torments she had searched for her Son, the Son whose birth had been announced by the message of an angel; the Son for whom she had fled with St. Joseph in order to preserve His life from the swords of Herod’s soldiers. 

Consider then the anguish of soul which filled her when she was unable to find Him for three whole days, and the joy which she experienced when she discovered Him in the temple. Just as with any family, the mother is the heart of the home, and it is so with Mary, whose love of her Divine Son fills her heart and moves her every action. It was this perfect love which had fuelled her search. 

In order to dwell on the Holy Family well, it is thus best to dwell upon the Blessed Virgin who is the doorway to the happy mysteries of that holy house, just as she is the path that leads us to God.

She draws her faithful children into the path of the young King, guiding devout souls from the joys of Christmas, through the sorrows of Lent and eventual glory of Easter. And so in these weeks between Epiphany and the start of Septuagesima, it is an apt time to turn one’s thoughts to the Christ child, contemplating the mysteries which He presents at every event. Dom Gueranger writes thus in his commentary on today’s Gospel: “Thus, O Jesus! didst thou come down from heaven to teach us. The tender age of Childhood, which thou didst take upon thyself is no hindrance to the ardor of thy desire that we should know the one only God who made all things, and thee, his Son, whom he sent to us. When laid in the Crib, thou didst instruct the Shepherds by a mere look; when swathed in thy humble swaddling-clothes, the subjected to the voluntary silence thou hadst imposed on thyself, thou didst reveal to the Magi the light they sought in following the Star.”

In fact, the account of the Magi’s visit to the stable presents a deep mystery for one to bear in mind, in order to better meditate upon the Holy Family. St. Matthew’s Gospel reads: “And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they added him: and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense and myrrh.” 

What is the significant passage here? It is of course these words: “they found the child with Mary his mother.” Those few simple words are so easy to gloss over, yet they contain almost the entire content of Mariological truths. Mary is always with her Son - her Son is always with His mother. She cannot do otherwise, for her greatest joy is to pour herself out for love of Him, and to teach others to do the same. As discussed on this site on Christmas night, she beckons her children to the manger, so that each might experience the unfathomable depths of love for Christ, which are found in her maternal heart. 

This phrase is key to understanding the Holy Family, for Mary’s role is greater and more perfect than any earthly mother’s can be. She is not merely nurturing and caring for her child, but for God Himself, who is to be the salvation of all and the conquerer of sin. As such, she is mother of God, and at the cross she is given as mother of the Church, thus in a special way, enveloping all faithful souls in the mysteries of the Holy Family. 

When dwelling upon Our Lady, it is hard to consider just one aspect of her life, since all are connected so profoundly. Consequently, if one wishes to understand the Holy Family, one must turn to Mary at the manger: at the presentation of Our Lord in the temple: at the loss and finding of Christ: in the hidden years of homely beatitude in Nazareth: and ultimately, at the cross. Each of these separate, yet connected instances, presents a different aspect of Mary, the Queen of the Church and Mother of God.


Dom Gueranger then continues in his commentary: “When twelve years old, thou  [Christ] explainest to the Doctors of Israel the Scriptures which bear testimony to thee. Thou gradually dispellest the shadows of the Law by thy presence and thy words. In order to fulfill the commands of thy heavenly Father, thou dost not hesitate to occasion sorrow to the heart of thy Mother, by thus going in quest of souls that need enlightening. Thy love of man will pierce that tender Heart of Mary with a still sharper sword, when she shall behold thee hanging on the Cross and expiring in the midst of cruelest pain. Blessed be thou, sweet Jesus, in these first Mysteries of thine Infancy, wherein thou already showest thyself devoted to us, and leaving the company of thy Blessed Mother for that of sinful men, who will one day conspire thy death.”

What wonderful insights the good abbot presents to his readers in these words - noting that Christ’s desire for souls was so great, that He did not hesitate to seek them out, even at the cost of causing sorrow to His mother. How is one to understand this? Did Christ care so little for His mother, that He silently left her side in order to counsel and convert? Could He really love her so very little?

Such thoughts are folly, for the love of Christ for His mother is of a depth that can only be understood in the heavenly felicity. No indeed, the union of souls between Christ and Mary was of such a level, that even though she was full of natural motherly concern to find her Son, she was united with Him in thirst for souls. She is so desirous of drawing souls to Christ, that her natural concern in searching for her Son comes as a sorrow which she joyfully accepts, in order to unite herself to the sufferings of the crucified Christ and draw souls to the Truth. 

Thus closes Dom Gueranger’s commentary on the Gospel, leaving his readers with many insights into the love which exists between Mother and Son, between creature and Creator. The mystery of the Holy Family is thus one of deepest, sacrificial love, united by a thirst for souls and a union with God.

Firth Sunday after Easter - Confidence in prayer

  On this fifth Sunday after Easter, the Church proposes a catechesis on prayer, both in the texts for the Mass and in the homilies given by...