‘My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink’, says the Lord,
‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them.’ John 6:55-56
On the Thursday after Trinity Sunday the Church of England keeps the ‘Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion’ and this is the solemnity we celebrate transferred to today under the more common name of Corpus Christi.
Churches in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England tend to stand out a little bit more than the others during this feast; but while it would be easy to think that this is all down to the solemnity of our liturgy, or the ancient customs that we observe today, the thing that make churches like ours to stand out is, in fact, the faith and devotion that should inspire our celebration. In other words, what should motivates us to pull out all the stops for this feast is the fact that today we make the point to reaffirm our belief in the most precious of all the gifts we have ever received from the Lord Jesus; the gift of his own very self – body, blood, soul, and divinity – under the simple and very ordinary forms of bread and wine. Faith in what is called the “Real Presence” of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is what makes us stand out today from others Christian communities where the Eucharist is considered a disposable add-on to the faith.
But in today’s gospel we hear how a number people at the time of Jesus were already uncomfortable and sceptic about this teaching, and how some of them were even scandalised by it, and because of it they stopped following the Lord.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they said (John 6:52). A legitimate question from non-believers that prompted Jesus to affirm many times how his own body and blood are true nourishment from those who receive them, and the principal means of union with him. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them’ (John 6: 56), say Jesus, and the Lord’s own word, should be enough for us.
Again, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that, although we cannot see him face to face in this present age, he is always going to be with us. And the Church has come to interpret his words to be a promise that the Lord is indeed always with us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in the consecrated elements of Holy Communion.
In the Blessed Sacrament, in the Host we place on the altar after Mass Jesus truly dwells with us; his silent and unassuming presence brings comfort and healing to those who approach him; his humble self-giving to us under the appearance of Bread teaches us to give ourselves for others… A traditional hymn says, ‘Thou art here, we ask not how’ and yes, although we cannot fully contemplate or express this mystery, I do hope that those who took part in the 40 Hours of Prayer two weeks ago, managed to experience what it means to spend time in the presence of the Lord Jesus, the Prince of Peace, in the Blessed Sacrament.
The past weeks have borne witness to a considerable number of needless tragedies culminating with the harrowing disaster of Grenfell Tower in the last few days. Confronted by these events, where it seems that it always the poor or innocent people to pay the highest price, it would be easy to despair, to lose heart, or worse, to let sorrow fester into violent anger. But as we sit in this place we should remind ourselves of the words of a beautiful hymn about the Eucharist,
Sweet Sacrament of rest,
ark from the ocean's roar,
within thy shelter blest
soon may we reach the shore;
save us, for still the tempest raves,
save, lest we sink beneath the waves:
sweet Sacrament of rest.
Here, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, is the very place where the Lord wants us to be so that by feeding on him and adoring his presence among us, we may go out and be strengthened to work in diffusing anger, striving for justice, begging for mercy, fostering love, and bring the life and peace of this Sacrament to a suffering world.
Lord Jesus Christ, we worship you living among us
in the sacrament of your Body and Blood.
May we offer to our Father in heaven
a solemn pledge of undivided love.
May we offer our brothers and sisters
a life poured out in loving service of your kingdom
where you live with the Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
on God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth said,
“Of all women you are the most blessed
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Luke 1:42)
In ancient times the month May was dedicated to springtime celebrations of nature, agriculture, and in many ways of motherhood… to this day several countries around the world keep Mother’s Day in May. Many different cultures, from the Romans to the Celts, associated May with fertility and with life as well. And with the advent of Christianity, the Church claimed these celebrations (Christened them, in a sense) in honour of the Virgin Mary. Out went the yearly May queens and the goddesses of the pagans, and Mary became the new queen of this month, as one old hymn sung,
O Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.
But how did we get here? Mary is certainly not a goddess – we venerate her, but we do not worship her; she is our sister in our humanity, and her physical motherhood generated only one child. Then, so to speak, what is the fuss about? The Virgin Mary is the Mother of God, her only child is the Lord Jesus, and as such she is Mother of the One who has come into the world so that we ‘may have life, and have it to the full’ (John 10:10). Through her we have the Saviour; through her we encounter Jesus who is our life, and this is why today, this month, every day we celebrate her and we seek her prayers, remembering what the gospel says of her, “all generations will call her blessed” (Cf. Luke 1:48).
But amidst our celebrations we ought to remember that sadly too many Christians still see Mary as the reason for unhappy divisions, as “the thing” that separates believers one from the other. But Mary is not a thing, and most definitely she is not some kind of theological wedge driven in to separate brothers and sisters in Christ. Rather, as the Mother of the Lord Jesus she is also the Mother of all Christians – of all believers of every denomination. And what quarrelling siblings would truly think their own loving mother, a mother who bids them to make peace, as the reason behind their estrangement?
Let us meditate on the today’s gospel, and particularly on the words of St Elizabeth, ‘Of all women you are the most blessed and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. Mary cannot a cause of division; rather, as we are able to find unity in the blessed fruit of her womb as Christians, so we could find unity in Mary’s own very self too… if only we were humble enough to admit that we have used her as an excuse to mask our self-serving divisions.
But let me give you an example of the unity we already find in Mary. Earlier this month five bishops from the Church of England took part in the centenary celebrations of the first apparition of the Virgin Mary to a group of children near Fatima, in Portugal. The very presence of a number of our bishops at such an event would have been truly unimaginable hundred years ago, when Anglicans and Roman Catholics were bitterly divided, but such is the powerful influence and intercession of the Virgin Mary.
So, as we mark our May Devotions today, as we prepare for our procession and our singing in honour of the Blessed Virgin, let us ask Mary to pray for the Church, for the unity of all her children, and that everyone may experience life to its full in Jesus, the blessed fruit of her womb. Amen.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is a time dedicated to pray for vocations. There are other days set aside four times a year to pray for all those who minister within the Church, these are called Ember Days, however today the particular focus of our prayers ought to be the sacred, or ministerial, priesthood.
But prayer, as important as it is, is not the only thing we can do to help with vocations. We should also support the training of priests, and we should encourage in every possible way those who are genuinely being called to this type of ministry.
When I was discerning my vocation to the priesthood, the people of St Botolph’s, my church in London, did precisely this; they helped me to understand what God wanted me to do and what level of trust would be placed on me at ordination. I was in my mid-twenties the, but quite often a sense of vocation (not just to the priesthood) accompanies people for a very early age; and in those years the loving support of family and congregation can go a long way. I remember, when my cousin and I were only young boys, people in our local congregation were ready to spot the “early signs” of a vocation to the priesthood, and how they encouraged us both to say our yes to the Lord. Things may have changed since then; my cousin is a diocesan registrar, whilst I resisted putting myself forward for ordination for a few years, and then have become the black sheep of the family by becoming an Anglican… but even now, we both have people from our home congregation who regularly check up on sense of vocation, and support us with their prayers.
If we want to foster and encourage vocations we must remember that priests do not exist in a vacuum. We all share in the royal priesthood of the Lord Jesus by virtue of our Baptism, and it is from among our number that God calls men and women to become ordained in order to serve his Church in a specific way. Ordained ministry takes its mandate from Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who from age to age shares the pastoral care of his flock with his priests. He calls them to feed his people with his Word and with the Sacrament of the Eucharist, to administer his forgiveness to those who seek reconciliation with God, to provide leadership and focus for mission in his name. In turn, the Lord calls each one of us to work with our local priests to transform our communities; to pray for the needs of the world, and to share the love of Jesus with everyone.
Another thing worth remembering is that priests do not grow on trees. Vocations arise and increase when they praying for them. Vocations are fostered within the parish context; they take time to develop in a well-informed and realistic sense of what God is calling the candidate to do, and they can only thrive through with support. As a consequence, you and I play a fundamental role in ensuring that anyone called to the ordained ministry is able to respond to this call as generously and as selflessly as they can.
It is always a great blessing to help each-other to fulfil our individual vocations and even more so to help priests in fulfilling their call. So let us commit ourselves to pray for and encourage vocations so that Christ, the Good Shepherd may raise more and more priests formed according to his heart.
Father, you gave us Christ
as the shepherd and guardian of our souls;
may your people always have priests
to care for them with his great love.
Father, give us priests:
to establish the honour of your holy name;
to offer the holy sacrifice of the altar;
to give us Jesus in the Eucharist;
to proclaim the faith of Jesus;
to baptise and to teach;
to seek the lost;
to give pardon to the penitent sinner;
to bless our homes;
to pray for the afflicted;
to comfort mourners;
to strengthen us in our last hour;
to commend our souls;
Almighty Father, give us priests!
We make this prayer, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
He took the bread and said the blessing; then he broke it and handed it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him.
The story of the road to Emmaus is a familiar one for many Christians, and it is a popular illustration of Jesus’ interaction with the disciples after his resurrection from the dead. This story is set on the evening of Easter Day when a couple of dejected disciples find themselves on the road leaving Jerusalem. To their minds Jesus is dead, dead, and gone, and the rumours about his body having disappeared from the grave prove too much to take. They are leaving; leaving everything behind, walking away from their hopes and their dreams.
In the opening scenes of the Lord of the Rings Gandalf rebukes Frodo for his lack of faith saying, ‘A wizard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.’ Now, although Jesus is by no means a wizard, his unexpected visit to the disciples does remind me a lot of this phrase. At the lowest point in in the disciples’ lives, when it seems too late for faith to be revived, Jesus makes a timely appearance, and eventually breaks down the dejection and the sorrow that prevent the disciples from recognising him, transforming their disappointment in uncontainable joy.
Luke often tries to locate the stories of his gospel with some degree of accuracy. But in this case we are not told by the evangelist where the meeting between Jesus and the two disciples took place; all we know is that it was somewhere at a short distance from Jerusalem, on a dusty road which the sorrows and the disappointments the disciples bore made even more slow and difficult to walk. Yet, this Luke’s inaccuracy about a specific location proves to be for our benefit; so that we may be able to relate a spiritual meaning of the story to our lives.
We may not know where the village of Emmaus was but ‘the road that leads there is the road every Christian, every person, takes.’ (BXVI) At various points dejection towards the Christian life can take hold of us, or maybe serious doubts can make the practice of religion more taxing. It is in these moments that we must seek the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus in the twofold ways highlighted in our gospel.
First, we see that as Jesus walked along the road with the disciples he explained to them the Scriptures pointing out to them all those things that the Old Testament, and particularly the prophets, foretold about him. Likewise we ought to nurture our faith with regular study of God’s Word, through prayer, discipleship courses, and reading religious publications, so that our faith may become grounded, rooted, in the soil of the Scriptures.
Secondly (and more importantly, I should add), we see in our reading that the disciples only recognise the Lord for who he really is in the moment of self-giving, in the moment in which he breaks for them the bread of eternal life. ‘The eyes of those who receive this … are opened that they should recognise Christ; for the Lord’s flesh has in it great and ineffable power’ (Theophylus). We too must approach Holy Communion as often as we can in the same way; as the encounter with Jesus who gives himself to us so that we may recognise him as the Lord, living and present in our midst.
The story of the road to Emmaus is a familiar one for many Christians, but it is more than just the narration of something that happened after Jesus’ resurrection. It is a simple pattern we readily apply for living the Christian life in the best way, by reading and praying the Scriptures, and receiving the Eucharist. And if we follow this pattern, our faith too will be transformed in the uncontainable joy of knowing the Risen Lord.
Which of the three men, do you think, was a neighbour to the one who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The lawyer replied, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’.
A couple of weeks ago as we were planning this service, we decided to steer clear of the word “community” as the theme for this celebration. And there are very good reasons for this. “Community” has become a buzzword to signify everything and anything that might bring or hold people together. Here at All Saints’ we are responsible for this as anyone else, given that the description on our website says, ‘A friendly and welcoming Christian community…’ But by overusing, and misusing, the word “community” we deprive it of any real meaning.
Yet, the gospel encourages everyone (Christians and otherwise) to consider a different approach towards bringing people together; not in terms of being a community – although the Church could be understood as a community of sorts – but in terms of coming together as good neighbours. This approach is somewhat different from what we have been used to hear over the last few decades, and it is definitely more challenging to embrace.
In the gospel passage that the Mayor has kindly read for us Jesus gives us an example of how belonging to a community can sometimes hamper the flourishing of other individuals. We see this in the priest and Levite who belong to the same community that served in the Jerusalem temple, and led the worship for the people of Israel. These two characters, seeing the man left for dead on the side of the road, cross over to the other side in order not to be defiled by coming in to contact with him, and so lose their sense of belonging to their own community. “He is not one of us”, the priest may have said to himself. “If I become ritually impure by touching this man, my community would banish me from service”, the Levite may have thought.
Their strong sense of belonging to a certain group of people prevents them from helping a stranger they encounter, giving him the time of day, and showing mercy towards his sorry state. Their inaction, which from their point of view is perfectly justifiable, becomes for us an example of how an inward-looking impersonal idea of community can actually do harm, by setting membership as a higher priority than doing good to others.
But to this example of strict adherence to a community Jesus contrasts the behaviour of another man, who would be cast as “the Good Samaritan” happily ever after because his actions. This remarkable man is not part of Israel’ society, in fact he and his fellow Samaritans are despised by the Israelites and considered the least trustworthy people around. Yet, he is the one who helps the man in his troubles, cares for him, and gives him back his human dignity; he sets aside his belonging to any specific community in order to help a fellow human being needing his attention. In short his is the one who acts as a good neighbour. The priest and the Levite are also neighbours in the sense that they find themselves in close proximity to the poor man, but they are bad ones and they do not do anything to help.
The gospel here teaches us that being good neighbours is something that transcends any idea of community each own of us might have; crucially it goes beyond religious creeds, political affiliation, nationality, or everything else. Being a good neighbour is about seeing the person next to me for who they are; another human being endowed with infinite worth, and, as such, seeing them also as worthy of my time, dedication, and care.
Our town is changing rapidly but this is by no means the first time that dramatic changes have altered the appearance and dynamics of this place. Indeed the town has been transformed many times beyond recognition since it started out as an Anglo-Saxon village over one thousand years ago. Nevertheless, as new roads and infrastructures are built and new people come to live here we, who already live here, have an even bigger chance to show ourselves as good neighbours to newcomers and old residents alike.
The gospel poses us an indirect question. What kind of neighbours do we want to be? Ones who care only for likeminded people, for members of our own little communities? Or ones who are there to help anyone we may find on our way?
The likelihood that everyone in Houghton will be part of the same community (whether through creed, nationality, or ethnicity) is very small indeed. But by learning to be good neighbours we will learn how to bring people together in a broader, more personal and lasting way… one small act of mercy, one cuppa, one generous offer of help at a time.
‘…he saw and he believed. Till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead.’ John 20:8-9
Perhaps surprisingly, the gospel reading set for Easter Day presents us with the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord, without featuring Jesus himself. Instead, this passage is marked by frantic search for some tangible explanation for the disappearance of Jesus’ body; there are rumours of something having happened at the tomb overnight, perhaps fears that the resting place of Jesus has been vandalised, that the body has been stolen… There are witness statements to be confirmed, and a certain degree of shock to be overcome. But among all this uncertainty we encounter an example of faith which should help us in our own faith journey. This example is given to us by the Saint John, described in the gospel as the disciple whom Jesus loved. In verses 8 and 9 we are told a peculiar phrase that has puzzled theologians ever since, we are told that John ‘saw and believed; Till this moment [Peter and himself] had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that [Jesus] must rise from the dead.’
John believed without understanding the Scriptures? Then what did John believe in? Can there be faith without full understanding of the Scriptures? A few Christian writers affirm that the words ‘saw and believed’ mean that John finally believed in what Mary Magdalene about Jesus’ body having been taken from the tomb (Cf. John 20:2). In a world where female witness counted very little, John and Peter run to the tomb to verify Mary’s story; so when John’s sees that the woman was right, he eventually believes in her statement – Jesus’ body is truly gone.
However, I would stand with other gospel interpreters in suggesting that John’s faith is actual faith in the resurrection as a mystery; faith in the inexplicable victory of Christ over death. John sees the grave clothes left neatly behind, he recalls the words of Mary, and something clicks in him – this cannot have been the work of very tidy grave robbers. John believes. He may not be able to articulate his faith very well at this stage, but an embryonic faith is already there; a faith which will later be confirmed in his sighting of Jesus – later in the gospel John is the first one of the disciples to recognise Jesus from afar and to shout with joy, ‘It is the Lord!’ (John 21:7). John believes in the very mystery of what happened; he may not be able to explain his faith using Scriptural references, yet he believes.
I believe John’s experience may be quite common among Christians. Oftentimes, people think that, as believers, we have everything figured out; that we have the answer to whatever theological question and extreme moral dilemma we might be face by. But the truth is that we don’t; we are works in progress not just in terms of how we behave, but even in terms of how we believe. In this sense, for many Christians having faith in a constant prayer saying, ‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24), and this is a good place to start.
But we go even a step further. For example, this morning we welcome James into the family of the Church, as he comes to the Lord supported by the faith of his parents and godparents, and by the faith of all God’s people in this place. James cannot articulate faith in God, but God accepts our faith, however great or small, on his behalf, and welcomes him in the number of his children. As James’ family, and as a wider congregation, all we need to do next is trying to grow in this faith, along with him, through grace, study, and prayer. Like Saint John, James will have occasions for his faith to mature, be strengthened, and confirmed in his own words; but in the meantime, we just need an open heart to believing and to be constant in prayer.
‘Jesus had always loved those who were his in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was’; or in a better translation, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ (John 13:1)
Oftentimes preachers speak about the love Jesus shows for us by focusing almost entirely on the Cross; this is because the Lord’s death on Calvary is the greatest thing anyone has ever done for each one of us. Yet, the Cross did not come out of the blue, it was the climax of a life lived in generous self-giving for us. And tonight as we enter once again in the mystery of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection we are greeted by that love. Behind the suffering, the bloodshed, the nails, and the tears what we ought to see is love – not a romantic, sentimental, butterflies-in-the-stomach-causing sort of love, but the unmeasured and self-giving love of Jesus for us.
So I would like to draw your attention to just one aspect of that love. On this night when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and gives himself to us completely in the holy food of the Eucharist, he does not avoid Judas; Jesus does not say “in a few minutes you are going to betray me, so I don’t care about you…” Instead, Jesus washes Judas feet and feeds him with the sacrament of his Body and Blood. Why?
One could say that he did so in order to give Judas a moral slap – if Jesus, into whose hands the Father had put all things, was ready and willing to perform the work of a servant, then how could Judas be so arrogant and deceitful? But this interpretation wouldn’t quite work, because the gospel tells us that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet to show them love, not moral superiority. Also, in this case, Jesus could have then prevented Judas from taking part in the Eucharistic meal, but noticeably, he did not.
No, I believe that Jesus washed the feet of Judas and welcomed him at his table to show him that he was not going to give up on him that easily. Judas may betray Jesus and be condemned for it, but Jesus would not betray Judas. And this is truly unmeasured love.
So let us transpose this gospel reading into our lives. We all fall into sin, great or small, on a daily basis. We all are tempted from time to time to turn our backs on the Church. But every time we fall or find ourselves tempted to betray Christ in favour of something else, Jesus does not turn us away. He is in the sacrament of the Eucharist, he is in the absolution of Confession, he is there for us; he does not exclude us and does not give up on us. And this is, once again, truly unmeasured love.
If we understood just this one simple truth, then we could also understand the words of our offertory hymn and learn to sing them as if they were our own;
Could I dare live and not requite / such love
- then death were meet reward:
I cannot live unless to prove / some love
for such unmeasured love.
(from 'O Bread of Heaven, beneath this veil')
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
This morning we come to the end of our Lenten journey through the Ten Commandments by looking at the last two instructions – “two”, if we use the traditional numbering, or “last one”, if we used the Anglican.
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
Neither shall you desire your neighbour’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’ (Deuteronomy 5:21)
These last two commandments are precisely the reason behind my preference for the traditional numbering over the Anglican one, which tends to lump together people, animals, personal belongings, and everything else under the Sun in the same precept.
In truth, there is a strong similarity between the two commandments, because both tell us not to unhealthily long after someone or something not available to us. But the Old Testament expressed this idea by using two distinct words in order to highlight the difference between the sense of desire we might experience towards someone else’s wife or husband, and the craving we might feel for something. Because, at the end of the day, a person (such as a wife) and a thing (such as a house or a field) do not belong in the same category and neither should the commandments controlling how we relate to them. The last commandment does mentions people, ‘you shall not desire your neighbour’s …male or female slave’ but only insofar as these servants – especially if numerous and capable – were seen as expressions of their master’s social status.
So, the ninth commandment is primarily a call to refrain from lusting after a person not available to us; whilst the tenth commandment forbids us from wrongly desiring anything whatsoever another person might possess. By keeping them both we would go a long way in keeping also the preceding eight rules because healthy, or orderly desires, lead to sound actions as well.
Conversely, failure to keep these two commandments can be understood in terms of the surreptitious vice of envy, or jealousy, which sooner or later will lead us to break the other commandments as well... But, if we were honest with ourselves, we would see that giving in to envy is a daily temptation for many of us – especially since we are surrounded by a culture where we are continually told that to be the object of envy is a great thing, a where envy of other people’s prosperity is the driving forces behind our consumerism, or at least behind most advertising campaigns.
But we would do well to resist this temptation. Envy is unbecoming to a Christian, ‘for just as rust destroys iron, so too does envy destroy the soul that has it’ (St Basil, Homily on Envy). It is a dangerous spiritual illness that makes our greed to grow exponentially. Under its effects we come to desire inappropriate relationships with people not available to us, and to crave the possession of things that do not belong to us. Envy can also drive us to feel distress at the prosperity of others, resentful towards those people that this disease has wrongly made out to be our rivals, and even to feel cheerful at their misfurtunes.
So what is the remedy against envy? And how can we keep the last two commandments? Sheer will-power can do only so much, but there are other two complementary ways to be immunised against envy. The first one is to take love as our yardstick once again. Loving our neighbours as ourselves will necessarily prevent us from coveting their fortunes in an attempt of making these our own. Furthermore, by loving our neighbours we will learn to exercise kindness, which is the habit diametrically opposed to envy. Instead of being distressed at the prosperity of others or happy at their demise, we will learn to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep [and to] live in harmony with one another’ (Rom 12:15-16)
The second way to root out envy and to keep the commandments is learning to depend on God’s Providence. I spoke about this a few weeks back, but putting our ultimate trust in Providence is truly an essential tool for overcoming envy – if we really make God’s love for us the foundation of our existence, then no-one else’s wealth, husband, wife, or social status will ever cause us to be envious. And eventually we will be able to genuinely say with St Paul,
‘we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these’ (1Tim 6:7-8).
This morning we continue our Lenten journey through the Ten Commandments, and because today we also keep Mothering Sunday, we take a step back to look at the fourth commandment (or the fifth in the Anglican numeration)
‘Honour your father and your mother,
as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long
and that it may go well with you...’ (Deuteronomy 5:16)
This commandment opens what it traditionally considered the second table or tablet of the law; that group of instructions God sets out concerning our attitude towards others. This is because in most scenarios the very first neighbours we meet are the members of our own family, and within this “molecule of social life”, this mini representation of society, we learn to interact with and to love others. And within the family nucleus our parents hold a distinguished place as the ones who gave us life, nurtured us (in most cases), and looked after us from our conception. Therefore God, who ultimately gave us life through our parents, commands us to honour them, yes, and also to love and respect them, to care for them in their old age, and to cultivate a sense of gratitude towards them. In turn this obligation also expands like concentric circles to include siblings and relatives, the elders, and the leaders and fellow members of the Church.
However, it is reasonable to say that many families are not exactly straightforward, and the fourth commandment acknowledges this by expressing what we have to do in the ‘positive terms of duties to be fulfilled’ (CCC 2198). In other words, this is not a prohibition such as ‘You shall not’ murder’ (Deut. 5:17) and then leave it at that. No, this is an exhortation to go a step further, and to do good regardless of circumstances.
Indeed, the Scriptures remind us time and time again about the importance of our duties towards both parents and the elders. The book of proverbs is particularly good on this topic; for example, there we read,
‘Listen to your father who gave you life,
and do not despise your mother when she is old’ (Prov. 23:22).
In the book of Ecclesiasticus we read,
‘My child, help your father and mother in their old age,
and do not grieve them as long as they live;
even if their mind fails, be patient with them;
because you have all your faculties do not despise them.’ (Cf. Ecclus. 3:12-14).
But the ultimate teaching about this comes from Jesus when he condemns those who willingly withdraw their material support from their parents (Matt 15:1-9).
But as well as duties, in this commandment we also read about a promise;
‘Honour your father and your mother
...that it may go well with you’ (Deuteronomy 5:16)
St Paul points this out writing to the Ephesians (Cf. 6:2), and the promise attached to the commandment relates to our welfare as a society. So, showing true charity – that is care, honour, and devotion – to our parents has its own benefits, or its rewards, but not in the sense of immediate personal gains. Instead, for the commandment what we do and choices we make within our families have a wider impact, and have the potential of changing the world for the better, one family at a time. And by fulfilling our duty as sons and daughters, and by contributing positively to family life, we will promote harmony, concord, and peace in the wider society.
Finally, let us turn for a few moments to the Gospel reading for Mothering Sunday, [and let us look at the scene represented here on the chancel screen]. This is the moment in which Jesus entrusts the community of believers, represented by Saint John, to the maternal care of his Mother – who from that moment becomes our mother as well. Yet, here Jesus provides us also with clear example about following the fourth commandment. Hanging from the Cross, the Lord spends the last moments of his earthly life in honouring his Mother. He ensures that Mary may find the security and stability often denied by ancient society to childless widows by giving her a new son, John, his beloved disciple. Thus, indirectly the gospel asks us, if Jesus could care for his Mother whilst suffering on the cross and close to death, what would prevent us from honouring our parents?
Over the last couple of weeks we looked at the first three of the Ten Commandments and what they say about our relationship with God – how, how often, whom, and why we should worship.
Today we continue in our Lenten study of the commandments, and we turn our attention very briefly to the second half of the list;
You shall not murder.
Neither shall you commit adultery.
Neither shall you steal.
Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbour. (Deuteronomy 5:17-21)
Expressed all in the negative, these commandments look like a fairly straightforward list of prohibitions encompassing a limited number of offenses that finds a close parallel in our criminal system. Our laws too command us not to murder, not to steal, and not to lie in court; because committing any of these offenses would severely destabilise our society, and deprive victims of a few basic human rights.
But the parallel between the commandments we find in the Scriptures and the regulation of civil society ends here. Because the commandments express much more than simple God-given regulations to help individuals get along with each other. Unlike in the case of criminal laws which command the respect of all subjects, the Ten Commandments are primarily the guidelines, or the if you will, regulating the covenant relationship between God and the people who belong to him through faith – meaning they regulate the relationship between God and us. Therefore, even in the case of commandments that prohibit us from harming others, God is still involved. And every time we break such a commandment we endanger our relationship with God, because God considers our relationship with him dependent on the ways we relate to our neighbours, not just on the ways we relate to him directly, through worship and prayer.
But I say more. As Christians we must interpret these four commandments in the light of the Lord Jesus who, on one hand, gives us newer and more stringent regulations to follow such as in the Sermon on the Mount (Cf. Matthew 5:21-30); whilst, on the other hand, he encourages us to understand that love – and in this case love for our neighbours – is the only possible fulfilment for any commandment (Cf. Matt 22:39). This is why Saint Paul later writes to the Galatians saying ‘the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Galatians 5:14); or again to the Romans ‘[the commandments] are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law’ (Romans 13:9-10)
So, as Christians, our task is not simply to abide to the letter of the commandments and to refrain from doing evil; instead we are called to interpret them in a positive way, according to the royal law, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39). In other words, keeping the commandments is a good place to start, but the Lord commands us to actively and intentionally do good. In this way the list of commandments could be expressed in a positive sense saying;
You shall promote life.
You shall live faithfully.
You shall share.
You shall speak truth.
When we take in consideration all these things we can see that in the Ten Commandments God shows himself not as a distant referee who is ready to judge human relationships from a point of lofty neutrality. Rather, here God manifests himself as someone so deeply involved in our day-to-day lives as believers, that the moment we willingly transgress and hurt another person we necessarily wound his gracious love for us; and the moment we willingly do good for our neighbour we also do good for, and honour him.
[At the end of all things] the righteous will say him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the Lord will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:37-40)