Last week we considered the false distinction which is often drawn between law and charity. In Christ, we recalled, that distinction is done away with, so that we can see the greatest charity is that lived in obedience to the law, and the greatest obedience to the law is that which has the love of Christ at its heart. In the well-known story of Mary and Martha, presented to us this morning in the Gospel according to Saint Luke, another false distinction is quashed: that between action and contemplation.
In our contemporary society there exists an unhealthy distinction between law and charity. In current political debates we see this in relation to the question of immigration. And even in the Church we have, not least in recent months, seen it in relation to the question of the reception of Holy Communion by those who have been divorced and taken up a second union. Yet at the heart of this morning’s gospel we discover anew the fundamental connection between law and charity, to the end that we can say: when a false distinction is drawn between them, each is reduced in its essential importance and particular value. Indeed, with the Psalmist we affirm: “Mercy and truth and met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85: 10).
Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has this evening delivered the opening address of the 2016 Sacra Liturgia conference in London. His Eminence made many important and significant points concerning the celebration of the sacred liturgy, and indeed the particular reforms and liturgical renewal that took place at, and following, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. He also made a number of practical suggestions – what he described as “possible ways of moving towards ‘the right way of celebrating the liturgy inwardly and outwardly,’ which was of course the desire expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger at the beginning of his great work, The Spirit of the Liturgy.”
In a certain way, the readings this morning reflect the beauty and sacrifice that is at the heart of the consecrated life. This state of life, “deeply rooted in the example and teaching of Christ the Lord, is a gift of God the Father to his Church through the Holy Spirit.” It is a sign that the individual Christian has taken to heart those words of the psalmist which we have just sung: “In thee, O Lord, have I put my trust.” Very especially, the life of the monastery or the convent is a stable means of immersing oneself in this consecration, it is a place set aside for Christ. It is a constant recalling of the individual to the heart of the mystery of God, and a constant showing forth of that mystery to the Church and to the world. By living the gospel mandate to “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals,” religious jettison those things that encumber the rest of us, freeing them rather to possess only Christ and so also to be possessed by him alone.
The very Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul is itself a reminder that these two great pillars of the Church’s life are closely related. In front of the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome, the two saints together flank Maderno’s imposing façade. At the Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls, the martyrdom of both saints is shown in the courtyard that opens before the entrance to the church. And in the sacred liturgy, that most resplendent “architecture” of our faith which gives shape and structure to our worship of God, these great men are historically always honoured side by side.
What is now known as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was founded by a community founded in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States by Father Paul Wattson in the 1890s, and entering the full communion of the Catholic Church in 1909. To begin, this time set aside to pray for the reunion of Christendom was known as the Octave of Christian Unity, running from the 18th to 25th January each year. These dates are of course significant: 25th January is the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, whilst 18th January is known as the feast of the Chair of Saint Peter or, in some Anglican circles, as the feast of the Confession of Saint Peter. In fact, the gospel traditionally assigned for this feast—whichever name we choose to apply—is the account given by Saint Matthew of what we have just heard this morning from Saint Luke, which includes the Christ’s response: Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church (Mt. 16: 18). In other words, the confession of Saint Peter—Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God—is intimately linked with the power bestowed on him by Christ in his Chair, that seat of his apostolic authority after which the personal ordinariate in North America takes its name.
In the rich tradition of the Church, the month of June is set aside in devotion to the Sacred Heart. In a particular way during these weeks we are encouraged to a new fervour and new love for Christ by increasing our fervour and love for his Most Sacred Heart, that font of eternal life and fire of everlasting charity. Depictions of the Sacred Heart remind us of this by the flame that accompanies the Lord’s heart. The love of Christ is so strong that his heart is aflame for us; consuming itself in a furnace of pure love in order that we might benefit from its heat and its light; in order that we might share in the sacrifice it makes by consuming itself, and so have that same love burn deep within us.
As we emerge from Eastertide and begin to keep again the season of grace which follows the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the celebration of the feast of the Holy Trinity, we are launched into what might at first seem to be a less exciting time of the liturgical year. Certainly we will shortly keep the feasts of Corpus Christi, the Sacred Heart, and the Assumption of Our Lady, but, on the whole, we now revert to green vestments and to the cycle per annum, or “of the year.” In the personal ordinariates we retain the medieval custom of referring to this time as “after Trinity,” reminding ourselves of the source and focus of all worship. Yet, whatever name is used, the apparent ordinariness of these weeks must be characterised not by a spiritual lethargy or boredom, nor a return to the way things were—the old habits of sin and waywardness—but rather by the simple and vital task of our sanctification: the outworking of our baptismal promises, renewed at Easter and again at Pentecost.
The doctrine of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity is a central tenet of the Christian faith; at once a mystery beyond all telling and a reality intrinsically present in the lives of each of us. Blessed John Henry Newman, concluding one of his sermons on the subject, encouraged his congregation to consider this lofty topic only with a certain reverence. He writes: “May we never speak on subjects like this without awe; may we never dispute without charity; may we never inquire without a careful endeavour, with God’s aid, to sanctify our knowledge, and to impress it on our hearts, as well as to store it in our understandings!” So we may well be tempted to handle this profound theological notion with kid gloves; with a kind of holy fear. Yet the ready presence of the Most Holy Trinity, which runs through the veins of each Christian, and which is present in a very real way in the action of the Sacred Liturgy, calls us to set aside such anxiety, if not our just reverence, and to enter into the mystery and life of the Trinity, with awe and respect for sure, but with tenacity and confidence, knowing that the doctrine we revere is not something distant from us, but here and now, in our midst; in our very being, and in the act of divine worship we gather this morning to perform.
It is perhaps one of the greatest countercultural acts of Christianity to proclaim, by words and deeds, the commandment given to us by Christ in today’s Gospel. “Love one another,” the Lord instructs us. “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples.” This is a countercultural message, because the society in which we live claims on the one hand to care for others, and on the other limits the expression of the dignity of the human person in ways that not only oppose the care of the individual but also, in turn, reduces our the standing of each of us; our own worth in the eyes of our fellow man. In this we might think of some obvious examples: the objectification of the human person, and especially women, in the murky world of pornography and prostitution; the reduction of the human person to a biological entity or an object lacking any “quality of life” in the arena of abortion and euthanasia; the manipulation of the human person in the attempt to eradicate the natural complementarity of man and woman, in the realm of so-called ‘gender theory’ and in the name of sexual equality. Each of these represents a veiled attempt on the part of contemporary society to offer a rebuttal to some perceived injustice whilst failing, fundamentally and absolutely, to recognize the monumental damage that is done by these actions, not simply to the individual objects of the actions themselves, but to the dignity of the human race: the means by which we view ourselves and each other.