As we come to the end the great swathes of green Sundays of the Year, over the course of the past few weeks the Church has begun to hint at the arrival of a new liturgical season. Next Sunday she will celebrate the solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, and the following Sunday she will be clothed in violet as she begins that majestic season of Advent; the time when those who are one with Christ in baptism celebrate his threefold coming. As Saint Bernard says: “In the first coming he comes in the flesh and in weakness; in the second, he comes in spirit and in power; in the third, he comes in glory and in majesty.”
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 fourteenth century saint, Bridget of Sweden, whose feast the Church celebrates today, lived amidst great privilege and wealth in the court of the King of Sweden. Although she was married with many children, after a pilgrimage together with her husband to the shrine of Saint James in Compostela, she experienced a profound desire to enter the cloister and went on to found her own double monastery, comprising men and women living alongside in separate monastic houses.
In the account of the calling of the apostles in the gospel according to Saint Mark, we are presented with an important lesson in the Christian life. We know that the response of the fishermen, of Simon (who will be called Peter), Andrew, James, and John, was to leave their work and follow Christ, and we know that their action was immediate; they did not hear the call and consider it, but dropped everything to follow their Lord. But who are these men to be called by Christ? We know them of course by name, but why did the Lord call them to be his apostles, together, and so make them what we might call the four cornerstones of the Christian Church?
As we continue through the Octave of the Nativity of the Lord, today the Church commemorates Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr for the faith in 1170. Chief amongst the reasons for the holy bishop’s brutal murder, in his own Cathedral Church, was his resistance to King Henry II’s encroachment of civil power over the life of the Church, and particularly her clergy. For this reason Becket is today the patron of the diocesan clergy of England, and for this reason his cult – which was remarkably strong and widespread in England, as in Norway, and even parts of France and Spain – was particularly targeted during the dark days of the Protestant Reformation, which itself placed the English sovereign as the head of an established or state church.
In today’s gospel we find a paradigm for Saint Thomas Becket’s faith and resolve. Christ, who during the season of Advent the Church names ‘lawgiver’ (cf. O Emmanuel), is himself the fulfilment of the law and, thus, above the law. By his precepts we Christians are called to live, just as by his judgement we are saved. In the confessional it is Christ who judges us through the person of the priest, always handing down a sentence of mercy. And yet, in this scene of his presentation in the temple, Christ submits himself to the law of Moses in order to honour the law, to honour his heavenly Father, and to fulfil the law in letter and spirit. His obedience, an obedience which we will see lead him to the cross, is made manifest in this act of submission, so that by following the law which he comes to fulfil, we too might be made partakers in his heavenly glory.
The law is not, then, an encumbrance to our life in Christ, but an essential element to its success. Christ comes into our earthly realm to restore the order which results from the chaos of our sin; of the fault of Adam and Eve in Eden’s garden paradise. So also he comes to order our lives by applying regulation – regula, religion, rule – in order to keep us on the narrow path which is the way of the Lord. We see this in divine and natural law, as also in those things which allow us to navigate the Christian life and which, by their observance, help us to submit ourselves to the law as did Christ, and so grow in stature and wisdom. May Saint Thomas Becket aid us in this endeavour by his prayers, that we may have the docility and humility of Christ which he embodied. And may we be given the courage and resolve to imitate such virtue in our own lives, whatever the cost, that in following Christ in this life – living in obedience to his law – we may be judged worthy to remain with him in the next.
Pope Francis spoke these words this evening as he visited the fourth Papal Basilica of his pontificate.
Mass at the Papal Basilica of St Paul outside the Walls, 14 April 2013
“We should all ask ourselves: How do I bear witness to Christ through my faith? Do I have the courage of Peter and the other Apostles, to think, to choose and to live as a Christian, obedient to God? To be sure, the testimony of faith comes in very many forms, just as in a great fresco, there is a variety of colours and shades; yet they are all important, even those which do not stand out. In God’s great plan, every detail is important, even yours, even my humble little witness, even the hidden witness of those who live their faith with simplicity in everyday family relationships, work relationships, friendships”.
At this morning’s General Audience address in St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis spoke again of the virtue of courage, a theme which seems to be developing in his teaching:
General Audience, 10 April 2013
“The temptation to put God to one side, to put ourselves at the centre is ever-present and the experience of sin wounds our Christian life, our being children of God. This is why we must have the courage of faith, we must resist being led to the mentality that tells us: “There is no need for God, He is not that important for you”. It is the exact opposite: only by behaving as children of God, without being discouraged by our falls, can we feel loved by Him, our life will be new, inspired by serenity and joy. God is our strength! God is our hope!”
In a number of his speeches and homilies since his election, Pope Francis has spoken about courage. It is a compelling approach. We need courage in our proclamation of the gospel, in our evangelisation and living the faith ourselves. Here are a few quotes from what he has said so far:
Missa pro Ecclesia with the Cardinal Electors, 14 March 2013
“My wish is that all of us, after these days of grace, will have the courage, yes, the courage, to walk in the presence of the Lord, with the Lord’s Cross; to build the Church on the Lord’s blood which was poured out on the Cross; and to profess the one glory: Christ crucified. And in this way, the Church will go forward”.
General Audience, 3 April 2013
“[I]t is the Resurrection that gives us the greatest hope, because it opens our lives and the life of the world to the eternal future of God, to full happiness, to the certainty that evil, sin, death can be defeated. And this leads us to live everyday realities with more confidence, to face them with courage and commitment. The Resurrection of Christ shines a new light on these daily realities. The Resurrection of Christ is our strength!”
Mass with Vatican Employees, 5 April 2013
Paraphrased: The Christian, even in the most painful trials, never loses “the peace and the presence of Jesus” and with “a little courage”, we are able to say to the Lord: “Lord, give me this grace that is the sign of the encounter with you: spiritual consolation”; and, above all, he emphasised, “never lose peace”.
Mass for the Possession of the Cathedra of Rome, 7 April 2013
“God’s patience has to call forth in us the courage to return to him, however many mistakes and sins there may be in our life”. He goes on: “Maybe someone among us here is thinking: my sin is so great, I am as far from God as the younger son in the parable, my unbelief is like that of Thomas; I don’t have the courage to go back, to believe that God can welcome me and that he is waiting for me, of all people. But God is indeed waiting for you; he asks of you only the courage to go to him. Let us find the courage to return to his house, to dwell in his loving wounds, allowing ourselves be loved by him and to encounter his mercy in the sacraments. We will feel his wonderful tenderness, we will feel his embrace, and we too will become more capable of mercy, patience, forgiveness and love”.