Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Light of Faith

The Sunday Lectionary consists of a cycle of three years in which the Synoptic Gospels are read respectively. The current year, which has been rather unpoetically named 'Year A' is more aptly, the 'Year of St Matthew' for his Gospel account is read on most Sundays of this liturgical year.

Today's Gospel (the 10th Sunday of the Year) recounts the vocation of St Matthew, Christ calling Matthew, the tax-collector from his previous life of sin and darkness into the light of following Christ. The painting by Caravaggio reproduced above dramatically illustrates this.

The Gospel account of Matthew's call by Christ is very terse. It consists of just two sentences:
"As Jesus was walking on he saw a man named Matthew sitting by the customs house, and he said to him, 'Follow me'. And he got up and followed him." (Mt 9:9)

All we have is a call and a response. There are no questions, no ifs and buts, no prevarication. Matthew gets up, leaves his life behind and follows the Stranger. And there is no turning back. Christ the Stranger is a theme picked up by St Luke in his post-Resurrection Emmaus story or St John in the account of Mary Magdalene's encounter with the Risen Lord in the garden. Somehow, the Lord is someone whom we can not initially recognise; he is a Stranger but one we are drawn to. It is only when he, the Eternal Word speaks and so reveals himself for who he is that we recognise him in the very depths of our souls.

And who is Christ? He is God and his very nature is Love and Mercy. We come to know God's presence by the very presence of pure Love and Mercy. As the beautiful antiphon from Maundy Thursday goes:

"Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est."
'Where true love is, there is God.'

As such, Matthew, the stereotypical sinner (being a tax-collector) recognises Jesus as no mere stranger but God himself, because he senses the love and mercy in his call to follow him. As Von Balthasar says: "His call is pure mercy towards sinners, and sinners can sense this, since his is the call of a healing physician. Those who think they are healthy need no physician and thus miss the healing words." (Light of the Word, pp99-100)

It is tragic indeed that so many people fail to see God as he is: Love and Mercy. Very often Christians fail in exemplifying that Christ "did not some to call the virtuous, but sinners" (Mt 9:13) and I know of friends who have felt excluded from the Church because of their sins and they have been shunned by self-righteous Christians. But if we are not first of all a group of sinners in need of the Divine Physician, reliant on his grace, then we are nothing. Afterall, a completely virtuous people have no need of a Redeemer! It is surely a heresy to imagine that the Church is only such when all its members are impeccable and yet many people point at sinful, gossiping, sniping Christians and delight in these as marks of the alleged falsehood of Christianity. For me, it is a clear sign of how much (more) we need Christ to save us from our sins! How much more we need the Church, the sacrament of salvation!

However, it is also clear that Matthew's response to the call of Christ requires something other than just the desire for healing. To actually embark on the sequela Christi, to leave all, follow Christ and to commit to this for life requires Faith and today's Second Reading from Romans highlights this. But I feel there are several factors happening within Matthew's soul which brings him to follow Christ.

What is Faith? It is one of the supernatural virtues (along with Hope and Love) and as such comes entirely as a grace from God. St Thomas Aquinas defines it as "the mental disposition through which eternal life starts up in us, causing our mind to assent to what it does not see." (ST IIa IIae, q4, 1, McDermott ed.) As such, the moment one requires an article of faith to be proven (as so many people seem to require of religion and matters of faith these days...), it is no longer faith. Again, as Aquinas says: "Unbelievers see neither the things that believers believe nor their believability. Believers however, do see that; they cannot prove it but see it by the light of faith." (ST IIa Iiae, q1, 5) Hence faith is a light that comes from without ourselves. It is not something we can search within ourselves our our intellects; it comes from he who is wholly Other, the Stranger; it is a grace. Caravaggio's painting clearly shows this light coming from Christ's direction and illuminating Matthew.

But Faith itself is not sufficient; rather that faith should bring about metanoia or conversion within the person. As the then Cardinal Ratzinger explains: "It is not just the turning to oneself that saves but rather the turning away from oneself and toward the God who calls. Man is oriented, not to the innermost depths of his own being, but to the God who comes to him from without, to the Thou who reveals himself to him and, in doing so, redeems him." (Principles of Christian Theology, p60). Matthew's conversion is immediate. He sets aside his lucrative job, wealth and position and he follows Jesus. And the fact that he can do so it itself also a grace from God, born of the grace of Faith.

Romanus Cessario, OP, drawing on Aquinas explains: "Because faith inaugurates the theological life by establishing a personal relationship between God and the creature, only God can account for such an effect. Likewise, the free response of the justified person can arise only from God's moving the person to make that response within the context of the full Christian life." (Christian Faith and the Theological Life, p151).

How does all the fore-going affect us? As Christians the dynamic illustrated in Caravaggio's painting and St Matthew's vocation account is played out again and again in our lives. Every morning, the God of Love and Mercy renews his call for us to follow him and we are given the grace to respond in faith to that call. A genuine respond to God's call is unsettling, for it is a constant process of change and renewal; its stirs us up.

To conclude, I quote our Holy Father: "Metanoia is not just any Christian attitude but the fundamental Christian act perse , understood admittedly from a very definite perspective: that of transformation, conversion, renewal and change. To be a Christian, one must change not just in some particular area but without reservation even to the innermost depths of one's being." (op. cit.)

And to achieve this is surely a grace from God! This reflection on Matthew's call to follow God struck me because I am standing at this cusp in my life as a prepare to follow Christ in a very particular way, as a religious, and to leave aside my old life. And the thing that enables me to do this is faith. And that faith, and even the courage to respond, is entirely God's gift to me. I share this reflection with you in thanksgiving to Him.


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