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Wednesday, March 10th, 2021

‘Men who have companied’: a Sermon on the Apostles in Lent

Originally delivered at a men’s Holy Hour.

Now, there is an overall shape to the Gospel lessons of each season. During Advent and Christmas, for instance, we hear much about St John the Baptist; and of course the infancy narratives recorded by St Luke. Obviously during Easter we encounter the various post-Resurrection works of Christ. But during Lent, it seems that we are shown the drama of the interaction between Christ, his apostles and his enemies. Exorcisms, healings, confrontations with the Pharisees: these are the episodes we behold, and the apostles of course are always standing by. 

Naturally, during such episodes we fix our attention on our Lord; but in so doing, there is a slight danger of overlooking the apostles themselves. We can treat them like props or merely supporting actors. But they are men like you and me; and they have an essential part to play in Christ’s plan for his Church. This evening, therefore, I’d like to try to put ourselves inside the spiritual lives of some of the apostles—to the extent possible. When we do this, I think we will discover some things about God and about certain goods for our spiritual life.

The first apostle I would like to consider is St Matthias. You know that he has the distinction of being the apostle to succeed Judas Iscariot. And in the Acts of the Apostles,[1] St Peter speaks up about the situation caused by Judas’ suicide: 

Men, brethren, the scripture must be fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who was the leader of them that apprehended Jesus: who was numbered with us, and obtained part of this ministry. And he indeed hath possessed a field of the reward of iniquity, and being hanged, burst asunder in the middle: and all his bowels gushed out. 

Imagine that for the homily at your episcopal consecration. But St Peter goes on, 

And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem: so that the field was called in their tongue, Haceldama: that is to say, field of blood. For it is written in the book of Psalms: Let their habitation become desolate, and let there be none to dwell therein. And his bishopric let another take. Wherefore of these men who have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, . . . one of these must be made a witness with us of his resurrection.

I quote at length here so that we can be impressed with what a striking situation this is. The vocation of St Matthias has its origins, in a mysterious way, in the betrayal and suicide of Judas. Thus we have to imagine how profound this would have been to this new apostle. Isn’t it safe to imagine that, all his life, St Matthias would have been aware of how and why his life was changed forever? What a sobering fact, to take the place of the primordial traitor. Imagine the humility, holy fear, and gratitude that would define the character of his soul. 

And that brings us to the first insight for ourselves. Each of us in our own way, mysteriously, occupies a similar position as St Matthias. Many of the Fathers of the Church have taught that the saints take the place of the fallen angels; an interesting speculation. But even with that aside, our Baptism and membership in the Church is an immense gift that the Father has chosen to give us in his Son. We could be other Judases; our lives could be marked with betrayal and self-destruction. Instead, the good God extends the grace of his mercy to us, hour by hour. For us, then: humility, holy fear, and gratitude, like St Matthias.  

Our next apostle for discussion, indeed, will be St Peter. To help us, we have an insight from one of his 63rd successor, St Gregory.[2]  

We know what sort of men the holy Church’s teachers were before that Spirit’s coming, and we see how courageous they became after his coming. Indeed, even the shepherd of the Church near whose sacred remains we are assembled—what was he like before the coming of the Spirit? Ask the serving maid who kept the door; she could tell you of what stuff he was made, how weak-kneed he was. A single remark from a woman, and he was so stricken with fear of death that he denied Life. 

Think of that a moment; listen to St Gregory and see what St Peter was. But his point is that, after the coming of the Holy Ghost, all that changed. In his homily, he goes on with the contrast: 

Here is an assembly of the temple officer and the elders, warning the Apostles, who have been scourged, not to speak in the name of Jesus. And with superb dignity Peter replies, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’

So, St Peter gives us a wonderful before-and-after portrait of what it looks like when a life is docile under the force of the holy Ghost. And that brings us to ourselves. For instance, the contrast we see in St Peter should be a good illustration about what Confirmation means. How often, after all, do with think of our Confirmation? But there is another insight for us, too: namely, the promise of progress. Under the action of grace, St Peter overcame his cowardice and flourished. Under the action of grace, the same can also be said for us. 

Lastly, I put before us St John. We understand that he was the only apostle at the foot of the Cross, and that put him face-to-face with the brutality and gravity of Our Lord’s Passion. It is probably a mercy that we cannot grasp what a horrifying spectacle a crucifixion was. But St John was witness to it: the calculated pain inflicted upon the Master he loved so well; the pain it was causing his Holy Mother, whom he also loved so well; the filthy insults and derision of the Jews, Romans, and passerbys. It was a scene of cruelty and moral ugliness; a sign of the sum total of all the sin and evil of history, bearing down upon the Person of our Blessed Lord. 

It would be a terrible understatement to say that the experience, even from a merely human perspective, would be with him for the rest of his life. And yet, his encounter with this vision of evil did not defeat him.—It did not paralyze him with fear, corrupt him with anger, or crush him into unbelief. His faith, hope, and charity remained intact; he was strong enough to support the grieving Virgin Mother; and he spent the rest of his life teaching, so to speak, from that supreme moment. 

So it should be with us. The Catholic man today has to come face-to-face with many evils, in his own soul and in the world. He has to keep his spiritual equilibrium. He has to have enough spiritual maturity to live with the fact that things are likely worse than they appear. He can neither shut his eyes to evil, nor let it overcome and consume him. The grace to do this flowed out from the Cross on St John that Friday afternoon, and it continues to be available to us to this hour. 

Not without reason, then, do we call the Apostles the pillars of the Church. But they are pillars made of men,—living stones, in the language of St Peter.[3] Their Master is our Master; and to him belongs glory, now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.       

 


[1] Acts 1, 16-22. Cf Psalm 68, 26; and esp Psalm 108, 8: Et episcopatum eius accipiant alter.   

[2] Homilia 30 in Evangelium; cf Roman Breviary, Nocturne II, Common of Apostles Outside of Paschaltide; translation in The Roman Breviary in Latin and English, vol I, London: Baronius Press, 2013: pp 680-681.

[3] 1 Peter 2, 5: ‘Be you also as living stones built up, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.’ 

{Art Credit: Caravaggio (1571-1610), The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew (c 1606); Buckingham Palace}

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