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Saturday, April 10th, 2021

‘Natum est ex Deo:’ a Sermon for Low Sunday

For whosoever is born of God, overcometh the world: and this is the victory which overcameth the world, our faith (1 John 5, 4).

Why is it that you can take a train to St Pancras Station in London? A little odd that one of the districts of a modern English city should be named after a fourth century Roman martyr. But ultimately, you can blame St Gregory for it. There was a Benedictine monastery attached to the Lateran Basilica, and it was from this monastery that the monks set out to bring the Gospel to the Saxons, at the command of Gregorius Annicius. The patron of these monks was St Pancras.

St Pancras himself was martyred as a fourteen-year-old sometime in the early fourth century. And we have to remember that the executions that made our martyrs were, at bottom, legal proceedings. Remember that the Catholic faith of the confessors and martyrs was popularly considered a threat to the health and safety of the Empire. I’ve made this point to you before; but we can never forget it. As most of our martyrs came to see, their suffering and deaths were all perfectly legal.

But the Rome of the time of St Gregory had a lively devotion to St Pancras. And why is all this important today? Because today’s stational basilica is one dedicated to St Pancras. Today, the newly baptized made their trip outside the city walls to celebrate the Mass.—Which sheds some light on today’s introit: Quasimodo geniti infantes, alleluia! Newly baptized Catholics are spiritual youths—young like St Pancras—and St Peter commands them to be wise; to desire the spiritual milk of grace and truth, in which there is no deception.

Thus, in our epistle, when St John speaks of the victory of faith, of course the most dramatic example of that is seen in the martyrs. But that victory is also possible to us. We are all martyrs in potentia; but we do not have to pay for our faith with our blood in order to share in the victory of the faith given by Jesus Christ. As St John tells us, we already have the character of victors in this life if our faith is strong—because we the baptized are, in St John’s phrase, ‘born of God.’ And it is the Easter season that has this especially in view. We celebrate anew the Easter mysteries and we recall our own baptisms, in order that we might be reminded of the truth: Christ the Victor-King emerged from the sepulcher; and as he does so, we are right behind him.

But in recent decades, we also call today Divine Mercy Sunday. In truth, every Sunday is about divine mercy, so it is not unfitting that we should do this. In one respect, there was no mercy for St Pancras: the world trampled upon his pious fidelity, because it cannot tolerate the Gospel. But in another respect, even the combat and blood of the martyrs is about the Divine Mercy. First of all, because God shows his mercy by keeping the martyrs faithful to himself. Grace is the life of God; blood is the life of bodies—and so the shedding of the blood of martyrs is a consequence and sign that God has poured out his gifts in abundance. The martyrs prove that God has given much. That is a difficult truth for us to grasp, given that the suffering of the martyrs and the Christian life is often so acute. But that is what is going on beneath the surface: men and women and youths can shed their blood for the faith, because God has first shed his Blood, and that Blood is grace for us. And that is all mercy. 

But you must have something of spiritual childhood to see this. Quasimodo geniti infantes, alleluia! Chesterton or someone like him must have said it somewhere: the world is old—grown old and tired by sin. But on the contrary, ‘whosever is born of God, overcomes the world; and this is the victory which overcomes the world, our faith.’ The Catholic soul is always young. Quasimodo geniti infantes. And the essence of spiritual childhood is this: to be incessantly alive to the infinite grandeur and mercy of God. And only the theological virtue of faith makes this possible for us. (As Psalm 135 puts it, ‘his mercy endures forever,’ and repeats the phrase twenty-seven times.) It is not sentimentalism, but a metaphysical necessity—the mercy of God is without limit: thus, his mercy is ever fresh, ever new, ever lively and pure. Therefore, only the childlike, who allow God to be who he is, will receive it.

Georges Bernanos alludes to this in his memoirs of the Spanish Civil War. In the opening chapters of the book, he writes:

Believe me, I know all the vanity of such yearning for the past. I know my life is already heavy with the dead. But none are so dead as the little boy that once was me. And yet, when the hour strikes, it is he who shall walk again at the head of my life, gathering around him all my mistaken years, to the very last of them, and like a young leader of veterans, rallying his scattered company, he shall enter first the House of my Father.[1]

Quasimodo geniti infantes, alleluia. He goes on,

My life doesn’t matter. I merely wish it to be faithful until the end, to the child I was. For what I possess of honor, and my paltry share of courage, I inherit from the small being, so mysterious now, . . . from the child I was, who is now for me like a grandfather.[2]

Dear friends, be glad today in the God who hands back to you every noble possibility; his mercy contains all his gifts. If only we understood it! 

 


{Art Credit: detail, John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-86); London, The Tate.}

[1] The Great Cemeteries Under the Moon, trans Pamela Morris, Providence: Cluny Media, p 4.

[2] Ibid, 41.

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