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Monday 10 October 2011

The Gospel

6th sermon in the series on the Mass, preached by Fr Anton Webb on Sunday 9th October 2011, Feast of Blessed John Henry Newman of the Oratory.

"All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness". [2 Tim. 3:16]. The Church has taken these words of St Paul to Timothy to heart in devising the Lectionary we use in the Mass. The Lectionary, or the Book of Readings, ensures that after every three years, practically the whole of Holy Scripture has been read in church over the course of weekday and Sunday Masses.

If those words of St Paul are true for all the books of the Bible, they are especially true of the Gospel. In Ordinary (green) Time, the selected passages of the Sunday Gospel are sequential, although with some gaps because these other passages are appointed for other seasons or weekdays in the year, particularly St John. Over a three year period, Matthew is assigned to the first year (A), Mark and chapter six of John the second (B), and Luke the third (C). The First Reading from the Old Testament at Sunday Mass is non-sequential: it is picked to reflect in some way the Gospel of the day. So, in the Liturgy of the Word, prominence is given, by this arrangement, to the Gospel.

This prominence is also reflected in the way we hear the Gospel read. For the other readings we sit but for the Gospel we stand. There may be a procession with the Book of Gospels; we turn to face where it has been placed to be read; it may even be incensed. The priest of deacon seeks a special blessing so that they may worthily proclaim the Gospel. When it is about to be read, we trace with our thumb the sign of the Cross over our forehead, mouth, and heart. This is a prayer that we may ponder what we hear in our minds, proclaim it with our lips in daily life, and treasure it in our heart.

Why do we give such heightened reverence to the Gospel? It is, of course, because it treats directly of the words and actions of Jesus. The Old Testament foreshadows Him; the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles are concerned with the time after His coming, but the Gospel concerns itself from the moment "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" [Jn. 1:14] to when He "was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God." [Mk 16:19]. It encapsulates the whole of His earthly life, cataloguing for us the most significant events. Notice, by the way, that there is only one Gospel, since there is only one Lord and Saviour of us all. That is why the reading is introduced as "from the Holy Gospel according to Matthew/Mark/Luke/John." The Gospel is simply written from four different angles.

The Gospel is not about Jesus in the sense of a biography of the life of a figure from the past. The Gospel, rather, is Jesus in the sense that He lives and reigns and acts among us now for our salvation. It is the proclamation of the One who was, who is, and who shall be for ever. St Paul, in his opening chapter to the Ephesians, preaches what he calls "the word of truth" and "the gospel of…salvation" [Eph. 1:13]. For him they are the same thing. Our Lord in His own person is the Word of Truth and the Way to Salvation when he proclaims of Himself, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me." [Jn 14:6]. So an encounter with the Gospel goes beyond printed text to being truly an encounter with the Lord, and an invitation to be led by Him to His Father's kingdom.

How persuasive and powerful is the Word of God! In the Book of Genesis, God says, "Let there be light", and there was light. The Almighty decrees, and immediately it is accomplished. "He sends out His word to the earth and swiftly runs His command." [Ps. 147:15]. And so the words of the Word made flesh, enshrined in the Gospel, have especial impact. He comes into Galilee, saying, "Repent, and believe in the Gospel." [Mk 1:15]. Immediately, simple fishermen drop their nets, leaving their family ties and livelihoods to follow Him. In the synagogue at Nazareth, all eyes are fixed upon Him [cf. Lk 4:20] as they "wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth". [Lk 4:22]. "They were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes." [Mat. 7:28, 29].

Acceptance of Christ's Gospel, that is, the call to turn to Him and His Kingdom, is truly life-changing. That is one reason why Our Lord often uses examples connected with marriage to describe His kingdom, such as in today's reading from St Matthew. In marriage, two people become one. They will never be with their separate friends and family in quite the same way ever again. It is a new beginning, a new life. So it is with the new life in Christ. Circumstances change dramatically: "the last shall be first, and the first last." [Mat. 20:16]. But one is also transformed interiorly through faith and the sacraments. So St Paul says somewhere that the follower of Christ "becomes an altogether new creature." [Gal. 6:15 J.B.].

According to Blessed John Henry Newman, whose Feast Day it is today, "This has been the real triumph of the Gospel, to raise those beyond themselves and beyond human nature, in whatever rank and condition of life, whose wills mysteriously cooperate with God's grace, who, while God visits them, really fear and really obey God… It has made men saints, and brought into existence specimens of faith and holiness, which without it are unknown and impossible." [Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol IV, Serm 10].

Despite the arresting words of Christ and His extraordinary invitation to His heavenly marriage banquet, many refuse to believe His Gospel. We may feel this particularly keenly in our own land where the practice of the Christian Faith is a mere flicker of its former brilliance. Have we failed? Has our hope grown weak? That certainly is a temptation. Spreading the Gospel was always going to be difficult, and many saintly pastors of souls shine out in the Church—among them our own Blessed John Henry—for their courage in the face of adversity, for their love in the face of indifference. In showing to an heroic degree God's love to the people in their charge, they embodied in themselves the Gospel proclamation. They, in a sense, became the Gospel. In the spirit of St Paul, they were so "affectionately desirous of you [that] we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become so dear to us." [1 Thess. 2:8].

Newman remained strangely positive in the face of the infidelity of the age, pointing out that the Gospel never claims for itself universal acceptance it. While it is certainly true that God "wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" [1 Tim. 2:4], our Lord's message is that by no means all people will accept the truth. For example, in our Lord's comparison [Mat. 22:1-14] of the king's giving a feast for his son's wedding, those first invited "would not come" [Mat. 22:3], despite having been summoned twice. Our Lord concludes by saying that "many are called, but few are chosen" [Mat. 22:14]. I shall leave you with our Blessed Cardinal's own words on the matter: "It is no triumph…for unbelievers that the Gospel has not done what it never attempted. From the first it announced what was to be the condition of the many who heard and professed it. 'Many are called, few are chosen.' 'Broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat. Strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.' Though we laboured ever so much, with the hope of satisfying the objector, we could not reverse our Saviour's witness, and make the many religious, and the bad few. We can but do what is to be done. With our utmost toil we do but reach those for whom crowns are prepared in heaven." [Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol IV, Serm 10].