Monday, December 7, 2009

Prayers for today: Nations, hear the message of the Lord, and make it known to the ends of the earth: Our Saviour is coming. Have no more fear. Jer 31:10, Is 35:4

Lord, free us from our sins and make us whole. Hear our prayer, and prepare us to celebrate the incarnation of your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

St. Ambrose (340?-397)

One of Ambrose’s biographers observed that at the Last Judgment people would still be divided between those who admired Ambrose and those who heartily disliked him. He emerges as the man of action who cut a furrow through the lives of his contemporaries. Even royal personages were numbered among those who were to suffer crushing divine punishments for standing in Ambrose’s way. When the Empress Justina attempted to wrest two basilicas from Ambrose’s Catholics and give them to the Arians, he dared the eunuchs of the court to execute him. His own people rallied behind him in the face of imperial troops. In the midst of riots he both spurred and calmed his people with bewitching new hymns set to exciting Eastern melodies. In his disputes with the Emperor Auxentius, he coined the principle: “The emperor is in the Church, not above the Church.” He publicly admonished Emperor Theodosius for the massacre of 7,000 innocent people. The emperor did public penance for his crime. This was Ambrose, the fighter, sent to Milan as Roman governor and chosen while yet a catechumen to be the people’s bishop. There is yet another side of Ambrose — one which influenced Augustine, whom Ambrose converted. Ambrose was a passionate little man with a high forehead, a long melancholy face and great eyes. We can picture him as a frail figure clasping the codex of sacred Scripture. This was the Ambrose of aristocratic heritage and learning. Augustine found the oratory of Ambrose less soothing and entertaining but far more learned than that of other contemporaries. Ambrose’s sermons were often modelled on Cicero and his ideas betrayed the influence of contemporary thinkers and philosophers. He had no scruples in borrowing at length from pagan authors. He gloried in the pulpit in his ability to parade his spoils — “gold of the Egyptians” — taken over from the pagan philosophers. His sermons, his writings and his personal life reveal him as an otherworldly man involved in the great issues of his day. Humanity, for Ambrose, was, above all, spirit. In order to think rightly of God and the human soul, the closest thing to God, no material reality at all was to be dwelt upon. He was an enthusiastic champion of consecrated virginity. The influence of Ambrose on Augustine will always be open for discussion. The Confessions reveal some manly, brusque encounters between Ambrose and Augustine, but there can be no doubt of Augustine’s profound esteem for the learned bishop. Neither is there any doubt that Monica loved Ambrose as an angel of God who uprooted her son from his former ways and led him to his convictions about Christ. It was Ambrose, after all, who placed his hands on the shoulders of the naked Augustine as he descended into the baptismal fountain to put on Christ.

Ambrose exemplifies for us the truly catholic character of Christianity. He is a man steeped in the learning, law and culture of the ancients and of his contemporaries. Yet, in the midst of active involvement in this world, this thought runs through Ambrose’s life and preaching: The hidden meaning of the Scriptures calls our spirit to rise to another world.

“Women and men are not mistaken when they regard themselves as superior to mere bodily creatures and as more than mere particles of nature or nameless units in modern society. For by their power to know themselves in the depths of their being they rise above the entire universe of mere objects.... Endowed with wisdom, women and men are led through visible realities to those which are invisible” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 14–15).

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke (5.17-26)

One day as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law, who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem, were sitting there. And the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said, Friend, your sins are forgiven. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone? Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . . He said to the paralysed man, I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home. Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, We have seen remarkable things today.

The Sacrament of Forgiveness
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

There are numerous instances of physical healings worked by our Lord in the Gospel accounts. He drove out demons, cured the sick of various diseases, cleansed the lepers who sought him, healed the mute, the blind and the deaf, and he raised the dead. In our Gospel today there is something very different. We read that some men carrying a paralysed man on a stretcher arrived to present him before Jesus, but being unable to because of the throng, went up on the roof and lowered him before the feet of Jesus in the midst of the crowd around him. To the astonishment of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the first thing our Lord did was forgive the paralytic’s sins. Our Lord would not have been just twisting the circumstance to the advantage of displaying his power to forgive sins. Rather, gazing into the eyes of the paralysed man, he would have seen the thought of his sins that profoundly troubled his soul. Perhaps the paralysed man judged that his sins were in good measure the reason for his physical affliction. Perhaps he saw with clarity the trail of sin that marked his life and how helpless he was in the face of its weight. Gazing on him with compassion, our Lord could see that his sins constituted his greatest affliction and that he was indeed sorry for them. It was the hidden shadow hanging over his broken and helpless life, the affliction above all that needed to be taken away. At this he proceeded to forgive his sins, and his manner of doing so gave the clear impression that he was doing so on his own authority. He was exerting a divine power, acting as God would act. It astonished the Pharisees, who immediately understood its implications: “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Abraham never presumed to forgive the sins of another. Nor did Moses. Nor did the prophets. When John the Baptist administered his baptism of repentance, no one accused him of presuming to forgive the sins of those who were baptized by him. It was a ceremony that sought God’s forgiveness by an expression of repentance. Christ unhesitatingly forgave the sins of those he saw were repentant, and he did so in a way that manifested his divine authority.

Now, the question is, how are we sinners to attain this benefit granted by Christ to the paralysed man? How are we to approach Christ for his forgiveness? Of course, part of the answer is that we must do this repeatedly in our own hearts, and indeed this personal acknowledgment of sin and request for pardon must be regarded as an essential requirement for any forgiveness of sin. Our Lord’s parable of the Pharisee and the Publican holds up the Publican’s prayer for pardon as that which justified him. The parable of the Prodigal Son shows the wayward son returning to his loving father to seek his forgiveness. We must then be truly repentant, we must acknowledge our sins before God and we must try to make up for them in union with the reparation offered by Christ in his sacrifice on the cross. But there is more to the forgiveness of sins than our own standing before Christ in prayer as did the Publican in the Temple, asking God for pardon. Christ exercised publicly the forgiveness of sins and he handed this very power on to the Apostles to be exercised on his behalf. As we read in the Gospel of St John (ch.20), on the evening of the very day he rose from the dead, our Lord appeared before the Eleven in the flesh. He told them that as the Father had sent him, he now was sending them. With that he endowed them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and commissioned them to forgive sins. “Whoever’s sins you forgive they are forgiven. If you hold them still bound, they are held bound.” So what he did to the paralysed man and which provoked such a shock among the Pharisees, our Lord was now passing on to the Eleven he had just consecrated with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The same gift he was granting to the Church, to be exercised by those who would receive from the Apostles and their successors the ministerial priesthood. By the gift of Christ there is now present in the Church the same Jesus who acts to forgive sins in the way he did those of the paralysed man. This he does in the Sacrament of Penance. This is a great Sacrament, and Christ’s faithful ought avail themselves of it frequently. In that Sacrament the grace of Christ cleanses from sin with power.

Of course, the forgiveness of sins is a benefit that Christ brings in various ways to the life of the Christian. It is brought to him in his sincere prayer of contrition. It is brought to him in other Sacraments such as the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and the Eucharist. But it is especially in the Sacrament of Penance that Christ is present precisely and pre-eminently to forgive sins. Though the penitent does not see him, he is just as present, and forgives sins just as truly, as he did those of the paralytic in our Gospel today. Let us greatly prize the Sacrament of Penance.

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