Sermon on the fifth Sunday after Easter
18 May 2022
By a Dominican friar
“If you ask the Father anything in my name, he will give it to you.”
Today is the last Sunday before the Ascension of the Lord. We can therefore expect that the texts of today’s Mass will contain instruction to help us prepare for this great mystery. At the Last Supper, our Lord reassured the apostles that they would not suffer harm from the fact that He would soon no longer be with them in the same way; still more, we heard Him say last Sunday that it was expedient for them that He should depart, for otherwise, the Paraclete would not come to them. He is giving us, it seems to me, the same message, through the readings of today’s Mass. Not only do we suffer no harm from the fact that He has ascended into Heaven, but we have benefitted from it.
First, we hear from St James, the cousin of our Lord. (We celebrated the feast of St James, along with St Philip, on the first day of the month). The apostle James — James the Less, as he is sometimes called — governed the church of Jerusalem for thirty years after the Resurrection of Christ, before suffering martyrdom. The ancient writers tell us that his personal sanctity was famous not only among Christians, but even among the Jews who did not believe in Christ; to such a point, that when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70, many of the inhabitants of the city ascribed this disaster to the fact that they had put St James to death a few years before.
In his epistle, St James contrasts the man who is merely a hearer of the word, and the man who is also a doer of the word. The first, he says, is like a person who looks at his face in a mirror. “He beheld himself, and went away, and presently forgot what manner of man he was.” The man who merely hears the word of God — and St James is talking about someone who hears it with faith, not an infidel; for example, someone who listens to a sermon in church — this man learns something about himself, but he soon forgets it. He learns, let us say, that he is a creature, that he is a sinner, that he is called to be a friend of God, that he has duties toward God, that God desires to sanctify him. But just as the man who goes away from the mirror forgets what he looks like almost straight away, so this man forgets all these things which he has learned when he comes to act. He might as well be an infidel; he has heard the word of God, but it has not changed him.
The mirror of which St James speaks might be the Old Testament. The Old Testament did not give grace. When the Jews read the Law of Moses, or heard it in their synagogues, they were simply informed about themselves and their duties. Just as a mirror shows a man all the details of his face, so the ten commandments and the other moral laws showed the Jews how many desires they had which were contrary to the will of God. For example, they learned that it was wrong not just to steal but even to desire the property of another person; they learned that it was wrong to keep hatred in their heart toward a brother, or to rejoice in the misfortune of an enemy. Without the Law, they might not have known these things. Thus they were seeing how they had in themselves many tendencies to do things which were forbidden by God. In this way they beheld as in a mirror a reflection of their soul. But neither the reading of the Law nor the other ceremonies and rites of the Old Testament had any power to convert them, and to uproot the passions from their souls. So, when they went about their daily lives, the Jews still acted as fallen sons of Adam; they were like the man who leaves the mirror and immediately forgets what he is like.
St James contrasts all this with another man, “who has looked into the perfect law of liberty and has continued therein”. What is this perfect law of liberty? If the mirror was the Old Testament, I think that this must be the New Testament. But I do not mean just the material book, but rather Jesus Christ Himself, with His message and His grace. This is the perfect law of liberty into which the Christian looks. When we read the gospel, it is not so much our own soul that we see, but rather the personality of our Lord. And because we do we read the gospel in the same way that the Jews studied the commandments of Moses, but rather, we read it with the help of the sacraments of grace and with the presence of the Holy Ghost in our souls, therefore, the gospel has the power to change us. In this way, we become doers of the word, and not hearers only.
This is the first lesson which it is good for us to recall today, before the Ascension. Although our Lord is in Heaven, we can know Him just as much as the apostles knew Him while He was still on earth. When we persevere in prayer, as St James says, the Holy Ghost is purifying the eyes of our soul so that we can see the Face of Christ, that is, until we can know Him as He is. Thus, St James and the other apostles knew Christ even better after the Ascension than before.
Another other great lesson to be found in the readings of this Sunday is from the gospel. Our Lord says to the apostles, “If you ask the Father anything in my name, he will give it to you.” It was necessary for them to know that His departure from this earth would not weaken the bond between Him and them. The union between Christ and the apostles will be even closer after the Ascension and Pentecost, for they will be the members of His mystical body. They will also do something which they have not done until now, namely, pray to the Father in Christ’s name.
What does it mean, to pray in Christ’s name? First, and most obviously, it means to use His name when addressing God the Father. The Church always does this in her liturgical prayers – per Christum Dominum nostrum, or, per Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum Filium tuum. She does this most insistently in the greatest of her prayers, the canon of the Mass. No less than five times during the Roman canon, the priest uses these words, per Christum Dominum nostrum. It isas if the Church is reminding us that at Mass, more than at any other time, we should ask the Father for whatever we want.
We should not be surprised to learn that it is so useful to pray in Christ’s name, even in this literal sense. The very word “Christus” is a summary of our faith – it includes both the Trinity and the Incarnation. As you know, “Christ” means “Anointed”; and the Son of God was anointed by the Father with the Holy Spirit, when He was sent into the world. So by using the word “Christ” we confess our faith in the two principal mysteries of our religion, the Trinity and the Incarnation, and that cannot fail to be pleasing to God. Likewise, the very name “Jesus” has been given by God a unique power for driving away the enemy of souls.
On the other hand, we can also see from this how foreign to the spirit of the Church are those meetings in which some Catholics participate with non-Christians and offer prayers to God without mentioning the name of Christ. How can the Father be pleased with a prayer in which a Christian deliberately refuses to mention the name of the beloved Son of God, in order to please men?
Secondly, to pray in the name of Christ means to pray with His authority. It is the same as when one person gives to another the authority to undertake some business for him, for example, to buy a house or to sign a contract on his behalf. We say that the second person is acting ‘in the name’ of the first. In the same way, Christ has given to the Church a share in His own authority. As the true high priest, of whom the high-priests in the Old Testament were shadows, He has the right to ask His heavenly Father for this thing or for that; for a grace of conversion for one soul, or a grace of perseverance for another, or for some temporal disaster to be averted which is due to a person or a family or a country on account of their sins. But through the Ascension and the sending of the Holy Ghost, Jesus has given to His Church the right to ask for these same things. She does this constantly in the liturgy. The Church has, we can say, the right to receive what she asks for in the prayers of the liturgy, because of the authority bestowed upon her by Christ.
Not only this, but each individual Christian, marked with the sign of baptism, has a share in our Lord’s priestly office. Thus, each individual Christian prays in the name of Christ, that is, having a right to ask God the Father for the blessings which His Son has won for us. Just as the prodigal son was clothed with the “first robe” after he returned to his father’s house, we have been clothed with the grace of Christ, and this makes our prayers pleasing to our heavenly Father. I think that our prayers must be especially pleasing to Him when we pray for another person, since then we resemble Christ even more. How many people there are in the world who never pray for themselves, or even think of doing so: yet each of them has a soul that can still be saved, by God’s grace.
The final sense in which we pray in the name of Christ is that we pray for those intentions that are dear to the Heart of Christ. What are some of these intentions? St Anselm, who had to resist a tyrannous King of England in the eleventh century, used to say that: “nothing is dearer to God than the freedom of His Church”. To pray for the Church to be free from all the forces that constrain her at the moment, is certainly to pray in the name of Christ, and so if we persevere, the Father will grant this prayer. And one more intention, it seems to me, which must be particularly dear to the Heart of Christ, is the conversion of that people from whom He was born according to the flesh. I have a Jewish friend who became a Catholic and now travels the world trying to persuade other Jews to do the same. As we wait for the Ascension, and then as we join in prayer with Mary before Pentecost, let us say some prayers for the conversion of the Jews, which has been so long awaited, and which will come in the fullness of time.