Work with Eager Hands
Thirty-Third Sunday of the Year. Fr Lawrence Lew preaches for the seventh World Day for the Poor.
Being Promoter General of the Rosary gives me cause to come to Rome several times a year for meetings with the Master of the Order and the other brothers who are entrusted with facilitating the global Dominican mission, encouraging individual Dominicans to utilise their talents and gifts in a coordinated way for the work of the Order in diverse places and ministries. Ccurrently my guest room in Rome faces the Roman neighbourhood of Trastevere, and the facade of its main Marian church, Santa Maria in Trastevere, has a mosaic frieze depicting ladies bearing oil lamps – those on the left are lit and those on the right are extinguished – so this is a reference to last Sunday’s Gospel parable.
However, in the middle of them is seated the Virgin Mother of God, who is depicted breast-feeding the infant Jesus. This caught my attention because these wise and foolish virgins aren’t obviously waiting for the Bridegroom but rather they seem to be pointing to the Virgin Mary who is truly the ‘most prudent virgin’ (as the Litany of Loreto says), and the ‘seat of wisdom’. So, this Sunday’s reading from Proverbs about the illusive ‘perfect wife’ made me think of this mosaic on the church which is within sight of where I currently am, and to realise that perhaps the perfect wife of which Scripture speaks is first of all Mary of Nazareth. Moreover, Mary is the archetype of the Church who is also a mother and also the spotless spouse of Christ (cf Eph 5:25-27). Hence, the perfect wife who is being praised in Scripture directs our gaze not only to the Virgin Mary but at the same time to the Church who is, in the order of grace, our mother. As St Augustine says: ‘Mary gave birth to your Head, the Church gave birth to you. Also the Church is a mother and virgin: a mother through the womb of charity, a virgin through the integrity of faith and piety.’
Now why, according to Proverbs, is the perfect wife praised and extolled by her husband? Because she is wise, busying herself with work that would bring ‘profit’ to her husband while at the same time welcoming and providing for the poor and needy. Considering the latter first, the Church has from the beginning been lauded for her provision for the needs of the poor including strangers. In Rome, for example, the pagan emperor Julian noted that ‘the impious Galileans [ie, Christians] support not only their own poor but ours [the non-Christians] as well’, and the martyred deacon of Rome St Lawrence famously referred to the poor as the ‘treasure of the Church’. So each of us, as members of Christ’s Mystical Body the Church, or to continue the metaphor, as children of our mother the Church, are thus called to be participants in the Church’s work of providing for the poor. Viewed from the perspective of today’s Gospel parable, then, we are called to be wise and discerning and even creative in how we use the money entrusted to us, but also to be directly involved in this work and so to not bury our talent as it were. Thus in a recent message for the ‘6th World Day of Poor’, Pope Francis challenged us: ‘Where the poor are concerned, it is not talk that matters; what matters is rolling up our sleeves and putting our faith into practice through a direct involvement, one that cannot be delegated. At times, however, a kind of laxity can creep in and lead to inconsistent behaviour, including indifference about the poor. It also happens that some Christians, out of excessive attachment to money, remain mired in a poor use of their goods and wealth.’ The example of the Church through the ages, especially in the practical example of her saints, show us how the Church as a wise mother and a perfect wife ‘holds out her hand to the poor [and] opens her arms to the needy’.
Secondly, what profit or riches does the Church bring to her divine Bridegroom, Jesus Christ? To each of us has been entrusted our talents in the sense of our gifts and abilities, our health, our various capabilities and strengths – all these God has given to us, ‘each in proportion to his ability’ as the Gospel says (cf Eph 4:7). The quantity of talents spoken of in the parable might be about their weightiness or their monetary value but we can also consider them to be indicators of time: One talent would have taken about 20 years to earn, so five talents is a hundred years, but either way, I want to suggest, they are a symbol for the duration of the lifetime that is allocated to each of us. Within the time given to us, in this one life that we have, how do we occupy ourselves, and how do we use the talents entrusted to us? The Church as our mother teaches us to give to the poor, but it is not the giving of money per se that matters. More importantly, we are being called to love with everything that we have received, and with all that we are. As Pope Francis says: almsgiving ‘can be a sign of love, the love shown by Jesus himself. In a word, generosity towards the poor has its most powerful motivation in the example of the Son of God, who chose to become poor.’
Therefore if we, as children of the perfect wife, busy ourselves with good works that are rooted in love and that, with God’s grace, will lead to the increase of charity in our souls, then the divine Bridegroom may be said to increase in riches and ‘profits’. For our good works serve to praise God for the gifts he’s given us, and they glorify our Father in heaven (Cf Mt 5:16).
Returning then to the mosaic at Santa Maria in Trastevere in which the Blessed Mother is shown breastfeeding the baby Jesus: we too are called to be nourished by our mother the Church, nourished by her sacraments, by her teachings, by the example of her saints so that we shall increasingly become like Jesus who humbled himself for our salvation. At the same time, we’re also called to look towards the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to use the gifts she has given us. The holy Rosary is Mary’s gift to the Dominican Order and through us to the whole Church. Let us not bury this talent, this gift, entrusted to us, but by investing our time and attention so as to pray it well, ‘doing this work with eager hands’, with meditation and devotion, we can profitably contemplate the Lord who became poor so as to enrich us (cf 2 Cor 8:9). For then we shall see, as Pope Francis says, that ‘because Christ became poor for our sakes, our own lives are illumined and transformed, and take on a worth that the world does not appreciate and cannot bestow… Out of love, he stripped himself of glory and took on our human condition. Out of love, he became a servant, obedient to the point of accepting death, death on a cross (cf. Phil 2:6-8). Out of love, he became the ‘bread of life’ (Jn 6:35), so that all might have what they need and find nourishment for eternal life.’
Image: Mosaic from the facade of Santa Maria in Trastevere, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP