Palm (Passion) Sunday – A

Why did Christ suffer the Passion? St. Thomas Aquinas believes that the Passion was not absolutely necessary as God could have done otherwise but it was necessary in a certain sense, within God’s plan of our salvation: “So must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-15) (3a. 46, 1). Within God’s plan, Jesus’ death leads to eternal life for us.

Thomas maintains that the Passion was part of a process culminating in the exaltation of Jesus, as Luke attests: “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and so to enter His glory” (Lk 24:6).

According to the Evangelists, Jesus’ death fulfills the Old Testament prophecies. For instance, Luke writes: “The Son of Man indeed goes as it has been determined” (Lk 22:22). Likewise, Luke asserts: “These are the words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled… Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day” (Lk 24:44, 46) (3a. 46, 1).

We see a similar belief that Jesus’ suffering and death bore out the foreseen plan of God in today’s Passion from Matthew (Mt 26-27). Jesus announces at His Last Supper: “The Son of Man goes as is written of Him” (Mt 26:28). Jesus tells Peter that He could appeal to His Father for legions of soldiers to save Him: “But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Mt 26:54). When the soldiers come to seize Him, He says: “All this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Mt 26:56).

In John’s Passion account (Jn 18-19), that we will hear on Friday, Jesus rebukes Peter for cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave, “Shall I not drink the chalice which the Father has given Me” (Jn 18:11). The soldiers did not cut His tunic but cast lots for it: “This was to fulfill the Scripture, ‘They parted My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots” (Jn 19:24). Jesus appeals for a drink, “After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture, ‘I thirst’” (Jn 19:28). The soldiers did not break Jesus’ legs but pierced His side: “For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled, ‘Not a bone of Him shall be broken.’ And again another Scripture says, ‘They shall look on Him whom they have pierced’” (Jn 19:37).

Thomas believes that Jesus’ death fulfills both justice and mercy. With regard to justice, Thomas reflects St. Anselm’s thinking that satisfaction for sin is needed because of the majesty of God and the proper order of the universe (Anselm of Canterbury, Why God Became Man and the Virginal Conception and Original Sin, I, 15).

But, even in justice, Thomas sees God’s mercy: “Since humanity could not satisfy the sin of human nature, God gave us His Son to satisfy for us: ‘They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by His blood’ (Rom 3:24-25) (3a. 46, 1, ad 3).

Thomas believes that saving us through the Passion of Christ is more merciful than if God had just remitted our sins: “And this came of more copious mercy than if He had forgiven sins without satisfaction. Hence it is said: ‘For God, who is rich in mercy because of the great love He had for us, even when we were dead in our sins, brought us to life with Christ’ (Eph 2:4)” (3a. 46, 1, ad 3).

Rather than emphasize the suffering in itself, Thomas stresses Jesus’ interior “love and obedience” as His “gift” to the Father:

He properly atones for an offense who offers something which the offended one loves equally, or even more than he detested the offense. But by suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity, from which He suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of His life which He laid down in atonement for man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion, and the greatness of the grief endured. And therefore Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 John 2:2, ‘He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world’ (3a. 48, 2).

Thomas offers five reasons why Jesus’ Passion was suitable for delivering the human race. He states: “In the first place, man knows thereby how much God loves him and is thereby stirred to love Him in return, and in that lies the perfection of human salvation; Paul says ‘God commends His charity to us, for when we were still sinners…Christ died for us’ (Rom 5:8)” (3a. 46, 3). Notice that Thomas affirms that our perfection lies in recognizing God’s love for us and responding with love.

Thomas proposes a second reason: “In this way, He set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice and the other virtues displayed in the Passion, which are requisite for man’s salvation: ‘Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps’ (1 Pt 2:1)” (3a. 46, 3). In His death, Christ offered us an example, how we should live our lives and bear our difficulties, humbly, in a steadfast way and with justice.

According to Thomas, Christ not only freed us from sin but also gave us grace that justifies us and opens eternal life for us: “Christ, by His Passion, not only delivered us from sin, but also merited justifying grace for us, and the glory of bliss” (3a. 46, 3). Thomas explains: “By Christ’s Passion we have been delivered not only from the common sin of the whole human race… but furthermore, from the personal sins of individuals, who share in His Passion by faith and charity and the sacraments of faith”(3a. 49, 5).

Another reason for the Passion is that when we consider Jesus’ death, we are reluctant to sin: “By this, we are all the more bound to refrain from sin: ‘You were bought with a great price. Therefore glorify God in your body’ (1 Cor 6:20)” (3a. 46, 3).

Thomas says that Christ’s Passion has given us “greater dignity… as man deserved death, so a man by dying should vanquish death: ‘Thanks be to God who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (3a. 46, 3).

Thomas affirms that, for these reasons, it was more fitting that we should be saved “by Christ’s Passion than simply by God’s will” (3a. 46, 3).

Thomas maintains, as did the Fathers of the Church, that Jesus’ Incarnation and all His actions are salvific: “From the beginning of His conception, Christ merited our eternal salvation; but on our side there were some obstacles, whereby we were hindered from securing the effect of His preceding merits: consequently, in order to remove such hindrances, ‘it was necessary for Christ to suffer’ (3a. 48, 1, ad 2).

In the second volume of his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict calls attention to Jesus’ anguished cry on the Cross, as not only the cry of Jesus, as an individual, but, rather Jesus’ cry is the cry of His whole Body. According to the Pope, Jesus’ cry on the cross includes the anguish of all people, past, present and future:

He prays as ‘head,’ as the one who unites us all into a single common subject and incorporates us all into Himself. And He prays as ‘body,’ that is to say, all of our struggles, our voices, our anguish, and our hope are present in His praying… now in a new way, in fellowship with Christ. And in Him, past, present, and future are always united (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two (Nairobi: Paulines, 2011), 164).

Thomas, likewise, considers Jesus’ action as the “head” of the body:

Grace was bestowed upon Christ, not only as an individual, but inasmuch as He is the Head of the Church, so that it might overflow into His members; and therefore Christ’s works are referred to Himself and to His members … Consequently Christ by His Passion merited salvation, not only for Himself, but likewise for all His members (3a. 48, 1).

Thomas explains that Jesus’ Passion causes the forgiveness of sins in three ways. The first is “by way of exciting our charity… it is by charity (love for God) that we procure pardon of our sins: ‘Many sins are forgiven her because she has loved much’ (Lk 7:47)” (3a. 49, 1).

The second reason relates Jesus as the head to His body:

Christ’s Passion causes forgiveness of sins by way of redemption. For since He is our head, then, by the Passion which He endured from love and obedience, He delivered us as His members from our sins, as by the price of His Passion… For just as the natural body is one, though made up of diverse members, so the whole Church, Christ’s mystic body, is reckoned as one person with its head, which is Christ (3a. 49, 1).

The third reason relates to Jesus’ divinity: “Thirdly, by way of efficacy, inasmuch as Christ’s flesh, wherein He endured the Passion, is the instrument of the Godhead, so that His sufferings and actions operate with Divine power for expelling sin” (3a. 49, 1).

In the Old Testament legislation, an unclean object makes a clean object unclean. Pope Benedict explains that Jesus’ death reverses this process:

When the world, with all the injustice and cruelty that make it unclean, comes into contact with the infinitely pure one- then He, the pure One, is stronger. Through this contact, the filth of the world is truly absorbed, wiped out, and transformed in the pain of the infinite love. Because infinite good is now at hand in the man Jesus, the counterweight to all wickedness is present and active within world history, and the good is always infinitely greater than the vast mass of evil, however terrible it may be. (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two (Nairobi: Paulines, 2011), 175).

In a similar way, Thomas affirms that Christ’s love was greater than sin: “Christ’s love was greater than His slayers’ malice: and therefore the value of His Passion in atoning surpassed the murderous guilt of those who crucified Him; so much that Christ’s suffering was sufficient and superabundant atonement for His murderers’ crime” (3a. 48, 2, ad 2).

Christ overcomes death and evil by undergoing them: “Just as Christ was not obliged to die, but willingly submitted to death so as to vanquish death by His power, so neither did He deserve to be classed with thieves; but He willed to be reputed with the ungodly that He might destroy ungodliness by His power” (3a. 46, 11, ad 1).

Especially when we emphasize Jesus’ self-offering, we may overlook the Trinitarian aspects of the redemption. St. Thomas reflects:

Christ’s blood or His bodily life, which is in the blood, is the price of our redemption and that life He paid. Hence both of these belong to Christ as man; but to the Trinity as to the first and remote cause, to whom Christ’s life belonged as its first author, and from whom Christ received the inspiration of suffering for us. Consequently it is proper to Christ as man to be the Redeemer immediately; although the redemption may be ascribed to the whole Trinity as its first cause (3a. 48, 5).

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P. 

References to Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. In this case, it is the third part of the Summa, questions 46, 48 and 49, and various articles. If the reference is a reply to an objection that had been raised earlier, the reference will offer “ad…” with the number of the objection.

Fifth Sunday of Lent – A

Today’s Gospel (John 11: 1-45), relates the dying and raising to life of Lazarus. Jesus knew Lazarus was going to die. Why didn’t Jesus prevent Lazarus from dying instead of letting Lazarus die? St. Thomas Aquinas finds a variety of reasons.

Lazarus’ sisters sent messengers to Jesus: “The one whom You love is ill” (Jn 11:3). Thomas observes that this reminds us that even the friends of God have difficulties: “The friends of God are sometimes afflicted with bodily illness; thus, if someone has a bodily illness, this is not a sign that the person is not a friend of God: ‘For the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights’ (Proverbs 3:12) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1475).

Thomas notes that if naturally a friend wills the good of his friend, “This is especially true of the one who most truly loves: as the Psalm says: ‘The Lord preserves all who love him’ (Ps 145:20).”

In the account of Lazarus’ illness and death, everything happens according to God’s providence, as Thomas comments: “Now all things that are from God are ordered… Once the miracle had been performed, people would believe in Christ and escape real death… so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1477).

Similar to the healing of the blind man, God’s glory is manifested: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (Jn 9:3). In the same way, Jesus declares that the reason for Lazarus’ death is that “The Son of God may be glorified by it” (Jn 11:4).

When the disciples caution Jesus that He might be stoned if He returned to Judea (Jn 11: 8), Jesus assures them: “If any one walks in the day, he does not stumble because he sees the light of this world” (Jn 11:9).

The day for Jesus is doing the will of His Father. In the account of the healing of the blind man, Jesus declared” “We must work the works of Him who sent Me, while it is day” (9:4), and “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (Jn. 9:5).

In raising Lazarus, Jesus will show that He is the one who will raise the dead: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God” (Jn 5:28).

Jesus discloses to the disciples that what will happen is meant to confirm their faith in Him: “I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe” (Jn 11:15). Thomas Aquinas explains: “So that you may believe not as though they were to believe for the first time, but in order that they might believe more firmly and more strongly, in the sense of ‘I believe; help my unbelief’ (Mk 9:23) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1502). The miracle of raising a dead person would strengthen their faith more than preventing a Lazarus from dying would have.

Thomas reflects: “We can learn from this that evils are sometimes a reason for joy, insofar as they are directed to some good: ‘We know that everything works for good with those who love Him’ (Rom 8:28) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1502).  

Thomas applies Jesus’ power to raise the dead to Jesus power to raise us from sin. Jesus’ going to Lazarus is similar to the way that God reaches out to those in sin: “Here we see God’s mercy, for in His mercy He takes the initiative and draws to Himself those living in sin, who are dead and unable of themselves to come to Him: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore have I drawn you, taking pity on you’ [Jer 31:3]’ (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1503).  

Thomas compares the “four days” that Lazarus was in the tomb with the progressive stages of sin.

  • The first day is the sin in the heart ‘Remove the evil of your thoughts from before my eyes’ (Is 1:16).
  • The second day is the sin of speech: ‘Let no evil talk come out of your mouths’ (Eph 4:29).
  • The third day is the sin of deeds: ‘Cease to do evil’ (Is 1:16).
  • The fourth day is a customary sin arising from evil habit: ‘You can do good who are accustomed to do evil’ (Jer 13:23).

Thomas reflects: “No matter how it is interpreted, our Lord sometimes heals those who have been dead four days, that is, those who have transgressed the law of the Gospel, and those who are held fast by habits of sin” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1507).  Jesus can call us out of the tomb of sin at any point.

Thomas recalls Jesus’ words when Martha was preoccupied with serving Him, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things” (Lk 10:41). Thomas draws upon the traditional identification of the two sisters with two types of service, “Martha and Mary represent two ways of life, the active and the contemplative” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1510).  

Martha’s going out to meet Jesus upon His arrival and Mary’s waiting at home are two forms of service to Christ: “Mystically, these events signify the active life, which is signified by Martha, who went to meet Christ in order to serve His members; and the contemplative life, which is signified by Mary, who sat at home dedicating herself to the repose of contemplation and to purity of conscience” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1510).  

Thomas considers that Martha’s faith is still imperfect because she thinks that Jesus would have to be present to save her brother and because she thinks that only through prayer could He save her brother, similar to the way Elisha brought a child back to life.

Thomas affirms, “His power is life-giving; thus He says, I am the resurrection and the life. Now Christ is the total cause of our resurrection, both of bodies and souls… The entire fact that everyone will rise in their souls and in their bodies will be due to Me: ‘For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead’ (1 Cor 15:21)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1516).

Jesus is the Resurrection because He is the “Life”: ‘… just as it is because of fire that something aflame which has been extinguished is rekindled: ‘In Him was life, and the life was the light of men’ (Jn 1:4) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1516).

Jesus declares, “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (Jn 11:25). In this way, Jesus is teaching Martha: “By believing he has Me within himself – ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (Eph 3:17) – ‘The righteous shall live by his faith’ (Hab 2:4). And one who has Me has the cause of the resurrection. Therefore, he who believes in Me shall live. ‘For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day’ (Jn 6:40)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1517).

Thomas compares the resurrection of the body with rising from sin: “Some will rise through faith: ‘The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live,” (Jn 5:25) … a spiritual life, by rising from the death of sin” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1517).  

Jesus asks Martha to make her faith in Him explicit:

“Jesus requires faith so He can bring her to perfection: thus He says, Do you believe this? Our Lord does not ask this out of ignorance, because He knew her faith. Indeed, it was He who had infused the faith into her: for the act of faith is from God. But He asks this question in order that she might profess outwardly the faith she had in her heart: as we read, ‘For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved’ (Rom 10:10)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1518).  

Although Jesus asks Martha if she believes that He is the Resurrection and the Life, she answers by saying: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God. Thomas agrees with Augustine that Martha is declaring: “I believe it all; because I believe something more, which is the root of all these things: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1519).   

“Christ” means “anointed.” The kings and priests were anointed: “Christ is king and priest. Furthermore, he is a ‘Christ’ in a unique way, for others are anointed with a visible oil, but He is anointed with an invisible oil, that is, with the Holy Spirit, and more abundantly than others: ‘for it is not by measure that He gives the Spirit’ (Jn 3:34)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1520).    

In affirming that Christ is “the Son of the Living God,” Martha professes Jesus’ divinity: “That we may be in His true Son, Christ. ‘This is the true God and eternal life’” (1 Jn 5:20). Martha also professes the Incarnation: “She professes the mystery of His mission when she says, ‘He who is coming into the world,’ by assuming flesh” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1520).     

Martha calls Mary quietly. Thomas notes: “As for the mystical sense, we may understand that one more efficaciously calls upon Christ in quiet or in private: ‘In quietness and in trust shall be your strength’ (Is 30:15)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1522).     

The Gospel tells us “She [Mary] rose quickly and went to Him.” Thomas reflects:

“This furnishes us with the example that we are not to delay when called to Christ: ‘Do not delay to turn to the Lord, nor postpone it from day to day’ (Sir 5:7). When we wish to have the advantage of Christ we should go to meet Him, and not wait until He accommodates Himself to us; rather, we should accommodate ourselves to Him” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1525).     

The Gospel tells us that when Jesus saw Mary weeping, “He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (Jn 11:33). Thomas considers Jesus’ humanity:

“We should note here that Christ is truly divine and truly human. And so in His actions we find almost everywhere that the divine is mingled with the human, and the human with the divine. And if at times something human is mentioned about Christ, something divine is immediately added. Indeed, we read of no weakness of Christ greater than His passion. We have a similar situation here: for Christ experiences a certain weakness in His human affections, becoming disturbed over the death of Lazarus” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1532).     

 Thomas comments: “There is compassion for a right reason, for one is rightly troubled by the sadness and the evils which afflict others” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1533). Thomas elaborates on this compassion:     

Christ willed to be troubled and to feel sadness … to show the condition and the truth of His human nature. Secondly, so that by controlling His own sadness, He might teach us to moderate our own sadness: ‘Be renewed in the spirit of your minds’  (Ephesians 4:23).

Now our Lord willed to be sad in order to teach us that there are times when we should be sad, which is contrary to the opinion of the Stoics; and He preserved a certain moderation in His sadness, which is contrary to the excessively sad type. Thus the Apostle says: ‘But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope’ (1 Thess 4:13).

The third reason is to tell us that we should be sad and weep for those who physically die (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1535).     

Thomas returns to the interpretation that the “tomb” represents the sins that bind us: “They said to Him, Lord, ‘come and see.’ Come, by showing mercy; and see, by giving Your attention: “Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins” (Ps 25:18) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1536).     

The Gospel informs us, “Jesus wept” (Jn 11:35). Thomas reflects: “Christ was a well-spring of compassion, and He wept in order to show us that it is not blameworthy to weep out of compassion: ‘My son, let your tears fall for the dead’ (Sir 38:16). He wept with a purpose, which was to teach us that we should weep because of sin” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1537).

Seeing Jesus weep, the people said, “See how He loved him!” (Jn 11:36). Thomas comments: “As for the mystical sense, we understand by this that God loves us even when we are sinners, for if He did not love us He would not have said: ‘For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Matt 9:13). So we read in Jeremiah (31:3): ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued My faithfulness to you’” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1538).

As Jesus drew closer to the tomb, He was “deeply moved again.” Thomas points out  the Evangelist’s efforts to show us the two natures of Christ:

“Christ experienced the weaker and humbler marks of our nature so that we do not doubt the reality of His human nature. And just as John shows His divine nature and power more explicitly than the other Evangelists, so he also mentions His weaker aspects, and other such things which especially reveal the affections of Christ’s human nature” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1541).

Thomas returns to the explanation by which the cave signifies the depths of sin. Jesus orders, “Take away the stone” (Jn 11:39). There is a fear that the corpse will smell. Thomas affirms, according to this interpretation, “For just as good works spread a good odor, as the Apostle says – ‘We are the aroma of Christ to God’ (2 Cor 2:15) – so from evil works there arises an evil odor and a stench” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1546).

Thomas calls attention to Christ’s way of praying:

Jesus lifted up his eyes, that is, He lifted up His understanding, directing it in prayer to the Father above. As for us, if we wish to pray according to the example of Christ’s prayer, we have to raise the eyes of our mind to Him by turning them from the memories, thoughts and desires of present things. We also lift our eyes to God when we do not rely on our own merits, but hope in His mercy alone” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1551).

The Father is quick to give, as Jesus exclaimed: “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. “Here we have a sign that God is quick to give, so that He hears our desires even before they are put into words: for the tears which Christ shed at the death of Lazarus acted as a prayer” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1552).

 Jesus thanked God as He began praying: “Christ gives us the example that when we pray, we should thank God for the benefits we have already received before asking for new ones: ‘Give thanks in all circumstances’ (1 Thess 5:18)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1552).

 Thomas explains that “… as having a human nature Christ is less than the Father and, accordingly, it is appropriate for Him to pray to the Father and be heard by Him. Therefore, since the will of the Father is the same as the will of the Son, whenever the Father fulfills His own will, He fulfills the will of the Son… My will is always conformed to Your will.”  (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1553).

Jesus announces: “I have said this on account of the people standing by” (Jn 11:42). Everything that Jesus did is a lesson for us: “We understand from this that our Lord did and said many things for the benefit of others: ‘For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ (13:15). For every action of Christ is a lesson for us” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1555).

Jesus’ prayer was an acknowledgement that the Father was His principle: “Christ wanted to show by His prayer that He was not separated from the Father, but recognized Him as His principle.

The miracle manifested that Jesus was sent by the Father: “…that they may believe that You sent Me (Jn 11:42). Jesus declared at His Last Supper: “And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (Jn 17:3).  Thomas concludes: “This is the benefit coming from His prayer” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1556).

Jesus called Lazarus out “with a loud voice” (Jn 11:43). Thomas observes: “We understand from this that Christ calls sinners to come out from living in sin. We are also called to let our sins come out of concealment by revealing them in confession” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1557).

Lazarus came out of the tomb immediately: “For such was the power of Christ’s voice that it gave life without any delay, as will happen at the general resurrection. For Christ’s mission was already being anticipated: ‘The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live’ (Jn 5:25).

Jesus commanded that they release Lazarus from his bonds. Thomas notes: “The sinner comes out when by repenting he passes from the practice of sin to the state of righteousness: ‘Come out from them, and be separate from them’” (2 Cor 6:17) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1560).

Thomas compares Lazarus’ condition with the situation of one who is forgiven yet still feels attracted to sin:

“His hands are bound with bandages, i.e., with carnal desires, because, although he is rising from his sins, he cannot escape such annoyances as long as he lives in the body. Thus the Apostle says: ‘I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin’ (Rom 7:25). His face being wrapped with a cloth signifies that in this life we cannot have full knowledge of God: ‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face’ (1 Cor 12:12)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1560).

In the sacrament of Reconciliation,

“One comes out in this way by leaving his secret sins by disclosing them in confession. That one confesses is due to God calling him with a loud voice, that is, by grace. And the one who confesses, as still guilty, is the dead person still wrapped in bandages. In order for his sins to be loosed, the ministers are commanded to loose him and let him go. For the disciples loose those whom Christ by Himself vivifies inwardly, because they are absolved, being vivified by the ministry of the priests: ‘Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ (Matt 16:19)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1560).

Thomas compares the role of the confessor with that of the disciples who unbound Lazarus:

“For it is proper to the sacraments of the New Law that in them grace is conferred. But the sacraments exist in the administration of the ministers. Thus, in the sacrament of penance, contrition and confession behave materially on the part of the one receiving the sacrament; but the causative power of the sacrament lies in the absolution of the priest, by the power of the keys, through which he somehow applies the effect of our Lord’s passion to the one he absolves so that he obtains remission” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1561).

“Therefore, one must say that just as in the sacrament of baptism, the priest, by pronouncing the words and washing outwardly, exercises the ministry of baptism, while Christ baptizes inwardly, so the priest, by the power of the keys, outwardly administers the ministry of absolution, while Christ remits the guilt by grace” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1561).

The Evangelist tells us that “many believed in Him” (Jn 11:45): “Our Lord had said that He would perform this miracle for those standing by, so that they might believe in Him. And so His words were not empty, but many believed because of the miracle they saw.”

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

Passages from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. John are taken from Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, II, trans. Fabian R. Larcher, O.P., (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications).

Fourth Sunday of Lent – A

These days, most of the people in the world are thinking and talking about the Corona Virus, particularly how to protect themselves and their loved ones. Many people are asking why has it happened? Of course, we know something happened in China – but what does it mean that something like this has happened? Many people, even some who don’t practice any religion ask, why has God let this happen? It would be very foolish to try to come up with some answers, but we can find some directions in the Gospels.

Oftentimes when things go badly, we suspect it is some sort of punishment. This isn’t what Jesus teaches. When Jesus is told that Pilate slaughtered some Galileans, Jesus asked, “Do you think they were the worst sinners.” (Lk 13:2).

In the Gospel today, we are looking at the healing of the man born blind (John 9:1-41). The disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9:2). Jesus answers “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God may be manifested.”

In his Commentary on the Gospel of John, St. Thomas Aquinas considers what it means for us that the works of God may be manifested. He recalls that St. Augustine wrote: “God is so good that He would never permit any evil to occur, unless He was so powerful as to draw some good from every evil” (Augustine, Letter CLV).

Thomas explains: “Evil is never applied except for the good God intends. And among these goods the best is that the works of God be manifested, and from them that God be known. Therefore, it is not unfitting if He sends afflictions or allows sins to be committed in order that some good come from them” (Commentary on John, 1301).

The man’s blindness set up an opening for God’s action. This is how he came to appreciate God. Thomas adds: “the knowledge of God is man’s greatest good, since our happiness consists in this: ‘This is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent’ (Jn 17:3)” (Commentary on John, 1300). If we think about it the most solid basis of our happiness is knowing God is sustaining us.

We become better people through the challenges we meet in life. Thomas observes:

“Sometimes it is done to encourage virtue … he is led to a stronger love by knowing the power of the one who unexpectedly delivered him from some difficulty: ‘Virtue is made perfect in infirmity’ [2 Cor 12:9]” (Commentary on John, 1302).

Jesus moves the conversation from physical blindness to spiritual blindness, as He announces: “We must do the works of Him who sent Me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 9:4-5).

The prophet Malachi announced: “But for you who fear My name the sun of righteousness shall rise” (Mal 4:2). Thomas states: “Therefore, as long as this Sun is present to us, the works of God can be done in us, for us, and by us. At one time this Sun was physically present to us; and then it was day: ‘This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it’ (Ps 118:24). Therefore, it was fitting to do the works of God (Commentary on John, 1305).

Notice the works of God can be done “in us, for us, and by us.” Jesus said: “When the night comes, no one can work” (Jn 9:4). According to Thomas, the night is our spiritual separation from Christ: “And so night in this passage refers to that night which comes from the spiritual separation from the Sun of Justice, that is, by the separation from grace” (Commentary on John, 1307).

Thomas compares the physical sun with Christ. The sun is always shining but we do not always experience it: “For Christ, the Sun of Justice, it is always day and the time for acting; but not with respect to us, because we are not always able to receive His grace due to some obstacle on our part” (Commentary on John, 1306).

Jesus’ bodily presence continued until His Ascension. However, there is another presence, as Thomas shows: “… ‘as long as I am in the world’ spiritually by grace – ‘I am with you until the consummation of the world’ [Mt 28:20] – ‘I am the light of the world.’ And this day will last until the consummation of the world” (Commentary on John, 1308).

Jesus remains our light: “He is also present to us by grace; and then it is the day of grace, when it is fitting to do the works of God, while it is day; ‘The night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light’ (Rom 13:12)” (Commentary on John, 1305).

Thomas reflects that Jesus used His salvia to heal the man’s eyes in order to show that the power came from Him, as Luke reports: “Power came forth from Him” (Lk 6:19). Thomas notes that Jesus could have healed people by His word, however, as Thomas points out, “He frequently used His body in them to show that as an instrument of His divinity His body held a definite healing power” (Commentary on John, 1310).

Since Christ brings us the revelation of God, He mixes what belongs to Him and what belongs to us in order to heal us: “He anointed the eyes of the blind man, that is, of the human race. And the eyes are the eyes of the heart, anointed by faith in the incarnation of Christ” (Commentary on John, 1311).

Thomas recalls Augustine’s attention to the courage of the man born blind: “Look at him! He became a preacher of grace. See him! He preaches and testifies to the Jews….” (Tractate on John, 44, 8). Augustine adds that the one who had received his sight gladly desired to give them light (Tractate on John, 44, 11).

Thomas points out that, after the man had been put out of the synagogue, Jesus went to find him:

“Christ’s eagerness to teach is described… First, by his attentive consideration to what was done to the man born blind. For just as a trainer carefully considers what his athlete undergoes for his sake, so Christ attentively considered what the man born blind underwent for the sake of the truth and because of his assertions… Secondly, we see Christ’s eagerness from his efforts in searching for him, for the Evangelist says, and having found him; for we are said to find what we diligently seek” (Commentary on John, 1355).

The man is moved to faith in Jesus:

Then when the Evangelist says, he said, Lord, I believe, we see the devout faith of the man born blind. And first, he professes with his lips the faith in his heart, saying, Lord, I believe: ‘Man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved’ (Rom 10:10). Secondly, he shows it in his conduct, and he worshipped him. This shows that he believes in the divine nature of Christ, because those whose consciences have been cleansed know Christ not only as the son of man, which was externally obvious, but as the Son of God, who had taken flesh: for adoration is due to God alone: ‘You will adore the Lord, your God’ [Dt 6:13] (Commentary on John, 1358).

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

Passages from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. John are taken from Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, II, trans. Fabian R. Larcher, O.P., (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications).

Third Sunday of Lent – A

As the woman of Samaria approaches the well, she discovers a Jewish man there. They quickly enter into a conversation about water, although “water” has a different meaning for each of them.

The well has great significance for her, since Jacob originally established it and gave it to the people. Daily, she comes to the well to draw water to quench her thirst. Jesus uses “water” to explain what He wants to offer the woman.

Jesus tells her that if she only recognized the gift that God wants to give her and who it is who is before her, she would have asked for this “gift,” which is “living water.”

St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the gifts of God require that we desire them and ask for them:

Grace is not given to anyone without their asking and desiring it… in the justification of a sinner an act of free will is necessary to detest sin, and to desire grace, according to Matthew 7:7: ‘Ask and you will receive.’ Therefore, no one who resists grace receives it, unless he first desires it; this is clear in the case of Paul who, before he received grace, desired it, saying ‘Lord, what do You want me to do?’ (Acts 9:16). (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 578).

Thomas shows what leads a person to ask:

There are two things which lead a person to desire and ask for grace: a knowledge of the good to be desired and a knowledge of the giver… He says, ‘If you knew the gift of God,’ which is every desirable good that comes from the Holy Spirit. And this is a gift of God, and so forth. Secondly, He mentions the giver, and He says, ‘and realized who it is who says to you,’ i.e. if you knew the one who can give it, namely, that it is I (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 579).

As we recognize our concerns about ourselves and others, desires from within us. We bring those desires before the Lord and ask for them.

The woman knows that she needs water and daily she comes to the well for water to quench her thirst.  St. Augustine observes: “We must recognize ourselves in her words and in her person…” (Treatise on John).

“Water” is one the basic physical needs that keeps reoccurring, similar to the need for food. We continually seek ways to find satisfactions in our lives but Thomas notices that we are often disappointed: “Before temporal things are possessed, they are highly regarded and thought satisfying; but after they are possessed, they are found to be  neither so great as thought nor sufficient to satisfy our desires, and so our desires are not satisfied but move on to something else” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 586).

Relationships with others are important for us but even the closest relationships cannot satisfy all our needs. The woman has had five husbands and is living with another man. Ultimately, there is something else for which she and we are looking.

Thomas reflects that water is called “living” when it continually comes from its source, as a fountain does. Thomas proposes that the “living water” that Jesus gives is “the grace of the Holy Spirit” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 577).

Similar to water, grace “cleanses,” and brings “refreshing relief” and “satisfies our desires, in contrast to our thirst for earthly things, and all temporal things whatever: ‘Come to the waters, all you who thirst’ (Is 55:1)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 577).

Grace is never separated from its source:

The grace of the holy Spirit is correctly called living water, because the grace of the Holy Spirit is given to man in such a way that the source itself of the grace is also given, that is, the Holy Spirit. Indeed, grace is given by the Holy Spirit: ‘The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us’ (Rom 5:5). For the Holy Spirit is the unfailing fountain from whom all gifts of grace flow (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 577).

Because the Spirit is within us, the graces flow like living waters within us: “Spiritual water has an eternal cause, that is, the Holy Spirit, who is an unfailing fountain of life. accordingly, he who drinks of this will never thirst; just as someone who has within himself a fountain of living water would never thirst” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 586).

Jesus says that we will worship the Father in spirit and in truth:

And so when we pray, we ought to be such as God seeks. But God seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth, in the fervor of love and in the truth of faith: ‘And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God want from you, but that you fear the Lord your God and walk in His ways, and love Him and serve the Lord your God with all your heart’ (Dt 10:12).

The breakthrough is when Jesus tells the woman that He knows her history and she concludes that He must be a prophet: “For it is characteristic of prophets to reveal what is not present and hidden: ‘’He who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer’ (1 Sm 9:9)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 596).

The woman now sets aside her water jar, in other words, living for temporal things: “The water jar is a symbol of worldly desires, by which men draw out pleasures from the depths of darkness – symbolized by the well – i.e. from a worldly manner of life. Accordingly, those who abandon worldly desires for the sake of God leave their water jars” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 625).

Jesus’ thirst and hunger for us:

According to Thomas, this Gospel tells us about Jesus’ thirst, which is for us: ““He asks for a drink both because He was thirsty for water on account of the heat of the day, and because He thirsted for the salvation of man on account of His love. Accordingly, while hanging on the cross, He cried out: ‘I thirst’” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 569).

The reason for the Incarnation was to bring us to God. We forget that it was and is about us, as the Nicene Creed affirms: “For us and for our salvation.”

When the disciples return with food, Jesus doesn’t eat and explains to the disciples: “Doing the will of Him who sent Me and bringing His work to completion is My food.”

Thomas reflects upon these words:

The food that Christ had to eat is the salvation of men: this was what He desired. When He says that He has food to eat, He shows how great a desire He has for our salvation. For just as we desire to eat when we are hungry, so He desires to save us: ‘My delight is to be with the children of men’ (Prv 8:31). So He says, I have food to eat, i.e. the conversion of the nations, ‘of which you do not know’; for they had no way of knowing beforehand about his conversion of the nations (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 634).

Thomas further elaborates: “The sense is this: My food is, i.e., in this is my strength and nourishment, to do the will of Him who sent Me; according to ‘My God, I desired to do Your will, and Your law is within My heart’ (Ps 39:9), and ‘I came down from heaven not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me’ (Jn 6:38).”

Thomas draws upon Paul’s Letter to the Romans, to describe the extent to which Jesus went to draw us to the Father:

This work of the Lord needed to be repaired in order to become right again; and this was accomplished by Christ, for ‘Just as by the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one man, many will be made just’ (Rom 5:19). Thus Christ says, to accomplish His work, to bring men back to what is perfect” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 643).

Thomas also recognizes that the woman comes to share in Jesus’ thirst: “The woman left her water jar and went off to the town, to tell of the wonderful things Christ had done; and she was not now concerned for her own bodily comfort but for the welfare of others. In this respect, she was like the apostles, who ‘leaving their nets, followed the Lord’ (Mt 4:20)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 625).

Thomas observes:

Next we see her manner of preaching (v. 29). She first invites them to see Christ, saying, ‘Come and see the man…’ Neither did she say, ‘believe,’ but ‘Come and see; for she was convinced that if they were to taste from the well by seeing Him, they would be affected in the same way she was: ‘Come and I will tell you the great things He has done for me’ (Ps 65:16). In this she is imitating the example of a true preacher, not calling men to himself, but to Christ: ‘What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor 4:5) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 626).

Thomas remarks on the effect of her witness:

Many Samaritans of that town, to which the woman had returned, believed in Him, and this, on the testimony of the woman from whom Christ asked for a drink of water, who said, ‘He told me everything I ever did’: for this testimony was sufficient inducement to believe Christ. For since Christ had disclosed her failures, she would not have mentioned them if she had not been brought to believe. And so the Samaritans believed as soon as they heard her. This indicates that faith comes by hearing (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 657).

Secondly, the fruit of her witness is shown in their coming to Christ: for faith gives rise to a desire for the thing believed. Accordingly, after they believed, they came to Christ, to be perfected by Him. So he says, ‘When the Samaritans came to Him.

Thirdly, the fruit of her witness is shown in their desire: for a believer must not only come to Christ, but desire that Christ remain with him. So he says, ‘They begged Him to stay with them awhile. So He stayed there two days.

They came to realize that Jesus was their savior: “…this woman was a symbol of the Church of the Gentiles; and Christ sought the Gentiles, for He came ‘to seek and to save what was lost’ (Lk 19:10)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 622).

The people proclaim Jesus as Savior of the world: “They affirm that He is the universal Savior, because he is not just for some, i.e. for the Jews alone, but is the ‘Savior of the world.’ “God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him’ (Jn 3:17) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 663).

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P. 

The quotations are from St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, trans. James A. Weisheipl, O.P.  and Larcher, O.P. (Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1980, pp. 229-267.

Second Sunday of Lent – A

At certain points in our lives, we have an idea of where we are going. For instance, a student aims at finishing one level and starting the next. He or she has a good idea of what the next step will be. As we move beyond the clearly marked stages, we realize that we may not know where we are going.

I had a very sweet aunt, Aunt Peggy. Once, we decided to take her out for breakfast but we forgot to tell her where we were going. As we approached our destination, she asked, “Where am I and where am I going?” Many of us ask this question, where are we and where are we going.

Abraham was called from his country to journey to a land God would show him. Abraham didn’t know the way nor did he know where he was going. He knew that God would show him the way and lead him along the way.

We often do not know where we are going. What road are we on in this journey? How are we traveling? We might like to travel by a plane and get to our destination as soon as possible. We might prefer to sit in a train or bus and watch the towns and trees and rivers move quickly by us. We might prefer to travel by our own means, to go as fast as we want and to stop when we want.

If we choose to follow Jesus, we do not go quickly, we go step by step. We are not tourists, we are not observers. Like Abraham, we set out and let God show us where we are going, as we go.

Inevitably, we run into difficulties on the way. We think the difficulties are a mistake. They shouldn’t be there. However, St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that, after Jesus had foretold the Passion, He instructed His disciples to follow along His path (Mt 16:21, 24).

The Transfiguration gave them an inside view of who Jesus really was.

We are, St. Thomas says, “those who follow the footsteps of His Passion” (3a. 45, 1). He recalls Paul’s and Barnabas’ preaching, “Through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). 

As Paul’s disciple, Timothy was instructed: “Bear your share of the hardship which the Gospel entails” (2 Tim 1:8). The good news is that the tribulations are not our destination. The tribulations are because God is bringing us somewhere but where?

Like Thomas the Apostle, we might be inclined to say, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how can we know the way” (Jn 14:5). St. Thomas explains that, “In order for anyone to go straight along a road, he must have some knowledge of the end… Above all it is necessary when hard and rough is the road, heavy the going, but delightful the end” (3a. 45, 1).

Jesus knew who He was, the beloved Son of the Father and the Spirit rested upon Him.

Knowing where we are going strengthens our determination. Thomas adds that an archer wouldn’t shoot straight is he didn’t see the target. What is the target that we are aiming for? Where is the journey going?

Thomas explains that through our adoption as God’s children, we begin a process of being conformed to the image of His Son: “The adoption of sons of God is through a certain conformity of image to the natural Son of God” (3a. 45, 4). The Father is conforming us in the image of the Son.

Thomas shows that this process of our conformity into the image of the Son occurs in two ways. These are represented by two moments of Jesus’ life: His Baptism and His Transfiguration.

Thomas reflects that this process begins in our own baptisms: “In Baptism… we acquire grace” (3a. 45, 4). The process of our being formed in the image of the Son reflects the Trinitarian nature of Jesus’ Baptism:

Just as in the Baptism, where the mystery of the first regeneration was proclaimed, the operation of the whole Trinity was made manifest, because the Incarnate Son was there, the Holy Ghost appeared under the form of a dove and the Father made Himself known in the voice” (3a. 45, 4, ad 2).

Our conformity to Christ is also a Trinitarian process. Thomas explains that the visible manifestation of the Spirit was the dove at Christ’s Baptism, “in order to show forth Christ’s authorship over the grace given through spiritual rebirth.” This was confirmed by the Father’s declaration that Christ was His Son, “so that others might be born again in the likeness of His only begotten Son” (1a. 43, 7, ad 6).

Our conformity to the image of the Son is imperfect. Thomas says that we are moving “by the grace of the wayfarer, which is imperfect conformity” (3a. 45, 4). We are in process. Thomas recalls John’s First Letter: “We are now the sons of God, and it has not appeared what we shall be; we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn 3:2).

Thomas calls our attention to the fact that the voice of the Father declaring that Jesus is His Son is heard in both the Baptism and the Transfiguration: “The words are to be understood of God’s eternal speaking, by which God the Father uttered the only-begotten and co-eternal Word” (3a. 45, 4 ad 1).

The words are the same in each occasion, yet Thomas points out that they are “not for the same purpose, but in order to show the diverse modes in which men can be partakers of the likeness of the eternal Sonship” (3a. 45, 4 ad 1).

Thomas teaches that the imperfect stage of the wayfarer eventually leads to the perfect stage in glory: “Christ came to give grace actually and to promise glory by His words” (3a. 45, 4).

This second conformity is indicated by the Transfiguration, in which the Trinity is also present: “The Father in the voice, the Son in the man, the Holy Spirit in the bright cloud” (3a. 45, 4, ad 2).

Thomas says that “It was fitting that He should show His disciples the glory of His brightness, which is to be transfigured, to which He will transfigure those who are His” (3a. 45, 1). Even our bodies will be transformed as Paul writes: “He will change the body of our lowliness to be fashioned like His glorious body” (Phil 3:21).

According to Thomas, Christ wished to be transfigured to show us His glory to stir up a desire for it (3a. 45, 3).

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P. 

References to Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, which, in these references, is the third part. This is followed by the question, which in these references is question 45, with one reference to 43. Thirdly are the articles from which the quotations are taken. Those from question 45 are from articles 1, 3, 4 and 7. If the reference is to Thomas’ response to an objection that he raised in the beginning of the article, it is identified as “ad” (the Latin for “to”) followed by the number of the objection.

First Sunday of Lent – A

Why was Jesus tempted? Matthew, Mark and Luke place the temptations between the Baptism and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. At the Baptism, Jesus has been confirmed as the Father’s Son as the Holy Spirit rested upon Him, anointing Him before His mission. He is the Son. He is the anointed One. Why this period of trial? The Gospels state that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4:1).

The temptations are addressed to His Sonship. The devil repeats, “If you are the Son of God.” Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., observes: “The devil challenges his filial status, exploits his hungry situation, and seeks ultimately to thwart his role in salvation-history.”

The first temptation is to use His power for His own bodily comfort. The second is to force the Father’s hand, displaying Himself in an extraordinary way. The third is to compromise the means to bring about the kingdom, even to adore the devil. Jesus chooses fidelity to the Father.

Fitzmyer summarizes the temptations: “The three scenes then depict Jesus as the Son of God obedient to his Father’s will and refusing to be seduced into using his power or authority as Son for any reason other than that for which he has been sent.”

In our lives we have moments in which our temptations seem very strong like a rushing streams of water. Those same temptations continue throughout our lives, in a quieter way like small streams, at times under the surface.

Throughout His ministry, His being the Son, the anointed one, will be disputed. His authority to teach and His right to heal will be challenged. He will not be accepted, even by the people of His village and by members of His own family. 

The temptations run through Jesus’ ministry to use His power to prove Himself, to crush His opponents, to force acceptance. He will not work mighty deeds in Nazareth because of their lack of faith. As He dies, the temptations continue: “If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross… He saved others. He cannot save Himself” (Mt 27:40, 42).

St. Thomas Aquinas explains: ““Christ came to destroy the works of the devil, not by powerful deeds, but rather by suffering from him, so to conquer the devil by righteousness not by power” (3a. 41, 1, ad 1).

What about ourselves? Jesus models our experiences. As He picks up His Cross, so He calls us to “take up [our] cross and follow Him… to lose [our] lives for His sake and that of the Gospel” (Mk 8:34-35).

Thomas Aquinas tells us that “Christ wished to be tempted that He might strengthen us against temptations” (3a. 41, 1). He strengthens us by making us aware that temptation or trials are not out of the ordinary. At times, our defenses against temptation are undermined because we think that the temptation indicates our real desires.

The Council of Trent uses the word “concupiscence” to affirm that “an inclination” to sin is not sin itself: “… there remains in the baptized concupiscence of an inclination, although this is left to be wrestled with, it cannot harm those who do not consent, but manfully resist by the grace of God…This concupiscence … the Catholic Church has never understood to be called sin…( Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, 791).

St. Thomas reminds us that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted. Thomas says: “the Holy Spirit exposes to temptation those whom He had filled” (Commentary on Matthew).

Whenever we try to do something good, sooner or later, difficulties emerge, perhaps the technology on which we depended breaks down or our efforts bring us into tensions with others. As often as not, the difficulties arise from ourselves. We want things to be the way we want them, now!  

A basic temptation is to resist the movement of the Holy Spirit, just as the devil tempted Jesus to turn away from God’s plan.

The American crooner, Frank Sinatra, was known for his song, “I did it my way.” According to Thomas, when we are open to the Spirit, we do it His way: “For men are led by the Holy Spirit, when they are moved by charity in such a way that they are not moved on their own initiative but by another; because they follow the impulse of charity: ‘The charity of God drives us’ (2 Cor 5:14) (Commentary on Matthew). Rather than use force, Jesus brought change by His patient endurance.

St. Thomas notices that Jesus is tempted after the Baptism. We might think that the Baptism and anointing should come after the temptations. Jesus is tempted because He is the Son of God, because He is the Lord’s anointed.

Thomas explains the reason: “We may be warned that no one, however holy, may think himself free from temptation… He was tempted after Baptism.” Surely, it is a surprise to each of us to discover, after we have somehow dedicated ourselves to God, perhaps through a conversion experience or entering a religious community, that temptations continue. Thomas recalls the Book of Sirach: “When you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials” (Sir. 2:1).

After Catherine of Siena was clothed with the Dominican habit, she spent three years in prayer and fasting, alone in her room, leaving only for Mass. Rather than experiencing spiritual consolation, her small room became a battlefield where she was taunted by temptations, especially lewd apparitions of demons. Repeatedly she threw herself upon the merciful help of God, affirming, “I trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

In one of her letters, Catherine recalled that Jesus appeared to her after these trials. She asked Him where He had been in her temptations. He told that He had been with her and the sign of His presence was that her will resisted the temptations.

Catherine came to understand that these temptations were actually God’s way of making her draw closer to Him. She tried to teach this to others, as she did in her letter to a monk in prison: “Think that the goodness of God permits the devils to molest our souls in order to make it humble and to recognize His goodness, and to run back to Him into His sweet wounds, as a little child runs back to the mother” (Letter 4).

Catherine became convinced that following Christ had to involve temptations and struggles: “You, my soul, as a member, ought not to pass by another way than your head. It is not right that under the thorned head there are delicate members” (Letter 38).

She came to see that, in their struggles, people grew in virtue: “With what does purity prove itself and with what is it acquired? With the contrary, that is with the annoyance of impurity… Through the contrary of the virtue, the virtue is acquired….in many storms and temptations” (Letter 211).

According to Thomas, one of the reasons that Jesus underwent temptation was, “To fill us with confidence in His mercy.” Thomas refers to the Letter to the Hebrews, “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).

Through Jesus, we become the sons of God and we are given the Holy Spirit. In our experiences of temptations, we are joined with the power of Christ in His temptations: “The sons of God, having the Holy Spirit, are led into the desert to be tempted with Christ” (Commentary on Matthew).

Jesus, as He was tempted, saves us from our temptations: “For He willed to be tempted, in order that, as He overcame our death by His, so He would overcome all our temptations by His “(Commentary on Matthew)

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

The quotations from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew were done by R.F. Larcher, O.P. The full text may be found on the web site of the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C.: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/