Aquinas and The Mysteries of Light

On Saturday 25th March the Rosary Shrine hosted its first day conference in Blackfriars Hall. Four talks were given on the insights into the mysteries we contemplate in the Rosary which are found in the works of the great Dominican theologian St Thomas Aquinas.  The following is Sr Ann's talk.

The other talks at the conference may be found at the following link: http://rosaryshrine.co.uk/conference-talks/

"Et in mundo conversatus, sparso verbi semini" St Thomas on the Mysteries of Christ's Ministry, and on the lessons of His lifestyle. by Sr Ann Swailes o.p.

 

photo by Lawrence Lew o.p.

The eagle eyed among you will recognise that, in the way today's conference has been structured, the four papers correspond to the four chaplets of the rosary, the joyful, luminous, sorrowful and glorious mysteries.

This is both obviously and deeply appropriate in this place, where the rosary is literally built into the fabric of the church next door, but at first sight, perhaps I could be forgiven for thinking that, in being asked to speak here, of all places,  about the mysteries of light, the mysteries, as my title puts it, of Christ's ministry, I've drawn something of a short straw compared with my three dear brothers in St. Dominic

The church contains, after all, not 20 rosary chapels, but 14, representing all but one of the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries, all but one, then, of the decades of the rosary as it would have been known by those who commissioned the building of the church in the 19th century, with the fifth glorious mystery, the coronation of our Lady, depicted in stained glass, unifying the entire structure aesthetically from its place in the apse. The mysteries of light, by contrast, proposed to the faithful by St John Paul II in 2002, are at least apparently conspicious by their absence, and, as far as I know, the Fathers of the English Dominican Province have no immediate plans to buldanother five chapels.The luminous mysteries seem, in a sense, then, to be the poor relations here. But, then,  if you had asked St Thomas Aquinas, in whose company we are reflecting on the rosary today,  whether there were fifteen or twenty rosary mysteries, I suspect the Angelic Doctor would have been somewhat bemused, as puzzled perhaps as a Victorian member of the Dominican community here in North London would have been had you suggested to him that his church was only three quarters complete.There is, of course, a venerable tradition linking the rosary with St Thomas's Dominican Order, and I think it's possible to be rather too dogmatically sceptical about that. It is true that strings of beads had been used to count prayers, both by Christians and by others, for centuries before St Dominic, so the idea of the rosary being given to Dominic by Our Lady as an entirely new thing seems hard to sustain. Unless we wish aprioristically to assume that such things simply don't happen, however,  it doesn't seem to me intrinsically unlikely that a man of evident holiness known for his devotion to the Mother of God should have had an interior experience of her maternal care for his mission, from which emerged practical advice about how to root his preaching in prayer.  Whatever we think about all that, however, the rosary that for centuries Catholics have depicted Our Lady as encouraging St Dominic to use as a spiritual weapon in his struggle against heresy, and which  would have been familiar among the first few generations of friars preachers - familiar therefore to Thomas Aquinas -  was not precisely the rosary as we know it. In the first place, the Hail Mary would not exist in its present form for another two hundred or so years: until the early modern era, it consisted only of what is now the first half - ie, the explicitly scriptural part, with the supplication to Mary as Mother of God to pray for us now and at the hour of our death added only in the 15th century.

More immediately to our point, according to the available evidence, the fifteen rosary mysteries in anything like what we think of as the standard form are also rare before the late 1400s.  We have absolutely no way of knowing, therefore, whether St Thomas Aquinas ever reflected on anything like the mysteries of light as rosary beads passed through his fingers, but it is by no means impossible, and, therefore, I think it is not entirely inappropriate to look to his works for insights into these mysteries. In what follows, then, I'm going to be making unashamedly eclectic use of a range of St Thomas's writings, to see how they might illuminate for us the luminous mysteries.

But why, you might be wondering, should we look to St Thomas as a guide to the mysteries of the rosary at all? Obviously he's a big Dominican name, and the rosary is, as I've been suggesting, a big Dominican thing, our sacred heritage, we sometimes call it - though, as the wonderful initiative of this rosary shrine indicates, it's a heritage the Order of Preachers gladly holds in trust for the Church as a whole. So, in one sense it's obviously fitting for Dominicans in a Dominican Church to use the writings of a Dominican saint to shed light on a Dominican devotion. But I suspect, nonetheless, for many people Thomas Aquinas, rather than, say, Catherine of Siena, would be a surprising choice of Dominican celebrity in this context. St Thomas would not be an obvious go-to saint when we think about the rosary for many, because the rosary would seem to come under the general heading of "spirituality", and  his popular reputation is not, first and foremost, that of a "spiritual writer". If you thought you detected scare quotes in what I just said, you were quite right. And part of my not very well hidden agenda in this talk is going to be undermining the distinction, which I think would have meant little or nothing to St Thomas himself, between "theology" and "spirituality", between writers who help us to think and writers who help us to pray.

I think there's one further prelimary, though, that we need to address, before we look, inevitably selectively, at the mysteries themselves through the eyes of St Thomas, indeed some of you may have suspected that it lurked unsaid behind my opening remarks. Having argued that the question of how many rosary mysteries there should be would have been utterly opaque to Thomas, I nevertheless think he might in fact have something particularly helpful to say to anyone who still finds - as I have to confess I occasionally do - that it is difficult to integrate the mysteries of light into the threefold structure of the rosary with which we were so very familiar before St John Paul's 2002 initiative, just as it would be a fairly impressive architect who could incorporate another five chapels into this church without radically distorting its proportions.

 In general, from early modern times until 2002, overwhelmingly pray-ers of the rosary moved straight from meditating on the last of the little that is known about the childhood of Christ to a prayerful consideration of the events of the first Holy Week. Pondering the Lord’s baptism, his first miracle at Cana, his call to repentance and to the work of preaching, his appearing in glory on Mt Tabor before his Passion and his giving himself to his Church in the Eucharist clearly fills a lengthy gap in the story of Jesus, and this is obviously - at least I think it's obvious - a good thing.

So what is the difficulty? I think it's something like this: we are all born, we all die, we all hope for heaven. These great biographical building blocks are common to us all, and we have them in common with Christ, a fact that is powerfully underlined for us if we regularly meditate on the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries of the rosary. The circumstances may be wildly different, obviously, but there is enough common ground here amongst all of us to give some content to the idea of configuring our life to Christ through and around the great events of salvation history as they are echoed, however faintly, in our own personal histories.  So, there is a venerable tradition, evoked not only when we pray the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary, but also in many well-loved meditations for the Stations of the Cross, for instance, of asking for the grace to die a death in conformity with that of Christ, and indeed of uniting our sufferings up to and including the moment of our death with his. In terms of the joyful mysteries, we can think in terms of what St Bernard in an Advent sermon calls the threefold coming of Christ. Christ comes into the world not only in the stable at Bethlehem and at the end of time, but also as we give birth to him in showing him forth to our neighbours through our lives.

But at least some of the luminous mysteries do seem a little more specific, and, if I can put it like this, Jesus-specific. We have all been born - and are also called to give birth, to give life, some of us literally but all of us metaphorically; we are all going to die and, sadly, may all have to accompany loved ones to the grave;  we hope to go to heaven and join our loved ones there: we all, to this extent, participate in joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries.   But we're not likely, ever, to turn water into wine or institute a new sacrament. I can be profoundly grateful that Jesus has done these things; with Mary his mother and mine, I can ponder and deepen my response to his gracious generosity in doing so, but - in the words of the prayer with which the rosary traditionally concludes, whilst I am fine with hoping to obtain what the mysteries of light promise, it is a little harder to see how I am supposed to imitate what they contain. Why, then, do I think that Aquinas might provide a particularly helpful way in to thinking about this? Fundamentally, it is because of his insistence on the reason for, as it were, the whole rosary, the reason for Jesus coming among us at all.

And this, it turns out, is a twofold reason, though its two dimensions are in fact two sides of the same coin. Though similar statements can be found scattered throughout the Summa Theologiae for instance, one of its most succinct statements can be found in St Thomas's commentary on the Gospel of St John. Reflecting on why the Lord calls himself the way, the truth and the life, Aquinas concludes:

‘Christ is the way by which we come to know truth, though he is also that truth: Lead me, O Lord, in truth, and I shall enter into your way. Christ is also the way to come to life, though he is also that life: You have made known the ways of life.’

Christ is the way by which we come to know truth, and he is also himself the truth.  Another way of putting this, I think, might be to say that, for St Thomas, the whole life of Christ has something of the quality of a sacrament. What do I mean by that?  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, in a definition itself heavily dependent on Aquinas: The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.  (CCC 1113)  In each of the seven sacraments of the Church, in other words, something really does happen, the sacraments are efficacious: not just symbols. We really are freed from sin in baptism, Christ really is present, body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist, and so on. But, since he respects our freedom and seeks our friendship, God does not simply do stuff to us, rather, he invites our cooperation by treating us as the rational creatures he has made us to be, by showing us what he is doing as he does it. So, whilst sacraments are not just symbols, they do have a symbolic dimension: they are efficacious signs.  Water is used in baptism because is a source of both new life and cleanliness, and baptism is the sacrament of our rebirth, and our washing from the stain of sin. We receive Christ in Holy Communion under the signs of bread and wine because he both feeds us spiritually and inebriates us with the joy of his presence. And so on.  The sacraments, then, are both healing remedies for our weakness supplied by the divine physician, and lessons given by the divine teacher, with the perfect visual - and audible and palpable and tastable - aids, bread, wine, water, the voice and gestures of priest and people - created by him with that very purpose in mind. As Herbert McCabe, OP, famously put it, the sacraments both do what they show us, and show us what they do.

We'll come back to this explicitly when we think a little about the fifth of the luminous mysteries, the institution of the Eucharist. But, for now, notice how it relates to the quotation from the commentary on St John. Jesus, in his earthly life, both teaches and heals us, tells us the truth and actually is the truth that sets us free, and I think it's fairly clear from similar comments elsewhere in St Thomas's writings that we're not supposed to understand by this that sometimes he does the one and sometimes the other. It's not that, for instance, Jesus comes along to tell us how to lead a good life, in the Sermon on the Mount say, or even gives us an example of leading a good life in the way he treats sinners and tax collectors, and then, in a quite separate move, perhaps because we've failed to understand the lesson or live up to the example, steps in to enable us to lead a good life. Rather, he does all of this simultaneously, just as, in each of the church's sacraments, God is both at work in us, and shows us how he is at work.  In the Summa Theologiae, for instance, in a text we'll come back to, reflecting on the way of life that Jesus led during the years of his active ministry, St Thomas tells us simply, and apparently without exception, "Christ's action is our instruction." But - admittedly the comment is put on the lips of an objector, but it's not this to which Thomas is objecting - when dealing with the Resurrection, he remarks, "all that befell Christ's humanity is ordained for our salvation". Everything Christ does, he does to teach us; everything that happens to Christ, happens for our salvation.

And this, in a very profound way, helps to free us from two rather dispiriting interpretations of the life of Jesus. We could, for instance, be very disheartened if we took the injunctions of Christ to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect, or to be merciful as the Father is merciful, out of context. However hard we try, after all, we are never going to be able to do so in our own strength: for that matter, we are never going to come close to imitating faultlessly the manifold way in which the Incarnate image of the Father manifests mercy in his ministry. But Christ does not only show us the way; he is the way and enables us to walk in it. 

At the same time what could it possibly mean for us as human beings, rational creatures made in the image of God,  to be saved, to be, that is, made whole, healed of the wounds that prevent us from being in friendship with God, if this did not involve our minds being renewed, our coming to see God, and ourselves, as we truly are, rather than in some distorted way in which we are tempted either to presume we have no need of God or be tempted to despair of his love for us? And, in turn, this means that salvation must actually change not just the way that we see things, but the way we respond to them, the way we live. If Christ is truly to be our salvation, this cannot be a matter of him swooping down from heaven to rescue us, but leave us unchanged. Rather, it means our coming to be like him, to see with his eyes and understand as he understands. The way which Christ shows us is not just the way out of a mess, it's the way of conformity to the Lord who has walked this way before us.

What I would like to suggest in the rest of this talk is that in the luminous mysteries in particular, we see Jesus doing what he tells us and telling us what he does. Each of them, in one way or another, has just this sacramental quality. And this means that, meditating on the luminous mysteries should bring us to see with the eyes of Christ, understand as he understands. To that extent, we can indeed hope not only that we may obtain what they promise, but also to imitate what they contain.

1) In the interpretation of the first of the luminous mysteries that he gives in the Summa Theologiae, the Baptism of Jesus by  John,  Aquinas shows particularly richly how the same event in the life of the Lord can be both for our instruction and for our salvation. In fact, the baptism is instructive in a double sense: first, although the sinless one does not stand in any kind of need of cleansing, his humility in approaching his cousin  and asking to be baptised provides an example for those who do, so it teaches us how we should behave; and secondly, it is in itself revelatory, teaching us in narrative, or pictorial form, several profoundly significant doctrines. St Thomas stands in an ancient tradition, of course, in noting the Trinitarian dimension of the baptism: here, as, later at the Transfiguration, Father and Spirit are manifested in making the Son manifest. Aquinas quotes St Jerome to this effect:

“The mystery of the Trinity is shown forth in Christ's baptism. Our Lord Himself is baptized in His human nature; the Holy Spirit descends in the shape of a dove: the Father's voice is heard bearing witness to the Son."

Moreover, somewhat ingeniously, the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove not only shows us who Jesus is; simultaneously, it tells us much about the Holy Spirit himself.  For Thomas, various characteristics conventionally associated with doves are emblematic of the seven gifts of the  Spirit, by which, as Fr Vivian I believe will describe this afternoon, the faithful are established and strengthened in holiness. Thus, for instance, Thomas tells us, compared with other birds:

The dove prefers the more choice seeds. This refers to the gift of knowledge, whereby the faithful make choice of sound doctrines, with which they nourish themselves. Again, the dove tears not with its beak. This refers to the gift of understanding, wherewith the faithful do not rend sound doctrines, as heretics do.’

Now, I freely acknowledge that pressing ornithology into the service of pneumatology like this is not how we tend to "do theology" today, and doubtless it will not be to everyone's taste. Personally I think it's wonderful, but in any case, it clearly shows us one way in which the baptism of Christ can be regarded as a kind of theological lesson. In fact, Thomas goes further, seeing in the dove's proverbial "simplicity" (as in "be wise as serpents but simple as doves") the disposition with which a would-be Christian catechumen should approach baptism and in its gentleness an image of the peace and reconciliation with God that baptism brings.

So, the Baptism instructs us in a complex variety of ways. It encourages us to understand our need of baptism, and, correctly interpreted, provides a kind of catechesis on the  nature of the sacrament of baptism. It teaches us not only about the nature of the Lord's authority and its Trinitarian origins –‘this is My Son, listen to him’ - but, perhaps rather more surprisingly, about the Holy Spirit who witnesses along with the Father to the Sonship of Christ, and by extension, therefore it also teaches  about the ideal shape of a Christain life informed by the Spirit's indwelling

The baptism then, is clearly an example of an action of Christ that is for our instruction. How is it also an example of an event that, befalling Christ, makes for our salvation?  In his description of what happened at the Jordan, where again he is profoundly dependent on the tradition of the Fathers of the Church, Thomas puts it like this:

‘It was fitting for Christ to be baptized. First, because, as Ambrose says on Luke 3:21: "Our Lord was baptized because He wished, not to be cleansed, but to cleanse the waters, that, being purified by the flesh of Christ that knew no sin, they might have the virtue of baptism"; and, as Chrysostom says (Hom. iv in Matth.), "that He might bequeath the sanctified waters to those who were to be baptized afterwards." Secondly, as Chrysostom says (Hom. iv in Matth.), "although Christ was not a sinner, yet did He take a sinful nature and 'the likeness of sinful flesh.'  Wherefore, though He needed not baptism for His own sake, yet carnal nature in others had need thereof." And, as Gregory Nazianzen says (Orat. xxxix) "Christ was baptized that He might plunge the old Adam entirely in the water’

So, Christ is not cleansed in the Jordan, rather, water itself, through its contact with the all-holy one is given the dignity which will, in due course, make it a fitting vehicle for the grace given in Christian initiation. And, highly significantly, although Jesus is sinless, he stands in solidarity with sinners, who are cleansed only through their solidarity with him. That concept of solidarity with Christ is one to which we shall return .

What Thomas says here, then, completely vanquishes any lurking sense that his is exclusively a moralistic, or narrowly intellectualist understanding of the work of Christ. It is not simply, in other words, that Jesus  gives us good examples, - though of course he does, the best possible ones, nor simply that he tells us about God, though he is of course the perfect revelation of the Father. Rather, Thomas is as sure as anyone in the Christian tradition that neither merely telling us,  or merely showing us, how we should behave is enough to set right what went wrong at the Fall. We need to be saved, and we cannot save ourselves; nor is showing us the extent of the mess enough to save us. Christ therefore sets in train the process by which we will be saved.

2) Thomas deals most fully with the second of the luminous mysteries, the miracle at the wedding feast at Cana in his commentary on St John's Gospel. In a lengthy - indeed some might say exhaustive exposition, he suggests many ways in which this episode in the Lord's life might be said to constitute "our instruction". It shows, for example, how misguided are those who confuse a true understanding of chastity with puritan prudery: the attendance of the Son of God at a wedding celebration gives the weightiest possible seal of approval to human sexuality; at the same time,  His presence there indicates the profound humility involved in the Incarnation: the One who invented marriage in the first place just turning up and taking His place anonymously among the revellers at a village nuptials. The fact that the miracle takes place at a wedding has a further symbolic significance for Thomas since it recalls the intimacy of relationship between Jesus and the Church, of which, according to St Paul in the letter to the Ephesians, the relationship between husband and wife is a kind of icon.

The marriage between Christ and his Church begins, St Thomas points out," in the womb of the Virgin, when God the Father united a human nature to his Son in a unity of person" and, presence of the Mother of Jesus at Cana is itself, for Thomas, also instructive. He reflects, rather charmingly, on why the Evangelist mentions Mary before her Son: we are told that "the Mother of Jesus was there" before there is any reference to the Lord and His disciples, and speculates that this might be because in fact the hosts asked her first; Jesus being apparently a pious type who wasn't often seen at social gatherings, and they needed to check up with His mother whether He'd be likely to accept an invitation. But, much more significantly - and convincingly - he also finds in Mary's initiation of the miracle - the nudge she gives to her Son with the words "they have no wine" - an image of her profoundly important role in the structure of the life of the Christian, and thus of the Church, suggesting that it is through Our Lady's continual intercession that we are brought into relationship with Christ, a process Thomas doesn't hesitate to call a "spiritual marriage". 

In its mystical meaning, the mother of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin, is present in spiritual marriages as the one who arranges the marriage, because it is through her intercession that one is joined to Christ through grace.

Every detail of the scriptural account for Thomas has instructive significance. Thus, the wine that has run out symbolises the human need - which Christ will supply in His ministry - for justice, wisdom and charity. Meanwhile, the fact that He turns water into wine rather than creating the wine from nothing - as, in His divine power of course He could have done  - has a profound dual doctrinal significance. First, it indicates that the stuff of this material world is under the dominion of God, and thus refutes the kind of dualism that suggests the physical universe is the domain of a lesser deity.  Secondly, it shows that Jesus came not to establish an entirely new order but to transfigure and redeem an existing one. And there is plenty more where this comes from. Lessons in moral theology, Christology, Mariology and ecclesiology abound in this deceptively simple miracle story: it has much to teach us about how we should behave, about who Christ is, who his mother is, and about the nature of the Church.

So, clearly, it is for our instruction. How, though, does what happens at Cana actually contribute to our salvation? Actually, St Thomas tells us, it is precisely by being a source of instruction that it does so.  The symbolic significance Aquinas finds in the story is said to "strengthen" the disciples, who, in their commitment to Christ will be challenged to taste the bitter, far from best wine of suffering before finally coming to share the heavenly wedding feast, and to bring others to faith. Although, as we have seen, St Thomas does not think people need nothing more than being shown where they have gone wrong in order to be put right, they do need to be shown, and the resulting clarifying of our vision is in itself part of what it means to be saved, healed, made whole.

3) Earlier I suggested that it is a little harder with the luminous mysteries than with any of the other three rosary chaplets to see how we are to imitate what they contain as well as obtain what they promise, but clearly the third mystery of light is the exception here. All Christians, after all, are obviously called to respond to the Lord's summons to repentance, and to play our part in bringing others to do so too. It may not always in practice be easy either to discern what precise form our proclamation of the Kingdom should take, or actually to put this into action, but the principal is clear enough: we are all required to make our own the  preaching of the gospel and the call to conversion of life that it contains. Amusingly, the section where he considers the question most explicitly of how Christ's own life should provide a pattern for ours, the section from which that phase, "Christ's action is our instruction" comes, is one of  several places in the Summa Theologiae where it is possible to see Aquinas indulging in covert vocation promotion for the Order of Preachers.  When dealing with "the manner of Christ's life", St. Thomas asks whether Jesus should have lived as a solitary contemplative, rather than in daily extended contact with human beings. He points out that although there is a sense in which the purely contemplative life, in which one is occupied solely with the things of God, is the highest, nevertheless, "that form of active life in which a man, by preaching and teaching, delivers to others the fruits of his contemplation, is more perfect than the life that stops at contemplation, because such a life is built on an abundance of contemplation, and consequently such was the life chosen by Christ."

Thomas - as he flags up at this point in the text - has already made the same point in an earlier section of the Summa in which he considers explicitly the relative merits of different varieties of religious life. It is, of course, a complete coincidence that what he considers the most perfect form - one in which contemplative prayer undergirds and issues in apostolic preaching - is the very form that has been pioneered by none other than his own  Order

The serious point, however, pertains to others besides Dominicans. All Christians are called, without exception, to imitate Christ, and, for Thomas that means, above all, imitating him in his charity, in the outpouring of the love of the Father. Christ does this by teaching, he does it by miracles of healing, by authoritative acts of forgiveness and demonstrations of power over nature. Above all, it is manifest in his Passion and death, by which, as I am sure Fr Simon will be pointing out to you later, we are both instructed and saved.

4) Transfiguration

Aquinas gives no explicit reason for devoting an entire question to the Transfiguration at the conclusion of the section on the miracles of Christ in the third part of the Summa. It could, perhaps, be simply because it doesn’t fit with absolute tidiness into any of the categories he has just listed, where he deals with miracles which demonstrate in turn power over unclean spirits, the heavenly bodies, human infirmities and irrational nature – the winds and the waves. Maybe, then, the mysterious events on Mt Tabor deserve a question to themselves for the sake of completeness: this is yet another kind of miracle Jesus does besides exorcisms, healing and commanding the elements to obey him.  But, more positively, if we think of St Thomas’ overall pedagogical purposes, perhaps the Transfiguration isn’t so much an oddly unassimilable episode, as a uniquely significant one.  His treatment of the Transfiguration, as well, incidentally, as clarifying certain well-meaning but somewhat Christologically one-sided accounts of the episode, abundantly suggests that it takes place both for our instruction and to contribute to our salvation. I think it’s worth listening to St Thomas’s own words at some length here, as he lays out his defence of the “fittingness” of the Transfiguration:

‘I answer that, Our Lord, after foretelling His Passion to His disciples, had exhorted them to follow the path of His sufferings (Matthew 16:21-24). Now in order that anyone go straight along a road, he must have some knowledge of the end: thus an archer will not shoot the arrow straight unless he first see the target. Hence Thomas said (John 14:5): "Lord, we know not whither Thou goest; and how can we know the way?" Above all is this necessary when hard and rough is the road, heavy the going, but delightful the end. Now by His Passion Christ achieved glory, not only of His soul, not only of His soul, which He had from the first moment of His conception, but also of His body; according to Luke (24:26): "Christ ought [Vulgate: 'ought not Christ'] to have suffered these things, and so to enter into His glory (?)." To which glory He brings those who follow the footsteps of His Passion, according to Acts 14:21: "Through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God." Therefore it was fitting that He should show His disciples the glory of His clarity (which is to be transfigured), to which He will configure those who are His; according to Philippians 3:21: "(Who) will reform the body of our lowness configured [Douay: 'made like'] to the body of His glory." Hence Bede says on Mark 8:39: "By His loving foresight He allowed them to taste for a short time the contemplation of eternal joy, so that they might bear persecution bravely."

The transfiguration, then, not only shows us something about Christ – it also shows us something about our own destiny in Christ, something, not of what sets him apart from us but of what, through his gracious initiative, we are called to share with him. Sometimes people talk as though what is happening at the Transfiguration is that Jesus is here revealing himself in his divinity, as though his humanity is but a mask which he allows on this occasion to slip. But this, St Thomas seems to suggest – as indeed does the scriptural text itself - is a mistake. It's a pious mistake, and it rests on a profound theological truth of course: Jesus is God. But it's nonetheless a serious one. What is revealed as glorious on Mount Tabor is precisely the body of Jesus, that body which He took of the Blessed Virgin Mary and which is, above all, the guarantee of Him being not only truly God but truly human also. Intriguingly, in fact, the Transfiguration, the fourth mystery of light does have a place in one of the rosary chapels next door - you'll remember I said in passing that the Mysteries of Light are only apparently absent there - and it's the chapel of the Annunciation. Presumably the point we are supposed to take away from this juxtaposition is that it is, precisely, in his humanity, the humanity he takes from Our Lady and shares with us, that Christ is glorious, even though the glory is generally hidden during his earthly ministry.

But Aquinas is equally clear – disconcertingly so – about the process by which we come to share in this glory. It is not, of course, in virtue of some automatic process of evolution, not in virtue of our unaided efforts at transcendence, as though the message of the Transfiguration is "glory to man in the highest", as though we can achieve such glory in our own strength or on account of our innate potential.  Rather, it is in virtue of what St Luke tells the “exodus” of Jesus, which he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem, in virtue, in other words, of his Passion and death.  And, notice that,  significantly, it is not merely that somehow the Passion wins glory for Christ’s followers in a manner external to them: instead, Christ calls his disciples to follow him on the road that leads to glory, with the Transfiguration. This it seems is imitating as well as obtaining with a vengeance: indeed, it is imitating in order to obtain.

5) I've been suggesting that the whole of Christ's life has the quality of a Sacrament - a quality we can see shining through with particular intensity, perhaps, in the episodes chosen for the Church's reflection by St John Paul II in the luminous mysteries of the rosary.  But the fifth of those mysteries is, of course, centrally concerned with a Sacrament; indeed concerned with the central Sacrament of the Church's life, the holy Eucharist. St Thomas - famously - wrote prodigious quantities on the Eucharist, and in a wide variety of genres. I've chosen to conclude this reflection on the mysteries of light with a brief consideration of two rather different texts; different, that is to say in their form and context, but utterly unified, I think, in the way that they invite us to see the mystery of the Eucharist as something we are called simultaneously to emulate and to receive, a matter, as with all the mysteries of the rosary, then, of imitating what it contains and obtaining what it promises.

In the section of the Summa Theologiae focussing on the Eucharist, St Thomas, as is well known, wrestles with profoundly weighty metaphysical concerns: does the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ? If so, what can this possibly mean?  Did Christ receive his own body and blood at the Last Supper? But, in a question on the matter of the sacrament, he also asks a series of what, at first sight, look much more trivial questions, questions that we might, for want of a better word, call rubrical. Thus, for instance, is it necessary to add water to the chalice at Mass, and, if so, how much? Would it be possible, in places where grapes do not grow, to substitute wine made with pomegranates or mulberries? What should we make of the diversity of practice between the Eastern and Western churches over the use of unleavened versus leavened bread? The question begins, however, with the deceptively simple enquiry: why use bread and wine at all for the celebration of the Eucharist? There would seem to be both practical and symbolic difficulties here.  Practically, not everyone is capable of drinking wine without harm and there are places in the world where it is difficult to obtain either bread or wine; symbolically, if the oblation of Christ on the cross was prefigured by the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament, it would surely make the point more clearly if meat, rather than bread and wine was offered at the Eucharistic sacrifice? It has to be said that some of the practical objections to the use of bread and wine here do have something of a straw man like quality, and St Thomas spends little time in batting them away. The infinitisimal amount of the accidents of wine contained in a sip from a chalice is unlikely to do anyone much harm; bread and wine can be transported easily enough. What is more interesting is the symbolic question. With regard to the idea of subsituting meat for bread and wine, while Aquinas concedes that this would indeed provide a more graphic image of the sacrificial death of Christ, not only would it in itself entail practical difficulties if animal flesh had to be provided for every celebration of Mass. More directly relevant for us, it would be "less suitable for denoting the unity of the Church".

And it is, above all, the unity of the Church that Thomas sees as being shown forth in the use of bread and wine in the Eucharist. Bread, which consists of individual grains of flour bound together, wine produced from the juice of many grapes, both in their very structure suggest not merely numerical oneness, but a unity formed out of multiplicity, the myriads of the faithful bound into the one body of Christ,  echoing, as Thomas points out, St Paul's conviction that "though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread"

If we think once again of how each of the sacraments shows us what it does as well as doing what it shows us, this is perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of the Mass. In passing, near the beginning of this talk, I mentioned what might perhaps be a more immediate answer for many of us to the question of what the bread and wine that become the body of Christ symbolise, why it is fitting that God should have chosen these particular bits of his material creation to be the means by which he comes to us in Holy Communion; namely, that bread nourishes us and wine brings joy to our hearts. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with meditating thankfully on that great truth. But, for Thomas, this one is perhaps at least as basic. What God does in this particular sacrament is that he brings about the unity of his children within the body of his Son which is the Church, and he shows us that this is what he is doing by, amongst other things, the choice of raw materials for the sacrament that gives birth, so to speak, to this unity.

And that brings us to the second text I wanted to focus on here. It's a brief one, and for many it will be familiar. It is the O Sacrum Convivium, often used as a short prayer at Benediction, but in origin the Magnificat antiphon written by St Thomas for second Vespers of the newly instituted feast of Corpus Christi.

‘O Sacred Banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace and a pledge of future glory is given to us.’

In the case of this luminous mystery, the answer to the question what it might mean to obtain what it promises is perhaps particularly - indeed awe-inspiringly - clear. In the Mass we receive - as St Thomas tells us in the O Sacrum Convivium, a pledge of future glory, a pledge of the life of heaven: this, then, is what we pray we may obtain when reflecting on this Mystery of Light. But if we ask how we are to attain to this future glory, the answer is in virtue of our membership of the Church, our membership of Christ's body, that body which we enter in baptism, and into which we are built up by our reception of his body in Holy Communion. In our participation in the Eucharist, the fifth glorious mystery, we imitate - indeed we more than imitate - what this mystery contains. Rather, we become it. And that is enough indeed to fill our minds with grace, to flood them with light.

 

 

 

 

To Praise, To Bless, To Preach.