Homily for Mass for Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Easter

23 Apr 2024

Sancta Sophia College Chapel, Camperdown, 23 April 2024

In today’s Gospel Jesus is in the Temple on the winter Feast of the Dedication or ‘Hannukah’ (Jn 10:22-30). Just as it is today, it was celebrated around the time of His birthday. Jewish holy days are Scriptural in origin: Shabbat, the Saturday day of rest and weekly observance of God’s completion of creation; Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year, a ten-day long festival of meals, soul searching and resolutions; Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, devoted to self-examination and repentance; Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, an autumn harvest festival that commemorates Israel’s wandering in the desert and gives thanks for God’s bounty; Purim, a day celebrating the Jews, being saved from annihilation in the time of Esther and many times before and since; and, of course, Pesach, Passover, the week-long festival of unleavened bread, recalling the Hebrew exodus from Egypt—all of these are found in the Old Testament.[1]  But there is one Jewish holy day not recorded in the Jewish scriptures but only in the Christian ones: Hannukah. Its origins are in the intertestamental period, during the reign of the Seleucid king, Antioch/us IV (c.215 B.C – 164), and so after the official canon of the Jewish scriptures was complete.

It was a tumultuous time for the people of Israel; a time when their faith was put to the test, as the government was ill-disposed to religious freedom and the culture inhospitable to their faith. A successor to Alexander the Great, Antioch/us had a rather high view of himself (1 Macc 1: 7-10): he assumed the title “Epiphanes”, the manifestation of God, from which we get our word “epiphany”. For the Jews it was appalling that any man might claim such a title for himself and so they deliberately mispronounced it “Epimanes”, meaning the mad one! The Seleucid Empire had been tolerant of various religions—like Australia has mostly been till recently—but Antioch/us sought to impose a uniform system of beliefs and observances —rather like those presently seeking to stop religious schools and institutions like this one being different by taking religion into account. He outlawed the Jewish feasts and practices such as male circumcision, looted the Temple and desecrated it by sacrificing a pig there, then erected statues of pagan gods all around (1 Macc 1:20-64). For good measure, he snuffed out the Ner Tamid—the eternal flame that burned in the Temple—effectively declaring the God of Israel to be out of business.

Such heavy-handed policies naturally led to a backlash. Around 165 BC Judas Maccabaeus (= the hammer) gathered a group of guerilla fighters to drive the Seleucid forces out of Jerusalem (1Macc, chs 3:1-4:35). This paved the way for the Temple in Jerusalem to be cleansed, a new altar built, new holy vessels obtained and everything rededicated to the God of Israel (1Macc 4:36-58). And so was born the Feast of Dedication, an eight-day festival celebrating the heroics of those who fought to reclaim the faith of their ancestors (1Macc 4:59). Nowadays it is observed by lighting the menorah, a candelabrum with nine branches, also called a hannukah.

In today’s Gospel, as Jesus walks through the colonnades of the Temple on Hannukah, some are losing patience with Him. The itinerant preacher and miracle-worker from Galilee has developed quite a following but seems to speak in riddles. He presents Himself or allows others to address Him as a Prophet, a Rabbi, a Shepherd, the Son of Man, the Lamb of God, the Light of the World, the Way, the Truth and the Life.[2] Sometimes He implies or allows that He is the long-awaited Messiah, Christ, Saviour, Judge; sometimes even that He is Epiphanes, the manifestation of God or Son of God.[3] His signs and wonders seem to support divine power, but some think it’s trickery or even black magic. Which is it? the sceptics ask.  

“If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” No more stories and signs, no more history lessons or scriptural quizzes, enough with the suspense: just tell us plainly, are you the Messiah? Some were hoping that in Jesus they had found Maccabeus 2.0—a no-nonsense military commander, capable of driving out the Romans as the first Judas Maccabeus had the Seleucids. Such a figure would have been fresh in their minds considering the festival they were celebrating. So their question is not so much “tell us if you are the Messiah” but more “tell us you are the kind of Messiah we want,” one ready and able to vanquish our enemies and restore our pride. You might be the new Adam, the new Abraham, the new Moses or the new David,[4] but what we really want is a new Maccabeus.

Yet it was obvious enough He was no new Maccabeus. He preached peace, turning the other cheek, loving your enemies. Instead of a gallant stead He rode the occasional donkey. His troops were idealistic fishermen and crowds waving palms. He commanded them to “be as gentle as doves” and “put away the sword”. No political ideology, no revolutionary manifesto, He even said they should “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” This was no first-century Che Guevara.

Yet revolutionary His teaching certainly was. It upside-downed worldly thinking about power and service. It was far more radical than the zealots who resisted Roman rule: it would ultimately turn the empire inside out, converting hearts one by one to the Gospel of life and love, converting whole cultures to serve a new Christian civilisation. Some today might join Antioch/us IV in trying to stamp out religion, or at least the versions they find most confronting. But Jesus responds to them as He did in His own day: by enlightening dark hearts with Easter light, rededicating the Temple of the soul to be a dwelling place for God, with the eternal light relit within, and redeeming all that causes division, misery or menace.

Jesus responds to His interlocuters today by pointing out that they have all the evidence they need to assess whether He is the Christ and worth following. They’ve heard the beautiful words from His lips and seen His wondrous deeds. Still they refuse to believe. He’s not the kind of messiah they were after; they are looking for something else. But for those who are prepared to be led by this Good Teacher and His holy wisdom, the invitation is alluring: Come, follow me. Follow me in a life of virtue, grace, service. Follow me to an eternal life no violent force can win you, nor snatch away from you. My kingdom is not of this world, He says. Not ideology or force. My kingdom is “out of this world”, but for you!

Visitor’s Address – Sancta Sophia College Chapel, Camperdown, 23 April 2024

In sapientia ambulate, ‘Walk in Wisdom’ is your motto. But what is this wisdom? In ordinary parlance wisdom is “having experience, knowledge and good judgment; sagacity, sageness, intelligence, understanding, insight” (OED). Your college is named for wisdom, but no ordinary wisdom: you are here for Sancta Sophia, for Holy Wisdom, and aspire to something more than cleverness.

What kind of wisdom is that? When we think of the wise, we might think of people who sit cross-legged and say things that sound deep but no-one is sure what they mean. Or who, like Yoder in Star Wars,speak with gravitas but put words, they do, in the order wrong. The great Greek philosopher Aristotle gives us a good lead when he says sophia is either “practical thinking that enables a person to deliberate well about the good life in general” or speculative thinking, about “scientific knowledge, which combined with intuitive reason, allows access to the highest things” (NE VI, 1140-41).

I’ll return to his definitions of wisdom in a moment, but first a little about the man. Aristotle had a rare intellect. He was a polymath, expert in aesthetics, economics, ethics, geometry, logic, metaphysics, music, physics, poetry, politics, even zoology. He couldn’t claim all the credit: his tutor was Plato, who’d been taught by Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy. It was an excellent intellectual milieux. His own students included Theophrastus, who did pioneering work in botany as well as philosophy; Aristoxenus, who specialised in theory of music as well as ethics; Dicaearchus, the great geographer; Eudemus of Rhodes, the first historian and philosopher of science; and Alexander the Great, who conquered the known world from Greece and North Africa to the Middle East and India. Fifteen centuries later, when his works were rediscovered and translated into Latin, “the Aristotelian school” was to include another great polymath Albert the Great and the greatest ever theologian Thomas Aquinas. Many thinkers have been influenced by him since. So, when Aristotle talked about wisdom, it wasn’t just theory: he was himself a truly wise man who influenced generations of wise people to come.

So much for In sapientia but what about ambulate? Well, interestingly, Aristotle taught on the run, or at least on the walk. You see, unlike Plato, Aristotle was from out of town and only locals could own property in Athens. So his ‘university’ had no classrooms. Yet as a practically wise man he could think outside the box and came up with the idea of teaching his students whilst they walked around the grounds of an Athenian gymnasium, the Lyceum. His lessons then were conducted on the go, as he and his students hypothesised, questioned, reflected and debated all manner of things. They became known as ‘the Peripatetics’, the walkers. They say exercise improves blood circulation and so cognitive function, and Aristotle’s students were certainly no slouches. He was onto something, dispensing wisdom through walking. In sapiential ambulate.

Three centuries after Aristotle, Jesus of Nazareth also conducted lessons on the go for his students. The Gospels are full of accounts of Him teaching them as they made their way from one town to another, or stopping to give a crowd a sermon on a mount, before getting back to his peripatetic instruction of His disciples.  In our Gospel at Mass tonight, He was walking in the Portico of Solomon the Wise as He taught them (Jn 10:22). One very memorable example of this pedagogical method was on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35). On that occasion, two of His students were trying to make sense of the days they had just experienced: of how their rabbi-teacher-prophet, whom they had hoped would prove also to be the Messiah-liberator, had been greeted enthusiastically as he entered Jerusalem, yet rejected and crucified only a few days later; of how He had been dead and buried yet three days later His tomb was found empty and the women had reported a vision of angels declaring Him to be alive. Perhaps as they walked and talked they tried explanations from their university studies: psychological elucidations, like that the women and the apostles were suffering from mass hysteria or wishful thinking; philosophical ones, like God can’t suffer and die, so He can’t have been God; ethical rationalisations, like He didn’t deserve to die, so He didn’t deserve to rot in a tomb either; political ones, like He’d have made a great Messiah, no wonder they killed Him; or aesthetic answers, like He’s gone but He’ll live on in our hearts and minds, in our arts and music and the rest.

So, the Risen Jesus joins them amidst their reflections and starts His lesson. As sophia, sapientia, wisdom itself, He could like Aristotle have taught them any of the arts and sciences that you are focussed on here at university. But His focus that day was theology, and He takes them on a tour of the Scriptures, helping them connect the dots and piece together the puzzle about Himself. This “College Visitor” was so engaging that they pleaded with Him to stick around for dinner; after all, for Middle Easterners the hospitality of the table was non-negotiable. Their hearts burned as He broke open the scriptures for them; but then it was their eyes and minds that burned as He broke the Bread of the Eucharist for them and they recognised Him for who He is.

Back to Aristotle. His definition of wisdom is both speculative and practical: the first is about being and the second about doing. He thinks speculative wisdom is a science, a discipline, something with real substance to it, based on personal observation, received learning, individual intuition. Most importantly, wisdom—as opposed to mere knowledge—concerns itself with the higher things, the deeper things: the big-T Truth behind all our little-t truths, the meaning of it all, the purpose of our lives, the virtues of a good person, the basics of the good life, what we need to know to flourish as human beings. Philo-sophia is love of wisdom. Sancta-sophia is holy wisdom.

In the New Testament Jesus is described as Sancta Sophia, holy wisdom, the Wisdom of God (Mt 12:42; Mk 1:22; 6:2; Lk 2:40,46-47,52;11:49; Jn 1:1; 1Cor 1:24,30; Col 2:3). It’s not that He has intelligence in spades, worthy of multiple university degrees: He didn’t even have an undergraduate degree. It’s not that He spoke deep and meaningful oracles like Yoder. No, He Himself is Wisdom, the divine Logos. He is the Way to the highest wisdom, he is the Truth of things, of every art and science and discipline, he is the Life of human persons, the pattern for human flourishing, the means to life eternal. These are the highest things to which Aristotle and other wise ones have pointed through all the ages. To understand the mystery of God, the universe and ourselves, to make sense of any and every form of human inquiry, God invites us to walk with Him. If we walk with the One who is Wisdom personified, we can become children of wisdom, truly wise women. If we apply our hearts and heads and hands in the school of holy wisdom, Sancta Sophia, we will flourish. God bless you all in your quest for wisdom!

[1] Shabbat: Gen 2:2-3; Ex 20:8-11; 31:13-17; Lev 23:3 etc. Rosh Hashanah: Lev 23:23-25). Yom Kippur: Lev 16:1-34; 23:26-32; Num 29:7-11. Sukkot: Ex 23:16; Lev 23:6,33-43. Purim: Esther 9:8-32; 10:13. Pesach: Ex 13:3-10; Lev 23:4-8.

[2] Jesus as Prophet: Lk 4:24; 6:68; Jn 1:45; 4:19; 6:14. As Rabbi: Mt 23:10; 26:18; Jn 13:13; 20:16 etc.. As Shepherd: Mt 2:6; 9:36; 25:32; 26:31; Jn 10:1-21. As Son of Man: Mt 8:20; 16:27-28; 17:22-23; Mk 2:10; 8:31; 10:45; Jn 9:35-38 etc.. As Lamb of God: Jn 1:29,36. As Light of the World: Jn 8:12; 9:5,39. As the Way, the Truth and the Life: Jn 14:6; cf. 11:25.

[3] Jesus as Messiah, Saviour, Judge: Mt 16:16; 25:31-46; Jn 4:42; 5:22-23; 9:39; 11:27. As manifestation of God or Son of God: Mt 1:11;3:17;  4:3,6; 8:29; 11:27; 14:33; 16:15-16; 17:5; 26:63-66; 27:43,54; Mk 14:61; Lk 3:22; 5:5-8; 9:35; Jn 1:1-18,34; 5:23,26; 8:58.

[4] Jesus as the Second Adam: Lk 3:38; Rom 5:12-21; 1Cor 15:20-23,44-49; Col 1:15-19; Eph 1:10. As the new Abraham: Mt 1:1-2; 3:9; Jn 8:58, As the new Moses: Mt 2:21; 4:2; chs 5-7; 14:19-21,24-33 etc. As the new David: Mt 1:1,20,25; 2:2; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:1-15; 22:42; 23:39 etc.

Introduction to Mass for Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Easter – Sancta Sophia College Chapel, Camperdown, 23 April 2024

Good evening to you all, it’s great to be back here at Sancta Sophia for the annual Archbishop’s Mass and Visitor’s Dinner. It’s always a joy to be among you here at the college to celebrate the Eucharist and share your company afterwards.

I welcome concelebrating with me Bishop Terry Brady, Fr Brian Lucas and Fr Roland Maurer. I salute the College Principal, Ms Fiona Hastings, and her predecessor Sr Mary Shanahan RSCJ OAM, and members of the College Council and staff; various Heads of Schools; and members of the university community as well as friends of the college. Above all, a very warm welcome to the students of Sancta Sophia College!