15 – 16 January 2022
Hidden Feast: St Joseph Vaz
To blush in the presence of love: being a good witness to God’s love
A fabled story exists about pupils of a theology class at Oxford, or literature class as variously described, sitting down to their final exam. Their instruction was to write a commentary on the spiritual meaning of the account we heard in today’s Gospel: the turning of the water into wine. A young student, sometimes described as Lord Byron, Richard Crashaw or sometimes as Alexander Pope, sat for two hours, uncertain of what to write about this great mystery. The proctor, or invigilator, came to him near the end, urging him to write something lest he get a ‘zero’ and fail the class. With second to spare, the young writer wrote a single line: “The water met its Master, and blushed”. We blush from embarrassment; this is a fate of teenagers, and of mildly shy adults. But there is another type of blush, well known by the author of that line, which fits spectacularly as a reflection on the Epiphany at Cana: we blush when we’re close the one we love. This isn’t an embarrassment necessarily, but an awareness of the presence of the other, the one who makes us conscious of ourselves in their presence. It’s a type of “embarrassment”: are we good enough to be so close to the object of our love? But the reddened cheeks then yield to a smile when our love comes close to us.
Let’s return to Cana. The jars contained the simple water added to them by a steward, or the servant of a steward. They were intended for washing, for the removal of sand and grime. By their nature, they ought not to have blushed, but been dirtied. This was a simple custom offered hospitably. But it does remind us of other moments in the Scrip- tures where God’s power is shown in this simple element:
Water, present at creation, experiencing the hovering presence of the Holy Spirit, when all was still empty and void.
Water, at God’s invitation, would cleanse the earth from the sinfulness of Noah’s peers, announc- ing God’s power in the flood.
Water would part at the hand of Moses, fleeing slavery at the Lord’s command, allowing the Hebrews to pass to safety, while Pharaoh’s armies are engulfed in its stream.
- God would command Naaman the leper to bathe in water for removal of his leprosy; he thought it foolish, and refused to do something so simple to cure a disease so foul. But he was advised to try: what did he have to lose? His leprosy, actually. And he gained faith in the God of Israel.
Last week, we celebrated Our Lord’s Own special consecration of water at His Baptism: it was the water that was made holy by His Presence, rather than Him (Who knew no sin) being purified. It was the second of three Christmas “revelations”, or Epiphanies: the first being to the Magi, the Wise Men. And today, we commemorate the third of them at Cana in Galilee. In this moment, when the waters blushed at their meeting with the Master, Our Lord re- vealed His Divinity to His Apostles at the prayers of His Blessed Mother. It not only spared the married couple their blush of embarrassment, but became a moment of self-consciousness in the minds of all who witnessed this miracle. They could be very sure that, at that moment, if they had not known before, they were in the presence of God Him- self. They, then, were no longer self-conscious; they were conscious of the presence of God Himself in their midst. It’s enough to make us blush, not only being in the Presence of Love Himself, but when we ask: are we able, like this tamed water, to bear sufficient witness to Our Lord in a world so thirsty for the rich wine of His Love? We feel this sometimes too when we think about the saints – it’s something of a blush of embarrassment at their good lives, and in admiration of their love. We might feel this tinge on the cheek when thinking about Saint Joseph Vaz, an Oratorian priest from India who would become the Apostle to Sri Lanka in the seventeenth and eighteenth century.
The 16th of January is the anniversary of his death, but, because his feast falls on a Sunday this year, it is hidden in the Sunday liturgy. But his love, for God, for Saint Philip, for the poor, brings a holy colour to this “green Sunday” which contains the mystery of his faith. Saint Joseph, from young, a good and saintly boy, was convinced that God wanted to use him to be an instrument of revelation, of epiphany, of God’s work, in the world too. He saw the trou- ble of Catholics in India and Sri Lanka, labouring under harsh Calvinist rule – with not much wine in this previously Portuguese region. To be a Catholic was a crime; priests were expelled and persecuted. And yet, Saint Joseph pur- sued his vocation to be a priest – to blush with love in the face of opposition. He joined the Oratory in Goa, and was elected almost immediately as Superior. He was known for his love for Holy Mass, and hearing confessions. He was a talented teacher, starting schools for the learning of Latin and the catechism. He became an outstanding promoter of public prayers even outside of the Mass, where the people would gather around the large crosses he was known to erect outside of the churches he built. He was a champion of the poor, the patron of rice, which he distributed daily not only to Catholics, but also to the Calvinists and Hindus who visited the Oratory in their need. Many of them, blushing at their previously held views about the Church, found in Father Joseph a kind man, who revealed to them the compassionate Jesus, both of them devoted to Our Lady as Mother and Queen.
After some time, Saint Joseph undertook missionary work in Sri Lanka, being joined by some of the Oratory Fathers on his travels. They continued to encounter hardship and disease, but like the Prophet Isaiah, they would not keep silence. But they also showed, by their perseverance in our Holy Religion and in their works of charity, their love made present in the many gifts given by the Spirit, the blush-making Love of Christ, Who poured out His Own life for the love of His friends. Saint Joseph died, aged 59: he lay on his straw mat, clutching a Crucifix, saying the Holy Name of Jesus as he died, in perfect peace.
When we think of the privilege of being a Christian, a child of God’s One Church, do we blush? And is this blush a sign of our embarrassment, or a mark of our love for the God Who comes so close to us in the Adorable Sacrament of the Altar? Are we moved by the stories of the saints, especially those closest to us, and inspired to live heroic lives like they did, or do we note their fate, and move on with our own existence, content to experience the passing, unpleasant blushes of the world? How could we regain, once again, our loving appreciation of a God Who gives us the gift of His Own life, and desire to work, night and day, for love of Him? Do we want to be a stagnating puddle, or a simple jar of water, transformed by Love Himself into a cheerful, live-giving testimony to His Presence? If we do whatever He tells us, however small it may be, we have no need for an embarrassing blush; we can delight being in His presence, allowing His love to radiate in us.
We need to choose, and do whatever He tells us. Increasing our devotion to Our Lady, we can be sure that we will become fruitful, potent and faithful witnesses to Our Lord throughout the world. As we imitate her piety, the Lord comes to our help. As we imitate her purity, the Lord makes our work fertile. As we imitate her devotion, the Lord transforms every circumstance of our lives into something meaningful, hopeful and eternal. Then, at the end of our lives, when we stand before the Just Judge, we’ll have no reason to blush with embarrassment, with God declaiming us as a sinner He has never known, one that should depart; may He see in us the blush still tinted with the Precious Blood of His Son, with which He has redeemed the world. He’ll see in us His Own radiance, His Own life present within us. And this will be a prelude to our eternal joy.
Let’s join our prayers today to those of Our Lady and to Saint Joseph Vaz, that son of Saint Philip, trusting that God, Who has made us for Himself, will welcome us one day, by His grace into the kingdom of heaven. Amen.