10th Sunday after Pentecost
In just two weeks, on the 15th, we will celebrate the great feast of Our Lady’s Assumption. The nine day novena which leads up to it commences this Friday 6th of August, which is both the First Friday of the month and the feast of the Transfiguration. I would like to invite all our friends to join the community in the solemn daily recitation of the Litany of Loretto which we will sing each evening after Vespers, and copies of which you will find in the vestibule. On the feast itself, this year we will unite with traditionally minded Catholics around the world to make an act of consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and, weather permitting, make a procession in her honour while saying the Holy Rosary together in order to obtain the triumph of her Immaculate Heart over all the forces of evil that are at work in undermining the Church and the world.
To help us prepare spiritually for the great festival, over the next couple of weeks I propose to offer some reflections that will, by considering three holy women of the Old Testament who prefigured Our Lady. Just as Our Blessed Lord has numerous types, who foreshadowed His own person, so too Our Lady.
Today let’s reflect upon one of the lesser known of these holy women, namely Abigail. She is known to us through the first book of Samuel (1 Sam 25). The episode in which she stars is one which may seem somewhat peripheral given the larger context of the story of King David and compared to the other two women whom we will consider next week and the following, namely Esther and Judith. The scene takes place during the period when David is being hunted down by Saul and is obliged to live out in the open country with his armed men. A valiant and compassionate man, David is not concerned only with himself. He also looks out for the local shepherds, one of whom, Nabal by name, was very successful. We are told that he had three thousand sheep, and a thousand goats, which also meant a large number of family and servants. David and his men had protected him and his flocks from brigands and wild animals. But Nabal, rich though he was, was a foolish man, and ill-natured. In his want, David asked Nabal to provide some food for his hungry men. Astoundingly the request is met with not just refusal, but harsh, cruel and ungrateful refusal. David is incensed; a murderous wrath takes hold of him, and he orders his men to make ready their swords.
Here enters Abigail, the wife of Nabal. Informed by one of the servants of the way in which David had been insulted by her senseless husband, and of David’s intentions, she loses no time, but prepares a peace offering. Scripture has recorded for us the impressive details: two hundred loaves of bread, two vats of wine, five dressed sheep, five measures of parched corn, a hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of dry figs. She has all these laid upon donkeys and, without telling her husband, sets out to meet David whose wrath, far from subsiding, is now at its peak. He has sworn to his men not to leave anyone of Nabal’s family and servants alive. The situation is desperate, for it will bring death to many innocent souls, because of one fool, but also misfortune to David. Without hesitation Abigail risks her life. As she sees David approaching, she alights from the donkey and prostrates herself on the ground before David and says:
Upon me let this iniquity be, my lord: let thy handmaid speak. Let not my lord the king regard this naughty man, Nabal: for according to his name, he is a fool: but I, thy handmaid, did not see thy servants whom thou didst send. Now therefore, my lord, the Lord liveth, and thy soul liveth, who hath withheld thee from coming to blood. Wherefore receive this blessing, which thy handmaid hath brought to thee, my lord: and give it to the young men that follow thee, my lord. Forgive the iniquity of thy handmaid (cf. 1 Sam 25).
Appeased by such a sincere and humble request, David receives the gifts from her hand. But the story doesn’t end there. That very night, Nabal holds a feast, gets drunk, and the following day, after his wife tells him of his narrow escape from death, he is taken ill and ten days later is struck down by the Lord and dies. Upon hearing of the death of Nabal, David sends for Abigail and makes her his wife. Brought before David, again she bows down to the ground and says words that we will find familiar: “Behold, let thy servant be a handmaid, to wash the feet of the servants of my lord” (1 Sa 25:41). The humble wife of the future king of Israel declares herself to be but a handmaid.
Numerous aspects of this story can inspire us today. David gives us two great lessons. The first is that leaders can make grave mistakes and cause unjustifiable wrongs when they fail to master their passions. But then he gives us a magnificent example of calming down, forgiving and showing mercy. Today’s oration tells us that God’s omnipotence manifests itself especially when He forgives and pardons. So too, man shows grandeur of soul when he forgives debts, turns the other cheek and forgets things that hurt. To remember benefactions and to forget injuries is indeed a great wisdom. Another lesson of this episode is that justice belongs to God who reserves for Himself the punishment of those who deserve it, and sometimes that punishment is swift in coming. One is reminded here of the words of St James: The anger of man worketh not the justice of God (James 1:20).
Abigail presents us with a striking image of Our Lady. She acknowledges the sinfulness of her husband and makes haste, against his wishes, to provide David with needed goods. She does so with boldness, taking her life into her hands, all with the greatest respect and humility. The humble handmaid of the Lord wins the day, she averts a disaster, saves her husband as well as those of the many servants and children of the house from being murdered. The Virgin of Nazareth too, through her prayers and humility, will draw down the mercy of God that we had rightly deserved because of our ingratitude.
But we must add also that David too, the holy king and prophet, is saved by her humility. He committed a grave sin is setting out to avenge himself and giving free rein to his anger; his wrath was going to bring disaster. Only humility, only meekness saves the day. There are times when one is unjustly treated, and when the natural reaction is one of anger. But the wrath of man does not accomplish the justice of God. Blessed are the meek for they shall possess the land. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God (Mt 5).
A similar lesson is given us in today’s Gospel. The Pharisee is not admonished for the good things he does: fasting, almsgiving, prayers, but rather for scorning those whom he does not think are as good as himself, and essentially putting all men in that category. Ultimately for the Pharisee, there are only two kinds of people: the saint, that is to say, himself and the sinners, that is to say, everyone else. Just how detrimental such an attitude is to such an arrogant person is explained to us by the Lord Himself: whoever lifts himself up will be humbled; whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Today’s Mass began with a cry of distress taken from Psalm 54. One of the Psalms of the Passion, its prayer is all the more poignant in that we learn from the text that one of the most painful aspects of the sufferings he endures is that they are due to the betrayal of a very close friend, someone that was trusted and loved. For it is not an enemy who taunts me, then I could endure it; nor is it one who hates me who has exalted himself against me, then I could hide myself from him. But it is you, a man my equal, my companion and my confidant; we who had sweet fellowship together, walked in the house of God. But the Psalm ends with the return of peace after the soul learns to cast itself upon the Lord, to hand over all its worries and pains to the one who alone can find a remedy for them, a well known encouragement that will be take up again by St Peter: Cast all your care upon him, for he hath care of you (1 Pt 5:7)
In moments of distress and anger, let us remember Abigail prostrate in the dust before David; in moments of pride, let us recall the publican striking his breast, not even daring to look up to Heaven; at all times, let us call upon the Queen of Heaven who makes herself the humble handmaid. Humility alone saves.
Today, even though they are not commemorated liturgically because of the Sunday, the Church commemorates the martyrdom of the Children of Israel at the time of the Maccabees. These valiant people were totally outnumbered by their enemies who were forcing them to abandon the rites of their Fathers. In the face of some who thought the fight hopeless, Mathathias tells his sons: It is an easy matter for many to be shut up in the hands of a few: and there is no difference in the sight of the God of heaven to deliver with a great multitude, or with a small company: For the success of war is not in the multitude of the army, but strength cometh from heaven. They come against us with an insolent multitude, and with pride, to destroy us, and our wives, and our children, and to take our spoils. But we will fight for our lives and our laws: and the Lord himself will overthrow them before our face: but as for you, fear them not. (1 Maccabees 3:16-19) Fear not. Such is the great lesson the Maccabees give us. Never be afraid. We are in the Lord’s hands, and victory lies with those who stand firm in fidelity to Him.