The readings today speak of a great cosmic battle that is taking place all around us. In the Gospel, Jesus speaks vividly of it, and of his own mission to engage our ancient foe and to gather God’s elect back from the enslaving clutches of Satan, who was a murder and a liar from the beginning (cf John 8:44).
And so, as Jesus approaches Jerusalem for the final time, He describes the battle that is about to unfold. It is a battle he wins at the Cross and Resurrection, but it is a battle whose parameters extend across time to our own era.
We also do well to look at the second reading, which describes what ought to be our stance in reference to the great cosmic battle. Though the victory is ours, we can only lay hold of it by clinging to Christ and walking with him. The Hebrews text gives us a kind of battle plan.
But we begin this reflection on the readings by considering Jesus’ description in the Gospel of the cosmic battle and of his own great mission as the great Shepherd of the sheep, and the Lord of armies (Dominus Deus Sabaoth!).
I. Passion to Purify – Jesus begins by saying, I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!
Fire is a powerful and transformative reality. Nothing goes away from fire unchanged. Fire does gives warmth, and it makes food palatable, but it also consumes and destroys. But nothing goes away from fire unchanged!
The Lord has come to purify us, by the fiery power of his love, of his grace, and of his Word. He has a passion to set things right.
But purification is seldom easy or painless, and hence, there is the image of fire. In this great cosmic battle, fire must be cast on the earth, not only to purify, but also to distinguish. There are things that will be made pure, but only if other things are burnt away and reduced to ashes.
This image of fire is important, because many people today have reduced faith to seeking enrichment and blessings. And faith does surely supply these. But it is also true that faith demands that we take up our cross and follow Christ without compromise. And many, if not most enrichment and blessings come only through the fiery purification of God’s grace, which burns away sin and purifies us of our adulterous relationship with this world. Fire incites, demands and causes change. And change is never easy.
Therefore, Jesus announces the fire by which he will judge and purify this earth, and all on it, rescuing us from the power of the evil one.
And this is no mere campfire around which we seeing cute songs. Jesus describes it as a blaze which must set the whole world on fire!
So, how do you get ready for fire? By letting the Lord set you on fire! John the Baptist had promised of the Lord: He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt 3:11) And indeed, the Lord sent forth his Spirit on the early Church as tongues of fire (cf Acts 2:3) so as to bring them up to the temperature of glory and to prepare them for the coming judgment of the world by fire.
The battle is engaged! Choose sides. And if you think you can remain neutral or stand on some “middle ground,” I’ve got news for you about which side you are really on. No third way is given. You’re either on the Ark or you’re not. You’re either letting the fire purify you or being reduced to ashes. You’re either on fire by God’s grace, and thereby ready for the coming judgment of the world by fire or you are not. But the choice is yours. Jesus is passionate to set things right. He has come to cast fire on the earth.
II. Painful path. The text says, There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!
In coming among us, the Lord does not merely come to get us out of trouble, but to get into trouble with us. Though himself sinless, Jesus takes upon himself the full weight of human sinfulness and manfully carries it to the cross. He accepts a “baptism” in his own blood on our behalf.
In waging war on our behalf against the evil one, he does not sit in some comfortable headquarters behind enemy lines, he goes out “on point,” taking the hill of Calvary, and leading us over the top to the resurrection glory. He endures every blow, every hardship on our behalf.
And by his wounds we are healed by being baptized in the very blood he shed in the great cosmic war.
It is a painful path he trod, and he speaks of his anguish in doing it. But having won the victory, he now turns to us and invites us to follow him, through the cross the glory.
But the choice to follow is ours, and in this sense the cosmic battle continues as Jesus describes in the verses that follow.
III. Piercing Purgation – In words that are nothing less than shocking, the Lord says, Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
The words shock but they speak a truth which sets aside worldly notions of comprise and coexistence with evil. In order for there to be true peace, true holiness and true victory over Satan, there must be distinction, not equivocation, there must be clarity, not compromise. Fire and water do not mix. One hears the conflict when they come together of hissing, popping, searing and steaming. One must win, the other must lose. Compromise and coexistence are not possible.
The Lord said (back in Matthew 10:34) that he came not for peace but for the sword. And thus there is a kind of analogy to a surgeon’s scalpel. The surgeon must wield this “sword” to separate out healthy flesh from that which is diseased or gangrenous, cancerous growth cut away from that which is normal flesh. Coexistence is not ultimately possible, the diseased flesh has to go. The moment one talks of “coexisting” with cancer or gangrene, the disease wins. Were a doctor to take this stance he would be guilty of malpractice. When there is cancer or gangrene, the battle must be engaged.
And thus the Lord, in this great and cosmic battle cannot and will not tolerate a false peace based on compromise or a non-critical coexistence. He has come to wield a sword, to divide. Many moderns do not like it, but scripture is clear, there are wheat and tares, sheep and goats, those on the Lord’s right and those on his left, the just and wicked, the lowly and the proud, the wide road to damnation and the narrow road to salvation, and those on each of them.
And these distinctions, these divisions extend into our very families, unto our most intimate relationships. This is the battle. And there are two armies, two camps. No third way is given. Jesus says elsewhere, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (Matt 12:30)
Of all this we must be sober and work for our salvation, and the salvation of all. For while there may no be a season of mercy and patience now, the time is short for us all when the distinction between good and evil, righteousness and sin will be definitive and the sword must be wielded.
And thus the Lord speaks to us of a cosmic battle in the valley of decision (cf Joel 3). Jesus has won, and it is time to choose sides. And even if family members reject us, we must choose the Lord. The cosmic battle is engaged, the fire is cast, sword of the Spirit and God’s words is being wielded. The Lord has come to divide the good from the wicked, the sheep from the goats and judgement begins now, with the house of God. Scripture says,
For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)
If this be the case, How do we choose sides, practically speaking. And having chosen sides, how do we fight with the Lord in the cosmic battle. For this it is helpful to turn to the Letter to the Hebrews from today’s Mass, a magnificent text that summons us to courage and constancy. Note four prescriptions in this letter for a solider in the Army of the Lord:
A. Lay Hold of the The PROOF of faith – The Text begins Since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
What do witnesses do? They testify to what is true, to what they have seen, heard and experienced. In the previous Chapter of Hebrew (11), we were given a litany of witnesses from the Old Testament who learned to trust God and were rescued from ungodly men and innumerable snares. And individually and collectively they stand before us summoning us to courage and declaring that God can make a way out of no way, that he can move mountains and deliver his people, that He can do anything but fail.
And thus we are to hear their testimony and be summoned courageously to the Battle and to choose the Lord’s side, knowing that the Lord has already won the Victory. To the litany of Old Testament heroes is an innumerable list of saints in our Catholic experience who speak to us of victory and summon us to faith and steadfast courage. Yes there is the Cross, but Resurrection always follows!
These witnesses say, Choose the Lord, he has already won the victory. Live the life of faith by adhering to the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, let the Sacraments strengthen you, rest in prayer, and walk in fellowship with other Catholic believers in the Army of the Lord.
Jesus is the Lord of Hosts, he is the King of Glory, he is the Head of the Body, the Church. We ought to listen to the testimony of these heroes and accept their witness as a proof of faith.
B. Live The PRIORITY of faith – The text says, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith..
We are given the example of a runner in a race. What does a runner do? He runs the race! Runners do not stop to watch TV, they do not stop to make small talk or take stupid detours or go in the opposite direction. They do one thing: they run the race. So too with our faith, it has priority. Nothing should be allowed to hinder us.
Runners also know where the finish line is and what the goal is. They do not run aimlessly. They keep their eyes on the prize and single-hardheartedly pursue the goal. Not one step is wasted. No extra baggage is carried that would hinder them of weigh them down.
And so it must be for us. We must have our eyes on Jesus. He and the glory he offers are our goal. every step must be toward him. All that weighs us down or hinders us must be set aside. Increasingly our life s to center on one thing, one goal. As St. Paul says,
This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14)
The Rose window at the upper right (from my parish Church) depicts the Medieval world’s Christocentric vision of all things centered on Christ. Every petal of the window is precious: family, spouse, children, work, career, vocation, but all centered on Christ, flowing from him and pointing back to him. How different this Medieval notion is from the modern anthropocentric and egocentric world, with man at the center, the ego on throne and God relegated to the edges.
Let Christ be your center. An old song says, “Jesus you’re the center of my joy.”
C. Learn the PERSPECTIVE of faith. The text says, For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.
It is clear that there are crosses, setbacks, disappointments and suffering in life. But do you know where these lead? To glory, if we are faithful! And thus the text reminds us that the Lord Jesus endured shame and the cross for the sake of the joy and glory that lay ahead.
There is no place in the Christian life for a discouraged hang-dog attitude of defeat. We’re marching to Zion, beautiful Zion! Glories untold await us. Whatever the cost, as Scripture says, For our light and momentary troubles are producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:17-18)
So keep this perspective of faith. The devil wants you to be discouraged, but just rebuke him, and tell him you’re encouraged because whatever you are going-through, it’s producing.
D. Last unto the end through the PERSEVERANCE of Faith – the Text says, Consider how [Jesus] endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.
It is not enough to answer an altar call or get Baptized. It is necessary to persevere. In this cosmic battle Jesus says, At [the end] time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt 24:10-13)
And thus, in a cosmic war like this, endurance to the end is essential. We must make it over the hill of Calvary with Jesus and unto the resurrection. Victory is promised, but we must make the journey, and make it with Jesus.
Scripture says, Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. ( 1 Cor 15:1-2)
OK, a tough Sunday. Not exactly the prosperity gospel, or a “Consumer Christianity” focused on enrichment without sacrifice, and crowns without crosses. But this is the real Christianity and the only faith that can save. Jesus describes the cosmic battle, and moves forward manfully to vanquish our ancient foe. But then he turns and says follow me: hear the Proof of faith, make it your Priority, see by its Perspective and Persevere unto the end.
At the end of the day there will be only two groups: the victors and the vanquished. Since you know the outcome by faith, why not pick the winning team?
The Battle is Engaged, Choose sides!
This video shows pictures from my Parish Church which features the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” up on the clerestory level.
14 Replies to “The Battle is Engaged…Choose Sides! A Homily for the 20th Sunday of the Year”
This evening I watched the story of Cardinal van Thuam. I have previously read his small book Five Loaves and Two Fish which has quite a lot of biographical detail in it. He tells of a time in which he was in solitary confinement and he prayed to Our Lady asking her that if he was no longer in a position of being of use to his flock, would she please ask Jesus to allow him to die in prison. He then goes on to say that he strongly felt that he was given an answer by Jesus who said to him to consider him dying on the cross and saying to Bishop van Thuam that he should consider what use he (Jesus) was to his flock, when he was nailed to the cross and could do nothing else but suffer death. Then the realisation came to the good Bishop that it was at that moment that Jesus was paying the price necessary for the whole of humanity to be able to gain heaven. He stopped praying to be allowed to die at that moment. He realised that his suffering in solitary confinement was having more value for the good of his flock than he could possibly imagine.
That is a beautiful story.
Truly, yes, Monsignor. Also, let us go joyfully in to that battle — not thirsting for blood, but to win souls for Jesus.
JohnR — LOVE Cardinal van Thuam. His book — “The Road of Hope” — written on scraps of paper smuggled out when he was in prison — is a MUST read for encouragement.
The passage where Jesus says that He has come to set father against son and son and against father etc. is foreshadowed in the Old Testament:
“ Then standing in the gate of the camp, he [Moses] said: If any man be on the Lord’ s side let him join with me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him:  And he said to them: Thus saith the Lord God of Israel: Put every man his sword upon his thigh: go, and return from gate to gate through the midst of the camp, and let every man kill his brother, and friend, and neighbour.  And the sons of Levi did according to the words of Moses, and there were slain that day about three and twenty thousand men.  And Moses said: You have consecrated your hands this day to the Lord, every man in his son and in his brother, that a blessing may be given to you.”
The Levites were made the priestly class for killing brother, friend, and neighbor.
Powerful and convicting at a time when I am seeking direction and renewed conviction. Thank you for this very helpful reminder of the centrality of Christ in all our plans and actions.
When you mention Matthew 10:34 and Matthew 12:30 in the two different paragraphs of the same section I think of (what seems to me as) an earlier lead in which is found in Matthew 9:12 about the physician for the sick. This expression of God’s love for us all, no matter how far we have fallen, along with your quotes, shows that His love must be embraced by abandoning the broad road in order to take the narrow. One cannot travel two roads at once.
Yet, even with compromise and co-existance set aside, there are so many new weeds sprouting by the cunning of evil. A friend, who is taking a drug counselling course told me that the instructor gave a talk on co-depence as an explaination that it did not exist. What could be the motive here? Is it because co-dependence is an early form of “harm reduction”; both of which trap the addict into taking two diverging paths? Could addressing it negate the partial numbing (but maintenance) of pain that harm reduction keeps the addict from facing and resolving with God’s gift of the Twelve Steps? Is the promise of “happy, joyous and free being removed by people who feed off government funding which inspires some professionals to keep the sick in their dysfunction and away from the pain of the physician’s metaphorical knife of true healing?
After all, are bullies not cowards and can only dominate those who are kept in fear? Christophobic people keeping others Christophoic? Thanks to Berry Mandrake; whose inspiration I cannot help but acknowledge in the last (so far) comment at: http://blog.adw.org/2013/08/district-of-columbia-cancels-appearance-of-gospel-artist-due-to-views-on-homosexuality-who-will-be-next/#comments
However, I see both terms; homophobic and Christophobic; as being metaphorical. Science uses exacting standards to seek the truth on a single path but, lately I see these standards being degraded into a fuzzy generalization in so many areas. Phobia’s scientific standards necessitate certain physical reactions – such as perspiration inspired by fear (rather than physically high temperature) – but this new way of using phobia, along with other scientific standards, is being dragged onto a broad road that has partial truth at the edges. Every search for truth seems to be under attack by wishy washy vague-ness. Reminds me of a paraphrase which is sometimes added to the statement that the truth shall make us free, namely that first it will make us angry. Not as good as the Divine conclusion that we are slaves to sin but, does say something about those who come out with screaming emotional responses, rather than facts, to dispute as they say that they have been made angry. Is the anger actually a response to the wound being opened for cleansing?
Many may not like my comments but, recently I read of Piper (Private) James Cleland Richardson of the Canadian Scottish Regiment who, when his unit was pinned down by enemy fire during the First World War, leapt into plain sight of the enemy and played his pipes. His unit was so inspired that they went on the attack and took the enemy position. Later, he was killed but, did he end up at the top of the high and narrow road or, at the bottom of the broad and narrow one?
C Scot R, one of the Regiments which I belonged to – albeit as a peace time soldier.
God bless you Msgr. Pope. Thank you for a beautiful homily. For those with the ears to hear and the eyes to see, you have brought clarity to this critical subject. I live this. Within church i am told to be quiet. Not to scare or offend people with talk of hell, in and repentance. My family is split all the way through to its core between those who believe in the Gospel of Christ and those who believe in some sugar daddy version of Christ.
Out in the streets ironically, it is slightly better. There are those who will heed the words and begin at least to try. A woman i know told me she had been declared dead on 14th Avenue, after suffering both a heart attack and stroke. And was brought back. i told her God had spoken to hr through this experience. That she had been given another chance. I told her to go home, get on her knees and ask Him what His will for her was. And that unless she experienced full repentance, she will not be saved. She went home i believe to do just that.
It gets discouraging, it can be devastatingly difficult at times to carry on in the face of such unbelief and refusal to listen Msgr. Pope. Yet, when i place my eyes firmly on Jesus Christ and never look back as Paul says so beautifully, it is all worth every single second. For life without Jesus, for me is impossible. To not spend eternity worshipping Him is unthinkable. I love Him with every cell of my being.
Thank you Msgr. Pope….You have a gift. God Bless You.
“In the end, you’re either going to be possessed by the devil or possessed by God,” says a favorite priest of mine. And the best part of being possessed by God in heaven is that we, at the same time, possess Him!
This is a magnificent post, prescient and hope-giving and something to mentally chew on in meditation for a very long time. God bless you, Msgr.,for having the moral and spiritual courage to encourage us all on our journey towards heaven and the Beatific Presence of Our Lord. And I know you would agree that it is really the Holy Spirit that gives you such insight.For can it be that we may be witnessing in the very near future things so upending in their signifigance that I haven’t read or seen them since Bl. Fulton Sheen wrote his VERY influential book (for me) around 1948 entitled “Communism and the Conscience of the West?” I read it as a very young man around 1961 and it’s stayed w/me since that time as apocalyptic and also very prescient. Have you read it? Anyway, thanks once again for an immensely powerful post. GOD BLESS ALL, MARKRITE
I have a genuine concern and it is not to trip you up. It is clear that faith if lived out can destroy families. What of the husband who reverts back to the faith and the wife/mother in the same family who does not and is even hostile to the faith. How is he to live out his faith in love for his children and ALSO for her who he has chosen NOT to leave. We have genuine incompatibilities that range from contraception to almost anything under the “liberal” sun. Having a time finding a good faithful priest who doesn’t try to water it down for me. Need to be respected as a man.
Dear Monsignor Pope,
I think you and your readers might enjoy the following examples that demonstrate the real application of this Gospel passage. They are taken from Victories of the Martyrs by St. Alphonsus.
“Marcian was also followed by his wife and other relatives; but she, on the contrary, tore her garments and exclaimed: ‘Take pity on me, or at least upon this my child.’ Marcian, interrupting her, said: ‘How long shall the devil continue to keep thee blind? Depart and allow me to terminate my martyrdom in peace.’ But she continued her wailings and even threw herself upon him to impede his progress. The saint, therefore, requested a pious Christian, named Zoticus, to keep her back, and having arrived at the place of execution, said to her: ‘In the name of the Lord, possessed, as thou art by the devil, thou canst not behold the termination of my triumph.'”
“‘My father,’ writes the saint (Saint Perpetua), ‘used all his endeavors to pervert me; I resolutely answered, “Father, I am a Christian. He instantly threw himself upon me in a rage, as if to tear out my eyes, and used the most injurious language. . . . My father came again to see me at the prison, and throwing himself at my feet in a flood of tears: ‘Daughter,’ he said, ‘have pity on me, a poor old man, that am thy father; have pity, at least, on thy child, and bring not ruin upon us all by thy obstinacy.’ I was pierced with grief, but remained immovable in my resolution. . . . We received the sentence with joy, and were brought back to prison, where we were met by my father, who tearing his hair and his beard, threw himself upon his face on the earth, lamenting that he lived to see that day. He once endeavored to pull me off the platform, and he received a blow with a stick, at which I was much grieved; but the Lord continued to grant me strength.”
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