A Call To Courage from the Book of Esther

Queen Esther, by Andrea del Castagno (1450)

In the Office of the Readings, we are currently reading from the Book of Esther. At the heart of the book is a reminder that there come moments in our lives when we must stand up and be counted whatever the cost. At such times we must confront our fears, choose sides, and act with heroic character to ensure what is right and just. If we are truly to be God’s prophets and want His Kingdom to prevail, staying silent or waiting for others to act is not an acceptable option.

As the Book opens we meet Esther, who though secretly a Jew has become queen due to her rare beauty. The Persian emperor, Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes and who reigned from 485–464 B.C.), is somewhat easily manipulated, frivolous, and distracted. He leaves much of the ruling to his prime minister, the wicked Haman. Haman takes advantage of the king’s nature to pursue a personal vendetta against the Jews by having a royal decree issued ordering their destruction. Haman’s anger had been kindled by Mordecai, Esther’s foster father, who had refused to kneel and bow before him. Informed that Mordecai was a Jew and that Jews do not comply with such customs due to their religious understandings, the furious Haman arranged the decree.

Mordecai informs Esther of this mortal danger for all Jews and the date certain for their extermination. He sends the following word to her:

Remember the days of your lowly estate … when you were brought up in my charge; for Haman, who is second to the king, has asked for our death. Invoke the Lord and speak to the king for us: save us from death.”

This is a crucial moment for Esther, a moment to decide whether to bravely confront the darkness or to hunker down and hope the storm will pass. Her decision will affect not only her own destiny but the lives and well-being of others as well.

Her first reaction is cowardly and defeatist. She says,

All the servants of the king and the people of his provinces know that any man or woman who goes to the king in the inner court without being summoned, suffers the automatic penalty of death, unless the king extends to him the golden scepter, thus sparing his life. Now as for me, I have not been summoned to the king for thirty days.

The Lord, through Mordecai, rebukes her and summons her to magnanimity and courage. He has this reply brought to her:

Do not imagine that because you are in the king’s palace, you alone of all the Jews will escape. Even if you now remain silent, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another source; but you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows but that it was for a time like this that you obtained the royal dignity?

Mordecai makes it clear that Esther’s own destiny is on the line. She will answer one day to God and surely perish if she does not summon courage and greatness. Why else does she think that God put her at a time and place such as this? She must decide and then accept the consequences of her decision. This is no time for fearful self-preservation or even prudential delay; it is the time for action that befits sacrificial love of others, of truth, and of justice.

The original meaning of the word encourage is “to summon to courage,” not just to make people feel better. Mordecai (whose name means “warrior”) has summoned Esther to battle.

Thanks be to God, she hears, repents of her fear, and decides that she will do what is right, whatever the cost. She sends back to Mordecai this response:

Go and assemble all the Jews who are in Susa; fast on my behalf, all of you, not eating or drinking, night or day, for three days. I and my maids will also fast in the same way. Thus prepared, I will go forth to the king, contrary to the law. If I perish, I perish!

Pay attention, fellow Catholics. We, too, are summoned to engage in a battle for the Kingdom of Light against the kingdom of darkness. We live in times of deep moral confusion and an often-fierce rejection of God. The toll of abortion is staggering in numbers. Our families and the lives of so many are being ruined by divorce, promiscuity, and pornography. Sexual confusion is rampant. Greed, gluttony, addiction, and other excesses have drained the vitality of countless people and made them slaves to their senses. In the Church as well there is sin, fearful silence, inaction by clergy of every rank, compromise with the world, and the very smoke of Satan.

If we want to know how such darkness and confusion has proliferated, we need to look honestly at ourselves as Catholics. Collectively, we have cowered in silence while Satan and worldly forces have wreaked havoc. Our pulpits have been too quiet; so too have the dining room tables of our homes.

The Lord wants the light of His truth to shine forth. Jesus, who says to us “You are the light of the world” (Mat 5:14-16), also adds that He did not light our lamp to hide it under a basket. No, He wants His light to shine. This means you! We are not a light, we are the light of the world. Christ, the Light of the World, wants to shine through us. Christ, the Word made Flesh, wants to speak through us.

In other words, as Mordecai says, we were made for times like these. The Lord put us here for this purpose: to turn back the darkness. We must decide whether to speak and shine so as to save the lives of many or to cower and hide and see the losses continue. Ultimately, we will answer to God for our decision.

The following are the lyrics to the hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation.” They were taken from a longer poem written by James Russell Lowell in 1845 to protest the United States’ war with Mexico.

Once to ev’ry man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
’Twixt that darkness and the light.

Then to side with truth is noble,
When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
And ’tis prosperous to be just,
Then it is the brave man chooses
While the coward stands aside.
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs,
Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever
With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
Ancient values test our youth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet on that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above His own.

In times like these we need more people like Esther, who chose to do what was right and confronted the evil of her time. By God’s grace, we need her courage to echo through us so that we can say with her, I will go forth … If I perish, I perish!

God Still Has His Seven Thousand – A Meditation for Those Who Feel Alone and Discouraged

fortitude
Last week in the Office of Readings we read of the struggles of Elijah the Prophet, who spent his life fighting the influence of the Canaanite god Baal in Israel.

Every now and again in times like these, times of cultural confusion, times when so many Catholics have fallen away from the practice of the faith or are so breezily dissenting, I think of the prophet Elijah at his lowest moment. He was in a cave, anxious and fretting, so depressed he could barely eat.

Those were very dark times, when huge numbers of Jews fell away from the exclusive worship of the LORD and bent the knee to Baal. Jezebel, the foreign wife of the Jewish King Ahab, was instrumental in this widespread and growing apostasy. Elijah fought and fought against it, and at times felt quite alone.

So there he was, fleeing from Queen Jezebel (who sought his life) and deeply discouraged by his fellow Jews, who were either too confused or too fearful to resist the religion of the Baals required by Jezebel. Elijah seems to have felt quite alone. Perhaps he thought he was the last of those who held the true religion. In the cave, Elijah pours out his lament.

And there he came to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Ki 19:9–10).

But God will have none of this despair or complaining, and says to Elijah,

Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria; and Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And him who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay; and him who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay. Yet I have seven thousand in Israel, that have never bent the knee to nor bowed to Baal, nor kissed him with the mouth (1 Ki 19:15–18).

So there ARE others! It is a small remnant to be sure, but Elijah is not alone. A small remnant remains faithful and God will rebuild, working with them.

Elijah is commanded not to give way to discouragement, but rather to keep preaching and to anoint leaders and a prophet who will keep preaching after him.

And here, then, is a lesson for all of us.

In times like these, it is hard not to feel like Elijah: deeply disappointed and even discouraged in the face of our current cultural decline. How many of our countrymen and even fellow Catholics have bowed the knee to the Baals of our time, accepting the doctrines of demons? How many have been led astray by the Jezebels and the false religion of the Baals of our time, setting aside the Cross and substituting the pillow of comfort and selfish desire? And thus now, like then, many are told to immolate their children, to kill the innocent through abortion (and call it “choice,” or “women’s healthcare,” or “reproductive freedom”). There is widespread misunderstanding about marriage; rampant divorce, cohabitation, and fornication; children being born outside of holy matrimony; and wide approval for same-sex unions—even the open celebration of homosexual activity. All of this harms children grievously, by shredding the family—the very institution that needs to be strong so as to raise them well.

Euthanasia is also back in the news, and polygamy seems to be on the horizon.

So here we are today in a culture of rebellion. And, sadly, too many in the Church (even among the clergy and Church hierarchy) are bewitched, succumbing to false compassion.

But lest we become like Elijah in the cave, discouraged and edging toward despair, we ought to hear again the words of God to Elijah: I have seven thousand in Israel that have never bent the knee to nor bowed to Baal.

God has a way of working with remnants in order to rebuild His Kingdom. Mysteriously, He allows a kind of pruning, a falling away of what He calls the cowards (e.g., Judges 7:3, Rev 21:8). But with those who are left, He can effect a great victory.

Consider that, at the foot of the cross, only one bishop (i.e., one priest, one man) had the courage to be there. Only four or five women had such courage. But Jesus was there. And with a remnant, a mere fraction of His followers, He won thorough to the end.

Are you praying with me? Stay firm; stay confident; do not despair. There are seven thousand who have not bent the knee to the Baals of this age. With a small group, the Lord can win through to the end. Are you among the seven thousand? Or do the Baals hold some of your allegiance? Where do you stand?

Elijah was reminded that he was not alone. As I hear of the faith of so many of you readers, I remember, too, that I am not alone. When I hear the “Amens” in my congregation as I preach the Old Time Religion, I remember that I am not alone. There are many good souls still to be found. Seek them out; build alliances and stand ready to resist, to fight the coming and already-present onslaughts.

I am not sure of the ultimate fate of Western culture (frankly, it doesn’t look good). I am not sure if these are the end times or just the end of an era. But of this I am sure: Jesus wins and so do all who stand with Him and persevere to the end. Get up, Elijah. Go prophesy, even if you are killed for it. Keep preaching until the last soul is converted.

Three Helpful Prayers from the Roman Missal for Those Living in Dark and Difficult Times

light in darknessOne of the great and often-missed moments in the Mass is the opening prayer, also known as the “collect.” It is called this because after priest says to the faithful, “Let us pray,” he waits a moment as they do so and then “collects” their prayers and directs them to God.

Most of the collects (pronounced káh’-lects) are quite ancient and are minor masterpieces. They are succinct, like most of the prayers of the Roman Rite, and make use of creative word order, almost as if to paint a picture of sorts. Reading them in English never does them justice, because word order is more rigid in English and the creativity of the Latin is often lost.

Even in English, though, they remain a great source for reflection, especially the newer and more faithful translations. Father John Zuhlsdorf is, of course, the great master in breaking these prayers open for us.

As my own poor contribution to this end, I would simply like to place before you three of the collects that occur during these summer months, since they are encouraging for us in dealing with the current cultural meltdown that is picking up speed almost daily.

All three of these prayers point to the problem of error and darkness in this world and ask protection for the faithful, and the courage to reject error, embrace and reflect truth, and journey bravely to our heavenly home through an uncertain and rebellious world.

Let’s look at them in their English translation. I won’t examine the Latin extensively, just making a few observations with each prayer.

O God, who through the grace of adoption chose us to be children of the light, grant, we pray, that we may not be wrapped in the darkness of error but always be seen to stand in the bright light of truth. Through our Lord Jesus Christ … (13th Sunday of Ordinary Time)

This is a prayer that reminds us of the great battle between light and darkness spoken of so extensively in Johannine literature. Recall some of the key lines from St. John:

  1. In [Jesus] was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:4-5).
  2. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God (John 3:19-21).
  3. Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
  4. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:4-5).
  5. The Crowds rebuked Jesus saying … who is this Son of Man? So Jesus said to them, “For a little while longer the Light is among you. Walk while you have the Light, so that darkness will not overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes. “While you have the Light, believe in the Light, so that you may become sons of Light” (John 12:34-36).
  6. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night (John 13:30).
  7. The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes … (1 John 2:10-11)

And thus we see in the prayer the great drama between the darkness of sin and the Light of God’s glory and holiness. It is a drama that unfolds all around us and we ask to be preserved from the deadly advance of enveloping darkness. We base our hope on God’s grace and the fact that Scripture says, For the Lord has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves (Col 1:13). And now, recalling that grace, we ask to be preserved in the gift He has given us in letting us be the children of light.

The Latin verb translated here as “wrapped” is involvamur. This can also be translated as “enveloped” and gives the impression of motion. Thus, may we not, O Lord, be caught up in the darkness of error. May we not be enveloped, or spun about and disoriented by the darkness of sin and error! Yes, spare us, O Lord!

And though the English translation asks that we always be seen to “stand” in the bright light of truth, the Latin verb is maneamus, and can also be translated as “remain.” Remaining or abiding in the truth and with the Lord is a very precious Johannine concept. The goal of our life is to remain in the Lord and dwell habitually in His light.

The prayer also asks that we may be seen to stand (remain) in the truth. This is the public witness of our love of the truth and our rejection of error. Here, too, the Latin word conspicui delivers a stronger message. In other words, may our remaining in the bright light of truth be conspicuous; may it be obvious by what we say and do.

Not a bad prayer for dark and erroneous times! Here’s the second prayer:

O God, who show the light of your truth to those who go astray, so that they may return to the right path, give all, who for the faith they profess are accounted Christians the grace to reject whatever is contrary to the Name of Christ and to strive after all that does it honor. Through our Lord Jesus Christ … (15th Sunday of Ordinary Time)

This is a similar prayer, but more focused on recalling those who have been lost in error. Indeed, how many have been lost and thus how necessary such a prayer! Restore those lost in error, O Lord, those who have strayed! For indeed, there are many things in this fallen world that are contrary to Christ and His Holy Name, which is truth.

Latin contains many words that are quite physical, even violent. The Latin word translated here as “reject” is respuere. The word literally means to spit, to eject by spewing out. And this is what we must do: radically cast off whatever is contrary to the truth of Jesus and His teaching.

The image evokes the Easter Vigil when, in some ancient accounts, the catechumens, just before their Baptism, turned to the West (toward the darkness) and renounced Satan and all his works and all his empty promises, spitting as they did so. They then turned to the East (toward the light) and professed their faith in God.

Yes, this, too, is a very powerful prayer with a memorable vigor. May we spew from our life anything contrary to the Lord’s truth and strive to live His truth!

Finally consider this third prayer for difficult times like these:

O God, who cause the minds of the faithful to unite in a single purpose, grant your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that amid the uncertainties of this world, our hearts may be fixed on that place where true joys are. Through our Lord Jesus Christ … (21st Sunday of Ordinary Time)

Such a beautiful prayer, and quite a masterpiece in describing the grace of the New Law! Indeed, to love what God commands and desire what He promises is the essential grace of the New Covenant that we must seek and lay hold of. It is best expressed by Ezekiel:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances (Ez 36:26-27).

Yes, for us who live in a fallen, darkened, rebellious, and confused world, grace is needed to overcome the stubborn and obtuse rejection of God’s truth by our flesh. God can and does do this. Of this I am a witness in my own life and I pray that you are as well. I have learned to love what He commands and to hate what is contrary to His truth.

The prayer goes on to describe the fickle and passing qualities of this world. It is something that we must ultimately escape. And while journeying through its deceptive and passing beauty, its trendy and flashy sinfulness, we ask the grace to keep our hearts fixed where true gladness is found.

Amen! These are three good prayers for us who are journeying through dark and difficult times. Don’t “tune out” during the opening prayer of Mass. Listen carefully. There are real riches to be found.

On the Martyrdom of Evangelization

Rembrandt_St._Paul_in_PrisonA reading from Monday of this week (the 11th Week in Ordinary Time) reminds us once again of the cost of the gospel. St. Paul speaks plainly of the suffering he endured to deliver the Good News for us:

… afflictions, hardships, constraints, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, vigils, fasts; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in unfeigned love, in truthful speech, in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness at the right and at the left; through glory and dishonor, insult and praise. We are treated as deceivers and yet are truthful; as unrecognized and yet acknowledged; as dying and behold we live; as chastised and yet not put to death; as sorrowful yet always rejoicing; as poor yet enriching many; as having nothing and yet possessing all things (2 Cor 6:3-10).

Thus St. Paul, who suffered martyrdom for the Gospel, delivered the faith to us long before the sword came that ended his earthly life.

I want to talk about the relationship of the words “martyr” and “evangelization” in two ways. The word martyr has two senses, both of which apply to evangelization. On the one hand, martyr is simply the Greek word (μάρτυς – martus) that means “witness.” On the other hand, in modern English we think of martyrs as those who suffered and died for their faith. Both concepts are essential for evangelizers (this means you).

Let’s look first at the definition of “martyr” as “one who suffers.” If you’re going to evangelize, prepare to suffer. This explains a lot in terms of why most Christians don’t evangelize.

When I was training people (about fifty of them) in my parish several years ago to go evangelizing door-to-door, and also when I was preparing others in my parish to approach their fallen-away family members to summon them back to the Church, it was clear that we had to get something out of the way at the very start. I needed to make everyone understand that we were all going to suffer for doing this. We would be rejected, scorned, ridiculed, vented at, and asked questions we wouldn’t be able to answer. And yes, we would also have people who would be delighted to see us, very friendly, open to the invitation to come to Mass, and interested to find out more. But in the end, I wanted to be clear that we would have to expect to get it with both barrels: POW!

Are you ready to suffer? If you’re going to be a witness, you have to know that the Greek word for witness is martyr. Are you ready to suffer for Jesus? There are many who have gone so far as to be killed for announcing Jesus. How about us? Are we even willing to risk a raised eyebrow? How about laughter, scorn, derision, anger, rejection, or even worse, being dismissed or ignored?

These things are just part of the picture. In no way do these reactions indicate failure. In fact, it may be a sign of success, for Christ promised such things to faithful disciples and witnesses. Further, anger and protests do not mean that a seed has not been sown. In order to sow a seed, the ground must first be broken, and that is often not an easy task. For the ground often “protests” and we will only get fruit from it by the sweat of our brow. In addition to the passage above from Corinthians, other texts in Scripture speak to the suffering of those who witness to the faith:

  1. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me (John 15:20-21).
  2. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name (Acts 5:41).
  3. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:14).
  4. If you suffer for being a Christian, don’t feel ashamed, but praise God for being called that name (1 Peter 4:16).
  5. We are fools for Christ’s sake (1 Cor 4:10).
  6. God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:21).

How can we read texts like these and think that we will not suffer for speaking and living our faith? Some will accept us, but many will reject us. But in rejection, derision, scorn, and being called a fool, consider yourself in good company. Jesus, the Apostles, the martyrs, the saints, and all the heroes suffered in this way. It is not failure to be thought of in this way; it is simply the lot of the faithful. In this sense, it is a sign of success. We do not go looking for a fight or trying to make people angry. But often they react that way, and this is to be expected. Suffering is an essential part of being an evangelizer, a witness, a martyr.

Here are few things to remember when we are being scorned or find ourselves the object of anger:

  1. Do not take anger and rejection personally. In most cases, it is not about you. Most people’s anger is really directed at Christ, at God, at His Church, or at organized religion in general. Some have been hurt by the Church or feel hurt by God. It is usually not about you.
  2. Just because someone is angry or takes offense doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong. I have often thought that, in a primitive part of our brain developed in early childhood, we instinctively think that if someone is angry with us then we must have done something wrong—not necessarily so. In fact, anger is sometimes a sign that we have done something right. We are raising issues that, though uncomfortable, are necessary to consider.
  3. Do not give in to the temptation to retaliate. Rather, rejoice that you have been deemed worthy to suffer for Christ.
  4. Do not be discouraged. Shake the dust and move on (cf Matt 10:14).
  5. Remember that you are sowing seeds. You may not experience the harvest, but others may well bring it in. The fruitfulness of what you do may take years to come to harvest. Just stay faithful and keep sowing seeds.
  6. Remember, too, that an evangelizer is a witness and the Greek word for witness is martyr. Suffering is simply part of the package.

When we understand and accept these things upfront, we are less likely to feel resentful and anxious when it happens. Do not lose heart. Accept the martyrdom of evangelization.

And this leads us to the second notion of the word “martyr,” that of being a witness.

A witness is someone who has seen or experienced the thing he is talking about. Thus, he knows what he is talking about. In English, the word “witness” contains the sense of “knowing” because its etymological roots come from the Old English and Germanic words “wit” and “wissen” meaning to know something. The word was also likely influenced by the German verb “kennen” meaning to be personally familiar with someone or something. Combining these roots, a “witness” is someone who knows the facts and truth of something personally, by firsthand knowledge. I cannot provide testimony as a witness in a court by saying what others told me they saw (hearsay is not admissible). I must say what I saw and what I personally know. This is what it means to be a witness.

In evangelization work, too, we are called to be witnesses. That is, we are called to speak not only about what we know intellectually, or what we have heard others say, but also what we have personally experienced. As witnesses we are called to have firsthand knowledge, not just to repeat what others have said. It is not enough to know about the Lord, we have to know the Lord personally. A child knows whether his parents are just going through the motions of teaching him a prayer, or whether they really know the Lord personally and are actually praying. Congregants know whether their priest is just giving an informational sermon or whether he has really met the Lord and knows personally what and of Whom he speaks.

People can tell the difference. And frankly, what people are most hungry for is firsthand witnesses, not people who just quote slogans and the “safe,” “tested” sayings of others. Here is what people need to hear: “God is real. I know this because I just talked to Him this morning and I experience His presence even now. And, in the laboratory of my own life, I have tested God’s teachings from Scripture and from the Church, and I have found them to be reliable and true. I am talking to you from experience. God is real and His teachings are true. I know this personally because I have experienced it in my life.”

Too often, what could be evangelical moments devolve into religious debates about whether Pope so-and-so said this or that in the 8th century, or about why women can’t be ordained, or about why the “evil” Catholic Church conducted the Inquisition. These sorts of topics come up quickly because we talk only about issues rather than personal experience. It’s a lot harder for a person to deny what you have experienced when you or I say, “I have come to experience that God is real, that what He says through His Church is true, and I have staked my whole life on what He has revealed.”

What we need are witnesses more so than experts in apologetics, who know every rebuttal. Intellectual knowledge is important, but personal witness is even more important. It’s OK to respond “I don’t know” to some arcane question, but it’s not OK to be incapable of giving witness. Even as a priest I sometimes have to say, “I don’t know the answer to that; I’ll try to find out and then let you know.” But then I immediately follow up by continuing, “But let me tell you what I do know, and that is that God is at the center of my life and I have come to experience His love for me and for every human being. I have come to experience His power to set me free from sin and from every bondage, and to root me in the truth of His Word. And whatever the answer to your question is, I know it will be rooted in that.”

Yes, we need martyrs for the work of evangelization. We need those who are willing to suffer and to be firsthand witnesses who have a personal testimony to give of the Lord they have come to know by experience. You should be an evangelizer, a witness, a martyr.

Here is a video clip from Fr. Francis Martin in which he beautifully describes the second notion of the word martyr as “witness.” This clip is part of a longer series on the Gospel of John, which you can find here Gospel of John Series 3A.

A Summons to Courage and a Reminder of Victory in an Old Hymn

blog6-14There is a lesser known hymn, at least in Catholic circles, that is remarkably appropriate for our times. It challenges us to see the choice before us soberly, and encourages us with the fact that the victory is already ours if we choose Christ Jesus. In times like these we need courage and conviction; this hymn serves as a powerful anthem to such a call. I would like to present the verses of the hymn and supply commentary throughout. First, though, a little background:

The hymn, Once to Every Man and Nation was based on a poem written by James Russell Lowell. Lowell was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1819. His father was the pastor of the West Congregational Church in Boston for 55 years. After graduating from Harvard in 1838, Lowell became a lawyer, poet, and the editor of Atlantic Monthly. He was also an ardent champion of the movement to abolish slavery.

In 1876, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him ambassador to Spain, and in 1880 ambassador to Great Britain. Lowell was in great demand as a public speaker.

Written over 160 years ago, Once to Every Man and Nation is a poignant reminder of who is in control of history, and who will ultimately write the last chapter.

The basis for this hymn was Lowell’s poem, “The Present Crisis,” which spoke to the national crisis over slavery leading up to the Civil War.

Lowell was right; the darkness of slavery could not ultimately prevail over the light of truth. This hymn can serve today to summon us to courage and to remind us that the increasing moral darkness of these present times cannot ultimately stand; the light of day will return. We have already won the victory in Christ Jesus.

And now the hymn, with my comments in red.

Once to every man and nation,
comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever,
’twixt that darkness and that light
.

Yes, we have to decide. There are only two ways, God’s or the world’s. Tertium non datur (no third way is given). The Lord says, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other (Mat 6:24). Joshua warned, But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD (Jos 24:15). And James also warned, You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God (James 4:4).

And yet far too many want two lovers; they want to serve the world and get its fleeting blessing, and also inherit God’s blessing. But there comes a moment when we must decide.

And now as never before we see how the path of this world is moving steadily and inexorably away from God. Sin, evil, open rebellion, sexual confusion, secularism, atheism, shredded families, and the growing tyranny of relativism and false tolerance are poisoning our culture. Secular culture increasingly sees the light of faith as harsh and obnoxious, something to be ridiculed, marginalized, and ultimately criminalized.

Our choice is ever clearer and the distinctions are ever starker. It is time for Catholics, for the Church, to stake out far more clearly our choice for God. And if there ever was a time when lukewarm would do (no such time has ever really existed), surely it is not now. The Word of the Lord rebukes the lukewarm:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent (Rev 3:14-19).

In the near future, it’s going to become a lot tougher to be a Catholic; it’s going to take fiery believers, people who are prepared to speak the truth in love, endure persecution and ridicule, and suffer loss. The Lord has been purifying and pruning His Church in recent years for just this moment. It is decision time. Once to every man and nation and Church, comes the moment to decide.

The hymn continues,

Then to side with truth is noble,
when we share her wretched crust,
Once her cause brought fame and profit,
and was prosperous to be just;
Now it is the brave man chooses
while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
of the faith they had denied
.

In a way it is a glorious time to be a Catholic, to be a Christian. In the past one could even be praised for being religious. In the once-Judeo/Christian setting, religion was gain.

Now all that is changing. There is a glory in choosing God when that choice brings only ridicule, what the song calls “wretched crust.” It is one thing to be a Christian when it is easy; it is a far more noble and glorious thing to be one when it is hard and even dangerous.

The distinction between the courageous and the cowardly, to which the song refers, is once again becoming clear. Gideon of old had an army of 30,000 and faced the Midianites, who had 60,000. But God said to him, “Your army is too large. Tell the cowards to go home.”  So Gideon dismissed any of the soldiers who didn’t think they were up for this battle; 20,000 left. Now with only 10,000 remaining God said to Gideon, “Your army is still too large, lest you think you would win this battle on your own.” So God had Gideon observe the men at the stream as they drank water. Some drank leisurely and others lapped up the water like dogs. “That is your army,” said the Lord, “300 men and I will be with you.” Gideon won that day with just the 300 men whom the Lord had chosen. God thinned his ranks, choosing only a remnant as his true soldiers (cf Judges 6 & 7).

Yes it is a time to stand up and be counted. It is a time for courage. It is a time to be prepared to suffer loss and endure ridicule. It is a glorious time in the valley of decision (cf Joel 3:14).

Onward to the next verse:

By the light of burning martyrs,
Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever
with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward,
who would keep abreast of truth.

We walk the path of Christ, who said, If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: “No servant is greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me (John 15:18-21).

Although, for a brief time, the world had some tolerance for Christ and His followers, that is now going away. Frankly, we are returning to the normal state for true Christians, a state in which we are despised by the world. Too many Christians spend too much time and effort trying to gain the love and respect of this world. No can do−unless you’re willing to compromise and even outright surrender the gospel.

So, welcome to the normal Christian life.

The hymn speaks of times like these, which make “ancient good uncouth.” That is, as our world heads steadily downward into unbelief and the rejection of God’s truth, those of us who remain with the Lord’s vision are considered uncouth. We are considered rude, boorish, ill-mannered, hateful, bigoted, homophobic, and intolerant.

But it is not we who have changed, nor has God changed. It is the world that has slouched toward Sodom, ridiculing ancient good and wisdom as uncouth. We who would dare doubt the cultural radicals are assailed in this way.

And we ought to be sober about it. For mere name-calling soon becomes demonizing; it paves the way for persecution about which the persecutors even feel self-righteous. Marginalization soon replaces ridicule and then criminalization follows. Get ready for more assaults like the HHS mandate and so called “hate-crime” legislation directed against biblical Christians who still follow the “ancient good,” now seen by the radicals as uncouth.

The hymn concludes,

Though the cause of evil prosper,
yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet on that scaffold sways the future,
and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
keeping watch above His own
.

The truth will out. The light always conquers the darkness; the dawn always returns after every dark night.

Every now and again on this blog I receive scoffing remarks from secularists and militant atheists who laugh and ridicule us, saying that the days of the Church are over, that the world has come of age and no longer believes our “infantile myths.” Yes, they scoff that our days are done, that we are close to disappearing and will soon be gone forever.

Not only do such remarks demonstrate a lack of knowledge of God, they also show an ignorance of history. The Church has perdured through the rise and fall of many civilizations, nations, and philosophies. They have come and gone, risen and fallen; the Church alone remains. All those in the past who announced the Church’s doom are gone. The Church is still here, the gospel is still being preached, and the sacraments are still being celebrated. The Church has buried every one of her undertakers. Where is Caesar now? Where is Napoleon now? Where is the Soviet Socialist Republic now?

The darkness cannot win; it is always destined to be scattered by the light of the upcoming day. The hymn refers to martyrs on the gallows, saying, “on that scaffold sways the future.” The darkness of unbelief is not natural to the human family; the light of belief will always return.

I do not know what will ultimately become of Western culture, but whether it stays or goes, the Church will surely remain. Perhaps it is necessary that she be pruned for a time, or her numbers even reduced. But remember that Gideon’s army, small as it was, won the day against overwhelming odds.

The Church is undefeatable, by the Lord’s promise (cf Matthew 16:18). And we carry the same promise, as did the army of Gideon: the promise of the Lord, who said, and I will be with you (Judges 7:7; Matt 28:20). The darkness of these times cannot win; the light wins. He always wins.

Here is a video of the hymn. The tune is “Ebeneezer” and the clip is from a Polish movie about the Christian martyrs of Rome. I have offered this video before, but I want to warn you that the content is graphically violent. However, it is an accurate depiction of the death of the martyrs.

An Ancient Bishop Rebukes His Emperor for Crimes Against Life: A Story of St. Ambrose and the Emperor Theodosius

053115I have begun a series on the blog that I am tagging the “Courage” series. (Our new blog format, to be unveiled soon, will feature tags at the bottom of each post.) I will be highlighting courageous persons and acts both from both Scripture and Church history. It’s going to take a lot of courage going forward.

Bishops, priests, and God’s people are going to have to be willing to accept persecution, fines (which we should refuse to pay), jail, and even death for insisting on biblical truth and morality. Radicalized Islam has already claimed many victims, but militant secularism and those who accuse us of “hate speach” for quoting Scripture and the Catechsim are also growing bold in their threats and legal maneuvers. It’s going to take courage and the heart of a lion.

In this installment I want to highlight a remarkable event that took place between the Emperor Theodosius and St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. What makes it remarkable is that it shows an ancient bishop (Ambrose) and a politician (Theodosius) interacting over the dignity of human life. The Emperor Theodosius had the power of life and death over Ambrose the Bishop. St. Ambrose knew he had to correct the Emperor but also knew that this might endanger his freedom or even his life. Nevertheless, he did it and wrote a personal letter of rebuke to the Emperor.

Let’s look at this remarkable incident of a courageous bishop.

 The Offending Incident – Theodosius (Roman Emperor from 378 to 392) was in many ways an extraordinary emperor. He had successfully dealt with the Goths and other tribes and brought greater unity to the troubled Roman Empire in the West. But he was also known to have a very bad temper. In 390 A.D. in Thessalonica, a terrible riot broke out, which resulted in the death of Botheric, the captain of the Roman garrison there. It seems that a certain charioteer  had become very popular with the crowds. Now this charioteer also lived a rather debauched life. This offended Botheric, a Goth, and also a very upright and disciplined man. He had the charioteer arrested for debauchery. The crowds rioted, rising up in favor of the charioteer. In addition to the arrest there may also have been ethnic jealously involved on both sides since the Roman Garrison was comprised largely of Goths and the town was largely Greek. In the riot Botheric, the Captain was killed.

When Theodosius  heard of this, he was incensed. He ordered  the Roman army to round up the entire town and place them in the stadium  to be slaughtered.  7000 were killed that day!  The day after issuing the order, when his temper had cooled, Theodosius regretted his decision and sent another messenger to try to stop the massacre, but it was too late.

Theodosius  was mortified. He went to Milan to seek solace from St. Ambrose. But Ambrose, fearing the Church was  just being used as a political prop or fig leaf, left the city before Theodosius  arrived, in effect refusing to meet with the emperor.  This surely endangered Ambrose, for it risked inflaming the emperor’s infamous temper once more.

Ambrose then wrote the emperor a private letter (now known as Letter 51). You can read the whole letter here:  http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/340951.htm . The letter was a respectful but clear call to public repentance by the emperor and a refusal to admit him to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass or to celebrate it in his presence until such public repentance had occurred. Here are some excerpts:

 The memory of your old friendship is pleasant to me, and I gratefully call to mind the kindnesses which, in reply to my frequent intercessions, you have most graciously conferred on others. Whence it may be inferred that I did not from any ungrateful feeling avoid meeting you on your arrival, which I had always before earnestly desired. And I will now briefly set forth the reason for my acting as I did …

 Listen, august Emperor, I cannot deny that you have a zeal for the faith; I do confess that you have the fear of God. But you have a natural vehemence [i.e., temper] , which … if any one stirs it up, you rouse it so much more that you can scarcely restrain it … Would that … no one may inflame it! … restrain yourself, and overcome your natural vehemence by the love of piety …

  This vehemence of yours I preferred to commend privately to your own consideration, rather than possibly raise it by any action of mine in public …

 There was that done in the city of the Thessalonians of which no similar record exists, which I was not able to prevent happening; which, indeed, I had before said would be most atrocious when I so often petitioned against it, and that which you yourself show by revoking it too late you consider to be grave, this I could not extenuate [i.e., minimize]  when done. When it was first heard of … there was not one who did not lament it, not one who thought lightly of it; your being in fellowship with Ambrose was no excuse for your deed …

 Are you ashamed, O Emperor, to do that which the royal prophet David, the forefather of Christ, according to the flesh, did? … he said: I have sinned against the Lord. Bear it, then, without impatience, O Emperor, if it be said to you: You have done that which was spoken of … say: I have sinned against the Lord. If you repeat those words of the royal prophet: O come let us worship and fall down before Him, and mourn before the Lord our God, Who made us. [I]t shall be said to you also: Since you repent, the Lord puts away your sin, and you shall not die.

  Holy Job, himself also powerful in this world, says: I hid not my sin, but declared it before all the people …

 I have written this, not in order to confound you, but that the examples of these kings may stir you up to put away this sin from your kingdom, for you will do it away by humbling your soul before God. You are a man, and it has come upon you, conquer it. Sin is not done away but by tears and penitence. Neither angel can do it, nor archangel. The Lord Himself, Who alone can say, I am with you, Matthew 28:20 if we have sinned, does not forgive any but those who repent …

  I urge, I beg, I exhort, I warn, for it is a grief to me, that you who were an example of unusual piety, who were conspicuous for clemency … The devil envied that which was your most excellent possession. Conquer him while you still possess that wherewith you may conquer. Do not add another sin to your sin by a course of action which has injured many.

 I, indeed, though a debtor to your kindness, for which I cannot be ungrateful, that kindness which has surpassed that of many emperors … but have cause for fear; I dare not offer the sacrifice if you intend to be present. Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person, allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so.

 Lastly, I am writing with my own hand that which you alone may read … Our God gives warnings in many ways, by heavenly signs, by the precepts of the prophets; by the visions even of sinners He wills that we should understand, that we should entreat Him to take away all disturbances, to preserve peace for you emperors, that the faith and peace of the Church, whose advantage it is that emperors should be Christians and devout, may continue.

 You certainly desire to be approved by God. To everything there is a time, Ecclesiastes 3:1 as it is written: It is time for You, Lord, to work. It is an acceptable time, O Lord. You shall then make your offering when you have received permission to sacrifice, when your offering shall be acceptable to God. Would it not delight me to enjoy the favor of the Emperor, to act according to your wish, if the case allowed it….when the oblation would bring offense, for the one is a sign of humility, the other of contempt.  For the Word of God Himself tells us that He prefers the performance of His commandments to the offering of sacrifice. God proclaims this, Moses declares it to the people, Paul preaches it to the Gentiles. … Are they not, then, rather Christians in truth who condemn their own sin, than they who think to defend it? The just is an accuser of himself in the beginning of his words. He who accuses himself when he has sinned is just, not he who praises himself.

… But thanks be to the Lord, Who wills to chastise His servants, that He may not lose them. This I have in common with the prophets, and you shall have it in common with the saints … If you believe me, be guided by me … acknowledge what I say; if you believe me not, pardon that which I do, in that I set God before you. May you, most august Emperor, with your holy offspring, enjoy perpetual peace with perfect happiness and prosperity.

Assessment – So here is a bishop speaking the truth to the emperor and calling him to repentance. Remember there were no laws protecting Ambrose from execution or exile for doing this. An emperor could act with impunity doing either. Yet St. Ambrose speaks a rebuke meant to provoke sincere repentance. Neither would Ambrose allow the Church to be used as a prop for some false and flattering acclamation. What was needed was sincere and public repentance. He rebukes both with the emperor’s salvation in mind as well as the good of the faithful. He used the Shepherd’s staff (which is a weapon used to defend the Sheep) to defend the flock from damnation, error, and discouragement. He insisted on truth when it could have gotten him killed by the wolf.

So what did Emperor Theodosius do? He went to the Cathedral of Milan and brought his whole entourage. Ambrose agreed to meet him there. The emperor walked into the door of the cathedral, shed his royal robes and insignia, and bowed down in public penance. One year later, in 391, he personally went to Thessalonica and asked for forgiveness. Theodosius died in 395 at the age of 48 and likely saved his soul by listening to Ambrose and placing his faith higher than his civil authority.

This is a remarkable story of the power of the gospel to transform the hearts of all. It is a remarkable story showing what risking to speak the truth can do. May God be praised.

Disclaimer – I do not relate this story to critique the modern struggle of some bishops (and priests) to speak the truth to those in power. Rather, I write to encourage us all through an epic tale from the past. Every bishop must make prudential judgments in each situation based on the individual politician or prominent person involved, on what is best for the faithful, and on the common good. Some have judged to speak forth as did Ambrose. Others in different circumstances pursue quieter measures. Still others judge that public rebukes would only make heroes of those being rebuked.  It is a prudential judgment that every bishop has to make. A bishop in the Midwest may face one set of circumstances while a bishop in the Northeast faces another. The faithful do well to encourage their bishops and priests and pray for them to make good judgments.

Finally, I am indebted to Rev. Michael John Witt, Church History Professor at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis for the background on this story. He maintains a wonderful Church history site here: http://www.michaeljohnwitt.com/  The site includes hundreds of engaging and inspiring lectures on Church history that manifest a great love for the Church.

Priests, too, face challenges in speaking forthrightly to their congregations. They need courage to announce that which may not always be popular or may be out-of-season. In this clip, the famous preacher Vernon Johns (who preceded Dr. Martin Luther King in Birmingham) seeks to rouse a sleepy congregation to realize its own role in perpetuating injustice. Even as bishops and priests are called to speak up, so, too, are the laity. This clip is a remarkable glimpse of what a prophet must sound like. My favorite moment is the classic line, “Are you worthy of Jesus or are you just worthy of the State of Alabama?”

Courage, fellow clergy and people of God, courage!

Honor to the Martyrs! A Declaration of Gratitude to the Martyrs of Our Day

051015
“21 New Martyrs Icon” by Tony Rezk

In the Divine Office last week we read a remarkable passage on the persecution of the Church. It seems proper to consider a portion of it in times like these; more on that in a moment.

Of course in writing of persecution and martyrdom, I write as an American who, though experiencing a lot more scorn these days, does not have to endure grave threat for being a Catholic. But as I consider Catholics and Christians in places like Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Nigeria, the Sudan, Kenya, and other places having their churches burned, seeing their ancient Christian communities scattered, being exiled, and being killed by beheading or other methods, I am both shocked and moved.

Frankly, I can barely avoid screaming when, while all this goes on in the world, we in America get worked up about things like whether or not someone deflated a football before a game. We can be so decadent, spoiled, and focused on trivialities (but I digress).

While there is a tragedy to the martyrdom of Catholics and other Christians, there is also a glory. I do not think that we will ever really know in this life what their suffering has merited for the Church or how, as St. Paul said, they  fill up in [their] flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the Church (cf Col 1:24). Somehow their sufferings are mystically united to the once for all perfect act of Christ for our salvation.

Honor to these martyrs! How they make reparation for our often decadent and pusillanimous living of the faith. I can only thank God that, as many people in places like Europe and North America forsake the faith and consider it of little value or demand changes to it (to accommodate divorce and remarriage, alternate families, homosexual acts, euthanasia, etc.), many in other parts of the world suffer and die for the unabridged faith handed down from the Apostles. May their heroism move us to courage and to a determination to preach the faith, pure and unadulterated, without considering the personal cost.

We do not seek conflict, but we must be willing to accept what comes, for we serve a Lord who was crucified for what He taught. The Book of Hebrews says it well:

So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Heb 13:12-14).

Persecution is really the normal state of the Christian and the Church when we are seeking to live and teach the faith. The goal of the Christian faith is not to offend, but neither is it to win a popularity contest. Jesus warns, Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Luke 6:26). Jesus had enemies and told us to love and pray for them. If we don’t have any enemies, we should ask ourselves why not. Do we think we can be more successful than Jesus in preaching the Gospel, such that we can preach it or live it without giving offense?

It is going to get increasingly difficult for us in the decadent West to argue that persecution can be avoided by anything but a serious compromising of our faith or at least a camouflaging of it. And neither of these is acceptable for disciples of Christ.

Meanwhile our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world show us true courage and help the Church to be the Church: willing to follow our crucified Lord.

Not only that, but they are a kind of medicine for the world, too. This leads us (finally) to the remarkable passage from the Breviary to which I referred at the beginning of the blog. And while it is applied to all Christians, it can be said to apply especially to martyrs and others who endure suffering for the faith:

Christians … condemned because they are not understood, are put to death, but raised to life again. … They are persecuted. … yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen.

[But] The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together.

The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven.

As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself (from a letter to Diognetus (Nn. 5-6; Funk, 397-401)).

Yes, honor to the martyrs. The world hates them but does not realize that it depends on them and on every faithful Christian to be its soul and life force. Without faithful Christian presence, the world is dead and heading for eternal death. Without martyrs, the Church risks being a friend of the world but an enemy of God (cf James 4:4). But with them in our ranks the Church can say, “I love God whatever the cost and am willing to go with Jesus outside the gates, outside the world’s embrace, and suffer shame and even death.”

Pray in thanksgiving for these glorious martyrs of our age. Pray, too, that we may have their courage when the wolf comes for us. That wolf may first come in sheep’s clothing, talking about “tolerance” and “acceptance.” But beware, you will know them by their fruits (Mat 7:16). Do not hate them, but resist the evil they glorify, even unto loss and death.

Honor to the martyrs, honor!