I recall an incident that occurred on the day of my ordination to the Holy Priesthood of Jesus Christ. I chose the 19th century hymn, “For all the Saints in warfare” composed by George Webb for the recessional hymn for the ordination ceremony. One of the stanzas of that beautiful hymn states:
From all thy saints in warfare, for all thy saints at rest,
To thee, O blessed Jesus, All praises be addressed.
Thou, Lord, didst win the battle that they might conquerors be;
Their crowns of living glory are lit with rays from Thee.
After the ceremony, one parishioner in the congregation confided in me that he was worried with this particular hymn because, in his opinion, the Church does not talk like that anymore. He asked, “Why didn’t you choose to sing of mercy, love, thankfulness, peace, forgiveness, etc? Why did you choose to sing such an uncomfortably confrontational song about Christ and the Saints in warfare on this joyful day of your life?”
I calmly reminded this sincere brother in Christ that there is no greater act of thanksgiving to God and proclamation of the love and mercy of God in Jesus Christ than what is accomplished on the altar in every Eucharistic celebration. Can anything compare with this sacred banquet in which we are brought spiritually to Calvary and enjoy the graces and mercy that Christ merited by His loving act of self giving on the Cross? However, the very first Eucharist did not end with hymns and high-fives. The first Eucharist did not end with picture taking and handshakes. No, the first Eucharist ended with Jesus Christ undergoing the ultimate battle for the soul of every single man and woman and the first arena of that battle was the garden of Gethsemane. As a Catholic priest, intimately united to Christ the priest and His unique salvific sacrifice, I will be naïve to think that I could ever be a bystander in this battle.
St. Mark reminds us that, after the institution of the Lord’s Supper, “when they had sung a hymn, they went out to Mount of Olives.”(Mk 14:26) It was in this garden of Gethsemane that Jesus entered into anguish, prayed more earnestly and “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.”(Lk 22:44) In entering this arena of battle, Jesus confessed that His heart “was very sorrowful even to death” and He called His disciples to join in the battle by “remaining here and watching with Him.” (Mt 26:38) He fought this battle when, humanly speaking, there was no visible sign of imminent victory. The elders and chief priests had made up their minds to have Him killed, Judas had already been inspired by the devil to betray Him (Jesus)“ (Jn 13:2), Peter was going to deny Him three times before the cock crowed, and the disciples, after being sifted by Satan like wheat (Lk 22:31), were going to abandon Him and run away. The battle seems already lost and useless.
Yet, in the throes of this anguish and pain and while facing what appeared to be a hopeless situation, He spoke those words that have given us the right to eternal life, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mk 14:36) Can we think of a more intense battle than that fought for us by our Lord Jesus Christ? How easily we forget that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, “appeared so as to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8) He, the infinitely Holy One, took on our sinful nature and became man like us in all things except sin so that He could face the devil one-on-one as man, freely enter into a mortal combat with Him, (Mt 4:1-11) conquer him and make us in Himself conquerors too. Christ’s ultimate victory over evil on the Cross and His glorious resurrection is our assurance that in Him we too are called to battle and to victory. His battle and His victory have not and will not dispense us from our own spiritual battles with evil.
In the recent Gospel from the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, we read about Jesus cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem in Jn 2:13-22. Does He perform this action because He thinks that the Pharisees will change? Did He hope that the sellers will never return to the Temple and continue their business? Doesn’t He realize that this action will be the basis of one of their trumped up charges against Him during His passion? (Mt 26:61) In truth, in all His actions, Jesus acts out of love for His Father. He performs this action today only because “He is consumed with zeal for His Father’s house.” He does not act because favorable results are forthcoming or because He expects that all will accept Him and believe in Him. Jesus is a fighter because He is consumed with love for His Father and He knows that by this same love “His body will be raised up after three days.” In truth, He has fought the battle that we might conquerors be. Just as Christ Jesus fought out of love for His Father, how can we speak of love for Him without a willingness to confront evil face to face in ourselves and in our world with all that we have?
Unfortunately many of us who claim to be Christians have lost a sense of this unavoidable battle with evil. Like the parishioner whom I mentioned earlier, many of us Catholics have lost this sense of our spiritual life as a battle and the life and mission of the Church as an inevitable confrontation with evil in all its forms. This loss was made painfully evident in the just concluded 2012 Presidential election in which close to 40 % of practicing Catholics voted to reelect President Obama. In the face of a viable alternative and despite the warning of many bishops about the eternal consequences of such a choice on the souls of Catholics, many Catholics, for inconceivable reasons, chose to vote for a man who has repeatedly vowed and who actually promotes and finances the daily slaughter of our innocent unborn brothers and sisters. This is a man who has sworn to redefine the sacred institution of marriage and desecrate this solemn commitment by promoting and endorsing what is called “Same-sex” marriage. This is a man who has “taken” the place of God to redefine our religious liberty and to tell us what it means to be religious or not and what our conscience should and should not include. This is a man who would rather see the closure of numerous charities in the country than rescind a mandate that all health insurance providers cover contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilizations even if this is contrary to the beliefs of the employers. If this did not wake us up from slumber I do not know what will ever wake us up to realize that we are in a battle for our souls.
I must make this point clearly. I do not see a particular human person or a group of persons or any political party as personifications of evil. God has created us all good and we share in His infinite goodness. But many people, knowingly or unknowingly, do the bidding of the Prince of darkness. As Christians, we must be able to discern the times and to see beyond the visible to detect the forces of darkness that are wreaking havoc in our lives, in the Church and in the world. St. Paul refused to direct his focus on the evil human agents but goes to the very roots of the problem. Rather than endorse a cowardly retreat from the spiritual combat, the Apostle to the Gentiles calls us to “put on the whole armor of God so that we will be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” because “our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities, against the powers, against the rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:11-12) His list of this “whole armor of God” includes truth, holiness, faith, salvation, the word of God and constant prayer in the Spirit. The armament that God has provided us shows us that we cannot and should not see any particular person or group of persons as the enemy of our salvation. Jesus Christ did not see any human person as His adversary but died and rose again freely to show us that “the prince of this world had no power over Him.” (Jn 14:30) He shed His blood for us in this mortal battle against evil to make us conquerors too. How pathetic that we cannot even keep His will in mind when we vote? We rather base our vote on party affiliation and economics. We rather ignore the call to battle against evil in all its forms that sounds in our souls from the moment of baptism when His precious blood washed away our sins. I really shudder to think of this unimaginable ingratitude and its eternal consequences.
This battle against evil is a universal one, fiercely fought in all places and times and by all people. This battle goes on in every human heart, family, society, institution, country, state, and even in the Church. St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises has a meditation called the Two Standards in which he asks the one praying to imagine seeing Lucifer, the chief enemy of God, summon “innumerable demons, scatters them, some to one city and some to another, throughout the whole world, so that no province, no place, no state of life, no individual is overlooked.” It is futile to seek to remain neutral or to pretend we can wish the battle away or pretend that we are immune to this battle. St. Ignatius teaches that the only solution for those who are in Christ is to beg Him for the “knowledge of the deceits of Satan and help to guard us against them.”
This battle of the Christian is much more than winning elections or getting people with good values elected into public offices. Our victory cannot be limited to something that is achieved in the law courts or by favorable poll numbers. Jesus even taught Pontus Pilate that His followers were not seen fighting to prevent Him from being handed over to Pilate because “His kingdom is not of this world.”(Jn 18:36) Our struggle is about the eternal salvation of souls and this necessary involves a fierce and unrelenting spiritual struggle with the forces of darkness, led by the one whom Jesus called the “prince of this world.” (Jn 14:30) We are about the salvation of the immortal human soul and the outcome is not always visible to the human eye. No doubt it has everlasting consequences.
Jesus’ question, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul” (Mt 16:26) brings the focus of the spiritual battle to begin with ourselves. Have we as members of the Church tended to focus on social action and acceptance by the world to the detriment of our own salvation? Have all our ministries and apostolates left us empty of God and His love for us though they were meant to foster this divine intimacy? Have we become so tolerant that we have become spiritually sterile in our life of witness? We Catholics, beginning with our bishops, must begin with ourselves first of all seeking to find the areas of our own lives where we have unknowingly succumbed to the kingdom of darkness. In what areas of our lives are we shying away from a battle with evil? In our interaction with the world, where are we so prone to back down in the face of evil? As long as there is compromise with evil within us, there will always be that sad compromise and gross inaction in the face of evil in the world. If we refuse to struggle with evil, the light of Christ within us “will become darkness and how great will the darkness be.” (Mt 6:23)
Lastly we should remember that we fight evil within and without only out of love for God. Like Jesus Christ, only true lovers fight for what is dear to the beloved. St. John Vianney teaches us that “It is by battles against hell and by resistance to temptations that we give God fruits of our love.” if we do not fight out of love, we will not fight to the end. If we fight because we see results or because results are possible, we will give up the fight and become cynical. But we also must fight because we are people of hope, ready to raise our eyes beyond the visible worldly results or lack of thereof to the “heavenly places, where we have been seated with Jesus Christ.” (Eph 2:6) Many souls in the world are depending on how faithfully we fight this battle. Our resilience and courage is sure hope to many people.
On November 28th 2012, a Catholic Church in the northern State of Kaduna in Nigeria was attacked by a suicide bomber during Holy Mass leaving scores of people dead, many injured, and the Church damaged. The dreaded Islamic and terrorist sect Boko Haram claimed responsibility for this dastardly act. However the next week, the worshipers gathered again and celebrated the Eucharist led by their wounded parish priest. It was a remarkable show of resilience and defiance in the face of danger to their lives. Why should they gather again only one week after such mayhem took place there? What do they hope to achieve? They fight even when they do not have any sign of imminent victory. They do not even have assurance of their continued safety. One worshiper said after the Mass, “No amount of bombings or attacks will make us forsake our faith and Christianity indeed. Yes they attacked us last week, but in God we trust. The Church came before Boko Haram, and it will outlast the sect, so it shall be. They have no control over us and their days are numbered going by their act.” This is the fighting spirit that we are known for as Catholics. This is the spirit that is expressed in that ancient statement about the Church in her struggles from within and from without, “The Church always buries her undertakers.”
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the battle horn has been sounding all these years of our lives. We can keep on pretending that we are not involved. Our eternal salvation depends on how we engage in this crucial battle. Blessed Theresa of Calcutta reminds us that we are not called to be successful but to be faithful to the end in this crucial battle for the salvation of souls. Countless saints have heard this call to battle and have answered with all their being. Mother Mary too heard this call and she too joined the battle from the moment that she pronounced her fiat, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.” She did not see results but she persevered even at the darkest moments when Jesus hung on the Cross in death pangs.
With Mary the Queen of Martyrs constantly at our side and the strength of the Holy Spirit in our souls, let us re-commit to Christ Jesus and the battles of our spiritual lives and mission of the Church. We may never see results. We may never see the good triumph as much as we want. We may have to suffer the continued governance of those who arrogantly trample the laws of God. The Blood of Jesus has been shed and He has indeed conquered that we too become conquerors. If we fight like those in love, if we fight like Christ, Mary and the saints to the very end and refuse to give up, we shall surely see His glory when this life is over and then we shall hear those words that will give us eternal consolation, “Well done, my good and faithful servant, come and share the joy of your master.” How grateful we shall be that we were soldiers of Christ to the very end.
Glory to Jesus; Honor to Mary!!!