Third Sunday in Lent
In today’s Gospel we hear Our Blessed Lord pronounce one of those pithy statements which are well known, but little understood because of the challenge they present. After healing a man by casting out the devil which was the cause of this man’s infirmity, Our Lord finds Himself under fire from the Pharisees who accuse Him of having recourse to the prince of devils in order to cast out devils. In other words, they are saying that it is by Satan’s power that He is performing miracles. If that is the case, Our Lord points out, then Satan’s kingdom is at its end, for any kingdom divided against itself cannot possibly stand. He then goes on to deliver a severe admonition. If it is by the power of God that I cast out devils, then the kingdom of God has come for you, and it has come against you. You are the ones who will not be able to stand.
Our Blessed Saviour’s words were strong because the pharisees were opposing the Holy Spirit by denying the evidence before their eyes. The miracles of Jesus are so numerous and so grand and so inexplicable, wrought without the least effort or trace of recourse to any power other than His own, that only a proud heart hardened by sin could refuse to see and be moved. He tells them a story, about a demon who had been cast out of a man and who then goes and takes seven other demons with him and returns to make the last state of the man worse than the first. It is worse to fall away from grace then to have never had it. That is the reason for which it is not possible a Catholic to convert to another religion. A Catholic does not convert, he falls away into heresy or apostatises from the true faith. When he does so, his state become worse, much worse, then it was before he even came to Christ, for he has lost the treasure of the universe.
And then it is that the Saviour delivers the well-known saying: He who is not with me is against me; and he who does not gather together with me scatters. Last week we contemplated the divine Person of Our Lord as it shown in the glory of the Transfiguration. We saw that He holds all things in His hands. Today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus is the source of all unity, personal and communal. Each person can only be unified in themselves if they have found Christ, for He alone is the foundation, the source, the very essence of our being, giving it to exist and establishing it in everlasting peace. If His grace does not dwell in a person, that person can only wander aimlessly through the wasteland of a fitful and fretful life which resembles more death than life. St Augustine portrays this so well in his Confessions, and indeed Augustine’s spirituality consists principally in showing how through sin we have strayed off into the land of dissimilitude, that is to say, the land in which we lose all likeness with God, and are hopelessly lost, like the prodigal son in yesterday’s Gospel, who had descended so low into the pit that he wanted to satisfy his hunger with the fodder given to pigs. It is only by returning to God that the person is reconciled with himself, that unity is restored with His creator and all his own faculties.
But Christ is also the source of unity of the Body of the Church. If one does not stand in the unity of the Church, then one cannot stand with Christ, but will be scattered abroad. The Church herself can only be one with Christ if She is one with the saving events of Christ’s life as handed down by the unbroken succession of apostolic tradition. The effort involved in being a Catholic has never been easy. Knowing the path to take, however, is simple. It is the path that the Church has always taken. There are no new paths in the Catholic Church; there are no paradigm shifts; there is no new Pentecost. No, there is only one Spirit, and one message: it is that which was delivered to the apostles once and for all, the knowledge of which deepens with the passage of time, but always in the same meaning and the same sense. This is why the Church can never cancel her past, for she is her past, she is her tradition. To gather with tradition is to gather with Christ. To be against tradition is to be against Christ.
In every age, the temptation has been there to try and make the Gospel more palatable to the world; in every age, the itch is there to compromise with the world. St Paul had already spoken of those itching ears: there shall be a time when they will not endure sound doctrine but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers having itching ears: and will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables (2 Tim 4:3-4). Sadly today huge sectors of the Church are falling prey to the spirit of the world which is that of Satan. As the German church founders in outright heresy, as recently appointed cardinals run to the defence of sodomites and bishops give the Church’s most sacred possession, the Holy Eucharist, to public sinners and abortionists, in the meanwhile those who are attached to the purity of the Gospel and the sound liturgical traditions are made to understand that they are no longer welcome. Pushed from parishes to peripheries, we may sometimes feel like we are the ones who are scattering. But rest assured, my dear friends, it is the other way around. When one stands with the truth of Christ, when one stands with tradition, one is standing forever in the unity of the Church, the one true Church which spans the centuries and which includes those who have gone before us and who are now in the glory of Heaven, and are the principle part of the Mystical Body. With G.K. Chesterton, we believe in the democracy of the dead, and we stand with the universal Church in every age.
Nor should we be dismayed. Our Lord told us that many would fall away. In the Sermon on the Mount, He made it clear that the salt can lose its savour, and then it is good for nothing but to be trodden under foot. Commenting on this passage, St Augustine writes: “If you through fear of temporal persecution lose the kingdom of heaven, who will there be to root out error from you, since God has chosen you as the instruments to dissipate the errancy of others? Therefore salt that has lost its savour is good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden on by men. Not, therefore, is the one who suffers persecution trodden on by men, but the one who loses his savour by fearing persecution. Nothing but the inferior can be trampled on; but he is not inferior, however much he endures in his body on earth, who yet in spirit is rooted in heaven” (St Augustine, Sermon on the Mount, ch. 6, 16).
The salt that has lost its savour, my dear Friends, are those Catholics, shepherds and laity alike, who have caved in to the spirit of the world, who no longer take their cue from Christ, but from the world, which is the spirit of Lucifer. Though they may be for the moment enjoying prosperity and praise from the world, in reality, the world trods them underfoot and laughs them to scorn. The ones the world truly fears are those who remain salt, that is to say, who retain the capacity to sting the consciences of men with the power of God’s word, who are not afraid to speak the truth in all its clarity and glory, and to pay the price of their fidelity to Christ.
Coming back to today’s Gospel, we see that the truth provokes persecution, but it also leads to conversions and to the praise of God. Just as there will always be those who mock Christ crucified, so will there always be simple souls to sing His praises, like the woman at the end of today’s Gospel who cries out with such profound and genuine simplicity those words which ring through the ages and which we repeat frequently in the liturgy: Blessed is the womb that bore Thee and the breasts that nursed Thee. For our consolation, the Lord here shows us that even though it may sometimes seem that we have only enemies, there are always friends, true friends, many more than you think, and sometimes in the most unexpected of places. We will see this again during Holy Week. As Our Lord’s chosen disciples – His apostles, His first pope, His first bishops, His first priests – fail Him in the moment of crisis, the Eternal Father stirs up the hearts of others to step in and take their place: Simon the Cyrenean, Veronica, the group of holy women, the centurion, Dysmas the good thief, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, etc. How can we not think here of the warning Our Lord gave to the church of Philadelphia: Behold, I come quickly: hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown (Ap 3:11).
That is why we must continue to go about keeping and spreading the faith, our eyes constantly turned toward the Lord as we sang in the introit and the tract of today’s beautiful Mass. There is no use focusing on ourselves, no use scrutinising our enemies. The former can only lead to discouragement, and the latter to fear. Oculi mei semper ad Dominum – my eyes are always on the Lord, I am poor, alone and needy, but the Lord delivers my feet from the snare that the enemy lays for me (Psalm 24). To Thee O Lord I lift up my eyes, Thou dwellest in the heavens. My eyes are always on Thy hands (Psalm 122) , as those of a humble servant who knows their power. It matters not what men might think of me or do to me; I may be reviled by the rich and scorned by the proud, but like the sparrow I will make my nest in the house of the Lord, my God, my King. Blessed are those who dwell in Thy house. Forever and ever they shall praise Thee (Psalm 83). Amen.