Whose Side Are We On?

Whose Side Are We On?

Third Sunday of Lent

Last week, our eyes were enlightened by the shining countenance of Christ Our Lord in His glorious Transfiguration. Today, our wills are strengthened by the vigour of His grace. Indeed, there seems to be throughout the liturgy of this Sunday a grace of fortitude, of power, of endurance, that is instilled at ever turn, from the words of Our Lord in the Gospel to the expressions of the orations and even the assertive melodies that give us to stand firmly and squarely in the truth and in the confidence of ultimate victory.

There was a time when it was fashionable for certain intellectuals to launch at Christianity the scornful epithet of being a woman’s religion, a religion without guts. Frederich Nietzsche in particular made it one of his great battles, to show that modern man has been finally freed from the wives’ tales of medieval days and is now to stand on his own feet. You will still find those today who accuse our religion of being for weaklings, for those who cannot face the world and its realities, who do not have the strength to compete and win, who cop out and imagine some fairy land in which all the troubles of this world will be gone and we will float on clouds, stringing harps and consuming nectar.

On the contrary, if there is one thing that today’s liturgy proves beyond the shadow of a doubt, it is that Christianity is no religion for wimps. Or rather, that the soul that embraces Christianity wholeheartedly, is meant to be gradually transformed from the inside into a strong spiritual citadel, a force the world has to contend with, and before whom it is powerless.

In the Gospel, our Blessed Lord had just expelled a devil that had taken from his victim the capacity to speak. The man begins to speak, and the crowds are ecstatic. The smart alec Pharisees of course have the retort: this man casts out devils with the power of the devil himself. What a stupendous finding! Even a child would have seen straight through it. The Lord takes this occasion to give a salutary warning to its inventors, and thereby to all of us. If you mess with the devil, you will get burnt. And if you deny the obvious, you are messing with the devil. So beware. You do not want to be with the devil. He is strong, but his power is exercised only over those who hand themselves over to his wiles. To do so once you have been redeemed by Christ is one of the most horrible things one could imagine, for then it would be to abandon the One who is Fortitude incarnate, and throw oneself to the lion. Ever since the Incarnation of Our Lord, the devil has a chain around his neck. You get bitten only if you go too close. Only a fool gets bitten by a dog on a chain. Beware, lest one devil having been cast out, seven others, more wicked than the first, enter. And the last state becomes worse than the first.

The great lesson offered to us by the mention of the seven devils worse than himself, is that we must be very careful to preserve and nourish the grace of our conversion. When God offers a soul the grace of turning back to Him, He gives that soul special insight into its failings, and light as to what it must do in the future in order to remain faithful to God. To offend against that grace, to turn one’s back on the specific grace of one’s conversion, is to open oneself up to much worse than before. This warning can sound rather austere, and it is.

Often a soul goes away from a sermon or a retreat, with doubts and difficulties resolved, intent on living a truly Christian life. It is like a dark veil that separated him from God is torn away. Such wonderful divine peace envelopes the soul. Everything is clear, but with more light comes more responsibility. If he falls back, he plunges into even greater spiritual darkness than before, and his last state becomes worse than the first. If one keeps falling back into sin, one hardens one’s heart. The sharp sting of conscience, the remorse, the shame, the wretchedness of soul that used to come after sins seems to fade away. Divine grace has a hard time penetrating a hardened soul. Grieve not the holy Spirit of God, St Paul tells us just a few verses before the passage in today’s epistle. Do not sadden God by turning back. Be not, according to the expression of St Peter, like the dog returned to his vomit or the washed sow wallowing in the mire (2 Pt 2:22).

He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. It is so easy to be strong. All that is required is to stay close to Jesus, to stand with Him, for when you do so, you enjoy His eternal, divine might. But if you fail to take a stand with Him, then, you find yourself not only without Him, you find yourself against Him. Why is that? How could anyone say such a thing? For one simple reason: the one who says it is God in the flesh. He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. It’s so very easy, and it’s so very simple. Is it surprising at all that when God steps into our world, showing such incredible mercy and love that He is endowed with our mortality to save us, is it at all surprising that from that time on, it is not possible to be indifferent to Jesus Christ?

Today’s Gospel concludes with the well-known passage in which this woman from the crowd blesses the Mother of Jesus. His reply “blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it” is a salutary reminder to us all that we have in Holy Scripture the means of knowing His will for us and living in accordance with it.

And so, as we pursue our Lenten exercises, let us renew our devotion to the prayerful reading Holy Scripture with faith and humility. Our Holy Father St Benedict, whose death we celebrate tomorrow, tells us at the end of the Rule that each page, each word even, of Holy Scripture is a sure guide to living a truly Christian life. And St Gertrude tells us that love for the Sacred Scriptures is a sign of chastity. Let us, then, turn to that Word with renewed devotion. If we do so, then we will fulfil the apostle’s command to avoid the contaminations of the world and the flesh: You were heretofore darkness, but now light in the Lord. Walk then as children of the light (Eph 5:8).