The introit for today’s Mass puts on our lips the dramatic prayer of Azariah in the burning furnace:
Blessed art thou, O Lord, the God of our fathers, and thy name is worthy of praise, and glorious for ever: For thou art just in all that thou hast done to us, and all thy works are true, and thy ways right, and all thy judgments true. … For we have sinned, and committed iniquity, departing from thee: and we have trespassed in all things: And we have not hearkened to thy commandments, nor have we observed nor done as thou hadst commanded us…. Wherefore, all that thou hast brought upon us, and every thing that thou hast done to us, thou hast done in true judgment: And thou hast delivered us into the hands of our enemies that are unjust, and most wicked, and prevaricators,… . And now we cannot open our mouths: we are become a shame, and a reproach to thy servants, and to them that worship thee. Deliver us not up for ever, we beseech thee, for thy name's sake, and abolish not thy covenant. And take not away thy mercy from us, for the sake of Abraham, thy beloved, and Isaac, thy servant, and Israel, thy holy one: … For we, O Lord, are diminished more than any nation, and are brought low in all the earth this day for our sins. Neither is there at this time prince, or leader, or prophet, or holocaust, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense, or place of first fruits before thee, That we may find thy mercy: nevertheless, in a contrite heart and humble spirit let us be accepted. As in holocausts of rams, and bullocks, and as in thousands of fat lambs: so let our sacrifice be made in thy sight this day, that it may please thee: for there is no confusion to them that trust in thee. And now we follow thee with all our heart, and we fear thee, and seek thy face. Put us not to confusion, but deal with us according to thy meekness, and according to the multitude of thy mercies. And deliver us, according to thy wonderful works, and give glory to thy name, O Lord… (Dan 3:26-45)
Roughly at the same period in history, the Maccabees were mustering their scattered forces to resist the onslaught of pagan practices introduced by the Greeks. For them, the resistance took on a more spectacular mode: they had the means to resist and to fight, and fight they did. What was at stake was nothing less than their faith, their traditions, their identity as a people chosen by the true God and consecrated to Him.
Periodically, the Church, God’s people in the New Testament, finds herself in situations not unlike those presented in the Old Testament. When Jesus our Saviour established His Church on the Rock of Peter’s faith, He guaranteed that the gates of Hell would not prevail, which implies that Hell would try hard, that its onslaught would be unrelenting. “When the Son of Man comes, do you think He will find faith on earth”? Our Lord asked one day (Lk 18:8). In the eschatological discourse of St Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord tells us that the tribulation of those latter days will be so terrible as to nearly cause the loss of faith of the elect themselves, and so God Himself will shorten those days (Mt 24:22).
The fierce battles implied by all this should at once remind us to be cautious and to keep watch in prayer and penance. It’s not because the Church has the guarantee of lasting till the end of time that She has the guarantee of being easily recognisable by all at all times. There are periods in the New Testament when, like those of the Old, all seems lost. Confusion reigns, vice is rampant, the world shouts triumph.
In those days, those “evil days” of which St Paul speaks in today’s epistle, we must pray as did Azariah, that God have mercy on us. We must humble ourselves, do penance, atone for our sins, for our sins have contributed to making the situation what it is.
But we must also have the zeal and fortitude of the Maccabees. We must stand up and fight for the faith, not with swords of steel and weapons of war, but with the sword of the Spirit, that two-edged sword that pierces the mind and heart, revealing to all the inner thoughts of the soul, and unveiling God’s eternal truths, which never change, to a world that has lost its bearings and is about to lose its soul.
Perhaps the most heartening in it all is that in these historical circumstances as in so many others in the New Testament, the odds were against the true servants of God. On this day we commemorate the naval victory of Lepanto. Things did not look good for the Christian forces on that 7th of October 1571; they were massively outnumbered, but many, including the saintly pontiff in Rome, St Pius V, were praying the Rosary and fasting for the victory. When the decisive battle was engaged, the wind turned, favouring the Christian forces, who won the battle and saved Christendom from Muslim invasion.
Let us ever turn our minds and hearts to Our Lady of Victories, who alone in this moment of crisis, can turn the tide of evil that has reached the very heart of the Church. She alone can work the miracle of overturning the forces that seek to destroy the inheritance of her Son. Let us say to her, with today’s communion antiphon: “Remember the words thou didst speak to thy servant and which gave me hope in my humiliation”. And with the alleluia verse, let us ever tell the Beloved in our daily prayer: “My heart is ready, My God, my heart is ready, I will sing and I will fight for the glory of Thy Name”. Amen.