The gospel passage that speaks to the theme of this weekend comes from the beatitudes:
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” -Matt. 5:10-12
My challenge will be for us to reflect on this basic question, what does victory mean for believers? Obviously, the times are tough. Christians are suffering. Life in this world seems to be getting more complicated. Evil appears to be getting upper hand. The powerful aren’t necessarily the upright. But are we worse off than previous generations? Are our problems worse.
Some of you I’m sure are familiar with JRR Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s basically a fantasy story with the core theme being death and the human desire to escape it. I have yet to finish the entire series but Frodo is the character who has been given the responsibility of destroying the ring. In the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandolf says something relevant to us all:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
At this point Frodo is facing many struggles and feels unprepared in his quest to destroy the ring. He’s confronting despair, evil, and uncertainty. He feels crushed by the responsibilities placed on his shoulders. Gandalf responds with words of hope and encouragement, inspiring Frodo to make the most out of this responsibility that fate has given him. He is encouraged despite all the challenges around him to continue and finish his mission in destroying the ring.
Isn’t that what the Lord is telling us in the gospel today? With all the difficulties that surround us, he reassures “do not be terrified, for all these things must first take place.” If you read a little further in the gospel of Luke, Jesus says “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28) The followers of Jesus have nothing to fear.
In the gospel, Christ prophesies about the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem with concomitant calamities. False prophets will arise. Nations will fight against nations. Natural disasters will befall humanity -earthquakes, famines, and plaques. Terrible persecutions will confront Christians -denial, betrayal, accusations, and imprisonment. They will be hated by family members because of their Christian belief. Is the end-time here? What exactly is happening?
The prophet Malachi tried to respond to this as he addressed his audience who had similar experiences. Malachi’s people faced what looked like apparent divine cruelty, prompting the faithful of his time to question, “What do we gain by keeping the Lord’s commands?” The prophet pointed them to the future by insisting, “The day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble.” I’m not sure how convincing the prophet’s statement was to his people at the time, but those answers never changed.
We live in a time when evil is markedly high, a time when serious questions have been raised about faith and the authenticity of the teachings of Christ. People have also been disappointed by religious and moral authorities. More so, people suffer because of their faith, yet seem not to find answers in the same faith for which they suffer. Church leaders, preachers, and pastors sometimes appear aloof. In certain cases, prosperity preachers present the gospel as an immediate gratification from suffering. Those who follow such empty promises end up becoming vulnerable and possibly question their faith. What exactly does victory mean for believers?
In the human sense, victory can mean several things -success in business, success in academics, financial achievement, recovery from sickness, promotion in profession, victory in election, safety in travels, achievement of one’s ambition, and so on. In the mindset of the world, victory is nothing other than prosperity, the reason why such gospels flourish. Christ envisioned this when he warned, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’” Then he forbade his disciples not to follow them.
Let’s think about the life of someone like Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan and how his experience relates to the question of what constitutes victory for believers. Scripture says, “And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 Jn. 5:4). Cardinal Nguyen was a man who understood how the challenges of faith amidst persecution and suffering could be lived. For thirteen years he was incarcerated in a Communist gulag in north Vietnam for testifying to the truth of the gospel. He slept on the floor, starved, was tortured. Cardinal Nguyen knew that victory belonged to Christ. He knew what it meant to have a lasting victory beyond this world. He wrote about his experience, "I must live the testament of Christ" - In his testament, just before dying, Jesus left me his word, his body, his mother, his Church, his priesthood, his new commandment, his mission, the duty to make all things one. Several times a day, I repeated to myself, "I must live the testament of Christ."
Based on my pastoral experience, it is easier to talk about standing firm in faith than experiencing suffering in real life. Yet, it is through such experience that the Christian grows deeper in his relationship with Christ. Victory for the believer is different from victory for the world. Victory for the believer might result in physical pain, persecution, and death. Victory for the believer resides in the resurrection. It answers the question of suffering because it connects with the suffering of Christ. Death is transformation in the Christian life. It opens the doors to eternal inheritance of the promised reality. When Christ says, “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed,” what does that mean? Imagine how the hair on your head gives you your unique identity. Imagine how your hair grows up when you cut it off. The hair comes back because its source of regeneration is beyond the observable. So it is with the Christian life. Even if it is cut short because of your faith, it comes back to the transcendental life “because great is your reward in heaven,” namely, a share in the resurrection of Christ. Here’s the key, “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
So how do we persevere We do it one day at a time, moment by moment. It takes stamina. We must make our relationship with God a priority as we do our closest relationships with the people in our lives. It requires exercising our spiritual muscles which is open to all, the young and the old. There are elderly people here who are heavy weight champions in the spiritual life. We must take that time to prepare for the battle as victory comes after the warfare: entering into the sacraments, praying the rosary, meditating on the scriptures, and speaking one on one with the Lord. We must ask for his grace and direction in our daily lives. Once we keep our relationship with the Lord, when the storms come, we will be like the house built on rock.
What does victory mean for believers? Cardinal Nguyen gives us ten rules that he used throughout his time to actualize this victory:
1. I will live the present moment to the fullest
2. I will discern between God and God’s works
3. I will hold firmly to one secret: prayer
4. I will see in the Holy Eucharist my only power
5. I will have only one wisdom: the science of the Cross
6. I will remain faithful to my mission in the Church and for the Church as a witness of Jesus Christ
7. I will seek the peace the world cannot give
8. I will carry out a revolution by renewal in the Holy Spirit
9. I will speak one language and wear one uniform: Charity
10. I will have one very special love: The Blessed Virgin Mary.
Yes, “wars and insurrections… nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” These are not meant to scare us, rather to prepare us for victory.
Readings: 1st- Mal. 3:19-20; 2nd- 2 Thess. 3:7-12; Gospel- Lk. 21:5-19