Summary: There is cause for hope, even as the culture appears to be winning over the Church: Christ will be victorious though we will suffer for the victory.
Third Sunday of Lent
Spirit of the Liturgy
The Word of God today sounds a little like a conversation between a father and his child about spring break. Dad lays down the rules for his offspring’s safety: don’t pay homage to things that don’t deserve homage; don’t curse; remember family; no sex outside marriage; no deceit or theft. Son or daughter, after a night in which dad’s good advice goes unheeded, cries “Father, pluck my feet out of the net I have woven for myself; look on me and have mercy for I am desolate and in misery.” That’s the literal text of today’s Introit.
Why does God spend so much of the Bible telling us how to keep the primal rule: do good and avoid evil? The reason is right in the second chapter of John’s Gospel here–Jesus “knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man.” This is an allusion to the Father’s judgement early in the book of Genesis: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Ronald Knox had it right: “Original sin is the only key which fits the whole puzzle of existence.” Every human evil has its root in the original rebellion of the devil and his angels, and the first man and woman, acting as his allies.
The effects of sin are manifold, but especially they are family discord, disease of body, mind and spirit, and violence. More recently, these effects have started to tear American society apart. A country that in 1945 celebrated victory over genocide now permits, funds and encourages the murder of millions of innocent children before they are born, and keeps in office arrogant politicians who vote even to allow the extermination of the few aborted babies who manage to survive. We Catholics whose loved ones have fought and died for the freedom of religion and the rights of conscience all over the world now are facing denial of those same rights for ourselves and our offspring. And, state by state, unscrupulous politicians and judges are buying votes and political contributions by declaring that abusive acts that fifty years ago were illegal in every state now have the status of marital union. The late Joe Sobran, over twenty years ago, said prophetically that if a nation with our moral depravity existed at the end of World War II, we would have declared war upon that nation.
Here’s the fundamental problem–one that Jesus saw two millennia ago, and is with us today–there is no middle ground with sin. The human heart is very simple. If we do good, especially good for others like prayer and almsgiving and hammering together Habitat homes, we feel good. We want more of that altruistic experience and we make it a habit. That’s called virtue. In the process, we show our happiness to others and they want a piece of the action. They see that we have what they need–beauty, goodness, truth--and they ask about it. That’s called evangelization–spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, that kind of community can change communities, cities, and nations.
But the simple human heart has a dark side, because of the weakness brought on by original sin. Disobedience to those same ten commandments brings a momentary thrill. “I got away with the lie and made some money” or “that was great and my wife will never find out” or “that drug gave me a great feeling.” Soon the sin, repeated over and over, has multiple bad effects. It becomes almost impossible to stop, even when it begins to cause horrible pain to ourselves and others. It becomes a master, keeps us in slavery. We commit other sins in order to support the evil habit. If a politician sees the societal breakdown the sin causes and speaks out against it, those enslaved by that sin form organizations and political action committees to destroy that politician and even enshrine the sin in law. You know their names–NARAL and Planned Parenthood and Log Cabin whatevers. Just legalizing the behavior is not enough–they turn it into a right, and spread it about like some perverse gospel. Ultimately they will make us pay for it and teach our children that it is a good thing.
So why do I have hope? Why can we all have hope? In the darkest hour of human history, when the Pharisees and Sadducees, corrupters of the covenant, conspired with the Roman occupiers to murder the Son of God, there was hope. On the third day, Christ rose, and the first thing He did for his apostles was to give them power over sin–the power to wipe it out from our hearts by the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation. That was not the last time God ripped victory away from the grasp of our enemies. When the Arian heretics, probably the worst threat to the Church of the first millennium, were about to triumph, God raised up Athanasius and his followers, who suffered like Christ but were victorious. When the Islamic scourge was about to conquer Europe, and pagan barbarians actually did overrun Europe the Lord raised up Catholic leaders and soldiers and monks to keep them at bay, and even convert all those barbarians. When the Protestant revolution turned northern Europe away from orthodoxy, Our Lord gave us Ignatius and so many others who kept most of Europe faithful, and spread the Gospel to the Americas and the Far East, literally evangelizing the whole world. Over and over again, history teaches us that “in weakness, God’s power reaches perfection.” Christ promised to be with us always, and to never let the gates of hell prevail against the Church built on Peter and the other apostles. He hasn’t changed His mind. The Church, purified by the struggle against evil in its clergy and people, will win through and, bloody but beautiful, continue her mission to bring Christ to the world.