The readings this Sunday speak of a great cosmic battle that is taking place all around us. In the Gospel, Jesus speaks of it vividly and of his own mission to engage our ancient foe and to gather God’s elect back from the enslaving clutches of Satan, who was a murderer and a liar from the beginning (cf John 8:44).
As Jesus approaches Jerusalem for the final time, He describes the battle that is about to unfold. It is a battle He wins at the cross and resurrection, but it is one whose parameters extend across time to our own era.
We also do well to examine the second reading, which describes what should be our stance in reference to the great cosmic battle. Though the victory is ours, we can only lay hold of it by clinging to Christ and walking with Him. The Hebrews text gives us a kind of battle plan.
Let’s begin by considering Jesus’ description in the Gospel of the cosmic battle and of his own great mission as the great Shepherd of the sheep and the Lord of armies (Dominus Deus Sabaoth).
I. A Passion to Purify - Jesus begins by saying, I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!
Fire is powerful and transformative. Fire gives warmth and makes food palatable, but it also consumes and destroys. Nothing goes away from fire unchanged!
The Lord has come to purify us by the fiery power of His love, His grace, and His Word. He has a passion to set things right.
Purification is seldom easy or painless, though, hence the image of fire. In this great cosmic battle, fire must be cast upon the earth, not only to purify but to distinguish. There are things that will be made pure, but only if other things are burnt away and reduced to ashes.
This image of fire is important because many people today have reduced faith to seeking enrichment and blessings. Faith surely supplies these, but it also demands that we take up our cross and follow Christ without compromise. Many, if not most, enrichments and blessings come only through the fiery purification of God’s grace, which burns away sin and purifies us of our adulterous relationship with this world. Fire incites, demands, and causes change—and change is never easy.
Therefore, Jesus announces the fire by which He will judge and purify the earth and all of us on it, rescuing us from the power of the evil one.
This is no campfire around which we sit singing cute songs. Jesus describes it as a blaze that must set the whole world on fire!
II. A Painful Path - The text says, There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!
In coming among us, the Lord does not merely come to get us out of trouble, but to get into trouble with us. Though sinless, Jesus takes upon Himself the full weight of human sinfulness and manfully carries it to the cross. He accepts a “baptism” in His own blood on our behalf.
In waging war on our behalf against the evil one, Jesus does not sit in some comfortable headquarters behind the front lines; He goes out “on point,” taking the hill of Calvary and leading us over the top to the resurrection glory. He endures every blow, every hardship on our behalf.
Through His wounds we are healed by being baptized in the very blood He shed in the great cosmic war.
It is a painful path He trod, and He speaks of His anguish in doing it, but having won the victory He now turns to us and invites us to follow Him through the cross to glory.
III. A Piercing Purgation - In words that are nothing less than shocking, the Lord says, Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
The words shock, but they speak a truth that sets aside worldly notions of compromise and coexistence with evil. In order for there to be true peace, holiness, and victory over Satan, there must be distinction not equivocation, clarity not compromise. Fire and water do not mix; you can hear the conflict when they come together: hissing, popping, searing, and steaming. One must win; the other must lose. Compromise and coexistence are not possible.
In this there is a kind of analogy to a surgeon’s scalpel. The surgeon must wield this “sword” to separate out healthy flesh from that which is diseased. Coexistence is not possible; the diseased flesh must be removed. The moment one talks of “coexisting” with cancer, the disease wins. Were a doctor to take this stance he would be guilty of malpractice. When there is cancer, the battle must be engaged.
Thus, in this great and cosmic battle, the Lord cannot and will not tolerate a false peace based on compromise or an accepting coexistence. He has come to wield a sword, to divide. Many moderns do not like it, but Scripture is clear: there are wheat and tares, sheep and goats, those on the Lord’s right and those on His left, the just and wicked, the lowly and the proud, the narrow road to salvation and the wide road to damnation.
These distinctions, these divisions, extend into our very families, into our most intimate relationships. This is the battle. There are two armies, two camps. No third way is given. Jesus says, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters (Matt 12:30).
If this be the case, how do we choose sides, practically speaking? And having chosen sides, how do we fight with the Lord in the cosmic battle?
For this it is helpful to turn to the Letter to the Hebrews from this Sunday’s Mass, a magnificent text that summons us to courage and constancy. Let’s examine the four prescriptions in this letter for a soldier in the army of the Lord.
1. Lay hold of the Proof of faith. The text begins, Since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
What do witnesses do? They testify to what is true, to what they have seen, heard, and experienced. In the previous chapter of Hebrews, we were given a litany of witnesses from the Old Testament who learned to trust God and were rescued from ungodly men and innumerable snares. Individually and collectively they stand before us summoning us to courage and declaring that God can make a way out of no way, that He can move mountains and deliver His people, that He can do anything but fail.
We are to listen to their testimony, respond courageously to the summons to battle, and choose the Lord’s side, knowing that He has already won the victory. To the litany of Old Testament heroes can be added an innumerable number of saints in our Catholic experience who speak to us of victory and who summon us to faith and steadfast courage. Yes, there is the cross, but resurrection always follows!
These witnesses tell us to choose the Lord for He has already won the victory, to live the life of faith by adhering to the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, to let the sacraments strengthen us, to rest in prayer, and to walk in fellowship with other Catholic believers in the army of the Lord.
Jesus is the Lord of Hosts; He is the King of Glory; He is the Head of the Body, the Church. We ought to listen to the testimony of these heroes and accept their witness as a proof of faith.
2. Live the Priority of faith. The text says, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.
We are given the example of a runner in a race. What does a runner do? He runs the race! Runners do not stop to watch television; they do not stop to make small talk; they do not take foolish detours or run in the wrong direction. They do one thing: they run the race. So, too, with our faith: it has priority. We should not let anything or anyone hinder us.
Runners also know where the finish line is; they know the goal. They do not run aimlessly. They keep their eyes on the prize and single-mindedly pursue the goal. Not one step is wasted. No extra baggage is carried that would hinder them or weigh them down.
3. Learn the Perspective of faith. The text says, For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.
It is clear that there are crosses, setbacks, disappointments, and suffering in life, but do you know where these lead? To glory, if we are faithful! The text reminds us that the Lord Jesus endured shame and the cross for the sake of the joy and glory that lay ahead.
There is no place in the Christian life for a discouraged, hangdog attitude of defeat. We’re marching to Zion, beautiful Zion! Glories untold await us. Scripture says, For our light and momentary troubles are producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:17-18).
Keep this perspective of faith. The devil wants you to be discouraged. Rebuke him and tell him you’re encouraged because no matter what you are going through, it is producing.
4. Last to the end through the Perseverance of Faith. The text says, Consider how [Jesus] endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.
It is not enough just to answer an altar call or to get baptized. It is necessary to persevere. In this cosmic battle Jesus says, At [the end] time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved (Matt 24:10-13).
In a cosmic war like this, endurance to the end is essential. We must make it over the hill of Calvary with Jesus and unto the resurrection. Victory is promised, but we must make the journey—and make it with Jesus.
Scripture says, Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain (1 Cor 15:1-2).
At the end of the day, there will be only two groups: the victors and the vanquished. You know the outcome by faith, so why not pick the winning team?
The battle is engaged. Choose sides!
This video shows images from my parish Church, which features the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” up on the clerestory level.