Saturday of the 4th Week of Lent
April 2, 2022
Knights of Columbus Board Meeting
St. Patrick Cathedral (Lady Chapel), New York City
The Eighth Beatitude states, “how fortunate those persecuted for justice’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Even though we venerate the martyrs of old, and admire the courage of Christians under persecution today, we nonetheless find it difficult to think of the persecuted as “fortunate” or “blessed”. From an earthly, secular point of view, the persecuted are not fortunate. Their suffering is real and it is severe. We have only to think of what is happening right now, in Ukraine.
Yet, the persecuted are fortunate in a much more profound way. In bearing the violence inflicted by the world on the just and on peacemakers, they share Christ’s sufferings; they identify with Christ crucified. Refusing, like Jesus, to fight with the weapons of the world, their lives are forever marked by his glorious wounds. In their identification with Christ, the Kingdom of God dawns upon them. They become living temples where God reigns supreme.
We must see the prophet Jeremiah precisely through this lens. Although he lived long before Christ, his experience foreshadowed and participated in the sufferings of the Redeemer. Like Jesus, Jeremiah was the subject of whispering and plots. Like Jesus, Jeremiah was led to the slaughter like a lamb. Like Jesus, Jeremiah entrusted himself entirely to the Lord. “O Lord, my God,” he says with the psalmist, “in you I take refuge.”
Why was Jeremiah persecuted? Was it because he spoke inconvenient truths? That and more. He did not merely offer his own views or opinions, but spoke in the name and the power of the Lord. A genuine prophet, he spoke with an authority his enemies could not match. The wicked, in pursuit of their own agendas, could not tolerate Jeremiah. His very presence, let alone his words, convicted them. In his suffering, Jeremiah was blessed – vindicated by God.
Christ gave his disciples fair warning that they too would suffer persecution. In his farewell discourse in John’s Gospel, he said, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world (16:33). What was true of Jesus’ closest disciples was also true even of potential disciples. The authorities sent guards to arrest Jesus, but the guards returned empty-handed. “Why didn’t you arrest him,” they demanded to know, and in response the guards confessed that Jesus had made inroads into their hearts: “Never before,” said they, has anyone spoken like this man” – and they were so right! The authorities, for their part, severely rebuked the soldiers for their honesty … So it was with Nicodemus who came to visit Jesus secretly in the night. To his fellow Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin, he but raised a point of fairness. “Shouldn’t we at least give this man a hearing?” he wanted to know. Nicodemus’ mild intervention on the Master’s behalf was met with insult. Galilee, you see, was not the high-rent district.
History does not record whether those soldiers found their way to faith in Christ, but Nicodemus does appear again, at the burial of Jesus. He brought to the Lord’s borrowed tomb a large quantity of aloes and myrrh, so much so that Jesus’ ignominious death was followed by something of a royal burial. We can well imagine that Nicodemus found his way into the Kingdom of God.
No Discipleship and No Evangelization without Persecution
All of which brings us back, full circle, to the Eighth Beatitude: “How fortunate, how blessed, those who suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for the Kingdom of the Heavens belongs to them.” Our Lenten journey, as I said yesterday, is not about self-improvement, or shaving off a few rough edges of our spiritual and moral lives. The Lenten journey is a journey to the foot of the cross. If we wish to reign with Christ, so too we must die with him … Not easy for any of us.
You know, it is not an easy ride for those catechumens and candidates who are making their way this Lent to the Easter sacraments, at least for the ones who are making this journey seriously. Some are taking this step without the support of family and friends, and some in the face of active opposition from family, friends, and colleagues. I know of a young man whose parents disowned him for becoming a Catholic. So too, those who practice the Faith openly, often suffer ridicule and criticism.
What about us, gathered this morning in the safety of this beautiful Lady Chapel? Here, I will speak for myself. When it is time for me to defend the Faith, I sometimes pray for an easy ride. I pray that my opponent will back down or that tempers will not flare. I pray that any difficult decision I make will not garner bad publicity. While the Lord doesn’t command us to go looking for trouble, he does make clear that we truly cannot follow him without sharing in the persecution he suffered … and too often I pray to avoid it.
It seems to me that a general rule is shaping up. There is no genuine discipleship without a measure of persecution – whether it is the overt suffering of Christians in places like Ukraine and the Middle East, or the polite persecution of the West, or the stinging criticism that arises from within the church community itself. What happened to Jeremiah, to the soldiers, to Nicodemus, and above all to Jesus, will happen to us, in one form or another, at one time or another. There is no way to live as an authentic disciple without attracting unfavorable notice. There is no way for us to advance the cause of the Gospel without being criticized. Discipleship requires courage, patience, and perseverance.
Happily, we are part of an Order marked by charity, unity, and fraternity. As members of the family of the Knights of Columbus, we support one another in our baptismal calling to be courageous Christians, Catholics who profess the Faith openly, and do so without counting the cost. Just as Blessed Michael was criticized in his day, so shall we be in ours. Let us be of good cheer. God vindicated Jeremiah. God raised Jesus from the dead. God gave success to Blessed Michael. Will he do anything less for us? “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him, if we persevere, we shall also reign with him…” (2 Tim 2:11-12). Vivat Jesus!