The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Isaiah 8:23—9:3 + 1 Corinthians 1:10-13,17 + Matthew 4:12-23
January 22, 2017
There are two different reasons why a person might need courage.
The first reason would be that he’s the sort of person who looks for trouble: an aggressive person. We all know people like this, who love conflict.
The second, very different reason that a man might need courage is because trouble has found him. This is a man who is content to be peaceful and quiet, but who—for whatever reason—finds himself thrown into conflict. There, he has to make a basic decision: fight or flight. If he is a Christian, this is where he needs the virtue of prudence: to choose, in this particular setting, the better course.
But if he prays and realizes that God means for him to stand and face this conflict, then he needs the virtue of courage, which is also called fortitude.
Today is the anniversary of the U. S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Tomorrow the Church officially commemorates this decision, and the bishops of our nation have declared tomorrow a day of penance, when every Catholic in the United States is obligated to carry out some penance in reparation for the sins of abortions. Along with this, the Church asks us to reflect on, and pray about, and act upon, our belief in the dignity of all human life. In our world, growing more bewildering every day, we listen to the news and shake our heads at what’s happening in the culture around us. We wonder with worry what our children and grandchildren are going to face as adults.
In the midst of this bewilderment, we as Christians face those same instinctual choices of fight or flight. It’s very common for Christians to want to flee from cultural chaos. But Jesus Christ—Christ our King who proclaimed, “I came not to bring peace, but the sword”—demands that we fight, not flee.
It’s important to remember, however, as we reflect on the Church’s pro-life teachings, that these teachings are part of what’s called “natural law”. These are not strictly “Church law”, or “Catholic law”. When we say that everyone is called to respect human life from conception to natural death, we’re not talking about Church discipline. We’re not talking about things like not eating meat on Fridays, or going to Mass on Holy Days of Obligation. We’re talking about teachings that are so fundamental, that they are written into our moral DNA, into our very human nature by God, who is the creator of every human being, no matter whether Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, or atheist. These pro-life teachings of the Church are a gift from God for the entire human family, and God wants the members of His Church to share them with His entire human family as a treasure to be rejoiced in. Likewise, when these fundamental teachings are attacked, it’s the same members of His Church who are called to defend, explain, and offer them as a gift to the entire human family.
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Life is difficult. Life is full of suffering. You really have to go out of your way to avoid suffering, and many people use much of the energy of their lives doing just this: either to flee conflict, or to paper over it by one means or another.
But our Christian Faith is founded on the bedrock of Calvary. If you took a poll of 1000 Americans, and asked them, “What visual images represent the major religions of the world?”, most would say that Judaism is represented… by the Star of David. Islam is represented… by the star and crescent. And Catholicism is represented by… the crucifix. Not just the Cross, but the crucifix.
The visual distinction between the Cross and the crucifix reminds us of an important difference between Catholics and most other Christians. Catholicism insists that we look at Jesus on the Cross, because it is the sacrifice of His Body and Blood that make the wood of the Cross holy. Without the Body and Blood of Christ, the Cross is just two planks of wood.
Conscious of this, we realize that truly to follow Jesus requires the virtue of courage. This is where one of the best-known definitions of “courage” is illustrated: that “courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is fear that has been prayed over.”
To put this in another way: courage means being willing to bring God into a decision about whether to fight or flee from conflict. Why? Because once you bring God into your decision about conflict, He is going to show you whether the conflict demands your involvement. And once you know this, the stakes are raised. Because to abandon a conflict in which God has staked a claim, is to abandon God.
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But does God really care about taking sides? Isn’t it better just to leave people alone? Maybe all of us, instead of holding fast to what the Church teaches, should just let everyone do what they want. Are we wrong to insist that non-Catholics, just as much as Catholics, are held by God to certain teachings or beliefs? Or should we accept the majority opinion of the United States Supreme Court in a 1992 ruling defending abortion? In that case of Planned Parenthood vs. the pro-life governor of Pennsylvania, the majority opinion of the United States Supreme Court made the following declaration:
“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
It’s hard to imagine what sort of chaos would reign in our country if every American actually believed this claim of moral and existential relativism. Nonetheless, this sort of claim is behind a lot of the thinking in the culture that surrounds us. In the face of this sort of claim, you—as a Catholic—have four paths to consider taking. Two of these are against conflict, while the other two accept conflict.
The first path that leads away from conflict is the path of resignation. This is the path of least resistance; the path of joining in with the culture that surrounds us. Countless Catholics walk this path today: many are politicians; many are members of the media; some are ordinary, middle-class citizens. They walk this liberal path away from conflict saying, “Let’s have everyone create his own morality. It’s not our place to impose our morality on others.” But this is not our Catholic Faith.
However, there’s another path that also leads away from conflict. This is the path that leads into a bunker. This conservative path away from conflict says, “Modern culture today is going to ‘you know where’ in a hand basket.” And so these people, of whom many are Catholic, decide to close in on themselves, and close above them the door to their bunker. Inside, they carry on, living the Faith as they’ve been given it, but not passing it on to anyone except their own children, ignoring the mandate of Holy Mother Church to be a missionary people. The path into a bunker is not our Catholic Faith.
Those are the two paths that lead away from conflict. But in the opposite direction, there are two paths that accept conflict. Each demands its own type of courage.
The first path that accepts conflict is the path of aggression. This is the path of greatest resistance. Only those who enjoy conflict follow this path. The goal of this path is dominance. Its operating theory is that life is a “zero-sum game”: that says, “I can’t win, unless you lose.” It’s like the card game “War”, and is just as interesting. The type of courage needed to walk this path is the courage of the child’s game “King of the Hill.” But this is not our Catholic Faith.
The second path that accepts conflict is the path that demands the Christian virtue of courage. This form of courage is the courage of Christ the King, who did not dominate on the king of the hill of Calvary, but sacrificed his life there, so that others could join Him there: not just us, but all mankind, gathered there with Mary and the Beloved Disciple in worship of the King who died for us. This is our Catholic Faith.
We fight—by defending the Truth about the dignity of human life—not in order to defeat others, but in order to bring them to see and live the Truth. We do this because seeing and living the Truth sets people free, enriching the life of every person, and our entire culture: transforming it as a leaven, from within, and leading those who love this Truth into the life of God.