We live in a world full of confusion and trouble of every kind. During these days, we remember those men and women of the armed services who died in the two great wars so that we may live in relative peace and security. And yet, despite all our remembering and praying there are still wars, there is still suffering, there is still death. As we remember our war dead we pray for those who gave their lives so that we may live better lives. May their sacrifice not be in vain.
Our Lord didn’t tell his disciples to live in a world apart, he sent them out to preach the Gospel in the real world: among ordinary people and in the hurly-burly of everyday life.
We all know what Our Lord thought about the Pharisees, and his sharpest criticism was always of them. The Pharisees were the epitome of religious selfishness and pride, people who thought themselves better than everyone else. They also lived in a little bubble-world of their own. It was a sheltered and protected world. They totally cut themselves off from ordinary people because they sincerely believed that the world wasn’t fit for them. They might inhale the fatal germs of sin and human evil. And so, they constructed a world of their own, and they called themselves the ‘Separated Ones’; they regarded themselves as God’s favourites: his chosen few.
Our Lord’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple, which we heard the other week, gives us an idea of what the Pharisees’ daily prayer must have been like: “Thank God we are not grasping, unjust, and adulterous, like the rest of mankind”. And so, they cut themselves off from ordinary people and they kept to themselves.
Now, the Pharisees didn’t expect to be pitied in their isolation, they expected to be admired. They put themselves on display to make it easier for this to happen. And as far as they were concerned, it was those who lived in the contaminated world outside who had to be pitied. And even though their lives were hemmed in by all kinds of rules, regulations and disciplines, they didn’t mind. It was a small price to pay for the privilege of being special.
We all face the temptation to create a little bubble-world of our own: it could be a world of privilege, a world of wealth, a world of luxury, even a world of religion. Our Lord knew exactly what the world was like, and how rough it can be at times. And Our Lord told his disciples well in advance about the trials and tribulations they would encounter. And even though they were his own disciples, and precious to his heavenly Father, they would be spared nothing, just as he would be spared nothing. If anything, the Powers of Darkness would single them out for special treatment and they would be hated by all on account of his name.
Our Lord foretold the destruction of the temple. He told his followers that they would meet all kinds of false prophets who would preach a false message in his name and he urged them not to be taken in. He told them there would be wars and revolutions that would tear the world apart, and he urged them not to be afraid. He told them there would be earthquakes, plagues and famines. Finally, he told them that they would suffer all kinds of persecutions: betrayal, imprisonment, injustice, false trial and death. Our Lord hid nothing from them, and he warned them that the time they should be most on their guard was when people spoke well of them: “Beware when people speak well of you, for that is how they treated the false prophets.” Our Lord gave them the assurance that in the end his power would see them through all these trials. They were not to rely on their wits or their own strength, but only in his help.
Now, the kind of world Our Lord described two thousand years ago sounds awfully familiar, in fact exactly like the world we live in. Human beings haven’t really changed much – individuals, families and nations are still at war with one another. We only have to read our newspapers each day to be reminded of that. Human beings are still unable to live with each other in true peace and harmony.
Remembrance Sunday reminds us of the futility of war, and yet at the same time we acknowledge the fact that sometimes only an armed response can confront an unjust aggressor. Today we remember those who answered the call to fight for justice and liberty, those countless men and women who gave their lives in the two Great Wars and the other more recent conflicts in which our nation has been involved. Today we remember them and we thank them for their sacrifice which has enabled us to live in relative peace and security for many years. We also remember in our prayers those members of the armed forces on active duty in the many troubled areas of our world today.
We should be comforted that Our Lord knew humanity wouldn’t change that much, and we shouldn’t be overwhelmed by it all either. We must never forget who we are and what we are capable of. Of all the tragedies that could happen to us, betrayal of Christ would be the most serious. But perhaps the greatest threat isn’t that we might become victims of evil, but that we might simply vanish into the crowd and lose our identity and our sense of mission as Catholics. Then the salt will have lost its saltiness and be worth nothing, except to be trampled underfoot. The Cistercian spiritual writer Thomas Merton wrote that: “The greatest temptation of modern man is to escape into the great formless sea of irresponsibility – which is the crowd”.
And yet we should never think that we are better than others, or that we are superior to them. We are exposed to the same germs of evil as everyone else. But if we are to be genuine followers of Christ, then we must be different and we must be recognised for who and what we are, and we must stand apart from the crowd, even if that means suffering in some way. As Saint Paul says, we must be ‘in the world but not of the world’. We are followers of Christ and we must be true to him. Only then will we be messengers of hope and bearers of light; and above all, we will be witnesses to Truth.