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Twenty-Third Sunday of the Year

A Sword, Not a Bathrobe

I recently heard the 'peace of Christ' being compared to wearing a towelling bathrobe. This garment, it was argued, brought a sense of comfort and well-being, fostered a non-aggressive and affectionate disposition, and generally made everything feel better. The argument also suggested that statespeople should wear towelling bathrobes during tense negotiations; this would make them less inclined to wage war, to be better attuned to justice and peace.

It's easy, and quite right, to laugh at such unfortunate nonsense. It certainly bears no relation to the portrait of Christ in the Gospels. A few weeks ago we heard Christ saying that he had come to bring not peace, but a sword, and to cast fire upon the earth. The effect of his coming would be to divide households against themselves: all the more shocking since one of the Ten Commandments is to 'honour thy father and mother'.

Jesus has more such sayings for us today. No one is to put love of family before love of God, and he emphasizes this point by using the shocking word 'hate'. A part of following Christ authentically will be to take up our cross, to be prepared to lose our lives in order to truly find them.

Looking at the history of the Church we can see that Christ's words about family strife are certainly embodied there. One fine example comes from the early Church: around the year 203 AD a nobly born Roman, a young woman named Vibia Perpetua, had been condemned to die in the arena in Carthage. Her crime was refusing to renounce Christianity. She herself movingly describes how her father came to dissuade her from her action:

"Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs...Forbear thy resolution; do not destroy us altogether; for none of us will speak openly among men again if you suffer anything." This he said fatherwise in his love, kissing my hands and grovelling at my feet, and with tears named me, not daughter, but lady.

Perpetua and her companion Felicity ignore these pleas and go on to become two of the greatest martyrs of the Church.

In the Middle Ages, another great saint, Thomas Aquinas, was kidnapped and imprisoned by his own family because he wanted to follow the renewed apostolic way of life in the Order of Preachers, rather than the socially and politically advantageous way open to him and his family in the local abbey of Monte Cassino. Thomas was under house arrest and suffered many indignities until his family relented after a year.

Not long before, a young man of the merchant class had very deliberately humiliated his own father, very publicly, in a town square. He stripped himself naked and threw his clothes at the bewildered and shamed man. The young man, of course, is known to us as St Francis of Assisi.

In the 20th century a young atheist philosopher from a Jewish family found herself being drawn out of her denial of God, and into sharing the life of the Trinity. Her baptism into the Body of Christ, while not causing rancour among her family, deeply hurt and bewildered her mother, Frau Stein. The young philosopher was Edith Stein, who became a Carmelite nun and was martyred in an Auschwitz gas chamber.

So whatever following Christ and enjoying his peace means, it is certainly not a guarantee of a conflict-free life. There are many aspects to Jesus's life and character. We need to keep all of them in view if our devotion to him is to be authentic. He was capable of blistering verbal assaults, and on one recorded occasion, physical violence. In recent generations he has been largely depicted as a rather vapid, inoffensive creature; or even as a sort of precursor of the 'peace and love' movement of the 1960s and 70s.

The role of Jesus as 'victim' is perhaps confused with the 'victim' culture of our own society, where the word means something quite different. As fully, authentically human, as well as being fully divine, Jesus had a perfect integration of the virtues of justice, courage, temperateness and prudence. Let us pray to Christ, our Saviour and King, for a share in his strength, and the grace to be authentic witnesses to his love.

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