First Sunday After Easter
- The Battle of Life
By Rev. H. T. Henry
Introduction – The life of man upon earth has often been compared to a battle. Our greatest English novelist has given to one of his shorter, but still most affecting stories, the very title of “The Battle of Life,” and moralizes well on the mystery of human warfare. His title is borrowed from the locality which forms the scene of his plot, and ancient battle ground in England, from which the peaceful ploughshare of to-day would sometimes turn up from the sod a terrible relic of the olden strife – a weapon stained with blood, a rusted sword, perhaps a fragment of human bone, perhaps even a sightless skull. There is a physician in the story who is always speaking of that old battle field. His whole life has been dedicated to the healing of human beings, and he has grown morose in his reflections on the ancient great loss of life and the frightful wounds suffered in the conflict. He is gently chided by a younger man, who bids him to forget the history of the old battle by considering the broader battlefield of life itself on which the sun shines every day. At this point a lawyer reminds the younger man that in this same battle of life which everyone must engage in, the combatants are very eager and very bitter. “There’s a great deal of cutting and slashing, and firing into people’s heads from behind,” he remarks. “There is terrible treading down and trampling on. It is rather a bad business.” The reply made to this argument forms the real basis of the story: “I believe,” said the younger man, “there are quiet victories and struggles, great sacrifices of self, and noble acts of heroism in it – not the less difficult to achieve, because they have no earthly chronical or audience – done every day in nooks and corners, and in little households, and in men’s and women’s hearts, any one of which might reconcile the sternest man to such a world and fill him with belief and hope in it, though two-fourths of its people were at war, and another fourth at law, and that’s a bold word.”
Now, brethren, it is to this figurative battle of life that we shall turn our thoughts this morning. The field whereon our strife is fought to a conclusion is the human heart itself. In this warfare, as St. Paul reminds us in one of his Epistles, our struggle is not against flesh and blood, is not against foes whom we can see and grapple with, man to man. No, our wrestling there is against principalities and powers – the fallen angels; against the rulers of the world of this darkness; against the spirits of wickedness in high places (Eph. vi, 12). The Apostle therefore warns us to put on the armor of God, that we may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil. He reminds us that we should take, in all things, the shied of Faith, wherewith we may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one (ib. II, 16). We must conquer the world of evil around us and within us. How shall we do so? St. John tells us in to-day’s Epistle: “This is the victory which overcomes the world, our Faith.”
A – The Chrism Robe. – This is the three-fold lesson which our Mother, the Church, teaches us this morning – the lesson of faith, the lesson of conflict, the lesson of victory. Her method of teaching this threefold lesson is, first of all, to remind us of the wonderful Sacrament by which supernatural faith is conferred – the Sacrament of Baptism.
In the early centuries of the Christian Church, it was customary to conder the Sacrament of Baptism with very great and public solemnity of Holy Saturday. The newly baptized were clothed in white robes, which they wore for a week, and which they removed on this Sunday, the eighth day after Easter. They shared with the general body of the faithful the ceremonial joys with which the Church commemorated, during Easter week, the glorious conflict of our Savior with the powers of evil, and the triumphant Resurrection by which He demonstrated His victory over death and hell. They, too, had been baptized in His death, and had risen with Him to the new supernatural life of Divine grace. They had been children of wrath; they were not children of God. They had received, in Baptism, the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby they could cry, Abba, Father, to the eternal God of the universe, the Creator of all things, the Judge of the living and the dead. They had been born again of water and the Holy Spirit. They had washed away all the stains of sin in the Blood of the Lamb. The white robes they had put on were both symbols of the heavenly innocence they had acquired in Baptism, and reminders to them and to the faithful at large of the innocence which the children of God must ever struggle to preserve in this world.
Yes, they must struggle to retain their new-found whiteness of soul. They must enter the battle of life – not against flesh and blood, but against the spirits of darkness.
On this Sunday the Christians of the early Church concluded the week of celebration of the mystery of Easter. Then must they once more turn their attention to the every-day tasks of their callings, must again meet with temptations such as all the varied occupations of life will inevitably present to mankind, must struggle for the life of the body and for the preservation of the higher life of the soul, must share the common lot of man upon earth – the sorrows, trials, difficulties, discouragements, as well as the fleeting joys and satisfactions that make up the web of human existence. But so, too, must the newly-baptized men and women put off the white robes of festival gladness and face the same world as their brethren who were older in the faith. But, although the ceremonial robes of white were to be thus put aside, all the faithful at large, as well as the neophytes, were solemnly reminded by their holy Mother, the Church, that the memory of the Easter splendors should remain as something very fruitful in the soil of their hearts. In the beautiful prayer of this day’s Mass, she voices this thought: “Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that we, who have completed the paschal solemnities, may, through Thy merciful bounty, ever retain them in our life and conversation. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who lives and reigns with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.”
This prayer, brethren, is just as applicable to us as to our forbears of the olden time. We leave behind us this day the week of glorious commemoration of the Easter mystery. We, too, must gird our loins, and fight with renewed zeal and confidence that battle of life which is the lot of all who seek the kingdom of God in heaven. And the Church bids us, as eloquently as of old she bade the newly-baptized, to remember with unbounded confidence the conflict of our Divine Commander, Christ, with the prince of this world, Satan, and the glorious triumph achieved over hell and death. “Have confidence,” said our Lord on one occasion to His apostles, “I have overcome the world.” We must have confidence, we must have an active faith, if we, too, hope to overcome the world of evil inclinations and temptations by which we are beset. The grand fact, and the wondrous mystery of the Resurrection of Christ is, as it were, the keystone of our faith. We have left the great Feast of Easter behind us, it is true, but its memory, the Church prays, should ever be with us. For that memory is of a Leader who conquered in His battle of life, and Who is not only able to assure His followers of a similar victory, but has solemnly promised with the truth of God Himself, that He will be with us at every moment of our battling, will help us by His grace, will let us have part with Himself in the endless joy of the victory. “To him that shall overcome,” He has declared by the mouth of St. John, “I will give to sit with me in my throne, as I also have overcome and am set down with My Father in His throne” (Apoc, iii,21). Who would not love such a Leader, who fights for us and with us, can lift us up when we have fallen, can encourage us when we are faint-hearted, can assure us of the ultimate victory, can reward us with inestimable glory?
B – The Doubt of Thomas – The Church, then, has first of all reminded us to-day of the fact that we are soldiers of Christ, enrolled by the Sacrament of Baptism amongst the children of God, and that in the inevitable conflict which we must wage with Satan and his spirits of darkness, we have a Leader who has conquered that ancient enemy, and will help us to do so.
But now, in the second place, the Church confidently and beautifully places before us a picture of an assault made by satan on the citadel of faith. A soldier in Christ’s army, like any soldier in any army, must expect to be attacked. But it surely ought to be a source of great comfort to us to know that, in every such case, the eye of the Leader is looking at us, His arm is raised to protect us!
This is the lesson we may draw from to-day’s Gospel It is emphasized by the fact that the soldier of Christ, in this case, might naturally look for little sympathy from his leader. As we of today put it, “he ought to have known better.” For the victim of Satan’s assault is no less a notable figure than the great Apostle, St. Thomas, one of the twelve men specially chosen by Christ, the great Leader in the army of God, to live with that Leader, to labor side by side with Him, to learn the truths of God from His divine lips, to witness the miracles performed by Him, to know the verification of the prophecies made by Him, and, amongst these prophecies, that of the Leader’s death, burial and resurrection. This man, so specially instructed in the mysteries of the life of the Son of God upon earth, fails to understand that life aright. How impartial – I might almost say how pitiless – are the Gospels in the single-minded devotion to the truth of history! They show us St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, denying his Master. They show us Judas betraying Him. They show us all the Apostles fleeing from Him in the hour of His sorest need, humanly speaking. The purpose of the Gospels is to give us the absolute truth of history, and it is our business to profit by what they teach us of human frailty and of Divine helpfulness.
Beautifully does St. Gregory the Great point out the manner in which we may profit by the astounding narrative of the doubting of St. Thomas. It was not an accident, says this doctor of the Church, that Thomas was not present when the risen Savior appeared to the other Apostles and Disciples at various times after His Resurrection. It was not an accident that, hearing from the others that Christ had appeared to them, he should have doubted the fact. It was not an accident that Christ should be compelled, as it were, to present His wounded hands and side in order that Thomas might touch them and, touching, believe at length in the grand fact of the resurrection. Not an accident was al this, but a Divine dispensation. It was a wonderful manifestation of the mercy of God, that by touching the wounds of our Savior, St. Thomas should cure the wounds of doubt or unbelief in our own souls; for the unbelief of that one Apostle has really helped us more than did the belief of the other Apostles. The removal of his doubt by the actual touching of the open wounds of Christ, has removed every possibility of an honest doubt from our own minds, and has fixed them solidly in the faith. Others had seen the risen Lord, and had heard His voice. But Thomas brought the last test of all to bear upon the reality of the glorious Body of the risen Savior, by actually placing his hands in the open wounds of his Divine Master; He now sees at length, in the flash of light, in a sudden illumination of mind, the full meaning of certain utterances of our Lord which in the past he had heard clearly enough, it is true, but which, somehow or other, he had failed to connect together into one consistent whole, and therefore had failed to understand aright. But now, however weak his faith may have been, and from whatever cause, he can doubt no longer. He throws himself at the feet of our Savior and cries out: “My Lord and my God!”
Now, St. Thomas was not, as this incident, if taken alone, might suggest, a cool, calculating man, shrewdly weighing all the chances for or against any curse of action. He was not cold in affection or hard of heart. On the contrary, he seems to have been of an impulsive, loving nature, eager to serve and to protect his Divine Master. The Gospels, as you know, are but brief records of the wonderful life of Christ, and of course they can tell us but little of the lives of some of the Apostles. Nevertheless, they tell us enough of St. Thomas to give us a fairly good insight into his character.
There is, for instance, the touching narrative of Christ’s announcement to His disciples that Lazarus was dead. Our Savior declared that He would go to the house of mourning. To do this, however, would be to place Himself in the very midst of his enemies, who were determined to have Him put to death. Then it was that St. Thomas, in deepest loyalty of love, cried out to the other Apostles: “Let us, too, go that we may die with Him.
I have said that St. Thomas was not cold and calculating, but loyal and loving, as this incident sufficiently indicates. On the other hand, neither was he negligent in respect of our Lord’s instructions and teachings. Rather was he intensely interested and anxious to learn all things from his Master. This fact can be illustrated by what happened a few days after our Savior had restored Lazarus to life. He was eating the Last supper with His Apostles, on the eve of His betrayal and passion. He wishes to prepare them for the sorrow of the coming days, the earthly parting from them all, and declares to them that He must soon leave them, adding, for their comfort: “And whither I go you know, and the way you know.” He had so often spoken of going again to His Father in heaven, and had so insistently pointed out the manner of His leaving this earth, by His passion and death, that all should indeed have known the path He was to tread, and whither that path must lead Him. But St. Thomas was eager for fuller knowledge, and said to our Lord: “Lord, we know not whither Thou goest, and how can we know the way?” In his heart of hearts this Apostle was loyal to his master; and our Savior, knowing this, did not chide him for curiosity or for dullness, but instead answered him in that sublime sentence which has ever since rung down the ages, and shall evermore ring down the long corridors of time: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man cometh to the Father but by Me.”
This answer to St. Thomas was a trumpet-blast to all mankind, calling the children of earth to their eternal destiny in heaven, whither He Himself was returning, and at the same time declaring that the way by which alone they could hope to reach that eternal home of theirs was by belief in Him loyal service given to Him, faith in His teachings, hope in His mercies, love for His person.
We have much to thank St. Thomas for. His glorious enthusiasm of love for His Divine Master, that made him wish to die with his Leader, is a clarion call to our own sluggish hearts, to try to do something for Christ. His questioning of our Savior at the Last Supper has resulted in giving us the full character, as it were, of our Savior’s mission on earth, showing us that He alone is the Way, the Truth, and Life. And, finally, the doubt of Thomas is a certain medicine for our own doubting, and forces us to cry out with him: “My Lord and my God!”
Let us, like Thomas, try to be loving and loyal to Christ. Then, if we should be tempted to doubt, we may feel assured that our Divine Commander will come to the support of His soldiers, even as He came to Thomas of old, showing His wounded hands and side, and bidding us rest secure in His wounded Heart. His Divine eyes are constantly fixed on us, His Divine arms are constantly raised to help us. What glorious battle is this struggle for eternal life!
C – The Victory that Overcometh the World. – We have seen, brethren, that in the prayer which the Church offers to God in the Mass of this Sunday, she reminds us that we should keep in our hearts, as a source of assured comfort and strength in our battle of the spiritual life, the memory of the great victory of Christ, our Savior. Our faith, whose keystone is the splendid fact of the Resurrection of Christ, was given to us in baptism; but it must be our care to preserve it unto eternal life. Then, in the Gospel, the Church presents for our contemplation one phase of the struggle to maintain the faith; and the example of how our Lord helped St. Thomas in this struggle should be an illustration of that Lord’s desire to help us also, who are His present-day soldiers of the Cross. Very briefly, let us consider the final lesson preached to us this by our holy Mother. It is found in to-day’s Epistle. The lesson is one of victory.
“This,” said St. John in to-day’s Epistle, “is the victory that over-cometh the world, our faith.” To the man without faith the battle of life must, indeed, be an insoluble riddle. What does it all mean? He sees men living and dying – coming, he knows not whence; going, he knows not whither. Between two eternities he stands, both of them equally covered with impenetrable clouds and mists, and the only solid ground he is aware of is that narrow strip of land which he calls his life – a land separating the eternities, but itself constantly slipping from under his feet, like grains of matter in a quicksand, by the simple flight of time. Like the English philosopher, Carlyle, he cries out: “Whence, and, O heavens, whither?”
To him the battle of life must be what a real battle seems to the common soldier to be, whose eyes are clouded by the smoke of the artillery, whose ears are deafened by its roar; who marches, at the word of command, down into some valley or up some hillside, ignorant of the meaning of either movement; who is again suddenly bidden to halt, to lie flat on the ground, and as suddenly ordered to rise and charge at an unseen foe; whose comrades are every moment falling at his side, whilst he himself may well dread a similar fate at any time. He is a machine, destined to bring death to other men. He has the ignorance of a machine as well, for he knows little or nothing of the contest as it is being waged about him, and still less does he know the fortunes of war in the other parts of the battlefield. Seldom does he even suspect the real meaning of the conflict his is engaged in, whether it be just or unjust, fair or unfair, a patriotic glory or a national disgrace. Still less can he conjecture what may be its outcome – victory or defeat, glory or disaster. As for himself, personally, it will probably mean severe wounds, a crippling of his strength for the rest of his life, and mayhap an agonized death on the very field his feet are now pressing.
On the other hand, what to the common soldier is nothing but a blurred and unintelligent picture, is to the commander who surveys the field of battle from a hilltop, a perfectly clear and intelligent contest.
Our faith, brethren, shows us the battle of life as it really is. It shows us clearly the enemy we are fighting, it gives us the weapons proper for his defeat, it gives us renewed strength when we are weak, it heals us when we are wounded, it lifts us up when we have fallen, it encourages us when we are faint in courage, it constantly holds up before our vision the inestimably great rewards which will be ours if we succeed in the conflict.
But, above and beyond even these wonderful facts of the power of our Divine faith, it can give us what no human general, however skilled in war he may be, can give to his army. Faith can give us the absolute assurance of ultimate victory if we but obey the commands of our Heavenly Captain, Christ.
This, then, is the victory that overcomes the world of evil around us and within us – our Faith. This day we shall thank God, in a special manner, for His infinite mercy in giving us this Divine Faith. We shall not neglect, either, to implore His grace that the faith which is in us, by His grace may be quickened and increased by our loyalty to its teachings. And finally, we shall look forward, in greatest hope and confidence, to the eternal rewards of them who, like St. Paul, have fought the good fight and have kept the faith.