Lessons From A Sword

Today’s first reading from the Book of Jonah[1] shows Jonah entering Nineveh and heralding a warning from God – repent or be doomed.  Jonah had finally stopped fighting against God’s plan for him; he went into a pagan city with only the truth and trust in God.  It started me wondering more about how that happens.  It also happens that today, January 25th, when it doesn’t fall on a Sunday is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul – another example of absolute trust in God and tireless proclamation of Truth.

Cardinal Ratzinger, back in the 1980s wrote a small reflection[2] for the feast of the conversion of St. Paul.  In it he used the sword (which St. Paul traditionally holds in artwork) as his reflective vehicle. At one point he wrote: ‘suffering and truth belong together.[3] This comment came about as Cardinal Ratzinger explained the sword as representing truth, God’s truth; and the sword as suffering, martyrdom (and humility).

Sword as Truth
In the letter to Hebrews the author writes an oft quoted and very powerful line ‘For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.[4]  God’s word, His truth is that powerful.  His truth, if we allow it to enter our hearts and minds, will reveal to us things we never knew and some we never want to know.  This sword reveals us to ourselves; it opens us, but not as a weapon in the hands of a conqueror, but rather as a scalpel in the hands of a healer.  God’s truth is our salvation and healing.  God’s truth, His Word, is Christ.

Sword as Suffering and Humility
But the sword also symbolizes suffering (indeed martyrdom), and humility.  St. Paul’s apostolic journeys, are full of suffering. At one point in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians he gives us a summary of sorts: ‘Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.[5]

He listed these sufferings not to brag (St. Paul never brags about himself); but in this case, to make the Corinthians aware of what it means to be a true witness to God; as opposed to the imposters who were in Corinth.  The sufferings he endured weren’t endured because of any message of his own; he endured these sufferings for the Truth, for the Word, for Jesus Christ.  St. Paul allowed himself to be a servant, a ‘slave’ in his words, to the truth – Christ his master.  He knows that God’s Word will set us free – it is the only way and so as a humble servant he endures for God. St. Paul says it so much better: ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.[6]

Our part – embracing the sword
So brothers and sisters, St. Paul stands in many images and statues with a sword – not as symbol of power that the world would recognize but, among other things, as a symbol of how to live our lives.  As witnesses to the good news of God’s salvific plan we know that God has revealed to us the truth that will set us free, words that will bring us salvation, the Word in Christ Jesus.  But words that people don’t want to hear – because they reveal too much for their comfort. As bearers of this good news, and because of this news, we know that we will meet with sufferings.  But, as servants of this Word, we need to endure these sufferings for God and the sake of the people who are inflicting these sufferings.

In today’s Gospel reading we hear Christ proclaim the good news and invite others to do the same. ‘Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.[7] He tells some fishermen and He is telling us now.

St. Paul’s actions in Christ’s name shows us the way of our ministry: humble bravery in living and proclaiming the Truth tirelessly. St. Paul pray for us as we continue your ministry as witnesses to the Truth.  May we embrace the sword as Christ embraces us – with love.

————————————————————————————————

[1] Jon 3:1-5; 10
[2] The Warrior and the Sufferer Reflection on the Feast of the Conversion of the Apostle Paul  – ‘Images of Hope, Feast Day Reflections’ by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger 1997
[3] ibid
[4] Heb 4:12 (RSV)
[5] 2 Cor 11:24-27 (RSV)
[6] Gal 2:20 (RSV)
[7] Mk 1:17 (RSV)

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