The Power of the Gospel
There is a tremendous story alluded to in the first reading for today from the second part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The story takes place in the sixth century before Christ around the year 530. For fifty seven years the Jewish people had been in captivity in Babylon, the capital of the ancient empire located on the Euphrates River, south of present day Baghdad in Iraq. Most of those who had been brought to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar had died. They left stories about the glories of Israel, the beauties of Jerusalem, the magnificence of the Temple. The spoke about the power of Israel, a military might at the time of Kings David and Solomon.
But then they remembered why the people had fallen into exile. They didn't just lose battles against the Babylonians, they had fallen away from Yahweh, and now had lost the source of the protection and power.
The fact is that the people had been too well off. They thought they didn't need God. They thought they had everything. They didn't need to be restricted by the Jewish Law. They could join the festivals of their pagan neighbors. The pagans made a religion out of practices that the Law defined as immoral. Many of the Jews turned away from Yahweh. And now He was not there.
God allowed the King of the Babylonians, Nebuchadnezzar, to conquer Jerusalem and bring all those who remained alive to Babylon. There was no hope for escape. The Jews no longer had an army, they were out numbered. They were broken. They were slaves. Revolt against the Babylonians to regain their freedom was impossible.
But the Jews in exile prayed to God. They repented and promised to continue to reform, and God found a way to do the impossible. He did this through Cyrus, the King of the Medes and Persians. Cyrus led his armies against the Babylonians and defeated them in 530 BC. One of his first acts was the Edict of Cyrus that sent all prisoners and foreigners back to their homelands. He even sent money to Jerusalem so that the Jewish people could rebuild their Temple. That's why Isaiah the prophet speaks about Cyrus as the anointed one of the Lord, chosen by the Lord to deliver his people from the Babylonians. “I have called you by name and given you a title even though you knew me not." You realize that Cyrus was not Jewish, he was a pagan.
Now if God could use a pagan king like Cyrus to accomplish his work, how much more can he use us, the people to whom he has entrusted his Spirit? That's why St. Paul tells the Thessalonians in the second reading: we preach not with words but with power, carried out in the Holy Spirit. We preach with complete conviction, because God acts through us.
The Holy Spirit works through us. We lead others to Christ. How? Well, we embrace our convictions with enthusiasm. I think one of the reasons why society loves taking shots at the Catholic Church is because in the middle of a world that vacillates on every principle to such a degree that it is questionable if there are any principles at all, there stands the Catholic Church. We refuse to back down on the sacredness of marriage. We refuse to back down on the sanctity of life. We refuse to back down on the sacred nature of sexuality. All of this and so much more makes the Church tremendously appealing to people of good will who want more from life than its material trappings. We know who we are. And that is attractive to those who do not want to wander aimlessly through life.
That is the Power of the Gospel. The Power of the Gospel was so evident in Ignatius of Antioch, our patron, whose feast we will celebrated last Friday. Ignatius was the bishop of the second largest city in the Roman empire. Antioch was the place where the term Christian was first used for the followers of Jesus. Fifty years later Ignatius would be chosen to be bishop of Antioch. He was the first to use the term Catholic to describe the universality of the Church and the term Eucharist to describe the thanksgiving which is at the heart of the Gift of the Last Supper. Ignatius knew that Christianity would survive the attacks of the pagans. He trusted in the Power of the Gospel, even when he was arrested and sent to martyrdom in Rome.
The power of the Gospel was also in evidence in Lucy, the young girl whose portrait we have in our chapel. Lucy gave up her eyes so that she could see with God’s eyes and died a martyr so she could live forever. Young and frail, she was stronger than those who brutalized her because she had the strength and power of the Gospel.
The power of the Gospel was so evident in Isaac Jogues and the North American martyrs whose feasts we would celebrate today if this were not a Sunday. These missionaries converted a continent with the blood of their witness. Pagan forces once more made war on Christianity, this time through the Native Americans of Northern New York and Southern Canada. And once more the Power of the Gospel prevailed.
The power of the Gospel is manifest among us have the determination to live our convictions. We stand up for our faith and our way of life, even when this puts us in opposition to our neighbors. We are not concerned if we are the only ones on our block who go to Church, who don’t allow bogus immorality into our homes. We are not concerned if we are they only ones who make time for family prayer. We are determined Christians. That is the Power of the Gospel.
God used a pagan, Cyrus, and returned his people from exile. God uses us, the people who share his life and his Spirit, to return the world to its natural state of union with its Creator. He has anointed us, just as he anointed Cyrus, to deliver his people from a meaningless existence.
May we have the courage to be Christian.