We all know that life will have its hard patches, don’t we? We know it not least because all the best stories, from the Hobbit to Pride and Prejudice not forgetting the Missing and the Fall on TV at the moment, have some challenge, sometimes a long series of horrendous challenges that the main character has to face, before the hoped for happy ending arrives. But none of us likes it when it happens to us, or to one of our loved ones, and if we can avoid the pain in some way, we will.
This is why we do not like it when being a follower of Jesus, being a member of the Catholic Church, begins to get challenging. For some that challenge can be finding the time just getting to Mass each week, when there seem to be so many more important and often much more interesting or enjoyable things to do. It is even worse when people around us, as they do, make mocking remarks about the faith, or dismiss those who believe as crazy or stupid. We don’t want to be thought of like that. We, who have it easy, are therefore amazed and impressed that so many of our fellow Christians, in places where being a Christian can be downright dangerous, still persist in their faith; and we wonder, at least I do, if we would have that kind of courage, and fear that we wouldn’t.
It is not surprising therefore that Jesus warns us many times in the Gospels that following him will be a hard road. But he tells us not to be afraid, to know that he will “be with us always”(Matt 28:20), and when faced with troubles “to stand up and hold our heads high”(Luke 21:28). Why? So that we can see God coming, so that like watchmen, or like “door-keepers” as in today’s Gospel (Mark 13:33-37) we are always alert, not just to the dangers and difficulties around us, but also to the ways God will be with us when we face them.
We tend to forget that the door-keeper in those days was a very big responsibility. You couldn’t sit dozing if you had that job, because most of the time it was the custom to keep the door wide open, and so you were the watchman and the first line of defence if any undesirable or downright dangerous people came calling. Being a Christian therefore means having your wits about you, as we say. It can never be an easy ride or a soft option. No, if you want to be popular, if you want people to like you, as we all do, then beware. It is not surprising that Pope Francis’ favourite novel (The Lord of the World : R.H.Benson) is a story about the modern world in the future where Catholics have to meet in secret, and which ends with the Pope and all the Cardinals being killed deliberately in a bombing raid by the governments of the world. Phew! No wonder he went on the attack when he visited the European Parliament last week.
Choosing to deliberately challenge the world, as Pope Francis has just done, is of course what every Christian should be doing. We are not just called to be “steady and without blame” (2nd Reading 1 Cor 1:3-9) but to take on the tough job of being watchman for others, of being on the front-line in speaking and/or fighting against evil, not least in the run-up to Christmas to the evil of people who suck others into spending more and more money on a load of rubbish just to make themselves stinking rich.
Let me tell you about a holy man called John Chrysostom, who reached one of the most important positions in the late 4thC world as Archbishop of Constantinople. This city, now Istanbul, was the capital of the Roman Empire at the time, and the Roman Emperor chose one of the best preachers of the day to be his man. Or about another man Thomas a Becket chosen to be Archbishop of Canterbury by the King in 12thC England. We tend to think of martyrs, those who died for the faith, as existing in times when the Church was persecuted, as in the first 3 centuries, or for Catholics in 16th and 17th century England. But both John Chrysostom and Thomas a Becket, although appointed by the monarch of the day, were prepared to stand in the name of Christ against those who had appointed them, and ended up dead for what they did.
It is sad in a way that the Church celebrates most of its martyrs on weekdays, so that most of you never hear about them, and never see the red vestments coming out again and again to celebrate their special days. This month, as well as Martyrs of the early Church, like St Andrew today, or St Cecilia last week, we had more modern martyrs – the Vietnamese Martyrs of the 18th and 19th Centuries and St Josaphat of 16th Century Ukraine.
“Martyr” does not just mean someone who has died for the faith, but someone who by their death was a witness for the faith, and so although most of us, thank God, will not have to die for the faith, we still have to be like a martyr in witnessing to the faith whatever difficulties that may cause us. It is just no good constantly wanting everyone to like us. I will be off to see the latest Hobbit film in a couple of weeks’ time. I am sure it is my duty as priest of a Church with a Tolkien link! There I will watch, as the quiet respectable Bilbo Baggins steals the greatest treasure in the Dragon’s hoard, standing thus against his friends the dwarves, in the hope that it may prevent a war. His attempt fails (at least it does in the original story) but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t right to do it. We too have to be prepared sometimes to stand against, to challenge, even those closest to us, for the sake of what is right and good. That is our Christian calling.