Know What You Are Doing
Solemnity of All Saints | Fr Leon Pereira reflects on the victory of the Saints who help us in the Church on earth.
During the ordination rite of a priest, the bishop hands him a paten and a chalice, saying, ‘Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate; model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s Cross.’ Knowing what you are doing presupposes knowing who you are—hence the bishop’s injunction to newly-ordained priest to imitate and model his life on the divine mystery he celebrates, that is, the sacrifice of Christ on his Cross.
Imagine turning up excitedly to a lecture, eager to learn more about subject that interests you, only to find out that you are supposed to deliver the lecture yourself. This might prove tremendously amusing to your friends, but would be a huge shock to you! Knowing what you are doing (giving a lecture) implies knowing who you are (the lecturer).
In small matters, not knowing what we are doing might be comical or annoying, but in graver matters it could prove dangerous. Mistaking a minefield for a picnic ground is not generally a good idea. But not knowing who we are is a greater mistake by far. Not knowing our authority or not knowing our limits are manifestations of not knowing who we are, and so how we act becomes restricted.
On a larger scale, if the Church did not realise what she is doing, she might think she is in the business of facilitating meetings, of proffering biscuits and pouring tea. But really and truly, she is at war:
‘For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ (Ephesians 6:12).
This is not something we are about to face; this is what we are already in the midst of doing—waging war—whether we like it or not.
It’s because she is at war that on earth she is called the Church Militant. That is what she is: a church of soldiers at war. The first reading, with its vision of heaven, uses militaristic language. The huge number, impossible to count, shout out ‘Victory!’ and they are the martyrs ‘who have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb’ (Rev 7:14). The Te Deum, sung on most Sundays of the year, calls them the martyrum candidatus exercitus, the white-robed army of martyrs. The military images do not stop there. The Scripture verse applied to Our Lady and popularised by the Legion of Mary (another military term: legion!) asks,
‘Who is she that comes forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in battle array?’ (Cant 6:10).
Lest we think this is some western exaggeration, the eastern church hails Our Lady as hypermakhos strategos, the Champion General.
We are at war, and it’s a disaster when we don’t realise it. A young man with same-sex attraction came to speak with me. He was angry with the Church, because he struggled to find priests and laity who would tell him the truth: that Christ loved him enough to redeem him from sin and misery. Instead he was encouraged to experiment in sin. They did not love him enough. ‘Why,’ he raged, ‘didn’t they think Christ’s grace could help me live chastely?’ If the Church forgets who she is, then she fails to believe sufficiently in the power of the Holy Spirit’s grace. Then we would have a travesty of mercy: if sin be no longer sin, why would we need mercy? To tell someone their brain tumour is just a headache isn’t mercy, it’s cruel and unloving.
Tomorrow we pray for the Church Suffering. Today we remember the Church Triumphant, not merely as examples to emulate or an encouragement to our final goal, but as a practical help. We, the Church Militant, need the prayers of the Church Triumphant as we wage this war against darkness: a war of love over fear, of life over death, of grace over sin. Know what you are doing, but know first who you are.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a stained glass window in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh.