DAY SIX: THE JOY OF TRIAL
The Desire to Fit In
Let no one tell you that being in high school is easy. There seems to be so much riding on your exams, your grades, your after-school activities, that it produces a lot of stress on its own. There is also the enormous pressure to look, talk, and act a certain way. Some people feel these pressures differently than others, but they are still there. Fitting in, not standing out- for a lot of teens in school, this is priority number one. And it doesn’t go away once you get into college. It is perfectly natural for most people to not want to stand out in the crowd.
Being Catholic does not always make it easy to fit in. There’s Ash Wednesday, when people tell you that you have a smudge on your forehead all day. It makes you stand out. Then you have to explain why you have ashes on your head. The purpose of the Catholic Church is to call everyone into a real relationship with Jesus Christ, and with that relationship comes ways of living and thinking that are increasingly unpopular, and even hated. But the goal of the Church is not to appeal to the majority, but to be faithful to Jesus.
When we look at the Gospel and the early Church, we see that their faithfulness to God cost them dearly. Jesus told his disciples that the world hates him, but it’ll hate us even more! These are not comforting thoughts. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that the crucifixion on the mount of Calvary was the logical outcome of the Sermon on the Mount, that anyone who taught and lived the Beatitudes would have to be discarded by the world.
The reality is that, in a world of mediocrity, the desire to always fit in and the desire to find happiness in the way of the 8 Beatitudes do not complement one another.
The Blessing of Persecution
When Jesus preached the Beatitudes, he ended with "Blessed are the Persecuted..." because he knew that any true disciple of his would stand out too much, would shun the world’s mediocrity too loudly, and would then be the object of hatred. It could not be helped.
In a world that glorifies lust, Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure of heart”. People who were comfortable with their lusts would hate anyone trying to live purely. In a culture that celebrated wealth, riches and power, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. In a society that exalts in violence and warfare, Jesus spoke of the blessings of being merciful and finding mercy. Lust, money, violence- these were not just character traits of the Roman Empire, but of our day and age as well. And the Beatitudes are just as contradictory today as they were then.
Like I said, no one wants to stand out in a bad way, but sometimes that is unavoidable. Christians in the Early Church did not want to be hunted and killed like animals. They liked being alive, but they loved their Faith more. They knew that they had something real that the world could never give them. They had a new identity and a destiny that was eternal.
They were persecuted from friends and family, from polite society and from the Roman Empire. Some died of crucifixion, like St Peter and his brother Andrew. Some died from beheadings, like St Paul. Others were killed in the Coliseum or the Circus Maximum as a sport, a weekend activity to take the kids to see. But as the persecutions ramped up, so did the conversions to Christianity.
And you would think that such a group would be terrified, filled with fear and anxiety, because any day could be their last. But the miracle was you found a vibrant, happy, and joyful community instead. In fact, in the height of the Roman persecution, you had thousands upon thousands of people joining the Church every year.
It was literally their radiant joy that kept converting people, even their persecutors. To these Christians, and to us as well, the persecution that the world brings is a cause of joy!
Count It All Joy
Why would someone rejoice in being persecuted? First off, no one in their right minds would look forward to being hated and despised, unjustly assaulted and killed. So what makes Christianity different? We are joyful in times of trial and persecution, even if we aren’t being stoned or crucified, because it is then that we know we are truly following Christ. “Rejoice and be glad, for so did they persecute the prophets who were before you.”
Think about the level of commitment that those early Christians had to their faith. You can’t have half-hearted Christians in the pews with Roman Centurions breathing down your neck. You knew that everyone around you was “all in”. You were true brothers and sisters to one another, able to trust and rely on each other. This was your new family, and persecution only brought you closer together.
Living into the Cross
So our churches aren’t being raided by soldiers, and people are not being killed just because they are followers of Christ, but persecution still exists. The Gospel is not telling us to desire persecution and its consequences, but rather that through sufferings and trials, we find the path to happiness opened up in front of us by following Christ.
We need to find a way to embrace this Beatitude on persecution and joy in our own lives. Martyrdom- being killed for the Faith- is probably not going to happen to you. And yet, a spirituality of martyrdom lies at the center of discipleship. We are to take up our crosses daily and follow after Him. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” A spirituality of martyrdom prevents us from getting too comfortable.
Ask yourself this question, and let it haunt you: When was the last time I truly suffered for the Gospel?
It is a miracle of Christianity that we are empowered to find joy, not in spite of our sufferings, but precisely because of them. That is when we know we are following after Jesus. That is when we know we are living the Beatitudes.