Behold, this child is set for ... a sign that is spoken against.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Simeon was among the men of Jerusalem called "righteous," — that is, he kept God's commands — and — "devout" — that is, he walked in God's holy ways. Do you know what happens after years of holy living? Awareness of the culture, with its false values, opinions, and latest buzz words, fades to a distance. Meantime, the path to Heaven, even the mind of God, become clearer and clearer ... until they become your familiar element. The Kingdom of Heaven is where you take your ease, where you find your peace ... while the world with its vain noise and poisonous vapors becomes more and more noxious to your spirit. Your soul becomes exquisitely sensitive. Who might have clearer eyes than these? When Simeon encounters the infant Jesus, he unerringly recognizes the Lord's Christ and instantly sees a great law that will ever after govern this world — invisible and profound ... like the law of gravity. The ever-drifting world, the impenetrable fog of life, devoid of reference points, is now to be governed with an iron rod by this Child.
As God touches the earth, an impassible boundary is set. Yes, with the Advent of Christ, the genetic code within each thing is ordered to life and no longer to death. But this does not mean that God is to become more worldly. No, it means that Heaven, with its purity and goodness, is opening in the midst of earth, has appeared in the public square, and that each human creature is invited into its eternal confines and ultimate freedom. The Kingdom of Heaven — a phrase which had never been heard in human history, so familiar to our ears today, but never voiced before the arrival of this Child. The Kingdom of Heaven. Wonderful. Yet, it sets an impassible boundary, for the world is ineluctably opposed to Heaven. Those who are called to the Kingdom of Heaven must put to death their former lives. Simeon enunciates it clearly (though I wonder how many are listening): "this Child is the sign that will be spoken against, the sign that will be opposed, the sign of contention" (to quote from several Bible translations). For the holiness of Heaven is utterly alienated from the coarse soul of the public square and the venal spirit of the world. As Saint Paul would teach the Congregation at Ephesus:
You once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power
of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we
all once lived in the passions of our flesh .... But God, who is rich in mercy, out of
the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses,
made us alive together with Christ (Eph 2:2-5).
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world,
love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the
flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is
of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the
will of God abides for ever. (1 John 2:15-17)
But the world will not receive Him, not without a fight. As God prepares to touch the earth, which He made, the human response consigns him to a patch of straw stained with manure laid on the cold ground. As the Lord of Life appears in our midst, the human response is to extinguish a whole lifeworld as every male child is slaughtered. As the Rock and Refuge of every godly soul becomes visible, God himself must become a refugee. As the reason for all baptisms is Himself baptized, He immediately finds Himself in a wilderness face-to-face with Satan. As the author of life rides into Jerusalem, He will be murdered. The Incarnate Truth will be mocked and beaten as a liar. The One who stole death will be crucified between two thieves. The King of Kings will be beggared and stripped bare before all eyes. And His Sacred Head, begotten to wear an Emperor's crown, will be wounded with cruel intent and mocked with a crown of thorns.
St. John understood the Sign of Contradiction very well, for it is the very first thing he tells us in His Gospel:
He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not.
He came unto his own, and His own received Him not.
"If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.
If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you
are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world
hates you ... If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept
my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my
account, because they do not know Him who sent Me. If I had not come and spoken
to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin." (Jn 15:18-22)
Many who choose holy life in America today are mocked or hounded or shunned. The holiest and gentlest theologian (not to say the most brilliant) to appear in the Roman Church in generations is reinvented by the media as "God's Rottweiler." And when, as pope, he attempts to cleanse the Church of the evils that plague it most, he is forced to abdicate. Meantime, a pope who has ruthlessly suppressed the holiest of religious congregations is celebrated in the media. But "the world loves its own." Being spoken by Jesus Himself, we understand this principle to be nothing less than Divine Law.
Understanding all these principles clearly, Pope Paul VI asked the Archbishop of Krakow, Poland, Karol Wotyla, to lead a Lenten retreat for bishops in Rome. The future John Paul II entitled it simply, The Sign of Contradiction. And in its final sentences, he wrote, "It is becoming more and more evident that those words [spoken by Simeon in Luke 2:34] sum up most felicitously the whole truth about Jesus Christ, His mission and His Church."
Certainly, this was Saint Paul's repeated message to the several Churches: the Church is the ultimate counter-culture. You must live counter to the culture in order to be the Church! Yet, there is an alternative that is alive and well within the Church today. Rather than live counter to the culture, simply "go cultural" and affirm its values and many teachings. Not very long ago, I went on retreat to a famous Trappist Abbey (recommended to me by a Roman Catholic bishop). It did not take long to realize that the Trappist Revd Father who was my host did not believe that there was any such thing as sin. In his eyes, so long as you loved God and were confident of God's love for you, then you need not worry about sin. But Father, I replied, what about offenses against the Sixth and Seventh Commandments, which have become so common as to be the rule instead of an exception? "No sin," he replied. "Only love." And I thought to myself, "Could the Lord Jesus ever love the grasping nature of sin and bless the loss of His own sheep to perdition?" And Bishop Sheen's words came to mind: "The modern mind forgot the two most important things in the world: the Purity of God and the heinousness of sin."
My Trappist friend's confidence derives from theology espoused by Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ during the latter half of the twentieth century — a recent and key piece in the heresy of Universalism, which is practically as old as the Church. And I give thanks to God that Universalism continues to be condemned by the Church. For this would be the ultimate Sign of Contradiction, when Pope Paul VI's words should become a prophecy fulfilled: "The smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God." We look around ourselves in this world torn by spiritual warfare and take stock. We see plainly that the Evil One runs rampant over his field of victory: the family, our children, the Church. Checkmate.
Yet, the Holy One, Whom we behold in St. Simeon's arms this morning, has made a promise concerning His Church: "the Gates of Hell will not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18). And this week I read in the papers that the Anglican Church in Canada, which taught a cultural gospel not a Holy Gospel, now faces financial ruin. Press releases from the Episcopal Church, which led the Anglican Communion in heresy and apostasy during the past two generations, reveal that they too face financial collapse. In the heart of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England, barely one-sixtieth of registered Anglicans ever go to church, and the United Kingdom now sees that Muslims outnumber of Anglicans in the practice of their faith. And what of our little Franciscan Community? We have found a home with this priest's holy and very Catholic Diocese, the Diocese of Quincy, in communion with the faithful Bishops of the Southern Hemisphere.
God is not interested in the size of the episcopal palace.
He is not impressed by the length of the great cape of the cardinal,
nor the height of the papal tiara.
For He was consigned to a patch of manure-stained straw on a cold and
And from that moment,
He began to seek every faithful heart on the Earth.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.