By Fr. Glenn Jones
A happy Veterans Day weekend to all of you veterans out there! … most especially to you who have been ordered to, and have endured, the trials and tribulations of combat zones. And, even more especially, to all of you who have physical and/or mental scars attesting to your courage and sacrifice more than any badge or medal or parade ever could. Thank you so much for your service to our nation and, ultimately, to her people.
And … it’s a doubly special day for Marines every year. November 10 is the much-hailed and hallowed Marine Corps birthday … the anniversary of the establishment of the Corps by the Continental Congress in 1775. Ooorah, devil dogs! (whoops … can a priest say that?! 😉
The military prides itself in teaching virtues that are also inherent (hopefully) in religious profession, especially courage, integrity and fortitude—inner strength to move forward despite adversity. Fortitude, of course, finds its source in inner conviction of one’s cause. Fortitude makes us steadfast in the face of challenge. Without fortitude, little of worth would ever be advanced, for challenges arise against virtually any worthwhile pursuit.
Thoughts drifted toward these musings while reviewing some scripture verses this weekend—in particular 2 Maccabees 7. Now, 2 Maccabees in one of my all-time favor-i-test books of the Bible because of its inspirational stories of strength in the face of religious challenge, a.k.a., fortitude. Medieval warrior monks would often read it to bolster courage before battle. And, yes, not all Christians accept it as inspired scripture, but that doesn’t lessen the steeling impact of its stories.
In this story in particular, an evil conqueror king demands that a Jewish mother and her seven sons give up their faith, else they would be tortured and killed. Yet, they refuse; the mother would rather give her sons to torture and death rather than see them betray God.
The sons follow their mother’s courage and faithfulness (fine lads that they are): “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.” As a result: “The king fell into a rage…and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on.” But even in the face of such horror, the brothers and their mother still encourage one another to die courageously rather than betray God’s law.
One after another the brothers are presented a choice: either break God’s law and live, or to stay faithful to God and die torturous deaths—hands, feet, and tongues cut off. But each in his turn says things like: “You accursed wretch…the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws”…[one] put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands, and said nobly, ‘I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again…’”
Meanwhile, the courageous mother: “…encouraged each of them: ‘I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath…Therefore the Creator of the world… will in His mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.’”
Ahhh … such an inspiring drama—to stand strong in spite of even impossible odds … determined to do the right, no matter the cost … looking past this current brief ephemeral life to the eternal life with God.
Yet … whenever I read this, I am forced to reflect: what will I do when faced with challenges in my faith … challenged in my conviction? Will I wither like a flower from its vine … or, will I in courage of conviction be courageously steadfast? Will I stand with God, come what may? It is doubtful that I will have to endure the torments of past martyrs; can I not stand true in the face of lack of popularity, Facebook rants, political correctness, the plethora of even lesser challenges?
Well … “forewarned is forearmed”, as they say … and when we determine ahead of time to stand firm in conviction, we are strengthened when challenge actually arrives. I oft recall the movie “Count of Monte Cristo”, when Dantes says to young Albert Mondego:
“Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes. You must look into that storm and shout: Do your worst, for I will do mine! Then the fates will know you [for the person you truly are].”
Anyone who pursues goodness and truth in the world must be ready to stand in the face of challenge … for challenge inevitably comes. We Christians recognize this as a Christ-promised crucible in which faith is tested: “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you…” (John 15:20) And yet … anyone who longs for the advancement of truth and goodness will find challenges waiting … often in unexpected ambush. Kings may not threaten to rip out your tongue, but it may simply be the obligation to refusing to go along with the crowd, or to endure false accusations, or—you young people—not being popular or fashionable.
Anyone with conviction—with fortitude—must be ready to sacrifice even the good so as to attain the better. Our faithful mother in 2 Maccabees gave up her sons’ earthly lives that they might attain eternal lives. Our veterans sacrificed personal freedoms and security so as to contribute to the safeguarding of the welfare, security and freedoms of many more, all the while knowing that they might be called to lay even their very lives upon that altar of sacrifice.
We must choose—be steadfast … or not. In the end, we make the choice of what we truly value … what we truly believe. So … discern what is enduringly worthwhile, and determine to stay with it. And when challenged, proclaim to the world words like Joshua’s challenge to the Israelites as they were about to enter the Promised Land: “…if you be unwilling to serve [God], choose this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15)
Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.