We read in Jeremiah today of a promise made to the prophet as he is sent out on his mission. The promise is that God knew him and loved him from all eternity, and as God sends Jeremiah out, he tells the prophet he is a fortified city. Jeremiah must gird himself with his traveling gear, but he goes knowing he can take on the opponent, in confidence of the strength of his city defenses. And the Psalm continues and expands on that, a song to God as the refuge, the rock and the fortress.
God is our rock against the accusations, and the lies, and the temptations of the Devil. Only in God will we find the strength we need to defend ourselves against the Devil. Satan will never stop hunting us. He is the model for all those Terminator movies: a soulless, untiring, pursuer of his target, and he will crush that target upon acquisition.
Now we know today that Jesus defeated Satan through his death on a Cross and the resurrection at Easter. We know Jesus won the battle, but somehow Satan did not acknowledge that defeat. Satan has not given up his pursuit of us, 21 centuries after that day at Calvary. We are still hunted by the devil, but Jesus did not leave us utterly alone. We are, in many respects, right where Jeremiah and the Psalmist found themselves. We must rely on the Lord to be our sure defense against the power of the Devil.
The city with the strong defenses described by Jeremiah is today the Church. Jesus established it, and he guaranteed it would be protected by the Holy Spirit against the Devil. The City of God, unlike the city of Jerusalem in the days of Jeremiah, has no fixed location. We can take the city’s defenses with us when we walk outside the doors at the end of Mass today. As we leave after Mass, we are supported by the power of prayer that goes on in the cloisters of our monastic communities. We the un-cloistered must go out in the secular world and share the Gospel so that as many as want it can receive the gift of salvation. We don’t have to fear the Terminator that is chasing us, as long as we defend ourselves with the strength of the Church. We can take on the world because we are confident of the Church’s strength.
The Church’s strength is love, and St. Paul gives us a long and beautiful description of love in his letter to the Corinthians. Love is the strength underneath all the other spiritual gifts and natural virtues. Strength without love becomes arrogance or even violence. Jesus called Satan the ruler of this world and the father of lies – and the world ruled by Satan operates without love. Ethics without love ends up being only pragmatic. Worldly ethics start as reasonable compromises in which each party gives up a bit and each party gets a bit. But the world cannot maintain a “love-less” ethics.
The world without love ultimately ends up where the German philosopher Nietzsche said it would: it ends up being only will to power. The one with the most will, the most drive, the most ambition, the least encumbered by ethics; that’s the one who gets the power. But can he be trusted by the weaker ones to use that power properly? The answer sadly, is no, because there is no love suffusing his power, nor was there love behind his ascent to power.
We see how loveless power ultimately turns against the weak and those who love the weak. We recently marked 46 years of legalized abortion and over 60 million children killed in their mothers’ wombs this way. This is an awful fact, a gruesome reality. It is Satan in full. Only love can conquer this. Only love for the children can protect the next child. Only love for the mothers can help them heal from the wounds they suffered through abortion.
While abortion is an obvious example, it is not alone. Without love, marriage is just coupling and cost-sharing. Without love, work and the economy is a competitive scratch and claw for scarce resources. Without love, old age is a painful descent into meaningless infirmity. Without love, other human beings are not made in the image of God but are merely cogs in a wheel to be used and discarded.
Love changes all of that. Love is patient. It is what takes reason and rationality and lifts them to the level of wisdom. It is at the heart of self-control: it is what slows and stills our angry response to provocation. Love is what gives the word respect its most noble meaning and allows us to honor our weakest – the infants and the aged – rather than to discard them. Love illuminates the world even as the world prefers the darkness. Love shines the light of truth on the world. Love is what transforms a random execution in Palestine on a Friday into Good Friday. Love is our armor against the Devil.
But love is an option. We choose love. Just because we are Catholics in communion with the Church does not mean we automatically choose love. Love means willing the good of the other. It is an option we get to exercise many times each and every day. And we cannot assume that those we meet today are also choosing love. Our choice of love may cost us in the world. We may be hurt even by someone in the Church – someone on our team as it were. Not everyone in the church has the confidence required to fight the good fight against the power of the world. Satan did not accept defeat on Good Friday, and he doesn’t stop attacking just because he reached the doors of the Church.
At the end of this Mass, you will go out as a sent people. You will go out with a mission, just like Jeremiah. Your mission is a mission of love. Your defense is the guarantee of the Holy Spirit. Your weapon is love. It will come across as patience, or kindness, or gratitude, or humility, and with it you will fight for God in a fallen world.
Only part of that world knows it is fallen and wants to be strong and healthy. The other part of the world is like the people in the synagogue who drove Jesus out rather than receive his message. At Holy Communion, you will receive God’s grace in the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. And you will be fortified for your mission.
You have the medicine for ails the world. It is love. Go out and fight the ruler of the world with the love of Christ, the cure for the world’s cancer. And the weapon the Devil cannot defeat.