“It was as though they would put it to the proof, whether he were man that could die, or something more than man that would not suffer himself to die…
It’s all in the second chapter of the book of Wisdom. And what do we find there?
Wisdom 1:16 and 2:1-5
But ungodly men by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, the pined away, and they made a covenant with him because they are fit to belong to his party.
For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end, and no one has been known to return from Hades.
Because we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been; because the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts, When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.
Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat. For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back.
They are ungodly men. They do not believe that God has a hand in our creation, that He watches us through our lives and cares for us, cares what we do and how we live. They believe that life and death and suffering are without meaning or purpose.
But this unbelief is willful, because through it they imagine they may do as they wish, enjoy the pleasures of life and oppress the righteous…
Why the last? Why do the ungodly hate believers so much? Because we refuse to go along with the programme. Because we know that the premise is a lie; that “no one comes back” from the dead and that our lives have no meaning.
It really does prove that there is nothing new under the sun, doesn’t it? Is this ancient book not reciting the very creed of our modern materialist atheists? Doesn’t it sound familiar? There is no God, there is no meaning in life, death comes to us all and is merely the snuffing out of a meaningless material thing…
What is their answer? Eat, drink, fornicate and be merry!
But I think they have it backwards. I think they want to eat, drink and fornicate and therefore they willfully disbelieve in God. They know that if they believed, they would be obliged to give up their fornications, their idolatry, and live righteous lives.
This was the point of the scripture so often chastising the people for the “hardness of their hearts.” Belief is offered to them, but they reject it, choosing the world instead. There is no reason to disbelieve in God. St. Paul tells us much later that the existence and goodness of God is made obvious by the very existence of creation, and its goodness and beauty.
And still less did the Jews have reason to disbelieve in the One who had brought them out of Egypt, had parted the Red Sea and drowned Pharaoh’s army, had led them through the desert with a pillar of fire and a column of smoke, who brought them quails and manna, who brought water from the rock…
No, there is no excuse for this unbelief. In reality it is nothing more than what the Psalmist warned against, the making of “excuses in sins”.
Wisdom 2: 6-9 ~
Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth. Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass by us. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither…
It would be nice, wouldn’t it? It certainly has an attraction. But there’s a darker side. Because anyone who doesn’t want to go along, who asserts that life does have meaning, that the earthly pleasures are not enough, that there is a God and that there was a Man who came back from the dead, and that following and obeying Him will lead us out of the grave, is a rebuke to them.
Wisdom 2: 9-11 ~
“Let none of us fail to share in our revelry, everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot.
Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow nor regard the gray hairs of the aged.
But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.
It’s all there. Right down to the utilitarians’ creed of destruction. In the absence of any higher meaning to life, in the absence of God to give meaning and value to suffering, the moment there is suffering or even diminishment of the capacity to enjoy the earthly delights, there is no further reason for the person’s life. We solve poverty by killing the poor, by killing their children. We answer medical suffering by euthanasia. We respond to infirmity and old age with the compassion of the lethal injection.
And anyone who gainsays our programme, let us use our might – the might of the whole world – to stop him ever opposing our pleasures again even with a word or a look.
We often wonder why we cannot simply be ignored. Why has the secular world, so enamoured of its pleasures, taken such trouble to stamp out Christian thought and morals? Why can’t they just enjoy their path to perdition and leave us alone?
With their mouths they profess a creed of “tolerance” and we cry foul because it is tolerance only for those who agree with them. Tolerance for those who quietly refuse the programme, tolerance for those who would prefer to live quietly somewhere, believing in and worshipping God, is anathema to them.
Wisdom 2: 12-16 ~
“Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts, the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange.
We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father.”
Their anger and hatred for Christ and His law has about it the screech of the demonic, and this is to be expected. And this demonic screech of hatred is extended to any who bear the name of Christ. It was this we were warned about by Our Lord Himself. We no longer belong to the World.
Of course, it applies directly and most profoundly to Christ Himself, the Lamb of God that was slaughtered to take away the sins of the world, to renew the world and to grant “to all who received Him, who believed in His name,” the “power to become children of God; who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” For as long as we do what He did, and refuse to become the followers of the World, the World, egged on by the Devil, will hate that which is not its own.
Wisdom 2: 17-20
“Let us see if his words are true. and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s son, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture, that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
Did it happen? Did the martyrs rise again to new life? Not, perhaps in the way that their persecutors mocked. St. Lawrence did not rise from his grill. St. Stephen saw the heavenly doors open before him but his attackers saw only his blood in the dust.
But certainly that was the way in which Christ, the Head, did rise. Quite spectacularly, in fact, and seen afterwards by many. I don’t remember which visionary it was, but I recall reading an account that one saint was granted of the moment of the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. He lay in the borrowed tomb and the Roman soldiers sat outside, leaning against the huge stone. And suddenly there was a light so bright that it shone right through the rock as though it were waxed paper. Then the stone burst forward, and like a lion He came forth…
Now that’s a promise!
Wisdom 3 1-7
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble.
And when it came time for the fires to be lit again, the martyrs of Rome unleashed such a power of God that the spectators in the stands, who a moment before had been calling for their blood, stood at the sight and professed Christ and begged to join them.
In the story of the martyrdom of Sts. Felicity and Perpetua, they were so overcome with the power of the grace of martyrdom that they failed to notice the tearing of their own flesh by wild animals. We wonder if it was only a pious legend that Lawrence joked, “turn me over,” to his torturers. How could Stephen have not noticed the stones crushing his bones?
How is this possible? St. Augustine again:
"Many martyrs have suffered such things as the Psalmist prayeth against; but no martyr shineth with such glory as the Head of the martyrs. In him we best perceive what they endured. He particularly was hidden from the insurrection of wicked doers, to wit, in the sense that God the Son, who was made man, hid himself under the veil of his own flesh.
“For he is both Son of Man and Son of God, (for he was in the form of God) and as such became in the flesh the Son of Man, in the form of a servant; whereby he had power to lay down his life, and power to take it again.
“What could his enemies do unto him? They could only kill the body ; the soul they could not kill. Give heed. It were little for the Lord to exhort the martyrs by word, did he not confirm them by this his example.”
And at the Third Nocturn, St. Paul tells us again not to fear anything that the World can do to us:
“Seeing then that we have a great High Priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an High Priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.
“…Who in the days of his flesh, having offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him [the Father] that was able to save him from death, and having been heard for his godly fear, though he was a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered. And having been made perfect, he became unto all them that obey him the Author of eternal salvation…”
O Lord, grant us the grace not to shrink from the test.
Catch Hilary's next column, "There Is No Sanctuary," available exclusively in the print-edition of The Remnant.