When he was about thirty, Napoleon Bonaparte became a part of the First Consul of the French government. Five years later, he became the Emperor, crowned by Pope Pius VII at the cathedral in Notre Dame. It was about this same time when the Napoleonic Wars began to rage across Europe and would not end for over a decade. It is estimated that up to 6.5 million people died as a result of those wars.
Throughout these wars, various coalitions would form in an attempt to resist the French invaders, but it was not until the seventh coalition that they were successful in defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.
During the war of the sixth coalition, Prussia (think Germany), was one of the leading initiators, but in 1813, they were hard strapped for cash to purchase equipment necessary to keep the war machine running. To raise the money, the King of Prussia, Frederick William III appealed to the people to give their gold to the Kingdom, to assist. The giving began with the king’s own sister, giving her jewelry to the public treasury and was followed, literally, by every woman doing the same. In exchange, the government gave the women a piece of jewelry made of iron. One observer wrote, “All the marriage ornaments have been laid on the altar of the country, and the government has given them in exchange others of iron, with the inscription, ‘I gave gold for iron, 1813’”. It sounds as though it was almost treasonous to wear or even have any gold, and the women wore their iron jewelry with great patriotic pride. That phrase, “laid on the altar of the country” struck me and I wondered how willing we would be to lay those items, which are of greatest valuable to us, on the altar of the Kingdom of God.
Today, in focusing on the witnesses of the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord, I would like to take a look at the Mother of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In the last sentences of our Gospel reading today of the Samaritan woman, we are told that many believed on account of her word, and one of those who believed said, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” We know that this coming to faith was only the beginning of Gods salvific work in the world and it continues on through us and millions of others today. For over two millennia, people have come to know that Jesus is the Savior of the world, and these great acts were put into motion when a unmarried teenage girl said, “Yes.”
An angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:30) Upon hearing how this would be accomplished, even though she was a virgin, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) In doing so, Mary laid her very life on the altar of the Kingdom of God. That fact was confirmed a few days after Jesus was born when he was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem.
There, Joseph and Mary encountered a man, Simeon, who had been waiting on God to fulfill his word. Upon seeing them with the baby Jesus at the Temple, scripture says, “Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’” (Luke 2:34-35) “… and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” That piercing, a spiritual martyrdom, occurred as she stood at the foot of the cross watching her son take his dying breath, as he placed his life on the altar of the Kingdom of God.
Both Mary and Jesus said, “Yes” to God and were obedient by not holding anything back, but how could anyone find the strength to follow them? How can you and I summon the strength and courage to endure great trials and sufferings, to be obedient and place ourselves on that altar, knowing full well that our heart too may be pierced with a spiritual sword? If we attempt to do so on our own, we will fail. We will retreat in fear. But, if we, like Mary and Jesus act in faith, even in times of great suffering, we will remain obedient.
Karl Rhaner, a 20th century German theologian, in his sermon, The Sword of Faith, writes that the piercing sword is the way of faith. “Faith is like a sword that pierces and divides as it penetrates to the center of the believer’s heart. Faith is the enduring of this sword. Faith is the readiness to live on in hope when conflict threatens and allows us to entrust ourselves unconditionally to God. It is faith when we accept the blow of the sword in our existence, the sword of the question that finds no answer; the sword that all life in pain ends in death; the sword that not even love dissolves all contradictions in this life; the sword of the leave-takings, disappointments, sickness and isolation.”
Faith is enduring the sword that pierces our souls when our lives are placed on the altar for the Kingdom of God. In our reading from Romans, Paul proclaimed this same faith when he wrote, “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
The sword that pierced Mary’s heart comes in many forms and it still pierces the hearts of every believer. And it is Mary’s faith—the faith that we see in her “Yes” to the Lord and in her courage as she stood before her dying son—it is this faith, that is an example to us on how we can stand on the day the sword is leveled against our own hearts. It is this faith that speaks to our souls the same words that the angel spoke to Mary at the Annunciation, Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. (cf. Luke 1:28-30) Look to Mary and understand that her faith is in you. The sword will pierce, but through it, you will remain strong and obedient.
Let us pray: Most Blessed Virgin Mary, it becomes you to be mindful of us, as you stand near him who granted you all graces, for you are the Mother of God and our Queen. Help us for the sake of the King, the Lord God and Master who was born of you. For this reason, you are called full of grace. Remember us, most holy Virgin, and bestow on us gifts from the riches of your graces, Virgin full of graces. Amen.