September 2023 Allocutio
The Sign of Contradiction
Fr. Paul Churchill, Concilium Spiritual Director
The September Calendar throws out a number of feasts that will connect immediately with Legionaries. We celebrated Our Lady’s Feast on September the 8th. We celebrate the three Archangels on the 29th. Gabriel is special to Our Lady and we ask him to help open the way for us also to receive God’s word and welcome it with joy.
But for me the September Feast that stands out has to be the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. It is followed by the Sorrows of Our Blessed Lady. I notice that it is at the time of year as far as you can get from Lent. It is a timely reminder that our Christian lives are not authentic unless they have embedded in them something of the Cross.
Simeon said to Mary, “See this child … destined to be a sign that is rejected—and a sword will pierce your own heart too — so that the secret thoughts of many may be revealed” (Lk 2:34-35). Pope St. John Paul II called it the Sign of Contradiction. That expression has so many layers as Karol Woytyla’s work with that title shows. But let me just go through some thoughts around that relevant for us Legionaries.
I go back to when I first heard the call to join the Legion of Mary. I had vaguely heard of this group somewhere and then a Christian brother in class invited us to join a Praesidium. Why I decided to give it a try I do not know. But one thing I was going against was myself. I gave up free time I had. I went and did something most of my class-mates did not do. I went out and did something almost even counter-cultural for the mid 1960s, knocking on doors, promoting Catholic literature, visiting the sick in a children’s hospital, attending Patricians. And today in many parts of the traditional Christian world it is even harder to do this. You are a sign of contradiction just by what you are as a Legionary. And the more friendly and normal we are (as Frank Duff so strongly admonished us to be) the more our very commitment has to beg questions in the minds of people. We challenge.
But despite that friendship and good will in our hearts we may find ourselves rejected and scorned and falsely accused. No more than Our Lord did. But as Jesus said in a recent weekday Gospel passage, “Blessed are you when men hate you and drive you out, abuse you, denounce you as criminal on account of the Son of Man …” (Lk 6:22). And in a world where conflict, opposition and rejection occur anyway, since we cannot escape it, why not have it happen to us for our stand for the Gospel (see 1 Pt 3:17)? And this must happen in a world where sin is present because the values of Christ go against the grain of selfishness and pride.
That leads me to another dimension to the Sign of Contradiction. And that is the struggle in ourselves due to sin. We find a conflict going on in our members. The way of truth and goodness and purity call out to us. But we so easily succumb to a lie, or a selfish option, even a base animal urge. How well St Paul puts it: “When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand … I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin” (Rm 7:21-23).
And this clash of good and evil came to a defining moment on the Cross. Everything hell could throw at Jesus was hurled at him. But though reviled he did not revile in return (1 Pt 2:23). Instead, in the pits of the Cross he offered up prayers and supplications with loud tears and cries, to him who was able to save him from death and he was heard for his godly fear (Heb 5:7; see also Ps 22:8). On the Cross the Lamb of God was taking away the power of sin and that destructive force that can pull us all down. He returned only good for evil. While down below him the promise of Simeon that her heart would be pierced was also taking place in Mary. But her faith held up. Blessed was she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled despite the apparent contradiction going on in front of her eyes to everything that Gabriel had told her about him being great, being given the throne of David and the reign of Jacob’s house (Lk 1:32-33). May she help us all to believe and hold firm in the face of the tugs to do evil.
The great victory of good over evil took place on Calvary. Jesus and Mary did it. But what of us who slip into sin so easily and so often? Sin leaves its wounds in us. It can knock our spiritual confidence and our belief. I often think that it is this struggle which causes so many to deny God. Easier that than to face the battle! But there God has given us a special help: the Sacrament of Confession. It can go against our pride to have to face another person with our sins. But it cures us and heals us. You go in as a fraud, a betrayer of your ideals, the lover of self in you exposed, a haughty judgmental mind. But you meet the Lamb of God victorious on Calvary and come out a new person, washed clean in the blood of that Lamb. You can head off again into life a new person. Let us all frequent that sacrament that is another expression of the Sign of Contradiction. Yes, so many mock it as it seems to them counter to nature and a form of masochism. But it is great for dealing with our pride and selfishness that pull the whole of humanity down.
Get behind me Satan! Satan appeals to our selfish half, to what the world says is reasonable and certainly not the way of the foolish as our faith can be seen as (1 Cor 3:18, 4:10). But when a body is threatened it may require the intervention of serious surgery. That is what the Cross was. A dangerous cancer calls for radical response. Where sin is like a cancer in the body there can be no concessions to weakness. Jesus confronted it with an indisputable divine strength. Mary stayed with him the whole way on behalf of humanity, herself trampling the head of the serpent. May she help us all to embrace every cross that comes our way. Amen.