Today's Gospel reading doesn't seem real...well...festive or Christmas like. John the Baptist is in prison and Jesus is speaking of violence.
We must, however, understand the attitude of the day. The Jewish people are awaiting the Messiah and many rumors have been flying about for the past 3 decades since Herod went crazy killing babies gunning for the "newborn king." There is a belief that the time for the Messiah is now. The prophets point to it. However, the idea at the time is of a religious-political Messiah. He will be one who is from God or chosen by God to lead the Chosen people to not only freedom but complete victory over their enemies. There was also, at the time, an understanding that Elijah, who was taken up into Heaven, would return to announce the eminent coming of the Christ (Malachi 3:23). Yet God's ways are not our ways!
In the previous verses, Jesus challenges those following and listening to Him and John's disciples. He asks them what they went out to see when they went to see John. He asks if they went to see some soft preacher talking about love and peace or one who may be Elijah or even the Messiah. He knows of their longing and tells them that yes, they were going to see a prophet and indeed that is what they saw. He tells them in fact that not only did they see a prophet, but if they will accept it, they saw Elijah This had to be incredible for them to hear and we can imagine the mixed reaction from the crowd. For if John was Elijah that sets up Jesus as the Messiah.
But what about the violence thing? The Jews at the time were waiting for the Messiah but they were waiting passively. They were waiting for it to happen to them. It was an entitlement mentality. When the new era was ushered in they would claim it by right as descendants of Abraham.
John the Baptist, as the prophet Elijah, ushers in the new era but it was not what they expected. It is time for the Kingdom of Heaven but this Kingdom is not given only to the descendants of one family but to the entire world. In addition, it is not simply given but it must be accepted. In fact, it must be taken. One must strive for this Kingdom, "seek to enter by the narrow gate", and fight to keep it, "fight as to win". With John's message of repentance the violence begins. The Kingdom of Heaven is within and the battle too is within each soul. The violence is repentance. The violence is turning away from sin and fighting the world, the flesh, and the devil in our daily life. Those who do violence to themselves in the sense of mortification, temperance, prayer, good works and all the rest are taking the Kingdom of Heaven by force. Those who do not, lie dead on the battle field.
The first reading also points to this violence and it reminds us that the victories won are not of our own but of God, "I will make of you a threshing sledge, sharp, new, and double-edged." The power to take Heaven by force, the power to grind our enemies to dust is a grace given to us by God. But this grace must be fought for. We must want it bad enough to fight for it. God wanted it bad enough for us to fight death, death on a cross. How can we want anything less.
FROM THE SAINTS - "The Kingdom of Heaven does not belong to those who sleep and who indulge all their desires, but to those who fight against themselves." - Saint Clement of Alexandria
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