On the Wrong Side of History

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Several months back, a friend posted a meme on Facebook. It was comparing segregationists in the 1960’s to todaydefenders of the traditional definition of marriage today. Effectively, anyone who continues to agree with 2500 years of natural law (running from Plato and Aristotle up through Martin Luther King, Jr.) or 3500 years of Judaeo-Christian belief, will find him or herself “on the wrong side of history.”

Because my friend is a fellow Catholic, my initial reaction was one of sadness: Doesn’t she know that Christ, when he gave his definition of marriage, was not seeking to demean anyone?

After all, it was Christianity’s influence that moved western culture to recognize the existence of human “rights” to begin with. In her twelve years of Catholic school, had she never heard the Church’s beautiful, intricate understanding of the human person, sexuality, marriage, and children?

My reaction quickly turned from sadness to wanting to correct her:

The wrong side of history? The OT prophets announced, and Jesus and the apostles insisted, that God’s kingdom – God’s vision for human life and the ordering of our relationships – will ultimately be recognized by all. When Jesus returns, he will make it clear who has or hasn’t been on the wrong side of history. But then I realized that my friend was…technically, absolutely correct. Scripture and Tradition agreed not with me, but her. All those who maintain that Christ and His Church have spoken the truth, not just about marriage, but a host of issues, will most assuredly find themselves on the wrong side of history.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church does a wonderful job of summarizing the teaching of Scripture on this point (italics added):

675 Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers (Lk. 18:8; Mt. 24:12)…The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh (2 Tess. 2:4-12; 1 Thess. 5:2-3; 2 Jn. 7; 1 Jn. 2:18-22).

677 The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection (Rev. 19:19). The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven (Rev. 13:9; 20:7-10; 21:2-4). God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world (Rev. 20:12; 2 Pet. 3:12-13).

Now, I am certainly not claiming “this is it,” and Jesus will return at any moment. Rather, I am writing to remind myself and others that, in the end, everyone who remains in the Faith will find themselves on the wrong side of history. We will look like fools to everyone around us. Our convictions will be mocked, we will be persecuted, and eventually a great number will be martyred. There will be no rapture to whisk us away to safety. No – to share in Christ’s resurrection demands that we first share His cross.

History, for Christians, has always been a roller coaster. Periods of triumph (think King St. Louis IX) are followed by periods of darkness (think French Revolution). And at the end of our earthly journey stands the cross. That should not shock us though; we are walking the path of Christ himself. While the apostles were still basking in the glory of Jesus’ transfiguration and the expulsion of a demon, he told them squarely, “The Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” (Mt. 17:22).

Recall Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ prediction of the Passion. “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” No one wants to suffer; we don’t want it for ourselves, and we certainly don’t want it for those we love. Jesus’ words are as jarring to us as they were to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt. 16:22-23).

Our salvation is to be caught up into the very life of Christ, his relationship with the Father. That also means that we share his relationship with the world:

If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it…For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mk. 8:34-38).

In the end, it’s about love. “If you love me, keep my commands” (Jn. 14:15). We don’t follow Christianity’s moral claims out of a blind sense of duty, but because we love Christ and are convinced that the Faith he entrusted to his apostles is meant to bring us, to bring all of humanity, to fullness of life. To reject Christ’s teachings out of a sense of shame is to reject him; and that robs the soul of eternal life.

A quote from J.R.R. Tolkien has been making its rounds on the internet, and it summarizes my thoughts well,

“I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains…some samples or glimpses of final victory” (Letters 255).

So what are we to do, lock ourselves away in Catholic ghettos and await our inevitable defeat? Tolkien sure didn’t think so. Neither did Jesus nor the millenia of saints who have preceded us. We are not meant to be paralyzed by the shadow of the cross. Instead we are to be a people animated by the deep joy of the world to come, a world already mysteriously present within us. How is that possible? There is only one answer: Communion – literally “union with” Christ Jesus.

Jesus’ entire life was lived in the shadow of His cross, and yet that knowledge never impeded the joy He took in doing His Father’s work, ministering to the people. Even when the cross was mere hours away it did not prevent him from realizing one of his most profound desires. “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer…This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me…This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22:17-20). He achieved union, Eucharistic Communion, with those for whom He would offer His life on the cross.

The NT tells us that because of the joy set before Him – you and I, sharing Jesus’ life with the Father, for eternity – Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame (Heb. 12:2). Even in the midst of His horrific suffering upon the Cross, in His praying of Psalms 22, 31, and 69, Jesus looked ahead to the moment when, in the Eucharist, He would both celebrate his Resurrection and renew His union with the disciples.

The Eucharist is where the Lord Jesus shares His life, stronger than death, with us. “Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me” (Jn. 6:57). A life of prayer, with the sacraments – especially the Eucharist – at the center, is how we can continually move forward, even in the shadow of the cross. The grace Christ give us in the sacraments imparts a peace that defies human explanation:

[The LORD] leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me…You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.You anoint my head with oil…and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Ps. 23:2-6).

Whether times are good or bad, whether enduring the cross or experience some small foretaste of the resurrection, we are called to love the Lord by obeying Him and witnessing to His Truth. C.S. Lewis provided a literary example that has always stuck with me:

In King Lear (III:VII) there is a man who is such a minor character that Shakespeare has not given him even a name: he is merely “First Servant.” All the characters around him…have fine long-term plans. They think they know how the story is going to end, and they are quite wrong. The servant has no such delusions. He has no notion how the play is going to go. But he understands the present scene. He sees an abomination (the blinding of old Gloucester) taking place. He will not stand it. His sword is out and pointed at his master’s breast in a moment: then Regan stabs him dead from behind. That is his whole part: eight lines all told. But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted. (The Joyful Christian, 70-71).

Blessed will we be if Christ finds us faithfully doing our work when He returns. Finding ourselves on the wrong side of history is one thing – but the wrong side of eternity quite another! I do not wish that upon Christianity’s worst persecutors. Let us pray, offer our Eucharists, and work as hard as we can that they too will come to know the all-surpassing love of Christ.

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