The Ultimate Triumph of Love
by Justin Soutar
“Take heart, it is love that wins in the end!”
One of the great fortunes of my life has been getting acquainted with the writings, homilies, speeches, and interviews given by Pope Benedict XVI, both before and since his election to the papacy. Though I have been a wide reader from a young age, few works have I enjoyed reading or admired so much.
Discovering the thoughts of Pope Benedict was comparable to reading Pope John Paul II or G. K. Chesterton for the first time. Both possessed a unique gift for expressing Catholic doctrine in a brilliant manner and in a way people could somehow understand and relate to. Pope John Paul used phenomenological reasoning, comparing our perception of reality to reality itself, while Chesterton explained in strikingly perceptive fashion how the entire Catholic faith brings fullness and joy to human life.
Despite their talents, however, the works of these two philosophers can be somewhat difficult reading for many people. Pope Benedict XVI is decidedly different. He is a world-class intellectual who possesses a rare combination of staggering knowledge and childlike humility. Moreover, he can articulate lofty ideas in a way that even the simplest person can grasp. The structure of Pope Benedict’s thinking is complex—he draws on history, philosophy, Scripture, Tradition, writings of the saints, pious legend, and many other areas, and all these sources complement one another in contributing to his main points—but it is all remarkably coherent, and his manner of expression is easily comprehendible.
We have not had a pope of Benedict’s intellectual stature for some 300 years, and perhaps an even longer span of time has passed since such a well-educated pontiff has been so well understood by so many less-educated people. Furthermore, Pope Benedict does not simply “preach to the choir”; his speeches and writings are (as were those of his famous predecessor) directed to all people of goodwill on the earth. And part of the reason he in particular can touch the hearts of non-Catholics is that he is completely dedicated to the truth: He is a “servant of the truth,” as German journalist Peter Seewald described him. Thus, the truths that Benedict communicates to the world naturally resonate in human hearts. Finally—and this is an attribute the typical world-class intellectual only imagines or dreams about—Pope Benedict XVI is infallible; he cannot err when speaking to the whole Church about matters of faith or morals.
All of these qualities were displayed in the homily Pope Benedict gave during his summer vacation on the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at St. Thomas of Villanova Parish in Castel Gandolfo. Below is the Vatican translation into English as published by the Zenit news agency, with slight modifications for style (the original is available at http://www.zenit.org/article-20333?l=english). Given the deep interconnectedness as well as the simple beauty of this sermon, it does not seem right to interject my own comments, so I will save them for afterward.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In his great work De Civitate Dei, St. Augustine says once that the whole of human history, the history of the world, is a struggle between two loves: love of God to the point of losing oneself, of total self-giving, and love of oneself to the point of despising God, of hating others. This same interpretation of history as a struggle between two loves, between love and selfishness, also appears in the reading from the Book of Revelation that we have just heard.
Here, these two loves appear in two great figures. First of all, there is the immensely strong, red dragon with a striking and disturbing manifestation of power without grace, without love, of absolute selfishness, terror and violence.
At the time when St. John wrote the Book of Revelation, this dragon represented for him the power of the anti-Christian Roman emperors, from Nero to Domitian. This power seemed boundless; the military, political, and propagandist power of the Roman Empire was such that before it, faith, the Church, appeared as a defenseless woman with no chance of survival and even less of victory.
Who could stand up to this omnipresent force that seemed capable of achieving everything? Yet, we know that in the end it was the defenseless woman who won and not egoism or hatred; the love of God triumphed and the Roman Empire was opened to the Christian faith.
The words of Sacred Scripture always transcend the period in history. Thus, not only does this dragon suggest the anti-Christian power of the persecutors of the Church of that time, but also anti-Christian dictatorships of all periods.
We see this power, the force of the red dragon, brought into existence once again in the great dictatorships of the last century: The Nazi dictatorship and the dictatorship of Stalin monopolized all the power, penetrated every corner, the very last corner. It seemed impossible in the long term that faith could survive in the face of this dragon that was so powerful, that could not wait to devour God become a Child, as well as the woman, the Church. But also in this case, in the end love was stronger than hate.
Today too, the dragon exists in new and different ways. It exists in the form of materialistic ideologies that tell us it is absurd to think of God; it is absurd to observe God’s commandments: They are a leftover from a time past. Life is only worth living for its own sake. Take everything we can get in this brief moment of life. Consumerism, selfishness, and entertainment alone are worthwhile. This is life. This is how we must live. And once again, it seems absurd, impossible, to oppose this dominant mindset with all its media and propagandist power. Today too, it seems impossible to imagine a God who created man and made himself a Child and who was to be the true ruler of the world.
Even now, this dragon appears invincible, but it is still true today that God is stronger than the dragon, that it is love which conquers rather than selfishness.
Having thus considered the various historical forms of the dragon, let us now look at the other image: the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, surrounded by 12 stars. This is also a multidimensional image.
Without any doubt, a first meaning is that it is Our Lady, Mary, clothed with the sun, that is, with God, totally; Mary who lives totally in God, surrounded and penetrated by God’s light. Surrounded by the 12 stars, that is, by the 12 tribes of Israel, by the whole People of God, by the whole Communion of Saints; and at her feet, the moon, the image of death and mortality.
Mary has left death behind her; she is totally clothed in life, she is taken up body and soul into God’s glory and thus, placed in glory after overcoming death, she says to us: Take heart, it is love that wins in the end!
The message of my life was: I am the handmaid of God, my life has been a gift of myself to God and my neighbour. And this life of service now arrives in real life. May you too have trust and have the courage to live like this, countering all the threats of the dragon.
This is the first meaning of the woman whom Mary succeeded in being. The “woman clothed with the sun” is the great sign of the victory of love, of the victory of goodness, of the victory of God; a great sign of consolation.
Yet, this woman who suffered, who had to flee, who gave birth with cries of anguish, is also the Church, the pilgrim Church of all times. In all generations she has to give birth to Christ anew, to bring him very painfully into the world, with great suffering. Persecuted in all ages, it is almost as if, pursued by the dragon, she had gone to live in the wilderness.
However, in all ages, the Church, the People of God, also lives by the light of God and, as the Gospel says, is nourished by God, nourishing herself with the Bread of the Holy Eucharist. Thus, in all the trials in the various situations of the Church through the ages in different parts of the world, she wins through suffering. And she is the presence, the guarantee of God’s love against all the ideologies of hatred and selfishness.
We see of course that today, too, the dragon wants to devour God who made Himself a Child. Do not fear for this seemingly frail God; the fight has already been won. Today too, this weak God is strong: He is true strength.
Thus, the Feast of the Assumption is an invitation to trust in God and also to imitate Mary in what she herself said: Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; I put myself at the Lord’s disposal.
This is the lesson: One should travel on one’s own road; one should give life and not take it. And precisely in this way each one is on the journey of love that is the loss of self, but this losing of oneself is in fact the only way to truly find oneself, to find true life.
Let us look to Mary, taken up into heaven. Let us be encouraged to celebrate the joyful feast with faith: God wins. Faith, which seems weak, is the true force of the world. Love is stronger than hate.
And let us say with Elizabeth: Blessed are you among women. Let us pray to you with all the Church: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
(© Copyright 2007—Libreria Editrice Vaticana)
Who Has the Power?
This concise homily was obviously not meant just for the several hundred parishioners and visitors who happened to be attending the Supreme Pontiff’s Mass in a remote village in Italy on August 15, 2007. It is clear the Vicar of Christ was, and is, addressing all Catholics and, in a wider sense, all peoples.
He begins with a discussion of love, that universally acknowledged and widely misunderstood feature of human life that is the central theme of Pope Benedict’s pontificate. The Holy Father reminds us that the essence of human history is a great struggle between radical love of God and radical love of oneself. He then aptly uses the image in Revelation of the woman giving birth and the huge red dragon to contrast true love (good) with evil (hatred).
In his sermon, the Pope draws our attention to a fundamental paradox: True love seems powerless while hatred seems to possess infinite power. The helpless expectant mother and the aggressive red dragon symbolize this love and hatred.
The Dragon and the Woman
Pope Benedict describes the dragon and the woman in detail. He explains how the frightening dragon is an image of all the evil forces that have been attempting to destroy the reign of God on earth throughout history. Contrary to biblical literalists and Christian fundamentalists, the Holy Father presents this image as having several simultaneous meanings and interpretations that all complement one another. The hideous dragon represents not merely the declining Roman Empire, but also all the godless, anti-Christian ideologies and dictatorships that have existed in the world since then.
In our modern age, this beast wields his grip on the earth through the immoral ideologies of practical atheism, materialism, hedonism, and consumerism that have penetrated every corner of Western society and are gaining increasing influence in the non-Western world. It seems foolish to entertain the idea that such a powerful monster can be defeated.
Then the Pope explains the image of “the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, surrounded by 12 stars.” Like the image of the dragon, this figure also has multiple meanings. First and foremost, the woman clothed with God’s light represents the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is “totally” enveloped by God, that is, full of grace. The 12 stars symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel, which represent “the whole People of God,” including the chosen people of the Old Covenant throughout their 6,000-year history, as well as all the members of the New Covenant, the Church, on earth and in heaven.
Under the woman’s feet is “the moon, the image of death and mortality.” I have usually thought of the moon as an image of the Blessed Mother herself reflecting the light of God, and this is certainly a valid interpretation. But the moon’s light also diminishes and vanishes entirely during its orbit around the earth, which is a symbol of human mortality. In addition, the moon is also devoid of life, a representation of death. The glorified appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary in heaven shows that by God’s grace she has triumphed over death and serves as an example and encouragement to us to trust in God and to persevere.
Benedict goes on to point out that, besides representing Our Lady, the glorious woman of the Apocalypse is also a symbol of “the Church, the pilgrim Church of all times,” which has painfully given birth to Christ in hostile circumstances. In every age the Church has been threatened by persecution. Attacks have been launched from all directions by a wide variety of people including politicians, kings, military generals, Catholic and non-Catholic religious extremists, anti-religious philosophers, astrologers, devil worshippers, flippant scientists, businesspeople, lax Catholics, heretics, and schismatics.
Yet the Church has survived and continued to grow despite numerous menacing assaults for 2,000 years, so we should trust that God will continue to protect her. In fact, the suffering of the Church is a blessing in disguise; according to Pope Benedict, “she wins through suffering.” The greater the struggle, the greater will be the final victory. Without suffering and death, there can be no resurrection. The Catholic Church, the Bride of Christ, has gone through many trials, but she cannot be destroyed by human or satanic endeavor because she belongs to God.
We are living through a time in which the momentum of evil forces toward complete victory over the world seems unstoppable. A cycle of violence—including abortion, euthanasia, suicide, terrorism, the arms trade, nuclear weaponry proliferation, all kinds of wars, genocides, and torture—is fed by radical secularism, hedonism, individualism, materialism, and greed. Moreover, selfishness and greed lead to the additional evils of widespread corruption, rampant falsehood, immorality, despotism, lack of accountability, the disappearance of a sense of responsibility to others, environmental degradation, and the ever-worsening injustice of world poverty.
With the enormous “media and propagandist power” of this tsunami of wickedness, many people feel hopeless. As they observe the drama of sin and suffering unfold around them, many wonder how humanity can ever begin to pull itself out of this mire. People also wonder why a good and loving God would allow so much evil to happen. Amidst all this hatred and disorder, the concept of an infinitely powerful and loving God seems out of place. God seems like a more and more distant reality.
But Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that evil is not invincible. “Take heart,” he says, “it is love that wins in the end.” It is precisely at this tumultuous period in history, when good appears to be losing the battle for the world, that faith and trust in God will earn the greatest reward. The more evil God permits, the more spectacularly will His power be displayed for all humanity to see.
God has not abdicated and cannot abdicate His status as the Eternal Supreme Being. Rather, He is allowing all this evil in order to bring a greater good out of it. Furthermore, the very existence of the Church on earth is a sign that God is with us, according to Pope Benedict: “She is the presence, the guarantee of God’s love against all the ideologies of hatred and selfishness.” The Holy Father presents to us the heavenly image of the Blessed Virgin, who witnessed the terrible murder of her Son for our salvation, to rekindle our hope in the Lord’s final victory.
God remains all-powerful, while humanity is not. Thus humanity cannot rescue itself; it must turn to God, the all-powerful Supreme Being who holds the earth and all of creation in His almighty hand. Moreover, God’s love was not content with giving us His own Son; He also gives us His mother, the Mother of the Church, the Mediatrix (dispenser) of All Grace, and the Comforter of the Afflicted, as our spiritual mother to console us in our troubles and to make intercession for us. Her example of trust and submission to God’s infinitely wise will, along with her prayers, can assist us in imitating her as humble servants of the Lord.
Mary is not merely the person who brought Jesus into the world; she is an integral part of the Church. We should pray to her for a lively faith, a steadfast hope, a burning love of God, humble acceptance of His divine will, and patience to endure the sufferings that God sends us in this short life.
To a world that is losing hope, the successor of St. Peter boldly proclaims a cheering message of truth: “Do not fear for this seemingly frail God; the fight has already been won. . . . God wins. Faith, which seems weak, is the true force of the world. Love is stronger than hate.” The ultimate triumph of love over evil is certain. By means of the authority given to her by her Son, Our Lady as Queen of Heaven and Earth will crush the head of the serpent as prophesied in the book of Genesis.
The Second Coming of Jesus, the resurrection of the body, the Last Judgment, and the following renewal of creation are events that will occur regardless of how much dominion evil and suffering attain on earth. Jesus himself predicted that great calamities would befall the world prior to the coming of the Son of Man, which gives us yet another reason for hope in our circumstances.
Looking Toward the Church Triumphant
The same book of Revelation that Pope Benedict XVI preached about on the Feast of the Assumption predicts “new heavens and a new earth.” The beautiful image of the glorious Virgin Mary is a preview of that resurrection and new life promised to those who remain faithful. If we resist the temptations of the dragon and practice humble obedience to the will of God as Mary our Blessed Mother did—if we persevere, as St. Paul wrote, “through many trials and tribulations”—we will someday join the ranks of the Church Triumphant, the “Kingdom of God,” in heaven.
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Justin Soutar is a young freelance writer from Huntsville, Ohio. Since 2005 he has published 18 articles on politics and the Church, including “The Shadow of Death” (Hereditas, August 2005) and “The Peace Pope” (Inside the Vatican, June/July 2006).
This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2008 issue of Lay Witness Magazine. Copyright © Catholics United for the Faith
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