The Clash of Two Kingdoms
When Pope John Paul II proposed to the world a new set of mysteries for the Rosary, the Luminous Mysteries, in 2002, I remember the buzz and excitement over which Gospel scenes would be the focal point of each decade. In my circles, the reactions were very similar - the Baptism of the Lord, the Wedding Feast at Cana, the Institution of the Eucharist, and the Transfiguration all brought with them a sense of mystery and intrigue, and these scenes developed a new prominence in the Catholic mindset. We couldn't wait to incorporate these into our prayers and bring them to contemplation. And then there was the Proclamation of the Kingdom, to which everyone simply said - Huh?
It wasn't a particular scene from the Gospels, but more of a concept or theme, and one that we weren't very familiar with. Clearly, Pope John Paul II felt this needed to change. Pastoral Quotient points out that the word "kingdom" appears 137 times in the New Testament when referring to "the kingdom of God" or "the kingdom of heaven," and over 90 of these are from Jesus' own teaching and preaching. That's one reference for each of the 89 chapters in all the Gospels, with some to spare!
DISPLACING ONE KINGDOM FOR ANOTHER
Jesus, a descendant of King David, came to establish a kingdom. But he was not coming to claim unsettled territory. To establish his kingdom, Jesus had to conquer and displace another, the "kingdom of darkness" (Col 1:13) that is ruled by the "prince of this world" (John 12:31) and the "father of lies" (John 8:44). St. Paul portrays this conquest in the strongest of terms, saying that "despoiling the principalities and the powers, [Jesus] made a public spectacle of them, leading them away in triumph by [the Cross]" (Col 2:15). The picture is of Jesus completely stripping the kingdom of darkness of its power - he would not tolerate any incursion of that kingdom back into his own domain.
And so Jesus instructed his disciples, "As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons" (Mt 10:7-8). The declaration that the kingdom of heaven is at hand was meant to serve as an eviction notice to the kingdom of darkness - your time is up, it's time to move out!
It starts to make sense why Pope John Paul II included this in the Luminous Mysteries, the Mysteries of Light: just as darkness cannot withstand light, the kingdom of darkness cannot remain when the kingdom of God is made present.
TWO KINGDOMS, TWO AGENDAS
In my previous post, I suggested that in many Catholic circles we have become too comfortable with embracing suffering as part of God's plan for us, and that perhaps we are inclined to accept some suffering that God never intended for us to accept. I proposed that "in the church there is an admiration for pain and suffering that goes far beyond what the Bible ever intended" and that before we can understand the proper role of pain and suffering in the Christian life, we first need to know the role of victory.
Case in point: a quote from Fulton Sheen recently found its way to my Facebook news feed that said, “The ultimate goal of the demonic is to avoid the Cross, mortification, self-discipline and self-denial.” Now, what I want to concentrate on is not so much Sheen's statement (which was pulled from his autobiography Treasure in Clay and which I'm more forgiving of in context) as the fact that it was singled out as a share-worthy morsel of wisdom. What does this statement assert as a stand-alone Tweet, for instance? And does this accurately reflect the "ultimate goal" of the demonic?
If we consider that the demonic is the enemy of God and is diametrically opposed to God's designs, then the ultimate goal of the demonic is exactly contrary to the ultimate goal of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. If we take the above quote at face value, then it stands to reason that what the demonic most wants us to avoid is precisely what God most wants for us: the cross, mortification, self-discipline and self-denial. Is the cross and mortification what God really wants most for us?
Contrast this with what Jesus says about the ultimate goal of the demonic:
A thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. (John 10:10)
Steal, kill, destroy. This is what Jesus tells us the thief, the enemy of our souls, is ultimately after. And he will use any means at his disposal to accomplish this end. This might include enticing us to take the easy way out in circumstances where perseverance is required of us. But he might equally be the source of some suffering, attempting to wear us down and weary us under the weight of suffering. And finally, he might entice us to embrace suffering, making us believe that God is most pleased when we are most miserable, and preventing us from turning our eyes from that suffering to the Savior who is eager to demonstrate the goodness of the Father! When it comes to the demonic, there are no rules. It does not play fair, and there is no consistency. The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, by whatever means he can devise.
But our verse continues:
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly. (John 10:10)
So what robs you of life? This is what Jesus came to conquer! To be sure, some people are robbed of life because they shy away from those unpleasant things that promote personal growth. But it is equally true that there are those who have become far too comfortable with their pain and their brokenness. They may even believe that it is God's will for them, His chosen means to build their character or make them stronger. Many view God as a strict disciplinarian rather than as a Father who knows how to give good gifts to his children (Mt 7:11). Or perhaps they continually push the fulfillment of God's promises off to some distant future despite the fact that Jesus declares, "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand." (Mk 1:15)
THE EVIDENCE OF THE GOSPELS
What I would like to invite is a fresh re-reading of the Gospels with this perspective in mind. How does Jesus go about cultivating this more abundant life? What are the elements of the kingdom of darkness that he will not tolerate? What kinds of suffering does he encourage us to embrace and what kinds of suffering does he routinely obliterate? How often does he speak of carrying your cross vs. how many times we see him lifting crosses off of people's backs?
This is where I intend to pick up next time as we continue this series on the role of suffering and victory in the life of a Christian.