We've sure got a lot to pray about these days, don't we?
It was the fall of 1571. It’s no exaggeration to say that the very existence of Western civilization and the future of Christianity were on the line. The Protestant Reformation was in full swing. Martin Luther and his followers had left the Catholic fold, and the divisions, the fracturing, had continued on from the there. The King of England, over the question of his own divorce, had declared himself the head of the Church in that country. Political players took full advantage of the situation, such that theological differences gave rise to civic disturbances and violent clashes.
The Christians of Europe were fighting amongst and against themselves.
Needless to say, the enemies of Christianity watched all of this with rather keen interest. The Ottoman Turks had already conquered the Christian East; they now set their sights on Europe. The fortified city of Belgrade fell. Vienna was repeatedly and ruthlessly attacked. The kingdom of Hungary was invaded—an ancient Christian land that would now endure more than 200 years of Muslim rule. The Ottomans next took to the seas, and their navy was quickly gaining control of the Mediterranean—apparently, with eyes on Spain. Danger was all around.
Pope Pius V set out to—literally—rally the troops, calling on the leaders of traditionally Christian nations to band together for their common defense. Some refused because they were preoccupied with uprisings at home; others, having become Protestants, could no longer conscience fighting at the side of Catholics. The few who answered the Pope’s plea joined forces to form what became known as the Holy League. While the troops made their plans, the Pope enacted a plan of his own: he ordered churches to remain open day and night and asked Catholics in the strongest terms possible to pray for victory—specifically, to pray the Rosary. All the men in the Christian fleet were likewise told to pray the Rosary and go to confession. There would be no “cursing like sailors” on these ships, nor any drunkenness. Their mission was seen as a holy one.
And so, on October 7, 1571, even though the weather was against them and they appeared to be outnumbered, the Holy League engaged the Ottomans. And they won. It was not to be the final battle against this enemy, but it was the day that the tide decisively turned. And Pope Pius, although thousands of miles away in Rome, in an age without telephones, satellites, or the Internet, knew for certain that the Christian fleet had triumphed. He called for prayers of thanksgiving, and declared the day to be a feast: a new feast of the Virgin Mary, first known as the feast of Our Lady of Victory and later—still to this day—known as the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. It may strike us as rather odd to mark the anniversary of a fierce battle by honoring the Queen of Peace but, much like the Fourth of July or Veterans Day, it’s a date set aside to recall the workings of Divine Providence and how, with Mary’s motherly intercession, God had been our sure defender, fighting right at our side.
Why give you this history lesson today? Because, while reflecting on this Sunday’s first reading, I couldn’t help but think of the Battle of Lepanto.
A little background helps us to better understand the story about the battle between Israel and the Amalekites. Moses was leading the Israelites through the desert on their forty-year journey to the Promised Land. And what did the people do along most of the way of their exodus? They grumbled against Moses and fought amongst themselves. In the verses immediately before those we hear this morning, they’re complaining loudly about their thirst. “We have no water out in this desert! Has God abandoned us?” And, again proving his great faithfulness, God provides for his own, making water gush forth from the rock.
Now they’re under attack from a fierce enemy. Squabbling among themselves, they’d been rather vulnerable, but when they instead support one another—as is literally the case with Moses, who has Aaron and Hur at his sides—they cannot be defeated. Instead of cursing God and each other, they seek the Lord’s blessing. Instead of tearing each other down, they lift each other up. When they stick together, when they keep the faith, God gains the victory on their behalf.
Do these stories from ages past sound strangely familiar? Sadly, they should. In this contentious election season, marked by so much bitterness and ugliness, we have been turning on one another. Our country is changing, and not for the better. I don’t blame this on the campaign; Actually, I think the campaign is holding up a mirror revealing in large part who we’ve already become. People are being viciously torn down by those trying to climb their way to the top. Suspicions are high. Curses are constantly being hurled. And while we make enemies of one another, our real enemies stand back and laugh. To be clear: I’m not talking here so much of those enemies who hack emails or make bombs or plot terrorist attacks, as I am about the unseen Enemy whose prize is our souls. He’ll have no need to wage war against us if we’re doing such a good job of waging it against ourselves.
Now, I’m not trying to incite a holy war here. This isn’t a call to arms; it’s a plea for unity. My concern in preaching today isn’t about the victory of any candidate or party, nor about the domination of any particular country; it’s about the victory of truth and goodness. That, my friends, is something we can all get behind! And for that we need to work and to pray.
At the end of this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus asks the chilling question, “When the Son of Man comes again, will he find any faith on the earth?” Sadly, it’s an all-too-legitimate question—in our own age, as it has been in earlier times. Jesus’ teaching isn’t only about being persistent in prayer. We’re not like the widow who must fight hard against an unjust judge in order to secure her rights; we, rather, stand before the Lord of heaven and earth, the judge of the living and the dead, who’s more than willing to come to our aid. Jesus isn’t simply encouraging us to persevere in prayer; he wants us to pray that we might persevere, despite the struggle, to the very end.
The battle is on, my friends. So let’s make sure we’re fighting against the real enemy—and not against each other. We need to stick together. We need to bless, not curse. We need to pray—it’s our most powerful weapon! Instead of tearing one another down, let’s be sure to hold one another up. And then God’s victory will be ours.