During the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Licinius at the beginning of the Fourth century, a group of forty soldiers refused to take part in idolatrous pagan worship. They declared that they were Christian soldiers and that they were ready to die for their Faith. When they refused to change their minds, they were condemned to death by freezing.
The soldiers were forced to stand naked on the frozen lake. On the shore, warm baths and a blazing fire were prepared. Each soldier was free at any time to leave the frozen lake and denounce his Faith.
Eyewitnesses recorded that the soldiers encouraged each other to persevere by reflecting on the fact that one bad night for them would secure eternity in the House of their Father. I quote from the account: “There are forty of us engaged in this combat, grant that there be forty crowns in heaven for us and that no one defect from this Sacred number.”
The report goes on to say: “As their suffering intensified in the bitterly cold wind, they showed no disposition to give up – all but one. One soldier rushed off to a warm bath where the sudden shock to his body caused instant death. A pagan guard, moved by interior grace, decided to take the place of the guard who denied his Faith. He declared himself a Christian, removed his clothes and joined the group on the lake. In the morning, the frozen bodies were burned, and heaven welcomed the forty Christian martyrs who persevered in their Faith.”
This perseverance is what St. Paul is talking about in the Second reading. We need to persevere in our relationship with God. We need to be grateful to God as was the leper Naaman in the first reading and the one foreign leper in the Gospel. We need to be faithful to God in good times and in bad. We need to look beyond what society has to offer and get back to the basics of our Faith.
Our world has lost a sense of direction and a sense of moral values: anything goes – everything is tolerated. Moral absolutes have become subjective – God’s law does not determine what is right or wrong – we do! No one is going to tell me what is right or wrong – not God, not the Church, not civil law.
I make the rules! These kinds of attitudes have a way of seducing us away from God and morality. Like the Roman soldier, and the nine ungrateful cured lepers in today’s Gospel, we can lose sight of the heavenly crown promised by Jesus, and choose instead the enticing but temporary warm bath of gratification which the world offers us.
Lest we are tempted not to persevere, Saint Paul reminds us: “If we hold out to the end, we shall also reign with Him.” For his Faith, Paul was whipped five times and beaten with rods three times – yet he persevered. For his Faith, Paul suffered shipwreck, false accusations, sleepless nights, hunger, cold, nakedness, and anxiety; yet he persevered. For his Faith, Paul endured dangers in the city, in the desert, and on the sea; yet he persevered. For his Faith, Paul accepted imprisonment, the hatred of others, betrayals by associates; yet he persevered.
For Paul, Faith was not a game to be played of facts to believe – in; it was giving up his grip on his own agenda and entrusting his life to God’s love and direction. It was living – out his own words: “Jesus must increase, and I must decrease.” And so it is with us – unless we step back and let God more deeply into the moral fiber of our decisions, and the manner in which we live out our Faith – then our Faith is a sham. Faith must influence every word we say, and every action we take. Faith is living what we say we believe.
In his Epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul says: “Let us persevere in running the race; do not grow despondent or abandon the struggle. Endure your trials as the discipline of God.” Every day there are a million distractions and temptations trying to lure us away from Jesus and from His Church: we must make the choice; we must keep, embrace, and live our Faith!