(In a shameless break from writing, the reflection for the Sunday in the Octave of the Nativity is drawn entirely from St. Alphonsus Ligouri's homily for the day.)
"Behold, this CHILD is set for the fall and for the resurrection of many in Israel". Luke 2:34.
SUCH was the language of holy Simeon when he had the consolation to hold in his hands the infant Jesus. Among other things which he then foretold, he declared that "this child was set for the fall and for the resurrection of many in Israel." In these words he extols the lot of the saints, who, after this life, shall rise to a life of immortality in the kingdom of bliss, and he deplores the misfortune of sinners, who, for the transitory and miserable pleasures of this world, bring upon themselves eternal ruin and perdition. But, notwithstanding the greatness of his own misery, the unhappy sinner, reflecting only on the enjoyment of present goods, calls the saints fools, because they seek to live in poverty, in humiliation, and self-denial. But a day will come when sinners shall see their errors, and shall say. “We fools esteemed their life madness, and their end without honour." (Wis 5:4.) We fools; behold how they shall confess that they themselves have been truly fools. Let us examine in what true wisdom consists, and we shall see, in the first point, that sinners are truly foolish, and, in the second, that the saints are truly wise.
First Point. Sinners are truly foolish.
What greater folly can be conceived than to have the power of being the friends of God, and to wish to be his enemies? Their living in enmity with God makes the life of sinners unhappy in this world, and purchases for them an eternity of misery hereafter St. Augustine relates that two courtiers of the emperor entered a monastery of hermits, and that one of them began to read the life of St. Anthony. "He read," says the saint, "and his heart was divested of the world." He read, and, in reading, his affections were detached from the Earth. Turning to his companion he exclaimed: "What do we seek? The friendship of the emperor is the most we can hope for. And through how many perils shall we arrive at still greater danger? Should we obtain his friendship, how long shall it last?" Friend, said he, fools that we are, what do we seek? Can we expect more in this life, by serving the emperor, than to gain his friendship? And should we, after many dangers, succeed in making him our friend, we shall expose ourselves to greater danger of eternal perdition. What difficulties must we encounter in order to become the friend of Caesar! "But, if I wish, I can in a moment become the friend of God." I can acquire his friendship by endeavouring to recover his grace. His divine grace is that infinite treasure which makes us worthy of his friendship. “For she is an infinite treasure to men, which they that use become the friends of God” (Wis 7:14.)
How great then is the folly of sinners, who, though they have it in their power to enjoy the friendship of God, wish to live in enmity with him! The Lord does not hate any of his creatures: he does not hate the tiger, the viper, or the toad. ”For thou lovest all things that are, and hatest none of the things which thou hast made." (Wis 11:25.) But he necessarily hates sinners. "Thou hatest all the workers of iniquity." (Psalm 5:7.) God cannot but hate sin, which is his enemy and diametrically opposed to his will; and therefore, in hating sin, he necessarily hates the sinner who is united with his sin. “But to God the wicked and his wickedness are hateful alike.” (Wis 14:9.)
But the misfortune of the greater part of mankind is, that instead of following the way of salvation, they foolishly walk in the road to perdition,. Some have a passion for earthly riches; and, for a vile interest, they lose the immense goods of Paradise: others have a passion for honours; and, for a momentary applause, they lose their right to be kings in Heaven: others have a passion for sensual pleasures; and, for transitory de lights, they lose the grace of God, and are condemned to burn for ever in a prison of fire. Miserable souls! if, in punishment of a certain sin, their hand was to be burned with a red-hot iron, or if they were to be shut up for ten years in a dark prison, they certainly would abstain from it. And do they not know that, in chastisement of their sins, they shall be condemned to remain for ever in Hell, where their bodies, buried in fire, shall burn for all eternity? Some, says St. John Chrysostom (Hom. de recup. Laps.), to save the body, choose to destroy the soul; but, do they not know that, in losing the soul, their bodies shall be condemned to eternal torments?”If we neglect the soul, we cannot save the body"
Second Point. The saints are truly wise.
Let us be persuaded that the truly wise are those who know how to love God and to gain Heaven. Happy the man to whom God has given the science of the saints. "Dedit illi scientiam sanctorum” (Wis 10:10.) Oh! how sublime the science which teaches us to know how to love God and to save our souls! Happy, says St. Augustine, is the man "who knows God, although he is ignorant of other things." They who know God, the love which he merits, and how to love him, stand not in need of any other knowledge. They are wiser than those who are masters of many sciences, but know not how to love God.
Tell me, brethren, to which class do you wish to belong to the wise of the world, or to the wise of God? Before you make a choice, St. Chrysostom advises you to go to the graves of the dead! "Proficiscamur ad Sepulchra” Oh! how eloquently do the sepulchres of the dead teach us the science of the saints and the vanity of all earthly goods! "For my part," said the saint, "I see nothing but rottenness, bones, and worms.” As if he said: Among these skeletons I cannot distinguish the noble, the rich, or the learned; I see that they have all become dust and rottenness: thus all their greatness and glory have passed away like a dream.
What then must we do? Behold the advice of St. Paul: "This, therefore, I say, brethren: the time is short: it remaineth that . . . they that use this world BE as if they used it not; for the fashion of this world passeth away." (1 Cor 7:29-31.) This world is a scene which shall pass away and end very soon. "The time is short." During the days of life that remain, let us endeavour to live like men who are wise, not according to the world, but according to God, by attending to the sanctification of our souls, and by adopting the means of salvation; by flying dangerous occasions; by practising prayer; joining some pious sodality; frequenting the sacraments; reading every day a spiritual book; and by daily hearing Mass, if it be in our power; or, at least, by visiting Jesus in the holy sacrament of the altar, and some image of the most holy Mary. Thus we shall be truly wise, and shall be happy for time and eternity.