Homily for the Solemnity of the Assumption, 2021
Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
-1 Cor. 15:54-55
“He has shown the strength of his arm,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.”
John Wayne, the great icon of American masculinity—who was received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed—once said this: “I try to live my life to the fullest without hurting anybody else. I try not to unintentionally hurt anybody’s feelings. If I do hurt anybody’s feelings, I had all intention of hurting them.”
A similar saying was attributed to another figure, of a very different temperament, who was also received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed—namely Oscar Wilde, who is purported to have said, “The well-bred man is never rude unintentionally.”
But are we permitted to insult someone else deliberately?
Generally not. Our fallen nature usually moves us to be rude inconsiderately because our faults are so automatic that we don’t even realize we are being rude. This is the insult caused by the ill-bred. We find this out on the road, in the supermarket, in the interrupting conversationalist, in the buffet line… when and wherever people’s petty wants are pursued.
But often enough we consciously insult someone else because of our pride, envy, or anger. This is the insult caused by the gentleman, the well-bred. It is the manly cowboy’s assertive challenge in the saloon or the fussy socialite’s snub in the country club.
(We might leave out the good-humored insult from the stands in a stadium, except that often enough this sort of team spirit can become really wrong, at least with the addition of too much of another kind of spirit!)
Yet, in some sense it seems we must be allowed to deliver insults sometimes. Why? Because we have the example of Our Lady in the Gospel of this great solemnity of her assumption, and in the words placed in her mouth by the Church in the reading from First Corinthians in the second lesson of the Vigil Mass of this feast.
In her exulting over the defeat of the proud rich, she echoes the gloating of her namesake, the prophetess Miriam, sister of Moses, who, playing her tambourine, sang with the Israelites a song of triumph over the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. She repeats some of the sentiments of vindication expressed by Hannah the mother of Samuel in her conception of the great prophet, rejoicing that the Lord’s foes would be shattered. With the words of the prophet Hosea quoted by St. Paul, she mocks the devil with his death and hell with sharp rhetorical questions: “Where is your sting now, where is your victory, you who seemed so powerful!”
St. Thomas points out that when we have escaped or have been freed from sin, we can insult the one who tried to triumph over us by getting us to sin, either by throwing up at him his past defeat or his future chastisement. Notice though, that the insult is only appropriate for evil in the strictest sense: sin and the inducement to sin. The persons who sin or who get us to sin may only be insulted if they have been defeated and have not repented.
This leaves pretty much only the demons to be insulted, since we can always hold out some hope of repentance for another human being. Human beings may have truly persecuted us in the deepest sense by trying to separate us from God, but we can pray and strive for their conversion, rendering not insult for insult, but mercy and compassion. In the case of those who are still in this earthly life and can be converted, we should not insult or gloat but rather warn and threaten with God’s judgment in the hope of correcting and refuting error.
Contemporary people, however, usually take refutation of error as an insult to the erring. And so we will possibly be insulted by them for trying to correct them. But this was the lot of the prophets and the Savior himself, so we should not be afraid to correct error, if we truly desire the conversion of those whom we reprove with genuine love for them.
This is, of course, an area that requires prayer and the control of our own unruly feelings. There are also plenty of people today who think that, if they are not correcting someone, they are betraying the truth. We need to watch out for this. I can offer you, from the same example of Our Lady, how we can know we correct and reprove in the right spirit and how we can insult true evil in the right spirit. The secret to a good insult is holy joy.
In the classic literature of the ancient Church and indeed of the ancient world that St. Thomas was following, the form of insulting was only the opposite of the form of rejoicing or celebrating. This means that because we possess some great good in which we take joy and delight and express it, so too we mock the evil things that tried to prevent us from having it. If there were no joy much stronger and more real than the evil we avoided, then it would be very dangerous to insult our enemy. We would just be dwelling on the fact of evil and not of the power and beauty and pleasure of the good.
This is what gave the saints, from Moses and Miriam and Hannah, to David in the psalms, to the elect of Revelation, and to the martyrs of the Church like St. Lawrence and St. Thomas More, the spirit of rejoicing in their good and of rejoicing over their enemies’ defeat. Each day the Church sings Our Lady’s hymn of triumph in the good and victory over evil, her Magnificat. Every evening in the Roman rite at Vespers, and every morning in the Byzantine rite at Matins, so her song is never silent, it rings out all over the earth.
So if you want to express your love of true goodness and hatred of true evil join her and the Church in this hymn each day. Then you will be a truly well-bred Christian, never insulting except deliberately and rightly!