Today the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul. Church tradition tells us that both Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom. Peter was crucified; however, at his request, he was crucified upside down, since he felt unworthy to be honored with the same sort of death as Christ. Paul was beheaded, the quicker and more dignified form of capital punishment reserved for the Roman citizen.
The Church is by no means embarrassed at the ends met by these apostles. In fact, the Liturgy of the Hours recalls their martyrdoms by choosing these prophetic words from the First Letter of St. Peter as the reading for Morning Prayer:
“Beloved, rejoice in the measure that you share Christ’s sufferings. When his glory is revealed, you will rejoice exultantly. Happy are you when you are insulted for the sake of Christ, for then God’s Spirit in its glory has come to rest on you.” (1 Peter 4:13-14)
We hear these kinds of things so often in church that they actually tend to become unhearable for us. Their very familiarity makes them invisible to our minds. We don’t notice them. But it is worthwhile pausing to consider just how strange those words are from a natural perspective. Suffering–especially insult, the kind of suffering inflicted on us by other people–is said to be “glorious.” I don’t know about you, but when I think of glory, I have vague thoughts of confetti flying and music trumpeting (yes, like the end of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace). There usually isn’t too much of that going on while I am being insulted.
Perhaps we can understand these paradoxical words from St. Peter better by first getting a more precise sense of “glory.” What exactly does it mean for something to be glorious? In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas offers us two useful and concise definitions. First, he approvingly quotes the definition of St. Ambrose that glory consists in being “well-known and praised” (ST I-II, q. 2, a. 3). A couple of questions later, St. Thomas offers a definition of his own: glory is when “a man’s good is brought to the notice of others” (ST I-II, q. 4, a. 8).
No mention of confetti or trumpets. Rather, the core of glory is intellectual. It is a sort of knowledge: one’s formerly private good is now made known to others. One’s good is publicized.
As I have often explained this point in class, being a good soccer player does not yet equal glory. You may be a good soccer player, but you are only glorious when you score the winning goal in the state championship game in front of the entire cheerleading squad. Or think of Rigo, the young pitcher/peanut boy in that gawdawful movie Trouble with the Curve (2012). Rigo has an amazing fastball, but nobody knows about it. Fortunately, he is discovered by a scout near the end of the movie, shows up at the ballpark and strikes out the jerk (Bo) who can’t hit curveballs, and signs a pro contract. It is only with this ending that Rigo achieves glory. Glory is the manifestation of one’s good to others.
With this sharper sense of glory in mind, we can now return to the words of St. Peter. To be sure, on the natural level, insult is always painful. Yet St. Peter’s point is that there is more to the story. Evil does not have the last word, for the Christian who is insulted is not just insulted. He is also brought into closer conformity with Christ, the model of humanity, who was also mocked and spat upon (Matthew 26:67-68). This process of being conformed to Christ (or as one might also say, sanctified) is understood by the Church to be an action carried out by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in a paradoxical way, being insulted reveals to the Christian the presence of a good–or really, the good, the Holy Spirit. The Christian can thus be invited to rejoice, even in the presence of tremendous suffering, because of the manifestation of a good that transcends that suffering.
And all of this brings me, at long last, to the title of my post today. This past Friday, a bare majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a “fundamental right” protected by the Constitution. A decision more at odds with the natural law and the revealed truth of the faith can scarcely be imagined. Furthermore, as sober thinkers such as Justice Samuel Alito, George Weigel, and many others have already pointed out, it is a decision likely to lead to the persecution of those with the temerity to publicly disagree with the decision (such as Catholic churches and Catholic schools). The rhetoric for such persecution and legally-sanctioned bullying already begins to fall into place. If the Supreme Court decision was, as President Obama remarked and Tweeted, an act of justice and love, then logically speaking those who continue to disagree be on the side of injustice and hatred–and the law certainly doesn’t tend to carve out much space for anyone to act “unjustly.”
But the paradoxical lesson recalled to our minds by the Church’s liturgy today is that these coming trials have a deeper meaning for faithful American Christians. Before the decision of the Court on Friday, the faith was a good for those of us lucky enough to profess it. Henceforth, our faith will be glorious. Rejoice.