Now here’s something I hadn’t heard in a LONG time: We sang ‘A Mighty Fortress’ as our recessional song at Mass today. I’ve long appreciated the lyrical imagery of the hymn, made all the more effective by its majestic melody.
Having just returned from one of the world’s most castellated regions, though, I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony of Martin Luther’s words.
We must have seen two dozen ‘mighty fortresses’ sprinkled across the countryside during our recent traipse across Scotland and Ireland. A few are still in service today. The vast majority however lie in ruins, their bulwarks (you might say) ‘ever failing.’
Which no doubt is the point (or at least, part of the point) that Martin Luther was trying to impress upon the faithful when he wrote the hymn (and the Psalmist, for that matter, when he wrote Psalm 46 on which Luther’s words are based): ‘Build fortifications if you must, but you’re a fool if you depend upon bulwarks alone for your salvation.’
A visit to Urquhart Castle—perched along the shore of Loch Ness in central Scotland—underscores the point. It was a happenin’ place for several hundred years—drawing royals and nobility for all manner of feasts and festivities in the 13th through 16th centuries.
Cool castle. REALLY cool: Urqhhart comes complete with a moat (now dry); ramparts; a gatehouse; and a trebuchet (or war engine) lurking in the distance…a reminder of the long-ago siege(s) that ultimately brought the fortification to its knees.
Standing on the wall of the castle, I found myself wondering what it must have been like for the archers and soldiers stationed there to see the trebuchets approaching. The fortified walls would have provided cold comfort at best. Once you’re walled in, the end-game is pretty much clear. Or, as the second verse of Luther’s hymn suggests, ‘Did we in our own strength confide / Our striving would be losing / were not the Savior on our side…’
More than a thousand years earlier, St. Paul had written about a different sort of strategy against the evils present in the world. We heard a bit of his take on winning and losing in the passage from Colossians proclaimed at Mass today:
You were buried with [Christ] in baptism, in which you were also raised with him…And even when you were dead in transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, [Christ] brought you to life along with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions; obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims…he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross.
We find it difficult to wrap our minds and hearts around that sort of bulwark, though, don’t we? Both the Christians who built Urquhart Castle a millennia ago…and we who fashion all manner of worldly protection for our goods and lifestyles today.
Christ invites us to consider a different way. Christ show us that the path to salvation passes through the cross – through diminishment…surrender…and ultimately, into oneness with the Holy One.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s a lesson we’ll ever learn to embrace.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.