“From the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11:12)
From the Gospel of Matthew comes one of my favorite scriptural passages. In this section of Matthew, Jesus speaks of His coming as the fulfillment of what was preached by John the Baptist (Matt 11:10). He says John’s message of repentance (metanoia) and his life of self-discipline (askesis) were treated with repugnance by the world, with some going so far as to call him a demon (Matt 11:18). Christ, echoing His own words about Saint John, is cast out of Gerasene after delivering the community from two demon possessed men (Matt 8:28-34). The Fathers of the Church say it is the message of repentance and the call to fight the passions that ultimately set the townsfolk against Jesus. The Gospel is not an easy thing to hear, it asks us to give up bodily and societal comforts; and Jesus even warns his apostles that despite his promise, and victory, they will be persecuted as He is persecuted, and that they will find this life filled with trials and sorrows (John 16:33). Jesus makes sure His apostles know (at least to the best of His ability) His death and resurrection will not magically transform the world in an instant. Rather, It is through living The Way that this will be done. As each person comes to faith through the softening of their heart, their heart in turn cooperates with the Holy Spirit to soften the hearts of others, and lead us all into a life with Christ.
With Christ’s Ascension we are given the Holy Spirit to lead us, and transform us into disciples of Jesus Christ. This is the point of Jesus’ words, 'violence' and 'force' in Matthew 11:12. Only those who like Saint John, live radically (violently and forcefully) opposed to the world, and seek the Holy Spirit (because there are radicals who don’t seek the Spirit) can come through the narrow gate. In this military analogy, those who truly seek Christ, will unceasingly do spiritual battle against the enemy for the sake of His soul and the world. Heaven in a word suffers this violence, this ferocity, because it has been opened up by Christ to those who dare to seek it. Those counted as worthy are as Saint John Chrysostom says “crowned victors in Heaven who have fought unceasingly against the passions.” The Christian storms Heaven by his life in Christ. Nothing but a total war against the devil will purify our lives of vice.
In war, the passions of laziness, dithering, sloth and cowardice will get a person killed, or worse yet, their fellow comrade in arms. The same can be said of the spiritual battle, not only do we allow ourselves through inattentiveness to fall prey to the enemy, but so too do we cause scandal to those who have heard the gospel, and seeing our sloth, turn away from Christ. Let us then, through tears of repentance like David weeping for his abominable sins, through feats of self-discipline like John the Baptist’s fasting that grant our will mastery over carnal passions, through unceasing prayer like Paul that draws our soul close to Christ, through devotion and love for one another like Peter who by Christ’s power raised Tabitha from the dead, and in Humility, the chief virtue that binds all other virtues to the Spirit of Truth, which Mary exemplified in her cooperation with God’s saving plan; follow Christ on the path of righteouness into the Eternal Kingdom.
The Kingdom of Heaven has been opened for you, take it, seize it, lay hold of it. It is the inheritance of every single person, whether they are aware of it or not. Ultimately it is up to you, and if you truly want it, than God will help you acquire it. All things are possible through God (Matt 19:26). In the words of Saint Jerome:
“Because John the Baptist was the first who preached repentance to the people, saying, repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand: rightly from that day forward it may be said, that the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For great is the violence, when we who are born of this world, seek a place in heaven, and obtain by righteousness what we have not by nature.”