Relief depicting the spoils from the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (Reproduction of the Arch of Titus, Rome, A.D. 81)
Earlier this month there was a short-lived scare when a story appeared online with the headline “Breaking: Vatican City Bombing,” with a photo showing thick clouds of black smoke rising above the Vatican. The story implied that Islamist terrorists had struck the Vatican during Ramadan, and the “story” was picked up by other “news” sites.
Of course it was fake news. There was no bombing and Vatican City wasn’t on fire. There was a fire — at a junkyard west of the Vatican.
Now, the story could have been true. Something like that could happen. Terrorist attacks, mass shootings and other disasters happen seemingly every week now. (For instance, just this week we learned that deadly violence in Mexico hit an all-time high last month.) There’s no shortage of bad news these days — real and fake news. Plenty of both.
“Terror on every side!” says the prophet Jeremiah in the first of today’s readings. “Do not be afraid,’ says Jesus in the Gospel; “fear no one.” Our Lord speaks comforting words, but what do they imply? That there is some kind of reason for fear.
But Jesus tells us not to fear. God knows the number of every hair on your head, he says, and his providential care of the world embraces every sparrow that falls to the ground — and you are much more to him than that.
Do you believe that? Well, to have faith in God is not just to believe in God, but also to trust in God. And trust means not being afraid. Faith is not just belief but trust, and trust means not being afraid.
In both of these readings from Jeremiah and Matthew, 600 years apart, God speaks to a world, like today, where there’s much to fear. And people were afraid — among other things, of enemy armies who might destroy them and their world at any moment.
In Jeremiah’s time it was Assyrians at first and later the Babylonians; in Jesus’ time it was the Romans. These enemy powers hovered over God’s people, threatening to pounce, to destroy the holy city, Jerusalem, and God’s house, the Jerusalem Temple.
In fact, both times it actually happened. Jerusalem did fall, twice, and the Temple was destroyed twice. The first temple, King Solomon’s Temple, was destroyed in Jeremiah’s day by the Babylonians, about 40 years after Jeremiah began preaching. The second temple, the temple of Jesus’ day, was destroyed by the Romans about 40 years after Jesus began preaching.
And Jeremiah saw it coming and warned the people and called them to repent and turn to God, and so did Jesus. But the peoples’ hearts were stubborn and rebellious and they didn’t respond to God’s word.
When Jeremiah saw that, he knew that judgment was coming, and the tool of God’s judgment was the Babylonians marching on Jerusalem, destroying the Temple, and deporting God’s people into exile.
Eventually they were allowed to the land and rebuild the Temple — the second temple. 600 years later Jesus warned that judgment was coming again, and Jerusalem and the second temple were destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., and the Israelites were dispersed to the four winds.
Now, just imagine if that fake story had been real and terrorists really had blown up the Vatican. Imagine for a moment that this morning we woke up to the news that Vatican City was destroyed.
No more Saint Peter’s Basilica. No more Sistine Chapel No more Vatican museums. All gone.
Now, that would be devastating for us as Catholics — but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Our worship doesn’t depend on a place or a building. Even if you destroyed every Catholic church in the world, as long as priests have bread and wine they’re going to celebrate the Mass somewhere, anywhere. So it wouldn’t be the end of the world for us.
But the destruction of the Temple for the Jewish people really was the end of their world. If you wanted to offer sacrifices to God as a Jew, there was only one Temple and one altar. If that’s gone, there’s nowhere else to go. So that is the end of the world.
So you can see why there was terror on every side in Jeremiah’s day with these powerful enemies poised to strike and destroy the Temple. And you can see why Jesus and Jeremiah were both so hated for warning of God’s coming judgment against the Temple, and why their enemies wanted to destroy them.
But Jeremiah isn’t afraid. We call Jeremiah the “weeping prophet,” but he was also a warrior prophet, fearless and courageous. “The Lord is with me,” he says, “like a mighty champion; my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph.”
“Fear no one,” our Lord says. “Don’t fear those who can kill the body but not the soul; fear the one who can destroy soul and body in Gehenna, in hell.” The hairs on your head are numbered; have faith. Faith is not just belief but trust, and trust means not being afraid.
We live in a world that wants us to be afraid. Terror on every side. Terror, of course, is what terrorists want to spread, but they’re far from the only ones. The media promotes fear because it sells. It used to sell papers; today it sells clicks and shares. It doesn’t matter if it’s real news or fake news; they both sell. Powerful people promote fear because it makes us easier to control. And all kinds of groups of people promote fear of other groups because the worse they are, the more we have to stick together.
Those of you who are old enough may remember how early and often Pope Saint John Paul II, starting with his very first homily, exhorted us in the words of Jesus, “Do not be afraid.” John Paul II spoke once about what he called “the culture of fear,” and the need to resist the culture of fear and move instead toward what he called “the culture of freedom in the truth.”
Notice the opposite of “the culture of fear” is not “the culture of courage” or even “the culture of faith,” but the culture of freedom in the truth. In other words, fear moves us from freedom toward bondage, toward captivity, and it does so through falsehood, lies, fake news — like that story about the bombing at the Vatican.
Or like the many fake stories about Pope Francis. “The pope said the Bible and the Quran are the same!” “The pope is changing the Ten Commandments!” “The pope condemned Donald Trump!” “The pope endorsed Donald Trump!” Let’s all set our hair on fire and run around screaming! (I’m not making up those Pope Francis stories, by the way; they’re all real fake news.)
The problem of fake news is important enough for us as Catholics that last Wednesday the Catholic bishops of the Philippines released a one-of-a-kind document: a pastoral letter urging Catholics not to spread “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Those are the bishops’ phrases, not mine! It’s a good document, and it’s short; you can read it online in minutes. Google it.
Our Lord himself, predicting the coming judgment, warns about fear and fake news. “Many will come in my name,” Jesus says; “you’ll hear about wars and rumors of wars. Don’t be alarmed; it’s not the end of the world. If anyone says, ‘Look, here comes the Christ!’, ‘Over here!’, ‘Over there!’, don’t believe it!” Don’t be misled; don’t be afraid.
We must reject the lies spread by fear and for fear. We must reject all lies, all fake news. There’s an expression on the Internet: “Big if true” or “Important if true.” No matter how important a story would be if it were true, we should have nothing to do with it if it’s not true! All truth is God’s truth. We don’t ever need to be afraid of the truth. As Pope St. Gregory the Great so wisely taught us, “God does not need my lie.” God does not need our lie!
We focus too much on bad news. There are good things happening too! (For instance, the Islamic State “caliphate” continues to crumble, and this morning, for the first time in years, there was celebrating in Mosul for the Muslim holiday of Eid — celebration that was forbidden under the Islamic State. Their persecutors stumble; they will not triumph, to borrow the words of Jeremiah.)
Pope Francis has talked about the need pay attention to the good news too, and how focusing only on the negative and neglecting the positive is very unhealthy. (Actually, Pope Francis put it more strongly. If you want to know what he really said, ask me after Mass!)
Of course not all the news is good, and not all the bad news is fake. There is much to fear in our world. But we must fight the culture of fear as people of faith. Faith is not just belief but also trust, and trust means not being afraid. If the good news of Jesus is true, what do we have to fear?