St. Agnes and the Kingdom of Heaven

In the Holy Church, a well-formed preacher is one who knows to speak about both the sweetness of the Kingdom of Heaven and the fear of punishment. Let us listen to the message of the Kingdom, so as to love it, and heed the teachings on eternal torment, so as to fear it.

In the Gospel proclaimed today (Mt 13:44-52), dearly beloved brethren, the Kingdom of Heaven is likened to earthly realities so that the soul may ascend from what it knows to what it does not know. Thus, through examples of visible things, it will find itself transported to the invisible and, as it were enkindled by contact with them, so that the love it feels for what it knows will also lead it to love that which it does not know.

“Love is strong as death”

The Kingdom of Heaven is compared here in the first place to a treasure hidden in a field: “which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Mt 13:44). […]

The treasure is Heaven, to which we aspire; the field in which it was hidden is our persistent efforts to conquer it. To sell everything to acquire this field is to renounce carnal pleasures and to trample on all earthly desires, maintaining a celestial conduct, so as not to find pleasant anything that flatters the flesh and not to fear anything that destroys the life of the body.

The Kingdom of Heaven is also likened to a merchant in search of precious pearls. When he finds one of great value, he also sells everything so that he can buy it. For whoever knows most perfectly the sweetness of heavenly life, willingly abandons all the things he loved on earth.

Compared to eternal bliss, everything seems worthless to him: he leaves what he has and distributes what he had accumulated. His soul is inflamed by the desire for heavenly things; of earthly things, nothing pleases him any longer. The beauty of that which enchanted him in this world now seems unsightly to him, for only the splendour of the precious pearl sparkles in his spirit. It is from this longing that Solomon rightly states: “Love is strong as death” (Sg 8: 6).

God asks that we master the desires of the flesh

In fact, just as death destroys the body, love for eternal life extinguishes the passion for corporeal things; whoever is wholly absorbed in it becomes indifferent to earthly desires.

St. Agnes, whose feast we celebrate today, could not have died corporeally for God without having previously died spiritually to earthly desires. Raised to the heights of virtue, her soul despised the torments and trampled underfoot the rewards.

St. Agnes – Stained glass, Cathedral of St. Anthony, Juiz de Fora (Brazil)

She was led before kings and governors surrounded by soldiers, but she remained firm, showing herself to be more resilient than the executioners, and superior even to those who judged her. And we, adults full of weakness, who see young girls walking towards the Kingdom of Heaven by means of the sword, what shall we say, in the face of such examples, we who allow ourselves to be seized by anger, puffed up with pride, troubled by ambition, and overwhelmed by lust?

If we have not been called to conquer the Kingdom of Heaven by struggles and persecution, let us at least feel ashamed that we do not want to follow God in peacetime. Nowadays, God does not say to us, “Die for Me”; but only “Let the forbidden desires die in you.” If we cannot master the desires of the flesh in times of peace, how can we sacrifice that same flesh to the Lord in times of war?

The good and bad are together in this life

The Kingdom of Heaven is also like a net which, cast into the sea, catches fish of every kind. When it is full, the fishermen haul it ashore, where they separate the good ones into baskets and toss the bad away. […]

In this life we ??are all gathered together in the mesh of the Faith, like a group of unsorted fish. However, the nature of what has been caught in the net will be revealed on the shore, that is, by the Holy Church. Unlike fish, which cannot change after being caught, we were caught while bad, but in this net we become good. Let us reflect upon this, therefore, while we are yet in this net, so that we may avoid being rejected upon reaching land.

Consider how much you enjoy today’s solemnity, so that if any of you were forbidden to participate in it, you would be very saddened. Thus, how will it be on that day for those who, in the sight of the Judge, will be dragged away, separated from the company of the elect and plunged into darkness, tortured by eternal fire?

To briefly explain this comparison, the Lord adds: “So it will be at the close of the age. The Angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Mt 13:49-50). These, dear brethren, are words that need to be feared more than explained. The torments of sinners are clearly stated so that no one will use ignorance as a pretext, as if the subject had been explained in a vague manner. […]

Love the Kingdom, fear the chastisement

The Lord ended His discourse precisely where it began. He had at first asserted that the Kingdom was like a hidden treasure and a precious pearl; He then described the penalties of hell concerning the torments suffered by the damned. He added, in closing, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt 13:52).

It is as if He had clearly stated: “In the Holy Church, the well-formed preacher is one who can express new things, telling of the sweetness of the heavenly dwelling place, and at the same time reveal old things, speaking about the fear of punishment, so that at least the torments frighten those not attracted by rewards.” Let us listen to what we are told about Heaven so as to love it; let us listen to what we are taught about the punishment to fear it, so that if love is not enough to draw a torpid soul, excessively attached to the earth, into the Kingdom, at least by fear it will be led there.

This is how the Lord speaks of gehenna: “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” There, eternal mourning will follow the present delights. Therefore, dear brothers, if you fear to weep then, flee now from vain joy. For it is indeed impossible to rejoice today with the world and to reign with the Lord on that day. Restrain, therefore, the waves of fleeting happiness, fully dominate the pleasures of the flesh.

May the thought of eternal fire turn bitter all that pleases you in this world. By the austere rule of life which befits maturity, suppress the puerile amusements to which you give yourselves, so that, fleeing from transitory things, you may more easily reach eternal joy, with the help of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Excerpts from: ST. GREGORY THE GREAT. Homilies on the Gospels. Homily XI,
pronounced in the Basilica of St. Agnes on her feast day: PL 76, 1114-1118

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