Blog # 306 The answer is love
Anyone, even an unbeliever, can know and share historical human elements in the life of Jesus two thousand years ago from reading the account of it in the Bible and from the research of scholars about the historical conditions of Palestine when Jesus lived and died. Only a believer can hear God speaking and see God walking in the words and actions of Jesus.(Jn 14: 9,10). Only for a believer is the Resurrected Jesus alive and present as God in our world today.
In the mystery of our faith experience we acknowledge God as the Creator of all that exists. This means we acknowledge God's presence whenever and wherever we experience creation, through faith, in prayer, or through sight hearing taste touch or smell, from mountains to mole hills, in water and wind. Following upon this, the answer to our questions about good news and 'bad', pain and pleasure, life and death is found in God. And since the God in Whom we as Christians believe is love (1Jn 4: 8) , the answer to our questions is found in love. Both faith and love for God are gifts received in freedom. We have to receive them and put them to work in the task of asking and answering our questions. Let's continue on our way in that process now, in composing on my part and responding on your part to Blog # 306.
On one occasion a lawyer asked Jesus what was the greatest of all the commandments. His answer was love, love God above all and then secondly love your neighbor as yourself. And what is the meaning of love? "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son." (Jn 3:16). We are all familiar with the broad use of the word give. The poor widow, in her two small coins, gave more than all the others because of the greatness of her love. We use the word love in reference to a hug, a kiss, a handshake, a birthday party, a cheer for the home team. We speak of love between husband and wife, father and son, mother and daughter, children and parents, friend and friend, neighbor and neighbor, soldier and his country, believer and God. To love means to give. The more we love the more we give. "There is no greater love than this than to lay down one's life for one's friends." (Jn 15: 13).
In that quotation "to lay down one's life" means to die. I cannot figure out or imagine any other way we could give all that we have than to die. We give a certain amount of our time, our patience, our money. That is genuine love, but it is not the greatest. Death is the only way we can literally fulfill to greatest commandment of loving God above all else, encompassing as it does all that we have, given. Until the very last two seconds of our lives we have those two seconds to give. In the instant of our death our total love is realized. We may not be conscious of this at that insant but we can identify and claim it as our own, conciously and willfully, long years before the last instant of our lives is ours in history.
We do exactly that theoretically whenever we renew our Baptismal covenant, whenever we make ourselves aware of the meaning of what we are about to do and then offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, whenever we really pray rather than just recite the traditional 'Act of Love' many of us learned by heart in preparation for our First Holy Communion in a Catholic grade school many years ago , and finally, if we will it to be so, even years ahead of the actual time it occurs at some future definite singular instant in the future. "O my God, I love Thee with my whole heart and soul beccause Thou art all good and worthy of all my love..."
A reminder and proclamation of the relationship between Baptism and death is often explicitly given in a Scriptural quotation from St. Paul at the time of a celebration of a Mass of the Resurrection on the occasion of a Catholic funeral liturgy. "Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Through baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we might live a new life. If we have been united with him through likeness to his death, so shall we be through a like resurrection. This we know, our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed and we might be slaves to sin no longer....If we have died with Christ, we believe that we are also to live with him....His death was death to sin, once for all; his life is life for God. In the same way you should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus....Offer yourselves to God as men who have come back from the dead to life, and your bodies to God as weapons for justice." (Rom 6: 3 - 13).
In order for us correctly to identify acts of suffering and death to which a Christian believer is uniquely called and entitled, uniquely one by one, in the new life received in Baptism, we identify them as a gifts. In suffering and death God is not asking us merely to 'put up with them', or to see them merely as acts of penance for our sins, but in the essentially different way of experiencing them in union with Jesus as members of His Body, transformed into love! By way of analogy this might be seen as something like what love does in tranforming a golden ring into a wedding ring by the love of husband and wife.
Mother Theresa of Calcutta helped me be aware of and appreciate more fully the identity of suffering and death as gifts. She said that everything that exists is a gift from our Creator. It is easy to identify and receive as gifts from God the 'good' things that make up our lives, health, friendships, wife, children, family,good neighbors, sunshine, water, music, art, poetry,colors, shapes, and sounds. It is a challenge for us to recognize suffering and death as gifts.
Gifts are identified as an expression of love. Suffering and death seem to be the work of an enemy rather than a friend. Yet our Catholic response to sufferings and death invites us to understand and experience them precisely as gifts from God, understood and experienced as opportunities and invitations to love and be loved, loving God and being loved by God.
The second greatest commandment as given by Jesus, commanding us to love our neighbor as ourselves presumes we are to love ourselves, and the fifth of the Ten commands us to avoid injuring or destroying our lives. To do so would be a sin. Yet God in our Catholic faith identifies all suffering and death itself as a gift! How can this be since God cannot sin?
Recall what we said in Blog # 304 of the necessity of keeping consantly in mind in our effort to understand our Catholic response to the 'evil' of suffering and death that the word God at this point in our discussion refers to Jesus, the Eternal Word and the son of Mary identified as a single person. We recall here also the reference from Paul identifying his desire to live in conformity to the pattern of the sufferings of Jesus. He was not asking to be crucified but to share in the love of Jesus even to the point of the total love of crucifixion if that were to be for him as it was for Jesus the will of the Father. Then before leaving the Upper Room on the occasion of the Last Supper Jesus said: " that the world might know that I love the Father, let us be on our way." and He led the Apostles to Gethsemani. He did not call attention to His suffering but to His love.
St Paul shares a very important and helpful insight into the identity of Jesus' suffering and death in his lettter to the Philippians: "I wish to know Christ and the power flowing from his resurrection; likewise to know how to share in his sufferings by being formed into the pattern of his death. Thus do I hope that I may arrive at resurection from the dead." (Phil 3: 9,10). Again Paul is not expressing a desire to be crucified but rather to share through faith and Baptism the obedient love with which Jesus died, even though it might lead to crucifixion. In other words he was expressing a desire to see and experience in whatever suffering and death God had in store for him a share in the unconditional trust and total love of Jesus for the Father. He could not have asked for a better way to die. Nor could we.
What I have been trying to share with regard to death applies to all pain and suffering this side of death,in large and small portions, arthritis, a sore finger, loss of a job, whatever. How sad it is that apparently many if not the majority of people even among Christian believers are not habitually aware of the Catholic insights we have been sharing, with the result much suffering and untold experiences of death are in a sense wasted when they are identified and measured by pain and suffering rather than by love.
I thought Blog 306 would be the final one in the series on evil, but there is more so hang on for # 307. Thank you.