A Catholic-themed opinion blog about various topics, including theology, philosophy, politics and culture, from a Thomistic perspective.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Christ: The Meaning of Life

A Good Friday and Easter weekend Article

Throughout His ministry, Christ referred to children. He met them personally, talked with them, and used the image of a child in His parables, discourses and teachings. Christ refers to all humanity as children, and even shows Himself to be the Son of God, calling Him "Father" and teaching us to do the same. We are children of God by origin, and adoption through Christ. Children call out to Him "Hosanna" at the Cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:15), hailing Him as the "Son of David", heir to the throne of Israel. How could mere children recognize His Divinity while the high priests, the Roman governor, and even His own disciples rarely could?

Christ goes so far as to tell His apostles, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3 RSV 2CE) Does this mean we are to shun everything about adulthood, to forsake our responsibilities, our education and relationships? God forbid - Christ Himself was an adult, and as the Incarnation of God, He was only what He desired to be. Christ clarifies immediately after: "Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:4 ibid.) Even the most spoiled child possesses a humility they seem too quickly to lose in age, a willingness to depend on others, to trust others for their very lives, and to recognize and obey authority - even if those authorities must sometimes enforce this obedience.

The humility of the heart of a child is even deeper than their willingness to obey. This willingness springs from their heart. Every child is born with a sense of the ideal. Intrinsically, they understand and desire the ideal state of life, the fulfillment of all things, where beauty is realized universally and perfectly, where there is no fear of pain or death, where our body, mind and spirit are sustained with eternal life. Any who have been around children know their surprising (and often disruptive) ability to perceive lies, and their insatiable honesty always ready to reveal a lie and coax truth out of even the most stubborn and cruel. For children, sin is a shock, met with a sense of confusion and deep sorrow. They simply cannot understand - how is the world not as they expected it to be when they were born? How can things suffer and die continually, and how can people, all people, choose to sin and propagate this abnormality of Creation, ripping holes in the heart of the world? Indeed, the heart of the child is pierced from birth, crowned with thorns of disappointment, sorrow, and a longing for the cleansing of existence and a restoration of the perfection for which it was made, for which they were born.

Yet, something changes as we age, doesn't it? As we grow up, we constantly experience sin - in the world, in people around us, and in ourselves. The wounds of our pierced hearts seem to increase without alleviation. The most we can aim for then is distraction, a moment's release from this endless cycle of pain and dissatisfaction. Our thirst grows, unquenched, and our spirit dries in the scorching heat of sin. Our heart becomes hard. As teenagers, we become indoctrinated by society's "adult" expectations to be perfectly successful, perfectly rich, perfectly controlled, and yet perfectly individualistic and confident. Namely, we are taught to distance ourselves as much as possible from that original perfection of our birthed selves, to trust no one, to love no one, and to give only what is expected while demanding full recompense in return. We abandon our hopes and dreams, and we come to believe that only by becoming addicted to sin, embracing the cynical bitterness of adulthood and following self-centered ambition until we have an "iLife", can we become mature human beings. Our hearts are no longer pierced - they are maimed and hardened into impenetrable suits of armor.

It seems to be the question of every philosopher, the question considered by all humanity as the single most difficult to answer: what is the meaning of life? Different people in different times have offered answers, while most concede to an ignorant self-assurance and simply do "the best they can". In today's world, the popular responses are agnostic "faithful ignorance", atheistic denial of God, or a "common sense" conservative religiosity determined by heritage, culture or situation. Needless to say, humanity remains today as unsatisfied and hardened of heart as it ever has. We continue to long for an answer - when the Answer has given Himself to us already.

Jesus Christ is the Answer to all questions, the Living Water to quench all thirst, the Bread of Life to satisfy all hunger, the Truth to reveal all deceptions, and the Pierced Heart whose suffering and death pour out endless love to all the world, unhindered by space or time. Before the Incarnation, God came to man through the myths and philosophies of his mind, or through angels, prophets and inscriptions to Jews. But Jesus Christ was at last the personal revelation of God Himself without any intermediary. As Pope Benedict XVI has said, the true purpose of Jesus Christ was to bring God to man (Jesus of Nazareth, Part One, Introduction). Christ, the King of the Universe, stepped down from His heavenly throne to meet with His people personally, to know us, to love us. He has invited every one of us, from birth, into a personal relationship with God. So how would Christ answer the question, what is the meaning of life? There is only one answer: God.

Against the expectations of Jews in Jesus' time, the Messiah was not a revolutionary, a zealot sent by God to establish an earthly kingdom and instantly abolish all sin in the world. No; the way of Christ is even more profound. Christ showed us the way to eternal life, living it Himself and even attaining it, previewing it to us in His Resurrection. His way is the Via Dolorosa - the Way of the Cross.

The astounding mystery Christ introduced is the idea that suffering, even unto death, is the path to attaining eternal life and the fulfillment of all desiring. Growing up, we are taught that suffering is precisely contrary to spirituality and the perfection expected of God's salvation; rather, suffering is portrayed as the emblem of the bitterness of mortality, the mark of adulthood in a world full of irreparable hardship and unfulfilled longing. In this way, Christ is counter-intuitive: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart." What humanity considers common sense, even genuine humility, is revealed by Christ to be only a despairing resignation and acceptance of sin, the hardening of the heart against Christ. But it is precisely this suffering that Christ has redeemed into the Via Dolorosa, His Passion.

Pain and suffering are too often confused, as many old words are. Pain is any discomfort we experience; but suffering is living this unavoidable pain without falling to sin. Despite knowing His necessary future Passion, Christ did not like it - even asking for the "cup to pass from" Him while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, (Matthew 26; for quote, see 26:39 RSV) the very Cup of the New Covenant that He would later offer to His apostles. (Matthew 26:27-28) Like the Paschal Lamb of Judaism, the blood of Christ became the seal of the covenantal promise of eternal life.

This sacrifice was accomplished only by His suffering and death, vicariously offering Himself up as the offering of all sin to the healing hands of God. Christ endured the pain, humiliation, abandonment and death of the Cross without recourse to sin, remaining ever faithful to God and loving to others, even begging for the forgiveness of His murderers. (Luke 23:24) This pure and devout suffering, even on a Cross unto death, burned away the sin of the world that He carried for us as our Paschal Lamb, taking the punishment of our sins upon Himself despite His complete innocence. Nothing but the blood of God, most holy and pure, universally opened to all, could shine through the sin of the world and baptize it to renewal. Only He could remain whole and complete regardless His experiences, never crumbling or mingling with sin, remaining perfect.

Even though the Passion of Christ has not yet brought Creation to the perfection promised us, we have been shown the path - the Way of the Cross. Only by carrying our crosses - our pain, our sin and our longing - and suffering for God can we attain the Resurrection, replicating Christ's own journey to it. By obedience to the certain hope of faith in Christ, we become worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven. And indeed, at every Mass we experience this Heaven. Heaven is now. It is not some distant hope, a pleasant idea we wish for as children and learn to forget in "maturity". It is everyday, made alive by the sacramental grace of His Church and exemplified by the Eucharist, the very re-presentation of His Beatitude. By faith, we are certain of God's promise: one day, salvation will engulf all Creation, redeeming it to a Resurrected state encompassing all things, beyond any imagination. The Divine Liturgy is a preview of this, just as Christ's Resurrection is a preview of our own.

The season of Lent is coming to its end. I hope that all of us took the opportunity these forty days in the desert of Lent to reawaken our hearts to God, cleansing ourselves of sinful habits and passions we have accumulated and suffering for the sake of Christ. Now, we finally enter Easter, the holiest time of the year and truly the most wonderful and significant event of all time. Each year at Easter, we commemorate the day when all our hopes and desires were satisfied in the Resurrection of Christ, a hope powerful enough to suffer all things to attain it. Yet, we cannot forget: only through Good Friday can we reach the glory of Easter. We must always remember the sacrifice God gave for us all, giving His Son for our sake. Nothing is more valuable to God in all Creation than the human person - and He gave the ultimate sacrifice in order to guarantee us the destiny for which we were made: eternal life and happiness with Him. This Good Friday and Easter weekend, let us all recall God's love and renew our baptismal promises, living in the light of the hope of Christ.

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