A few words for those who grieve…
Some of you have written me privately to speak of great sorrows in your life, usually accompanied by an apology for bringing it up. I am grateful for those times when I have been able to offer some comfort.
We sometimes are so astounded by the big things Jesus did that we lose sight that everything He did has meaning for us – and we can become intimidated by those, who like Job’s friends, are engaged with their conventional image of God rather than the Living God, Himself. Though God is ever the same, He is always startling, fresh and new in His dealings with us – and profoundly intimate and tender.
When Jesus, the King of Kings, took on our human flesh, He did so as one of the lowly, one of the impoverished. Now some imagine that Jesus was just God in a Halloween mask – and so His choices were simple and direct. But it is not so. Christ was true man, truly taking on our flesh and living its limitations while He was among us. When He went out to the desert before beginning His ministry, the Bible does not say the devil tried to tempt Him; it says He was tempted. While I was walking my pilgrimage, there were days (once a full week) where I had next to nothing to eat. If I could have commanded the stones to become bread, I probably would have succumbed to the temptation. Jesus did not but, as the Bible says, He was tempted. Remember this when you are feeling guilty about being sorely tempted by a sin you ultimately did not commit.
Others, getting closer to the mark but still missing it, imagine that Christ took on our flesh so He could see what it is like for us. He has always known.
The truth is that God gave us free will; He bound Himself against ever interfering with it. That not only means that we can do evil: it also means that others can do evil to us that we do not deserve. Because of His promise, God can’t interfere with that directly. But He could – and did – live solidarity with us. He was mocked and persecuted by religious leaders of His time, by those who thought they knew God but were only involved with their own preconception of Him; by those who feared His teachings might undermine the power they exercised over others. He was ridiculed and considered an embarrassment by some in His own extended family. He was betrayed by a friend, one He trusted to help Him in His ministry. He was persecuted by those who claimed to share His faith and executed, at their behest, by those who had no faith except that of ambition and power.
Sometimes people who grieve intensely confess that they think their grief is a failure of faith. But Jesus, who held the keys of life and death even as He walked among us; who knew better than any of us the reality of heaven and eternity…when His friend, Lazarus, died, Jesus wept. When you grieve, He grieves with you. When He brought the little girl back to life, He told her parents to get her something to eat. When He appeared to His disciples on the beach at night after the resurrection, He started a fire and roasted and ate fish with them so they would know He was not a ghost. He did not start large organizations to raise money for the poor – He fed them and ate with them in their homes, accepting their hospitality: He made Himself one with them and, in doing so, gave them new dignity and hope that so many of the conventionally religious had robbed them of. It was one of the things that most infuriated religious authorities who had tried to get Him to become one of them: He did not offer alms to the poor as if they were of some lower order of being; He lived table fellowship with them as equals. How can you preserve your status doing that?
It irritates me when someone solemnly pronounces that we must care for the less fortunate, as if Christian charity is a condescension of the greater to the lesser. The truth is we are all the less fortunate, weighed down by the burden of original sin – and we are to care for each other as loving brothers and sisters. So much of modern social justice is contemptible precisely because it consists of treating large swaths of people as children of a lesser god in order to feed the vanity of a few. Jesus calls each of us by name. He only counts to one – and you are the one.
Some ask how original sin could be true, for how could a newborn sin? (God save us from bad – and even from almost good – theology). Bishop Thomas Doran explains that we were made to share in the divine dignity of our Creator, a sort of royal line. But then there was a coup; satan seduced Adam and Eve into a loss of that royal kinship. That is not the fault of any of us who came after them, but oh, how we are affected by that loss! Baptism restores us to a right relationship with God – and the royal birthright satan stole from us. Original sin did more than disrupt our relation with God; it brought corruption, dissolution and death into the world. Everything here is always passing away. The very substance of this world is corruptible and so must, eventually, pass away.
Popes John Paul II and Benedict spoke frequently of the relationship between faith and reason. They are the primary tools we have been given to seek truth. They should march in tandem. It is ironic that modern advocates of “reason” try to portray faith as its enemy. When the dark ages came, it was not those of faith who ushered them in, but secular princes seeking absolute dominion over oppressed subjects. It was the Church, the home of faith, that kept the light of reason alive in those dark days, with monks painstakingly copying the great writings, secular and religious, by hand as the secular princes sought their destruction. Modern libraries, universities and hospitals were the response of faith to these dark times. There are things in faith that transcend reason, but nothing that contradicts it. When there is an apparent contradiction, it is your cue from God to dig deeper.
The discovery of DNA would have been a wonderful revelation had not the advocates of reason so resolutely divorced themselves from faith. It reveals part of what we are and illuminates a piece of how resurrection will be accomplished. Each of us are a compound being, a unique immortal soul inextricably wedded to a unique physical body. We are each a unique, unrepeatable pattern. The pattern is made by God and can never be lost. In this life, the pattern is constructed with corrupt material while satan busies himself trying to contaminate each pattern. At our death, our immortal soul is separated from the pattern constructed from what must, by nature, pass away. But at the resurrection, the same pattern will be constructed from the incorruptible materials of heaven and satan will have no sway. So my father, born blind in one eye, will see from both in heaven. Some of you, parents of Down’s Syndrome children, will meet them fully for the first time in God’s kingdom – and you will be dear friends and rejoice. Those of you who have loved ones who suffer mental illness will see your loved ones uncontaminated by satan’s mischief.
We know so little and presume so much. Science knows exactly the ingredients and proportions in every living being – but it cannot reproduce life. Even so-called test-tube babies, cannot be nurtured in a test-tube – or anything other than a womb. All science can do is make some primitive descriptions – and with a seed provided by God (never of their own making) place it in the incubator designed by God (the womb) and continue the only process that ever results in life. And for this, we think we have power over life and death?
There is much to grieve over in this world. But this world is the beginning, not the end. Know that Christ lived solidarity with us even as He gave Himself for us – and He has prepared a place for us with Him. When you grieve over those you love, know they will be your dear friends in heaven; and that Christ grieves with you. He never begrudges you the grief that He shares. Unite it with His sorrows that He use it to rain grace upon those who need it.