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home : bishop : columns

2/22/2018 9:00:00 AM
Love is our path to eternity

"Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return:" words you may have heard last Ash Wednesday. You may also have noticed the ashes are ritually imposed in the sign of a cross.

"Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel" is another ritual saying that conveys the same meaning: Death is the consequence of sin; abandon sin and live forever. Hope comes by believing in and living the cross, which is the path to eternity that love opens for us.

Everyone dies. Everyone experiences pain and suffering. The cross is a sign and symbol of all of these. Believer or unbeliever, no one escapes them.

The Romans were masters of execution. They designed crucifixions to wrench out the most painful and humiliating form of death possible. An excruciatingly slow, public asphyxiation, exposing the hapless victim to every hostile element that nature and human inhumanity could devise.

The life of every Christian disciple begins with a plunge into the inescapable reality of death, represented by the waters of baptism. The Lenten journey to Calvary begins with a brash reminder that there is no escape from death itself, but that, for believers in the Gospel, it is a passage to a very personal eternity, with God and loved ones.

The Gospel is not essentially a book, a story or a code of living, but a person, the dead and risen Jesus Christ. Since, as St. John tells us, "God is love," Jesus is love incarnate. Beholding and holding onto the cross, we grasp eternal life itself, living in love and for love.

In the words of another Apostle, St. Paul, "Love never dies." Love is the path to eternity because it lives through death itself.

The question of human suffering and the inevitability of death have invited, over the course of human history, many different responses: religious, philosophical, mythological and pragmatic. How do we deal with them?

Stoicism is one such response. Very fatalistic, it is a lonely path that favors resignation to the inevitable. The stoic suffers in silence. "Grin and bear it" is the stoic's motto. A pure stoic seeks neither to deny nor to mitigate the pain of the terribles and the awfuls, but really goes nowhere, experiencing throughout life a living death.

Hedonism, in the face of brute reality, chooses to deaden it through fantasy or some medicinal agent. "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die," is the hedonist's motto. The indulgences of this stance on life often lead, ironically, to a premature and more painful death than that of the courageous stoic who toughs it out.

But even the moments of apparent bliss, like a drug-induced high, can collapse quickly into withdrawal. Smothering reality in pain evasion is much like the use of an aerosol or a perfume that competes with the stench but cannot quite overcome it. It, too, is a lonely path.

Self-immolation -- practiced in some religions -- is a denial of the self that effectively seeks to suppress or become impervious to the human ego, through an imaginary entrance into a nirvana. The premise is that the "self" is the root of all unhappiness. The goal of various forms of prayer, exercise and meditation is to detach completely from that self.

Reality, in the view of some religionists, is itself the illusion. This, of course, would even include other people. The existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously observed, "Hell is other people."

Paradoxically, however, carried to its logical conclusion, this "escape from the world of materiality," while offering some solace from one's own suffering, removes one from the suffering of others. In the end, the "escapee" is alone in his or her own world of experiencing nothing.

Most of these approaches end up with the destruction of the human person and dissociation from others. The subject is locked in his or her own world or version of reality. Pain and death are something to be born or escape from, but, ultimately, the person ends up bereft of relationships and dissolved or subsumed into some state other than fully human.

Christian faith saves the whole person, body and soul, while maintaining relationships with the material world, which includes other persons.

Love is the path. It bears the suffering by giving the self for the other, and frees the giver to be active, productive and engaged in the world, making connections with others. Unlike other approaches, it does not imprison the person in the ego or self, but delivers the individual to be a person in relationship.

Christians anticipate a salvation that includes the whole person: physical, spiritual and relational. We do not become angels when we die. The suffering Christ gives Himself totally for the life of the world. Because He is both man and God, His eternal reality has the power to break through the mortal reality of the entombed flesh -- even now, as we face the various little deaths that sin and the effects of sin thrust upon us.

Lent confronts us with these choices. As I suggested last week, we might ask the Lord to help us internalize the ashen cross we wore on Ash Wednesday by taking it to heart, into our hearts. Admitting the cross of Christ into the center of our being will stretch the walls of our hearts to love more generously and deliberately.

Love always involves a free choice, so we must embrace the cross of Christ and the crosses of our own pain, suffering and (perhaps) fear of dying. Dying to bad habits, pet peeves, grudges, stereotypical judgments and various forms of control opens us up to the deep and joyful freedom that deciding to love brings.

Jesus shows the way, and is the way, the truth and the life. As love incarnate, He is our path to eternity.

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)

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