by Fr. Jack McArdle
The ultimate sin for the Christian is to lose hope. Because of what Jesus has done, we can live with the certainty that evil can never triumph, even if seen to be successful for a time. The Stalins and the Hitlers of this world will come and go, and life will continue without them. In human terms, Calvary was total and dismal failure, but, because of the Resurrection that followed, a whole new way of looking at things begins to emerge. God, in a way, is an upside-down God!
Thomas Aquinas said that when you speak of God, you can be sure of just one thing: you are wrong! No matter how good, how powerful, or how loving you think he is, he is much, much more than that. He is the Creator, and, therefore, he can recreate that which is destroyed or damaged. Heaven is a state of permanent praise, of exultation, and of triumphant joy. The victory of Jesus will reverberate for all eternity. Everything will be set right, from Lucifer, to Adam and Eve, to our day. The prince of this world will be bound for all eternity, and his kingdom will have come to an end. The kingdom of this world, with its wrong priorities and false gods will have ended, and there will remain the kingdom of God, and that alone.
In an earlier chapter I referred to a movie I saw some years ago called Love Story. It was a beautiful and touching story, but it was different from most movies in that, it began with the end of the story, where the heroine was seen to die. The movie then went back to tell the story from the beginning. As I watch the story unfolding, I already know the outcome, and I follow the story with that in mind. This is a dimension of Christian living, because of what Jesus has done. His journey ended in victory and triumph, and so will ours, if we choose to follow me. 'If you follow me, you will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.' The Christian can live with the sounds of Alleluias in her ears. Such a one can raise her eyes to the stars, and see beyond the dust and dirt of the road. 'We have not here a lasting city, but we look for one that is to come.' 'This world is not my home; I'm just a-passing through' are the words of a country and western song.
What God created was good, and God himself saw that, and said that. If nothing had happened to adversely affect that, we would still be in the Garden. Sin, sickness, and death are not of God's creation. These are pollutants and evils that entered with original sin. When the labourers asked the farmer about the weeds that appeared among the good wheat he had sown, he said that 'an enemy has done this'. When they offered to pull up the weeds, he told them not to. He would attend to that himself, because, in pulling up the weeds, they ran the risk of destroying the wheat as well. It was to overcome and remove the evils of sin, sickness, and death that Jesus came. In other chapters in this book I have written about how he set out to do this, and how he achieved this. Beyond mentioning it, I do not intend restating all of that again. What I wish to do now is examine the practical ramifications for us, resulting from the victory won for us by Jesus.
The simplest way to summarise the victory of Jesus is to say that he made it possible for us to return to the Garden. I often think that, back in the Garden, God would not have needed preachers and teachers to proclaim his message, because, by the nature of their living, everyone would be fully aware of all that, and fully conscious of how all of that was evident to them.
Salvation is not something I get when I die; rather is it the grace to start again any day I so wish. Salvation for us is that we can return to the Garden, and begin all over again. We can walk with God in the cool of the evenings, and be fully conscious of his presence and his care at all times. I am not ignoring the realities of daily living, with all the struggles that go with that. What I am saying is, that, because of what Jesus has done, none of that can ever be the same again. 'You are not alone, my friend, anymore'. 'I am with you always. I will never abandon you, or leave you in the storm. My Spirit will lead you, and will remain with you always'.
We can consider and celebrate as much as we like all that Jesus has done for us, but it all becomes totally empty and lifeless unless we actually live and experience the results of what he has done. I said in a previous chapter that God was an upside-down God. It is as if his roots were in heaven, that he grows downwards, more and more towards us, and that the fruits are all within our reach. In that sense, he is a totally down-to-earth God.
A 14th century writer tells us that 'The seeker must climb the tree of faith, which grows downwards from above, since its roots are in the Godhead'. We are the ones who can reap the harvest of all Jesus has sown, and, indeed, we ourselves are the fruits of that harvest. 'You are my glory', he says, as he speaks of presenting us to the Father as the ultimate fruits of victory. Jesus has regained for the Father 'the lost sheep of the House of Israel'. The one fold, and the one shepherd is his ultimate goal, even if many are called, but not all choose to heed that call. He wept as he overlooked the city of Jerusalem. 'Salvation was within your grasp, but you would not accept it.'
At Mass we say 'By your cross and resurrection you have set us free; you are the Saviour of the world.' There is a very serious onus on us to fully grasp and avail of that freedom. It is not unrealistic to suggest that the greatest torment of hell is to clearly see that salvation was within our grasp, and we would not accept it.
It is very significant that Jesus spent so much time with his disciples after his resurrection. This was his final victory, his victory over the final enemy, and it was absolutely essential that they be convinced beyond all doubt of the reality of that victory. Their main task was to witness to the fact of his resurrection. Crucifixion was for slaves and foreigners, and those who suffered such a death were never to be mentioned by name again. Imagine the horror of the Jewish leaders when they heard the apostles going around speaking about Jesus, and claiming that he had risen from the dead! They were strictly forbidden 'to speak in that name again'.
Peter and John replied to such an order with the words 'We cannot stop talking about the wonderful things we have seen and heard.' In a way, I suppose, the religious leaders began to feel like people on a beach, trying to hold back the tide with a spoon! This Jesus just wouldn't go away! There was a way in which this man, his teachings, his memory, and now his presence just could not be halted. Without understanding and accepting the reality of resurrection, one can readily empathise with their confusion. This mystery was so unearthly, so unreal in human terms, so impossible to human thinking, that even the apostles were forbidden by Jesus to speak publicly about it until after the Spirit came. 'Stay in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes, and fills you with power from on high. Then you will become my witnesses to the ends of the earth'.
It was something that God did, and only God could understand. It was something was so intrinsically of God, that only God himself could proclaim it. This he would do through his Spirit working within those who would be anointed. At the beginning of his earthly ministry, after his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus said that 'the Spirit of God has been given to me. I have been anointed, and sent to bring good news to the poor, to bring light to those in darkness.'
Jesus proclaimed his victory over Satan, the father of lies, and he sent his Spirit of truth to lead us into all truth, and 'the truth will set you free'. His resurrection was victory over death, but it also represented a victory over the evil forces that brought about that death. He had come to establish and to proclaim the kingdom of God, and he announced that his kingdom would remain when all other kingdoms had fallen, and ceased to be. He laid great emphasis on the totality of his victory. 'All authority is given me in heaven and on earth.' He came to bring love, to generate faith, and to give hope. 'In his victory is our hope'.
Peter tells the early Christians 'Always have an explanation ready to give to those who ask you the reason for the hope that you have'. Implied in this is the expectation that to be a Christian is to be someone with an eternal hope. For each of us, of course, the times in which we happen to inhabit the earth can seem to be the 'best of times, and the worst of times', in the words of Dickens. There is a certain air of despondency in the world today, on many issues.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Church circles. This is one of those quirks of contradictions that can bedevil the lives of the best of us. Of ourselves, we see with the eyes of the body, and are basically very blind to the way things really are. We tend to count, while God tends to weigh; we are interested in length, while God seemed more interested in depth. We count our prayers, and we tend to judge our lives by the length of years lived. Most of us grew up in a Church that was safe, secure, unquestioned, and unchallenged. We knew no other way of being, and of belonging. This is how it is, and this is how it will and must remain. Today, however, into our present situation must come all the central tenets of the gospel about dying before resurrection is possible, about being pruned back for further growth, about being seen and treated as something insignificant and transient in the eyes of the world.
Much and many of our fears can have pride at their hearts. We may no longer be a force to be reckoned with, a Church commanding and demanding respect and allegiance, and something that is essentially relevant in the lives of common people. Never before, in my own lifetime, at least, have I had to sharpen my vision of hope, and to examine the reality of that hope. Jesus said that his church would be founded on a rock, but he also told us to build our faith on a rock, rather than on sand; otherwise, when the storms come, the whole edifice can come tumbling down around us, 'and what a fall that will be'.
The Church is the Body of Christ. The body of Christ is beyond the grasp of death. The problem with the body of Christ, however, is that it just keeps changing all the time! The apostles, disciples, and Mary Magdalene knew Jesus by sight very well, and yet, from the moment of resurrection, they seemed to be totally confused as to what he looked like! The apostles thought he was a ghost, Mary Magdalene thought he was a gardener, and the disciples on the road to Emmaus thought he was a tourist. The problem with the Church in the last few hundred years is that it tried to remain the same, to become predictable, to become so 'Catholic' as to have a universal language, and to return in some way to the level of the Scribes and Pharisees in its emphasis on law. Vatican II brought all of that to an end in a most prophetic way, and history will show just how providential and how prophetic John XIII really was.
To live with hope is to live with change, with constant change. 'My God is new with every new day', Cardinal Suenens wrote. Freud said that the test of a person's maturity is his ability to survive in a state of ambiguity. We instinctively like certainties that insulate us against our insecurities. Jesus said that 'the sin of this world is unbelief in me'. While genuine concern, consideration, and effort should be brought to bear in establishing and building up the Body of Christ in the world, all that smacks of despair or doomsday prophecy is resultant from that lack of faith. 'The gates of hell will not prevail against it' is Jesus' promise to his Church. 'Heaven and earth will pass away before my word will pass away' he promises us. Jesus was willing to let go of everything, his divinity, and his very life. It is difficult, of course, to let go, but I believe that the Christian of today must be willing to let go of many of the sacred cows of yesterday. 'Behold, I make all things new', says the Lord.
I believe it would be a wonderful freedom, a very real level of wholeness, and of holiness, and a truly humble submission to God, to be able to pray 'Lord, take what you want, even the Church that I have known, if such be your will. Not my will but yours be done. Just give me, please, the freedom to be nothing, so that, in you, and in you alone, will I have everything. Please help me accept that the Church is your responsibility, you know what you're doing, you know what is best. Just lead me, through your Spirit, in whatever way you wish me to serve your people in the world of today'.
The letter to the Hebrews speaks of 'the sure and certain hope' that every Christian should have. Jesus has overcome the enemy. 'Nothing shall harm you. Your names are registered as citizens of heaven' he tells us. When we speak of Jesus, we often use the past tense. For example, 'Dying you destroyed our death; rising you restored our life. By your cross and resurrection you have set us free....' The task is completed, the victory is won. All that is needed is that the victory be proclaimed.
My role is not to save souls, but to tell people that they are saved. Because the core value of Christianity is its witness value, it becomes really important that Christians begin to look saved! Christianity is about attracting rather than promoting. If I were to write down all the possible evils, and all the major problems that could befall a human being, I would have a veritable backbreaking burden of impossibilities, and of elements of destruction. As a Christian, however, I should begin with what Jesus has done, with what he has accomplished, and view everything else against that background. 'My grace is sufficient for you. I will never lead you where my grace and my Spirit will not be there to see you through'.
To live as a Christian is to live with victory, and to give witness to the reality of that victory. At the time of writing I have just returned from Lourdes, after the annual handicapped children's pilgrimage. Everything I saw there was filled with hope, because it was wrapped in love. There were no children there that were not deemed precious, even though, from a human point of view, there was little evident purpose in their living. Hope is living with the certainty that, no matter how things may seem to be now, 'all will be well, and all manner of things will be well'. Like the movie Love Story, we should consider the end purpose and destiny of our lives, and then return to the living of that life. Jesus came that we should have life, and have it in abundance. That is the essence of his victory.
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'Jesus: The Man and the Message' copyright © 2004 Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.