Lent 05, Year A
- What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race (Jn. 1:3-4)
In the July 24, 1655 repetition of prayer that I cited in my last two reflections, St. Vincent de Paul spoke of the sufferings that people at the borders had been enduring for twenty years on account of war. After illustrating the precariousness of life that the poor led, the saint wondered: “After all this, what is there to do? What will happen? The only thing left is to die.”
Did St. Vincent mean that death was the only hardship that was left for the poor to endure? Or was he suggesting that death would be the poor people’s liberation from their miseries?
Actually, it is probably wrong of me to put it so simplistically in either/or term. Given the conviction St. Vincent immediately expressed that it was among those poor folks that the true religion—the living faith—was kept, he could very well have considered death both as the final suffering awaiting the poor and is also the beginning of their ultimate liberation.
Death—St. Vincent and his poor would readily agree, I think—undoubtedly means, even for true believers, stench and corruption, agony and pain, sadness and grief, weeping and wailing. True believers, too, are angered and deeply troubled by death. But true believers know also even now that whatever Jesus asks of God will be granted him. Likewise, true believers say “Yes, Lord” to one who asks, “Do you believe this?” no sooner than he has proclaimed: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
True believers, in other words, are those who, like Jesus, are so angered and deeply troubled by death they actively seek its defeat. But they know too that there is no defeating death, and promoting life, except in communion with Jesus who is himself the resurrection and the life. United with Jesus, true believers are assured of resurrection and life here and now. For them, Jesus—in whom the many promises made by God are “Yes” (2 Cor. 1:19-20)—is the fulfillment now of the promise of the rising from the grave prophesied by Ezekiel. As perplexed, then. as true believers may be by the riddle of human existence which becomes most acute in the face of death; as anxious and apprehensive though they may get because of their experience of pain and deterioration and because of the recurring dreadful thought that death could mean final and perpetual extinction (cf. GS, 1, 18):—true believers, nonetheless, hold on, by the power of the indwelling Spirit, to the conviction that faith in Jesus, communion with him, guarantees everlasting life even in death.
It is because of this conviction and this faith or communion—which surely they have in common with Martha—that true believers can be, if I may use St. Vincent’s words once again, “patient in the miseries they have to endure as God wills.” They look at Jesus and they see one who not only sets in motion his own death by giving life to Lazarus but who, more importantly, gives life by sacrificing his own life on the cross and thus turns the emptiness and nothingness of death into the fullness and abundance of life, and brings a plentiful harvest out of the decay of the seed fallen to the ground.
True believers look at Jesus and they discover that in Jesus is bridged the span between life and death so that the two opposites form, so to speak, a single piece of a seamless garment, so that if Jesus’ hour of glory and exaltation is the hour of his being lifted up from the earth and being nailed to the cross, so also in their painful present is their joyful future.
They look at Jesus and they find strength for everything through his empowerment, overcoming even now overwhelmingly through him everything that will be annihilated at the general resurrection of the dead, namely, anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword and death itself (Phil. 4:13; Rom. 8:35-39).
Looking together to Jesus for the food and drink that endure for eternal life, true believers—the poor with true religion, with living faith—eat the body that is given up and drink the blood shed for all. They are thus strengthened for the long and hard journey they have already embarked upon toward the everlasting city. They know by faith that in bearing the reproach Jesus bore and in not neglecting to share what they have, they offer acts of self-emptying that are pleasing to God and are, therefore, life-bearing rather than death-bearing (cf. Heb. 13:13-16).
For true believers, indeed the only thing left is to die, since, as their advocate, St. Vincent, would want them to remember, they live in Jesus Christ by the death of Jesus Christ.