Many of you may have heard in the news throughout the past few days that on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Wednesday, January 25th, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI released his first encyclical letter entitled Deus caritas est, “God is love.” Today I wish to focus on this letter which the Bishop of Rome has addressed to each of us gathered here.
In his opening paragraph, Pope Benedict states clearly and quite correctly:
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction (1).
So very often today we focus on the moral implications of a Christian life, what we can do and what we cannot do. Rarely do we ever consider the reasons behind what we can and cannot do, preferring instead to simply consider whether or not we can do things. When we learn that we should not do certain things very often we rebel because we do not understand the reasons behind the rules.
But as our Holy Father reminds us, Christian life is not primarily about doing right or wrong; it is about an encounter with an event. Christianity is not about self-help and feeling good about one’s self, it is about an encounter with a person. This event is the Paschal Mystery and this person is Jesus Christ.
On Thursday, as I persistently badgered my students with the question “why” repeatedly, one of them finally said, somewhat out of frustration I suspect, “The Paschal Mystery is the answer to everything, isn’t it?” They finally got it. The Paschal Mystery is the answer to all of life’s questions, both the easy and the difficult, both the happy and the miserable. The suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the answer to all of life’s questions.
At the same time, to encounter the event, to encounter the Paschal Mystery, “which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” is the encounter Christ Jesus himself. We have each been given a share in the Paschal Mystery through our baptism. St. Paul continually asks of us:
Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection (Romans 6:3-5).
The death and resurrection of Christ Jesus must be at the heart of our lives; the Paschal Mystery must be the fountain both from which we draw our strength and to which we return.
Once we encounter the Paschal Mystery in our lives, once we share in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, our lives can never be the same again. As the Holy Father says, “Since God has first loved us (cf. I John 4:10), love is now no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us” (1).
After encountering Christ Jesus our lives are given a decisive direction because we become aware of the goal of earthly pilgrimage: heaven. A new horizon opens up before us that we formerly could not see; because of the Paschal Mystery the gates of paradise are flung open for us. Now rather than following God’s commands out of fear, we now willing follow them out of love, out of a love that first comes from him.
If we claim to be Christians but try to hide from the Paschal Mystery, if we seek to run away from the cross and to avoid it all costs, we are living a lie; we are not truly Christian. We, like Christ, must embrace the cross if we ever hope to share his everlasting glory. It is not easy, but love enables us to do so.
Today the people in the synagogue say, “What is this? A new teaching with authority” (Mark 1:27). This new teaching of Jesus baffles all those who hear it. In response to his teaching and to his word, the demon cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24). The demon does not understand. Jesus has come to lay down his life for us on the cross to forever banish the power of sin and death. He conquers this power not through brute force or a show of tremendous might. He destroys the power of sin and death through love. It is this love that changes life forever.
The Psalm today sings of the great joy that is found in the unfathomable mercy of God. “God’s passionate love for his people – for humanity – is at the same time a forgiving love,” says Pope Benedict. “It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God’s love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love” (10).
This is the heart of the Christian faith and what distinguishes our faith from that of every other faith. A so-called Christianity that does not proclaim the Cross of Christ is false; a Christianity that does not promote a sharing in the Cross of Christ is false.
I have not given my life for a faith guided by butterflies and rainbows and pretty banners; I have not given my life for a faith that is egotistical; I have not given my life for a faith that promises financial reward for following Christ; I have not given my life for a faith that is focused on emotional highs and poorly written music; I have not given my life for a faith that is focused on making me feel better about myself or about self-help and neither should you.
I have given my life to a faith centered on the death and resurrection of Christ. I have given my life because the Risen Lord has come to me, he sought me out, I heard his voice and experienced his love. This love calls me to an ever-deeper relationship with Him and so it calls you, too.
If you today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts, for God is love.