15 February 2010

Death is a vanity

6th Sunday OT: Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Catholics are rarely accused of practicing an efficient or simplified faith. Two thousand years of accumulated philosophical and theological thinking woven together in the public celebration of the sacraments plus centuries of involvement in secular politics and international missionary efforts have bequeathed to the 21st century Church a vast global corporation with roots deeply embedded in human history. Thus, the practice of the Catholic faith is anything but culturally rigid and historically frozen. Sure, doctrinally, we share a single faith. But how that single faith gets lived on a daily basis around the world is hardly a matter of lock-step spiritual regimentation. Such orderliness and consistency would require the Church to “bottom-line” the faith, to boil it down, reduce it to a catch-phrase or a mission statement. And even then there would still be incredible variety in actual practice. But let's say we were going to take on the challenge of encapsulating the complexity of the faith into a single teaching, just one proposition that Really Mattered above all others. What would we come up with? I'm not sure we could do better than Paul does in his letter to the Corinthians: “If the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” What would make our faith a vanity, a frivolity? That Christ never rose from the dead. Without the resurrection, we are still held captive by sin, perishing even as we breath.

Let's focus for a moment on the question of what it is that makes an act, or a belief, or a habit vain. First, we have to think beyond the typical use of the word “vain.” Cocky, conceited, or narcissistic. But why do we use “vain” to describe someone who is full of themselves? This brings us to the second, less common use of the word. Frivolous, hollow, futile. Someone who builds a life on looks, smarts, wealth and then lauds these qualities as valuable in themselves can be described a vain because they have inflated what is in realty a temporary condition into an illusion of something permanent. Since looks fade, smarts can be deceived, and wealth lost, it is vanity—futility, foolishness, emptiness—to count oneself worthy based on nothing more than that which can be destroyed. “How long will you be dull of heart? Why do you love vanity, and seek after lying?” (Ps 4.3). Loving trivially while you live is a curse. Loving the trivial at death is damnation.

Paul writes that our faith would be a vanity if Christ had not been raised from the dead. We would be foolish to put our trust in God if the promised resurrection had not occurred. We would be living lives emptied of eternal purpose, living our short lives as little more than exceptionally smart animals destined to ashes and then. . .nothing. If this were true, then our suffering while we live is the greatest vanity of all. The French philosopher, Albert Camus, once said that the only significant philosophical question is: why not commit suicide? Why suffer if there is nothing more for us than suffering? Perhaps our only chance to be courageous is to end it all now. Fear of pain or the unknown may cause us to hesitate, but overcoming this hesitation would be an act of freedom, pure liberated choice. Gun to the head, I choose to suffer no longer. POW! And then I am free. But can a bullet to the head truly free me from the futility of suffering? No. Assuming the impossibility of an afterlife, suicide can foreclose the possibility of any future suffering. But it does nothing to redeem the suffering I have experienced in the past nor the suffering I have caused to others. Death is not a new life. It's just the end of this one. Without the resurrection, death itself proves to be a vanity.

So, what does the resurrection add to the mix that changes the futility of death into the blessing of eternal life? The hope, the promise of life beyond life, another way of living that draws us—especially in our suffering—into a superlative renewal. Paul writes that if the resurrection had not occurred, then those who have died have truly perished and “if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” We are indeed worthy of pity if we have hoped in Christ only to die into a permanent death. Think for a moment. How would we suffer if we knew that suffering was all we had to live for? We would mourn, hunger, weep; endure persecution, insult, torture; live in poverty and desperation; practice forgiveness and mercy all the while knowing that we would never been shown either. Where is the beauty of suffering if suffering is all we can hope for? Why mourn the dead if death is a release from pain? Why weep in hunger if hunger will bring us to an end? Why endure insult and persecution if those who would torture us are right about the vanity of our hope? Without the resurrection, there is no good reason for us to do anything but seek after our own pleasure while we can, regardless of the costs and knowing even as we celebrate that the party will end. 

Christ's resurrection, and our hope in following after him, turns the curse of inevitable suffering into the blessing of eternal life. The ugliness and disease of sin is redeemed into the beauty of godly perfection. Rather than curse those who mourn, weep, endure insult, hunger and thirst, we bless them, knowing that everything persevered here and now is also redeemed here and now, made new, wholly and utterly transformed into acts of praise and thanksgiving here and now. After death, our suffering is made perfect in the sufferings of Christ, but here and now, while we endure, we are blessed with the hope of that perfection. If we will, we can call the state of suffering with hope, Beatitude—the beautiful life lived in Christ. Jeremiah prophesies, “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord. He is like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream. . .” And as we stretch our thirsty roots, seeking out the waters of eternal life, the hope we share in Christ sings just one refrain over and over again: there is nothing we should fear. Nothing. The beauty of hope does more than oppose fear, it conquers fear. And that victory was won long ago. The rock of the tomb was pushed aside and the grave was found empty. Our perishing—though painful—is redeemed. And our beautiful lives in Christ, here and now, are blessed beyond measure.

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  1. oh wow, I'll have to come back to this at another time....after a LOT of coffee.

    sorry fr, I got lost in the 2nd sentence....