26 April 2020

Your choice: life or death?

NB. from 2011. . .

3rd Sunday of Easter
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph's, Ponchatula, LA

“Lord, you will show me the path of life!” A declaration, not a request; not a demand, but an outcry of hope. “[Y]ou will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption. . .You will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence. . .” Who might be consoled by this psalm? Someone who hears temptation whispering. Someone abandoned by family and friends. Someone barely hanging on to their faith. No, that's not right. That someone would be asking for refuge, begging for mercy. “Lord, please, show me the path of life!” Someone who declares faith in God with such vehemence, cries out in hope with such assurance is strong in their faith, confident that God will never forsake His loved ones. Someone who declares, “Lord, you will not abandon my soul. . .” is convicted by truth, and at the same time, sorely tested by the enemies of truth. That someone is Peter preaching to the Sanhedrin. All of the Eleven remaining apostles standing before the lawless men who crucified the Lord. Who gives them such confidence, such zeal? The Risen Lord, the one God raised up, “releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it.” Eleven of Christ's ambassadors to a fallen world are brought to man's justice before the Sanhedrin. There they lay claim to the legacy of the resurrection. Sure of their inheritance, Peter quotes David's declaration, “Lord, you will show us the path of life!” This is our claim, our inheritance as well.

Around the year 100 A.D. an anonymous author writes out a booklet and titles it, The Lord's Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations. We refer to it as The Didache. Besides the gospels themselves, this booklet is probably the first written witness we have to the teachings of Christ and the early life of the Church. The guiding principle of the text is found in the opening paragraph: “There are two paths, one of life and one of death; but there is a great difference between the two paths.” The rest of the work is a map for the path of life, a map any 21st century Catholic would immediately recognize: “The path of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, your neighbor as yourself; and all things whatsoever you would not have done to you, do not do to another.” There is a summary of the Beatitudes and instructions on how to give alms. The book's description of the path of death is also easily recognizable. “And the path of death is this: First of all it is evil and full of curse. . .” Then follows a long list of sins, in which we find: “. . .murders, adulteries, . . .fornications, thefts, idolatries, magic arts,. . .false witnessings, hypocrisies, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, . . .not knowing Him that made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God. . .” The path of life is taken by those willing to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others. The path of death is taken by those determined to sacrifice others for their own benefit. Lord, you will show us the path of life!

 For a couple of the disciples, after the Lord's resurrection, the path of life begins on the road to Emmaus. While walking along the road, the Lord joins his students and reminds them of all he had taught them. He begins with Moses and the prophets and reveals to them his constant presence in scripture. He reminds them that the prophets foretold his suffering and death and his entrance into glory. Once they arrive home, the Lord sits at table with them, blesses the food, breaks open the bread, gives it to them. “With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him. . .” The Lord vanishes the moment their eyes are opened, but they remember his presence, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” Their hearts were burning! In the company of Christ, listening to his words and breaking bread at the table, the disciples were set on fire with the truth that only he can reveal. That truth, the truth that burns but is never consumed, is that the Lord is indeed risen and because he is risen, we too will rise and join him. We will, that is, if we choose the path of life he has blazed for us, mapped out for us. Christ suffered death—he allowed death, “a death he freely accepted”—in order to reveal to us the beauty and goodness of sacrificing self for the benefit of others, the path of life. Knowing this truth, Peter and the other ten apostles stand before the Sanhedrin and the “lawless men” and proclaim a message once sung by King David: “Lord, you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your holy one to see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.”

Living as we do in a cynical and skeptical age, we are constantly tempted to complicate the simple truths of the faith. Some of us are likely tempted to dismiss historical texts like The Didache as examples of na├»ve, peasant piety; unsophisticated manuals for those who cannot handle nuanced thinking. Life isn't black and white; it's gray, mostly gray and the circumstances we find ourselves in determine truth, goodness, and beauty. The whole idea that the faith can be reduced to two, mutually exclusive paths is dangerously childish and possibly irrational. But if our choices aren't Life or Death, then what are they? What lies between? A living death? Breathing, eating, working, and all the while being dead inside, living for nothing more than serving self? If Peter and the other apostles are able to confront and defeat their enemies while praising God for showing them the path of life, why can't we? Why can't we choose this path, praise God for showing us the path, and then stand firm, resolute on the truth of the faith and bound eternally to the resurrection we are promised? We can. And we do. Each time we love the unloveable, forgive the unforgiveable, show mercy to the unworthy, and give God thanks for doing the same for us, we choose the path of life. And by choosing life, we see more clearly, hear more sharply, and love more abundantly. If you can leave here this morning and say to a spouse or friend, “Were not our hearts burning within us while [Christ] spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”, if you can say that and mean it, then know that God's truth burns within you and then do what the disciples did: make known to others, to everyone what Christ did for you. . .on the cross, out of the tomb, in the breaking of the bread. Tell them, all of them: the Lord showed me the path to life!

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