What matters most to you?
Before you answer, consider this. Recently, I sent a friend a link to a news story about political unrest in a country he knows very well. I asked him, “Is this significant?” His reply shook me, but it did not surprise me: “No, it is not significant. The only thing that matters is death — and resurrection.”
A thoughtful Christian immersed in an honest Lent could only reply to my friend with a simple, “Yes, of course.” Death is inevitable, and the fact of Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of our own transform the meaning of all human life and the world we live in. Death, stemming from Original Sin, marks as a tragedy human life, which was meant to be the crown of creation. The resurrection of Jesus proves that death is not the final word to be spoken over human life. There can be a glorious and eternal final chapter for each and every human life — on the condition that we die many times.
Let me explain. The whole arc of Christian life can be expressed through the “Four Verbs of the Eucharist”; that is, taking, blessing, breaking and giving. These are described in the Synoptic Gospels’ account of Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19). Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it. What Jesus did at the Last Supper was suffered by him on Good Friday. And if we are faithful disciples who would be fruitful ones, we will allow the Lord to do the same to us: that is, take us, bless us, break us and give us. If we live a full Christian life, the Lord will perform these actions in our lives more than once.
The Lord takes us; that is, he calls us by name into his love and service, many times. He first takes us by calling us into existence at our conception. He takes us by calling us into discipleship, vocation and friendship. He blesses us again and again — beginning with baptism and then with the other sacraments. He blesses us with natural and supernatural gifts, as well as with vocations or professions.
Oh, but then comes the hard part! He breaks us. I do not mean that he destroys us. Nor do I mean that he delights in seeing us suffer. I mean that the Lord in his sovereignty, wisdom and providence can, if we allow him, break us open. If we are broken open, the blessings and gifts with which he has endowed us can be more readily given. Jesus explains: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24).
Not much talk here about “self-esteem” or “becoming your best self.” Not at all. Discipleship that is fruitful according to the Lord’s measure will require that we die many times. These deaths can come to us in various forms: repeated acts of self-denial to overcome selfishness or simply to meet the demands of duty; the raw courage to face another day while wrapped in the damp gloom of disappointment and deprivation; the bitter but dignified suffering of injustices one is powerless to overcome.
Or these deaths may come in the form of being required to relinquish treasured tasks, possessions, routines and identities. Thus we can understand that the prophecy of the risen Jesus to St. Peter is in fact a promise to us: “‘Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he said this he said to him, ‘Follow me’” (John 21:18-19).
Again and again we try to convince ourselves that we can keep ourselves safe and make ourselves fruitful. These appealing fantasies run the risk of becoming idols. They encourage us to settle for less than the fullness the Lord offers us.
If we allow the Lord to redeem our limitations by stretching us to the breaking point and beyond (“Stretched for greater glory,” as Father George Aschenbrenner, SJ, would say), then he can makes us fruitful, giving us to our neighbor in service and offering us to our heavenly Father in praise and adoration.
Taking, blessing, breaking and giving. This is the work of the Lord, a work he calls us to share with him, so that together, we might die and rise with him for the life of the world.
Let’s end here asking the question we began with: “What is most important to you?” The Christian answer must be, “Death and resurrection.”
When I write next, I will speak of the role of darkness in Lent. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.