I N HIM WAS LIFE, AND THE LIFE WAS THE LIGHT OF MEN (John 1: 4) The Easter Season that we continue to observe during these days prior to Pentecost focuses our attention on the new life of the risen Savior, and his glorification. At the same time, considerable attention is paid to our sharing in the life he now lives in the presence of the Father. Easter is a celebration of life. The life it commemorates with joy is not the material life we behold with our bodily eyes and feel with our senses, the life of this world. Rather, we celebrate what St. John calls eternal life which is the only true life. He views this life under the aspect of spiritual insight and vision, going so far as to identify life precisely as light. And the life was the light of mankind (1:4) He then goes on to describe the light deriving from the life brought by the Word of God as the true light [1:9]. This life came into the world at the Incarnation of the Word of God. However, it remained largely hidden under the veil of the flesh throughout the time of Christ's condition as man among men, subject to the vicissitudes of time and so to death. The risen Lord Jesus first manifested this light of true life clearly at Easter, having merited, as it were, to receive this grace for his own humanity by obedience to the Father unto death. At the same time, he revealed that his glorified humanity is a pledge of the future glory that is offered to those who put their faith in him. Easter focuses on that life which has overcome death and is no longer subject to its rule because it is divine and eternal.
Death remains a theme that is intrinsic to the mystery of Easter; it is, to be sure, in the background, a secondary theme. We recall not only the resurrection of the Lord but also his passion and death, together with his ascension and the sending of his Spirit at Pentecost This Paschal mystery in its entirety is the subject of the liturgy during this period, just as it is at every celebration of the Eucharist. When Jesus appeared to his apostles on the evening of his resurrection he demonstrated to them that he was alive. His living body, flesh and bones, he manifested to them not only by appearing and talking with them but by eating in their presence and by allowing them to touch him. The body they saw displayed the marks of the nails and the wound in his side. These wounds indicate that the new life he revealed to them has taken up the life that preceded his passion and death to the realm of that life which is eternal and divine. He has not evaded or denied death; rather, through his fidelity to the Father's plan to the end, he has eliminated its ultimate destructiveness, emptying it of its power.
Accordingly, his resurrection gives a fresh definition both to life and to death. Death no longer has the last word in the great conversation concerning the meaning or meaninglessness of life. Life is no longer terminated nor negated by death; on the contrary, it is taken up, elevated and given new fullness and dignity. All that is worthy, virtuous, and noble in this life finds affirmation in the new creation which is the final fruit of the resurrection of Jesus. True life is no longer limited by death, for it consists in a communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; its horizon is the infinite Being of God himself.
This view of the nature and meaning of true life is fundamental to our Catholic faith. This conception has been a defining concept for the faithful ever since the day of the resurrection. St. John formulated it in the Prologue to his Gospel with clarity and forcefulness. The activity, the teaching, the miracles, the passion and death of Jesus as he treats of them in the body of his work represent so many manifestations of the life that is the true light of mankind. This teaching states the basis for our hope. The early Fathers of the Church understood its implications and gave it a prominence in their thought and writings that assured its abiding significance for Catholic belief through the centuries. St. Augustine speaks of it in a sermon he preached on Matthew 7: 3 which reads: If you wish to attain to life, keep the commandments. He has the following comments on this text.
He (Jesus) does not say If you wish to attain to eternal life', but simply If you wish to attain to life.' Here he defines life as that which is eternal life.... From this consider how eternal life should be loved when this miserable life which will come to an end is so much loved. Give thought to how much life should be loved where it is never to end.... There is no life except that which is blessed. And there can be no blessed life unless it is eternal where there are good days that are not many but one unending day (Sermon 84.1 and 2 Obras de San Augustin, X, pp. 318... 322 B.A.C. Madrid 1952).
A contemporary of St. Augustine, writing with an eye on the situation in the Eastern Church at the time of Nestorius, around 425 A.D., St. Cyril of Jerusalem reflected at length on the role of Christ in relation to our aspiration for true life. He makes the following observations by way of comment on our Lord's words: And the bread that I will give is my flesh which I shall give for the life of the world (John 6: 52). I
am dying [says the Lord] for all so that I might give life to all through myself. I made my flesh a ransom for the flesh of all. Death will be put to death by my death and the fallen nature of man will rise with me.... Christ therefore gave his own body for the life of all; he caused life to dwell in us again through his body. I will explain this as best I can. Inasmuch as the life-giving Word of God dwelt in the flesh he transformed the flesh into his own good, that is, into life. By coming together with the flesh in an ineffable union He made it altogether life-giving, in keeping with his own nature. In this way, the body of Christ gives life to those who share in it. For the body drove out death when it was among those who were on the way to death and, pregnant with the Word that totally suppresses corruption, it abolishes corruption (In Joannis Evangelium, Lib. IV PG 73: 561D...565A, D).
Augustine and Cyril are representative teachers of the West and the East. Their writings assured a prominent attention to this topic of the nature of true life in both of the great traditions of the Church. They spoke at length concerning this question and describe movingly their view of it in their desire to raise the minds and hearts of their people to the desire for eternal realities, above all, to stir up the desire for God Himself who is the surpassing measure of the worth of eternal life. As far as I am aware, however, their descriptions of the happy life rather presuppose that everyone understands what they mean by the word life'. They do not attempt to provide a carefully worked out definition of the term. They seem not to have considered it necessary. Life, like time, is one of those terms that proves elusive to any one concise definition. St. Augustine has commented with regard to the concept of time at some length.
What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words? Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday conversation, more than of time? We surely know what we mean when we speak of it. We also know what is meant when we hear someone else talking about it. What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know (Confessions XI.xiv.17 Chadwick's translation).
The concept of life can fittingly be substituted here for that of time. Although all of us know what is meant when the term is used, we are hard pressed when asked to state precisely what life is. Webster's Unabridged Dictionary gives 21 definitions of the word. Animate being is the first in this series. But it is not a very satisfying one in our context. Obviously, we are not concerned with the biological or chemical descriptions of life here. And in any case, science itself remains unable to frame a single definition of the term that satisfies its various applications. In the extensive article on Life, The Encyclopedia Britannica makes the following observations.
A great deal is known about life.... Yet, despite the enormous fund of information that each of these biological specialities has provided, it is a remarkable fact that no general agreement exists on what it is that is being studied. There is no generally accepted definition of life. In fact, there is a certain clearly discernable tendency for each biological specialty to define life in its own terms. The average person also tends to think of life in his own terms... Man tends to define in terms of the familiar (cf. 10, 893).
Rather cumbersome and lengthy descriptions serve to indicate its meaning which is variously required by the different branches of scientific study. While our common sense tells us in a general way what we mean when we speak of "my life", yet we are invited by our very nature to contribute to the meaning of our life by action and reflection. What can be more fundamental than reflecting on life itself with a view to bringing our acts into conformity with the requirements of those elements of life that we disconver to be the most valuable?
Revelation comes to our help at this point. The Bible offers us its distinctive view of life. This teaching maintains that human life as it exists in actuality includes essentially such concrete features as social and political relations, sexuality and individuality. The human being is above individualism and collectivism. This view is that of the New Testament as well as of the Old. The primary determinant of life's meaning is God's plan and will; it does not depend solely or primarily on what is made of opportunities and endowments by the individual or the group (cf. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. Life). Life is not defined by the purely material; in its essential structure it transcends the visible and all matter. There is an element of the divine in all human life as such, symbolized by the breath breathed into Adam by God at creation. Human life cannot be understood with reference only to its material, observable elements. This fundamental fact accounts for the inability of science to arrive at an adequate definition of what is meant by life and specifically human life. This limit of scientific study is intrinsic to the subject: human life is essentially bound up with the divine; man is made in the image of God. God is the God of life, as we read repeatedly in the OT and the New (cf. Numbers 14:28 etc.). He is the living God (Matthew 16:16 etc.). Often in the NT life and to live are equivalent to the new, higher life, the true life brought by Christ. It cannot be lived apart from him; it is essentially bound up with the glorified life of the risen Lord. As a result, human life deserving of the name is not individualistic but is associated with all those who are members of Christ. Mutual assistance is the norm for those on the way to salvation. The true life is eternal, divine and shared among all who belong to God in Christ. Its principle is the Holy Spirit who binds all among themselves through uniting them with The Father in the Son.
St.Benedict cites the desire for this life as an incentive for entering a monastery and living according to its Rule and under an abbot.
Who is the man who desires life and longs to see good days?... What is sweeter for us, dearest brothers, than this voice of the Lord that invites us! This is how the Lord in his loving devotion shows us the way of life (Prologue).
The way to true life entails living for others. For most persons that means living with others, in a community of one kind or other, whether the natural community of the family, and in the larger community of one's society, or in a religious community. The life of heaven is a shared life, lived in the most intimate spiritual communion. The more closely our manner of conducting ourselves imitates the union that binds the angels and saints together in their eternal service of God, the holier and more efficacious is our time here on earth. Cultivating those attitudes and virtues which are most conducive to building up community should be a major purpose of our monastic life. Opportunities for humility and charity, obedience and generous collaboration are within the scope of our daily contacts with one another and with our guests and associates.
As St. Basil, who was so convinced of the great value of living in community, pointed out to his communities, the seeds of these virtues are implanted in our nature and so are not beyond our reach. But they must be watered and tended daily in order to attain their full growth. Later this morning our Brother Lawrence will be making his solemn vows in the course of the community Eucharist. May his oblation of himself to God by means of these solemn promises to live as a member of this community be a stimulus for each of us to renew our commitment and to strengthen our resolve fully and generously to devote ourselves to God's service by serving one another. In addition to the various works of fraternal collaboration surely one of the most fruitful contributions we can offer one another is our fidelity to prayer, to holy reading and to fervent participation in the divine office of public prayer. These are the ways that lead to that true life, won for us by the Lord Jesus through his passion and resurrection and bequeathed to us by his faithful servants who handed on this way of life to us through the ages. May we prove worthy of their heritage by faithfully responding to the loving invitation of the Lord to follow him together in this way that brings us to eternal life.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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