Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Joyful, Suffering People

Lent is a time of spiritual reflection and growth, which often requires breaking away from the physical world and retreating to an interior peace. For the forty days of Lent Catholics fasted and abstained from meat; we purged ourselves of earthly attachments; we did away with simple pleasures in life and caused ourselves to suffer in union with Christ. Catholics not only embrace suffering as it is thrown our way by chance or circumstance - we actively seek it out. We set aside a special time every year in which we go above and beyond the burdens that life hands us, and add crosses of our own making to carry on our journey…
Those crazy Catholics. Are they not allowed to simply enjoy life?
But then again…Aren’t Catholics the ones who drink alcohol and gamble? Don’t their church’s host bingo tournaments and serve beer at street festivals? And Catholics certainly know how to host a wedding reception; Catholics are no strangers to a good party. And then there is the wine (with real alcohol!) that is used at Mass. And look at all of those statues and paintings, stained glass and ornate architecture, the candles and the incense – Catholics do seem to enjoy, and make use of, their physical surroundings. We seem to embrace the physical world. Why, some of those paintings and sculptures are even nude!
Those crazy Catholics. Perhaps they enjoy life a bit too much…
It would be easy to assume that Lenten Catholics and Easter Catholics are somewhat contradictory. On the surface, the two faces of Catholicism as described above certainly appear to contradict: Are Catholics self-loathing masochists, who wallow in their own suffering while rejecting worldly pleasures? Or are Catholics over-indulgent lovers of the material world, who put too much emphasis on the physical? These are of course exaggerations… but we might ask more fairly: Are Catholics a Lenten people or an Easter people?
Make no mistake, Catholics do get accused of both extremes depending on who you ask. So to correctly understand these two competing impressions of Catholic behavior we must view them in light of Christ and His Incarnation together with His suffering, death and Resurrection.
First the Incarnation: The Son of God became flesh, and in so doing He took upon Himself His own creation in bodily form. He became a man and lived in the physical world. Catholics have always viewed this reality as a sign of God’s love for the material world which He made. Indeed, the act of creation itself was an act of Love.
God loves His creation so much that He is willing to enter into it. And He participated in His creation most fully as the man Jesus. Jesus gave us physical signs of God’s love by working miracles: restoring sight to the blind so that they could see the physical beauty of the world, making the lame walk so that they could walk and run and play and live life to the fullest, and changing water into wine at a wedding feast. Catholics learned their joy of life from Jesus (who also knew how to throw a good wedding reception).
But then there is His Passion and death: Jesus was rejected by the world which He loved so much. He was despised and made to suffer. He was cut off from those He loved and subjected to an excruciating death. He told us that we too will be hated and rejected by the world and made to carry our own crosses. We may not face the save gruesome death (though many have indeed been martyred) but death will certainly come for us, and we will be cut off from the physical world. We must be prepared to give it all up as He freely gave up His life for us.
So the God who gave us wine to drink at our wedding feasts and eyes to see the beauty of the created world also promises us that these things are passing joys. Do not store up earthly treasures, but rather store up treasures in heaven. Jesus wants us to enjoy life, but also be willing to give it all up in an instant when He calls for us.
Catholic behavior may seem like a contradiction to those who do not understand, but Jesus also seemed like a contradiction to the people of His time – a man who also claimed to be God; a prophet who preached against sin and yet ate with sinners; the King of kings and who was nailed to a cross instead of seated on a throne. He came into the world, but was not of the world. He loved the world, but freely gave up His life.
The Resurrection merges these two contradictions together and gives us a deeper understanding to both sides. The Incarnation and the life of Jesus certainly show us God’s love of creation. And Jesus’ Passion and death show us the depth of suffering and separation from the physical world we must endure. Then finally, the Resurrection teaches us that our enjoyment of physical creation here and now will be restored, or rather fulfilled and made complete, after it has been perfected. When we are raised up body and soul as a new creation, then we will know the full joy of what it means to be created beings.
God loves His creation and wants us to love it too. But He warns us to not become too attached to what is around us, not because it is evil to enjoy life, but because it is not yet perfected.
Having completed our observance of Lent and now celebrating the joy of the Easter Season, many Catholics are returning to some of their favorite worldly things, like eating chocolate or drinking coffee or enjoying some other decadent treat which they had given up during the penitential time leading up to the Resurrection. As we fall back into our old luxuries, we must always be keenly aware that our joy is not complete, not fulfilled. It is fleeting. Just as the wine eventually was drank to the last drop at Cana, we can enjoy what God gives to us, but must be ready to lay it aside at the proper time.
But while there is wine to be had and we celebrate the bridegroom’s triumph over death this Easter, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the fruits of His creation.

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