This Lenten series began by urging the reader to a deeper love of the Commandments by putting on the mind of a devout Jew. That will be even more necessary now if our present reflection is to make any sense.
The biblical story of Creation bears a striking resemblance to many pagan versions of the same event, with one notable difference. The Hebrew account speaks about the creation of the universe in an effortless and peaceful manner: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Ps 33:6). Creation through a word.
In Hebraic thought, a word was a powerful thing. It was an extension of the self, a part of one’s identity. Once a word had been spoken, a part of the speaker was afloat in the universe. A revelation of self had taken place. It was no accident, then, that when the author of the Fourth Gospel sought an image for God’s self-communication in Christ, he used the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1).
As the Source of all Revelation, the God of the Hebrews obviously took words seriously. The Decalogue (or “Ten Words”) takes on its deepest significance as the document (or better, the gift) which shares with humanity God’s path to human flourishing or fulfillment. These “words” reveal in concrete terms God Himself. They are not the vague generalities of an impersonal deity, nor the collective wisdom of a nomadic people seeking an identity, nor the expression of tribal self-consciousness come of age. No, these words tell us of the inner plan of the Creator of the universe. A word spoken, in a universe that has meaning, is not uttered for its own sake but to be heard. A speaker always implies a hearer. The words of the Commandments call for acceptance in a spirit of filial love and obedience.
“Obedience” comes from the Latin word for “listening intently.” There’s a difference between hearing and listening. The latter suggests an internalization of the message – the translation of words into action. And the Scriptures do offer a plan of action: “The Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14). God’s “Ten Words” take on flesh through our obedience.
But why bother, especially when obedience exacts a price – what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship”? Many people obey because they “dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell.” The Act of Contrition expresses some very natural motives for conformity to God’s Law, but they are – or should be – only a starting point.
Christians are called on to love the Law of God enthusiastically and not merely to tolerate it. True followers of Jesus do not keep the Commandments simply out of fear. That kind of distortion is based on a view of God as the “Big Policeman,” or on the “ambush theory” of God – ideas which come close to blasphemy by saying that God gives forth laws as a test, to set obstacles in our path, and then brings us to judgment at the moment which finds us least prepared.
Nor is the hope of Heaven, seen as a reward, sufficient reason for obedience. Christianity is not just a “pie in the sky” religion. Eternal happiness has its roots in earthly happiness. Heaven can and should and does begin on earth by a faithful adherence to God’s Commandments. All the saints in Heaven whom we honor at the beginning of every November were not surprised by God’s embrace when they faced Him in judgment. Indeed, they had been preparing themselves for just such a moment their whole lives long on earth. As St. Catherine of Siena teaches us: “All the way to Heaven is Heaven.” And the God of Judgment revealed in the Scriptures is not a God of sneaky tricks.
But if we do not observe God’s Law simply out of fear of Hell or hope of Heaven, why obey at all? Yet, the ancient Hebrews did. And note that belief in an afterlife was the exception rather than the rule for most of Judaism prior to the time of Christ. Even during Our Lord’s earthly life, the Pharisees and Sadducees were deeply divided on this issue. For thousands of years of salvation history, then, people obeyed without having a carrot dangled in front of them. If we read the homilies and speeches of St. John Paul II carefully, we see how seldom he holds out eternal life as the reward for obedience. He follows the tradition of the Jews: A believer obeys because of personal maturity and commitment. We obey as a response of love.
Through Baptism, we died to sin and were raised to life with Christ. Through Baptism, we gained membership in the Covenant community, which is the Church. Sin is the failure to live up to the Covenant to which we committed ourselves. To the extent that sin is a freely chosen human act, it is a failure in maturity and love. Maturity is demonstrated in a willingness to keep our word. The God who promised to be our God did so on the condition that we would be His people (see Jer 30:22), which necessarily involves obedience to the Law of the Covenant.
Further, an essential part of belonging to the Covenant community is an attitude of love. It was love that first motivated the God of the Hebrews to offer humanity a relationship with Him. It is love that maintains that relationship through obedience. As St. John Paul II was fond of saying, the human person must “respond to Love with love.”1
When maturity and love are joined together in a human being, the result is wholeness. Interestingly, that is one possible translation of the Hebrew greeting of “shalom” (peace). That was the ancient Hebrew goal in observing the demands of the Decalogue: the experience of peace and wholeness right here and now, as we make our life conform to the plan of the Lord.
With all of that noted, the Christian then does go on to look toward the absolute fulfillment of Heaven. An adage teaches us that “actions have consequences.” That means that Heaven or Hell are in the making at the present moment. And they are in direct proportion to the Heaven or Hell we are making for others. The God of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition is a God of justice and mercy, in whom those qualities exist in perfect equanimity. God’s justice is His mercy; His mercy is His justice.
At times, we hear people question the possibility of eternal damnation. Hell, however, must be considered as quite real, not only from the standpoint of Scripture and Christian doctrine, but even from the perspective of human freedom. Hell is a proof of that equanimity of divine justice and mercy. “God is love,” we learn (Jn 4:16); and to sin is to choose “non-love” or to turn deliberately away from love. Heaven, on the other hand, is an eternal encounter with love. A life of sin makes one unprepared for love – indeed, uncomfortable in its presence. God’s judgment on a person is an act of justice in that our sins merit Hell; at the same time, mercy enters in as God will never force Heaven (eternal love) on someone who has consistently turned away from love through sin, for that would be the cruelest act of all and an absolute denial of human dignity, which is most clearly shown in the ability to choose good or evil.
A unifying thread runs through the entire fabric of God’s conversation with the human race: His Word – spoken at the dawn of Creation; in the formation of a Covenant community; in the Person of His Son; and on the Day of Judgment.
A “yes” spoken to God assures us of inner peace here below. It also assures us that His Son, the Word-made-Flesh, whom He has named Judge of the universe, will respond to our “yes” by uttering a final “yes” of His own. And in that last word lies our eternal joy.
It is to be hoped that this Lenten series has provided a means for honest and holy introspection, which may be difficult and even unpleasant at times – but oh, so necessary. Convicting ourselves of sin places us at the gateway of salvation, which is the entire purpose of Lent. Consider these words of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, preached by him on Easter Sunday, 1838:
. . . though the long season of sorrow which ushers in this Blessed Day, in some sense sobers and quells the keenness of our enjoyment, yet without such preparatory season, let us be sure we shall not rejoice at all. None rejoice in Eastertide less than those who have not grieved in Lent. This is what is seen in the world at large. To them, one season is the same as another, and they take no account of any. Feast-day and fast-day, holy tide and other tide, are one and the same to them. Hence they do not realize the next world at all. To them the Gospels are but like another history; a course of events which took place eighteen hundred years since. They do not make our Saviour’s life and death present to them: they do not transport themselves back to the time of His sojourn on earth. They do not act over again, and celebrate His history, in their own observance; and the consequence is, that they feel no interest in it. They have neither faith nor love towards it; it has no hold on them. They do not form their estimate of things upon it; they do not hold it as a sort of practical principle in their heart. This is the case not only with the world at large, but too often with men who have the Name of Christ in their mouths. They think they believe in Him, yet when trial comes, or in the daily conduct of life, they are unable to act upon the principles which they profess: and why? because they have thought to dispense with the religious Ordinances, the course of Service, and the round of Sacred Seasons of the Church, and have considered it a simpler and more spiritual religion, not to act religiously except when called to it by extraordinary trial or temptation; because they have thought that, since it is the Christian’s duty to rejoice evermore, they would rejoice better if they never sorrowed and never travailed with righteousness. On the contrary, let us be sure that, as previous humiliation sobers our joy, it alone secures it to us. Our Saviour says, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall he comforted;” and what is true hereafter, is true here. Unless we have mourned, in the weeks that are gone, we shall not rejoice in the season now commencing. It is often said, and truly, that providential affliction brings a man nearer to God. What is the observance of Holy Seasons but such a means of grace?
May this Lent have been just “such a means of grace” for our dear readers.
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