Summary: Suffering that comes from bad human choices is the price we all pay for the call and grace to be images of God.
Fifth Sunday of Lent 2018
Back when I was teaching religion every school day, two questions kept rising in the minds of students, and occasionally were voiced. What brought the first to mind recently were the several multiple murders we have heard about in Florida, in Las Vegas and just last week in California. We all ask, at one point or another, “why did God let that happen?” The pat answer is, as I’m sure you’ve hears, “God gave us free will, and we decide to do bad things.” But one of my brightest students once retorted, “Then it was a mistake to give us free will, and it would be better if He’d just take that away.” We need to consider that rather bold suggestion.
The second question, which at first seems unconnected with the first, is “why did Christ have to die on the cross?” If it was just to placate the anger of God against sin, then why couldn’t the Father just say, “OK, I forgive you humans” and be done with it? What was the point of all that suffering and pain for Jesus, for the apostles, for Mary and the other disciples?
Genesis teaches us that God made humans in His image and likeness. We are the image and likeness of God, or at least that was the divine intention. That, for instance, is why God forbade us to fashion images of Himself. We are to be images of God. As part of that image and likeness, we are free to make moral decisions, to act either in accord with divine Love or against it. If we live in obedience to God’s will, if we follow the command to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves, we will fulfill our destiny and end our days in God’s presence. But if God forced us to do what He commands, then He would be violating His own divine intention, and make us less than human. He only wants the best for those He loves. If we are going to act like subhumans, we have to decide to do that ourselves.
A great deal of suffering is born from that reality. I recall that a few years after my student made that assertion, his younger brother and his brother’s fiancee were killed in a head-on collision because somebody made a poor choice. And the questions were asked again, “why did God let that happen?” The answer is the same: God loves us too much to interfere with our free choice. We can ask the same question about the millions of tiny children who have been destroyed before birth by the decisions of humans, or about the endless round of suicide bombings made in the name of one god or another–surely not the true God. Suffering that comes from bad human choices is the price we all pay for the call and grace to be images of God. If we can image God at all, it is because He left us free to make that choice–and, unfortunately, the opposite one.
Remarkably, that leads to the answer to the second question, “why did Christ have to suffer and die?” For the ultimate answer, we have to look forward in our liturgical calendar two weeks from now. The Son of God was the perfect image of God in His divine nature. But He didn’t consider that to be enough. He poured Himself out, emptied Himself and became human. Divine person in human nature, so that He could learn human obedience through what He suffered. His suffering was the instrument, the pathway by which Christ attained perfection. And with this one human nature made perfect, crafted in pain in the perfect image and likeness of God, He became the source of eternal salvation for us and everyone else who learns that obedience. In His Resurrection He became the perfect image and likeness in human flesh–glorified human flesh–of God.
When we latch onto that reality through baptism, confirmation and frequent reception of Holy Communion, we participate in that Paschal mystery. Those who will be baptized, confirmed, and communicated at the Easter Vigil will be our brothers and sisters on that wonderful journey. It is a journey that is only meaningful because it will end in our own Resurrection, on the last day, when everyone who images God will be joined to Him forever in the communion of saints.
So what is our duty in these last two weeks of Lent? First, let’s face it, we need to let our sufferings perfect us in the image of Jesus and Mary. Otherwise they are worthless. God will give us the grace to do that. Second, we really ought to pray for our catechumens and candidates, who are getting so close to their admission into our fellowship on Holy Saturday. And third, let’s pray for all those who are in pain, all who are desperate for a meaning in life, all those who need the grace of Christ Jesus, everyone in God’s world.