I was once involved in a funeral for a person who had died relatively young after a rather hard life. He had never married and had outlived his parents and aunts and uncles, so his only remaining relatives were his siblings and their spouses. If those siblings had any children, I never met them. Although this family had grown up with Catholic education, they were not believers and were certainly not practicing their religion. The deceased family member was the only one who had attended church with any regularity beyond eighth grade, and he was quite a faithful man.
One of the family members confronted me with a great many questions: “Why would God take him so young? Why did he have such a hard life? Was his painful death a judgment by God on him or any of us?” Once I knew the family’s circumstances, which included a dysfunctional family life when they were growing up, I almost predicted the questions. They were no great surprise to me. I spoke to the answers in my homily at the funeral, but I feel safe in guessing that the siblings didn’t really listen to what I said or understand it even if they heard it.
If the truth of our existence can be summed up in one simple statement, it could well be this: “Are you unaware that we who are baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life; for if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in his resurrection.” (Romans 6:3-5)
Baptism changes our existence and makes everything different for us. St. Paul says that we were crucified with Christ so that we would no longer be slaves to sin. One of my seminary teachers said that if we ever traced every individual sin to its root, all sins would be an exercise in idolatry, the act of putting something or someone ahead of God. Sin stems from fear and leads to shame, and it has been so ever since the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The biggest personal fear that most people have is the fear of death, and the heathens engage in all sorts of wicked deceptions to convince themselves of their own mortality. But we are not heathens, and we don’t have to fear death because, as St. Paul says so clearly, we are already dead and risen.
Certainly, this perspective does not change our earthly existence. These mortal bodies of ours, like everything else in the created universe, must die. It simply changes the way we are free to live. We marvel at the strength of martyrs who could go joyfully to their deaths or at least face them with dignity, but they understood the great statement of Jesus that they could be killed, but not harmed. The eternal reality is always protected and always honored by God even when that which is earthly must perish.
What we gain by our belief is this: because we know that we are part of eternal life through Christ’s cross and our baptism into his death, we can live without fear. Fear prevents love. Jesus loved perfectly even though he knew that his earthly life would end with crucifixion. Had he been afraid, he would never have taught or healed. We would never have known him. The martyrs understood that they could be persecuted and even killed if they continued to live out their faith, but they were not afraid. They knew what their belief was all about. All the holy women and men of our history, whether or not recognized by the Church with canonization, made their sacrifices and lived their heroic lives because they were not afraid. They knew they would be loved even if they failed to love as well as they could at one moment or another.
The family of that young man who died could not hear talk of this kind of love because they were afraid of death and afraid of every kind of suffering or hardship. They learned the old line from the Baltimore Catechism, that God made us to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this life and to be happy with Him forever in the next, but they didn’t believe it. Because they could not see past this moment and this life into the mystery of eternity, they were mired in their fears.
It is not too simple to say that love is the great reality of the universe. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God in them. Love results in the union of God with humanity in the Incarnation. Love allows the sacrifice of Jesus in the crucifixion. Love bursts forth in the resurrection because God refuses to allow the tomb to close Jesus in. Love frees us to give ourselves to others because we know we will be filled with grace and not emptied by the effort. Love joins us to God and God to us.
When we love, we do not have to be afraid, and when we live without fear, we are joined with God today and for all eternity. Today matters because we are here and can embrace our faith and live with love. Today is not all we have, not even close. Because we have died and risen with Christ through baptism, we have all things in God. Reflect on that when you renew your baptismal promises today.
Fr. Phil Cyscon