June 26, 2020

Christ the Cornerstone

Scripture readings about life and death provide paradoxes

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. As to his death, he died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God. Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:8-11).

The Scripture readings for this weekend (the Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time) speak to us about the mysteries of life and death. They reveal two fundamental paradoxes of Christianity: 1) In Christ, we are dead to sin and living for God (Rom 6:11), and 2) Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for Jesus’ sake will find it (Mt 10:39). What do these apparently contradictory ideas mean for our daily lives?

We Christians believe that death has been transformed by Jesus from the bitter end of life—a time of absolute loneliness and the cruel loss of everything we have known and loved—to the point of entry into a new and better life with God. We believe this because our Lord himself tasted the bitterness of death and overcame it. He descended to the dead (“into hell” some translations read). In so doing, he experienced the worst possible human emotions—the fear of being abandoned by God and the loss of all hope for the future.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has written, “If there were such a thing as a loneliness which could no longer be penetrated and transformed by the word of another … then we should have real total loneliness and frightfulness, what theology calls hell.”

We believe that Christ experienced this “real total loneliness and frightfulness” when he suffered death for our sake. But we also believe that his love was stronger than death. As a result, death has lost its finality. Life is victorious and, as we sing in the Easter liturgy, death has lost its sting!

Heaven and hell are concepts that modern minds struggle with. Surely there are no such “places” geographically speaking. Traditional imagery points to the skies above and speaks of God’s dwelling place, but no spaceship will ever accidentally enter the kingdom of heaven. And no amount of tunneling to the center of the Earth will ever uncover the fiery (or some say frozen) regions of hell.

Heaven and hell are states of being. Simply put, we are in heaven when we are with God, and we are in hell when we have cut ourselves off from God by our selfishness and sin. The choice that each of us must make is clear: Do we want to spend all eternity united with God in the joy of heaven, or do we prefer to go our own way and risk suffering the total loneliness and fear of hell?

The decisions that we make every day determine our readiness to face the Last Judgment. Am I in a state of grace, close to the Lord? Do I communicate with him in prayer, by my reception of the sacraments, and by my service to “the least of these” Christ’s sisters and brothers who are hungry, thirsty, naked or in prison (Mt 25:40)? Or do I find myself on the road to hell’s frightful loneliness because of my self-centeredness and my refusal to keep God’s commandments and live as he directs me?

We believe that Christ died for our sins, that he descended into hell in order to liberate us from the power of death and to “open the gates” for all. We believe that he rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven where he now sits at the Father’s right hand. We affirm that Christ will come again at the end of time to judge the living and the dead.

Is this a frightful thing—to be held accountable for how each one of us has used (or abused) the gifts God has given us? It doesn’t have to be. God’s love has transformed death. His forgiveness is freely given, and his grace is always available to help us live better lives in communion with Jesus Christ and all the saints.

The frightful loneliness of hell can be avoided by the power of God’s grace, and the joy of heaven can be ours if we trust ourselves to him. “Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus,” as St. Paul says (Rom 6:11).

Let’s pray for the grace to live in Christ so that we will experience the joy of his presence—now and in the life to come. †

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