July 22, 2005


Christian life is a gift and an obligation

Parents know what a gift children are. They also know that parenting can seem burdensome. From the moment their first child is born, life changes radically for a married couple.

In the early years, parents are obliged to provide for their child’s every need (food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education and formation in faith). Even as a child grows and begins to assume responsibility for his or her own life, the “burden” of parenthood remains. As long as they live, parents feel responsible for their children. The gift of life, which can only come from God, carries with it a sacred duty that is never completely fulfilled.

Parents who want to be good stewards of the gift of new life believe with all their hearts that the “burden” of parenthood is a profound joy. Yes, it can be difficult. It limits their freedom. It is expensive. It causes worry, and sometimes heartache, and it lasts a lifetime.

But there is nothing in life that can compare with the birth of a child, with the miracle of first steps and first word, or with the movement from infancy to adulthood that seems to start so slowly then passes at the speed of light.

Great gifts bring with them great obligations.

Pope Benedict XVI recently made a similar point during a Mass concluding the weeklong Italian eucharistic congress. Speaking about the obligation that Catholic Christians have to attend Mass each Sunday, the Holy Father said, “The Sunday precept is not therefore an externally imposed duty, a burden on our shoulders. On the contrary, taking part in the celebration, being nourished by the eucharistic bread and experiencing the communion of their brothers and sisters in Christ is a need for Christians, it is a joy; Christians can thus replenish the energy they need to continue on the journey we must make every week.”

There is no greater gift than the Eucharist, which is Christ’s gift-of-self to us. And in a way, there is no more serious obligation than to nourish and protect this sacred gift. We might say that all of Christian life, which flows from and is centered on the Eucharist, involves a sacred duty to be good stewards of the gift of God’s love and to share it generously with others.

Yes, this can seem like a burden. It limits our freedom to do whatever we please. It requires that we make sacrifices. It sets us against the culture in which we live—and it sometimes demands that we exchange our very lives (as martyrs do) in return for the right to live like Jesus in perfect obedience to the Father’s will.

The so-called burdens of Christian life are really precious gifts. As Pope Benedict reminds us, they are not externally imposed duties. They are obligations that spring from the liberating power of God’s grace. They are a need for Christians, and they are intended to be sources of profound joy.

In his earlier writing on principles of Catholic theology, Pope Benedict pointed out that “the history of Christianity begins with the word: ‘Rejoice!’” According to the Gospel of Luke, this is the first word spoken by the angel Gabriel to the mother of our Lord. “For Luke, this word, which inaugurates the history of Jesus and, with it, the history of Christianity, is a comprehensive programmatic designation of what Christianity is by nature. In narrating the birth of Jesus, he repeats the introduction with variations and more expansively in the words the angel addresses to the shepherds: ‘I bring you news of great joy.’”

Christ’s gift to us, which is himself, should be the source of great joy. It is a liberation from the burdens of sin and death. It is the way to true happiness, genuine freedom and lasting peace. Why then do we Christians so often feel burdened? Why do we so often forget that, by their very nature, great gifts (like the gift of children) require us to let go of our own desires and make sacrifices for the greater good?

As the pope reminds us, the Lord does not ask us to carry heavy burdens without the help of his grace. The good news is that Christ is with us—in all the joys and obligations of daily Christian living. Sustained by the Eucharist and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we rejoice because the Lord is with us—and because his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

— Daniel Conway

(Daniel Conway is a member of the editorial committee of the board of directors of Criterion Press Inc.)


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