Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sermon Notes: Hard to Preach

Reflection for 6:30 pm Mass
St. Vincent de Paul Parish
Tuesday II Week of Lent
March 18, 2014

Hard to preach: It is hard to preach on a gospel passage that is clearly intended more for the preacher, than for the congregation. “Do and observe whatever they tell you,” Jesus says, “but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice” (Matt 23:3). Indeed, the first precept of preaching is that one must always preach first to himself. Particularly in light of recent history in the Church, this admonition by Christ of His priests, His servants is felt deeply.

The Priest, His servant: Servants, this is precisely what the priest is to be for God’s people. “The greatest among you,” Jesus concludes, “must be your servant” (Matt 23:11). This is the familiar lesson we learn on Holy Thursday. On that day in a profoundly symbolic act, the priest, like Christ, humbles himself, taking off his outer garment (the chasuble), bending over, and washing the feet of the people. This is a great reminder for the priest and those who aspire to be so one day, that in order to hear Jesus say, “Well done my good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21), we must first hear Him say “whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt 23:12).

The Sheep: In this light, I must say how much you, the faithful of this parish, inspire us seminarians and priests. We are asked to lead you, yet often times we struggle to keep up. The number of souls who keep these two priests captive in the confessional; the number of families, couples, and singles who come to mass at ridiculous hours in the morning; the number of volunteers willing to do move boxes, gather donations, and teach the young ones; the number of individuals who give of their money so generously; the number of people praying long before and after mass is over; and the great sacrifices so many of you are willing to undergo out of love for spouses, children, friends, and this parish. Yes, we can always do more. But you need to hear today from us: Good job. Keep going. Thank you.  

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Vocations Talk: College Station

Vocation’s Talk
St. Mary’s College Station, TX
March 22-23, 2014

Howdy! My name is Sean DeWitt and I am a seminarian of the Diocese of Austin here to speak to y’all about vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Currently, I am on my pastoral year at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in North Austin.

Now, this is not my first trip to Aggie Land and if I recall there is by this new coliseum y’all are building a statue of some importance. And if my memory serves me right this statue is of a young man, a student no doubt, who made a name for himself as the 12th man. This young man had a spirit about him in which he always stood at the ready while he watched those Fittin’ Texas Aggies saw varsity’s horns off. One day, as the story goes—I am sure y’all could tell it—this young man was actually called on to suit up. With duty and pleasure, he sported the maroon and white and became the 12th man on the roster. And although this man never played, his spirit of courage and service lives on now in the student body, who attend these games under the title of the 12th man, always standing at the ready to fill in whenever they are needed. What’s more, this Spirit of Aggie Land is embodied in one player, a walk on, who represents the rest of the student body wearing the number 12. He is the 12th man. I find this story quite inspiring. A young man who saw a need and without hesitation filled it, potentially sacrificing himself for the team to gain victory.

But I want to say that there is some confusion. When I heard the story of this young man, I didn’t hear the story of a young man becoming a backup football player, but rather a man being called by God to be a priest of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Yes, that deep pounding in his chest which compelled him to make such a sacrifice, is the very same which moves a man to say ‘yes’ to God. I mean the coach’s last name was Bible!

You see. I have been at a parish for almost 8 months now. And I have to say, we need the 12th man! Yet the problem is that we need the 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th as well. I cannot tell you how many times I have watched the faithful stand for hours just to make a confession. Y’all have never experienced that, have you?! I have seen retreats go without a priest because they are all busy. I have seen multiple parishes go months without a priest, without daily mass and confession! I have seen people go without communion during their last days on earth. I have seen young and old go without the spiritual direction and counsel they need. I have seen Jesus churn with compassion over His people, who are sheep without a shepherd.

Fortunately, I have also seen many young men such as are sitting here before me, who choose to stand like the 12th man, ready and willing—open to the call. And I thank you for that. Y’all have a wonderful culture of vocations here! But we need more of y’all to actually play, more of y’all to be like that walk on and take the field. Heck, we could even take a whole kickoff team of y’all. In many ways, we are just forfeiting here.

Here’s how I see it. My sophomore year in college I was open and thinking about the priesthood. I had a girlfriend and school was going great, but I was also standing at the ready. I felt I could go either way. When my roommate said, “you know some of us men who feel like they could be either a priest or a husband, maybe we should really look around and see the need and just suck it up.” Now, I don’t think Jesus just wants y’all to suck it up. No, He calls each of us personally out of love, but my roommate was on to something. During war time, there is a kind of man who looks at his family, sees how beautiful they are, how happy they are together, and, then, looks at his homeland, his country, sees the need, and decides to give himself in sacrifice for the greater good of them all. Men, we need the 12th man. Be a priest.

I would be remiss if I did not say something to the women. I have had the pleasure of living and working very closely with 5 Dominican sisters this year. They have taught me a great deal about the beauty of their vocation. As it was necessary that Mary stand at the foot of the Cross and offer in union with her son Jesus Christ that sacrifice, so too it is necessary that the Church have women consecrated to God as religious sisters. Every priest offers on the altar that self same sacrifice Jesus offered on the Cross. And every priest needs a Mary to help him offer that sacrifice, a religious sister to stand by him in ministry. She through her prayer of intersession and her apostolate prepares, as does Mary, the faithful to receive the grace being offered to them through the sacraments. Without the religious sister, much of that grace, the salvation offered by the Cross, is received in vain.

Pastorally, this means that some things just need a mother’s touch. Dad can deal with a lot and provide a great deal of care for the family, but sometimes Momma has to take care of it. Religious sisters provide this motherly touch to the ministry of the Church, and it is necessary. Please do not be afraid to be a Mary. 

A Meaningful Life: The Evangelical Counsels

“A Meaningful Life” Part III
Lenten Faith Formation Series
For St. Vincent de Paul
By Sean DeWitt

A Meaningful Life: We have seen in the past two sessions how the promise of eternal life made to us by the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives true meaning to life. We have also seen how this orientation gives meaning to each of our individual lives by giving us an enduring and significant identity based on a relationship with God as His son or daughter. Now it is time to see what this meaningful life looks like; how it is lived or achieved, so to speak. How are we to stay true to this identity and hold out for the ultimate reward of life eternal? And what’s more, how does this way of life give meaning, deeper meaning to our lives than what the culture has to offer?

Good Counsel: In order to live a meaningful life, both the culture and the Gospel give us advice or counsels. These counsels are given to us by our role models, idols, and mentors. These people have lived a meaningful life, so we have determined, and thus advise us; share with us the secrets of how to do the same, how to live a life like their own. This is most easily seen while checking out at the grocery store. The magazines and tabloids that line the checkout lane boast of a particular figure or celebrity featured in splendor and majesty on the front cover. Around them eye catching lines say, ‘10 secrets to slimming down;’ ‘3 ways to improve your life;’ or ‘4 ways to have a more fulfilling ___ life.’  Both Jesus in the Gospel and our celebrity/Pop stars in the culture offer us advice on how to live a meaningful life like their own. Indeed, they both offer us three counsels. In order to love and to serve the Lord God as His sons and daughters in this life and be with our Father in Heaven in the next, Jesus advises poverty, chastity, and obedience. In order to attain the pleasure of tonight and establish a legacy by which we will be known for what we have done, the culture suggests wealth, pleasure, and honors.

Wealth: Wealth: As the guarantee and solution to all of the difficulties and obstacles preventing us from living a meaningful life, the culture recommends to us wealth. Wealth or money provides security, a means to acquire happiness, and an out in times of trouble—a rainy day fund. For some, whose life will be meaningless unless they experience the pleasures of tonight and establish a legacy which will last beyond them, the culture advises a great sum of wealth for which we must beg, borrow, and steal. Think here of Fergie’s song “Glamorous.”

For most of us, however, the aim is a bit lower, the desire a little less, and the suggestion a tad more subtle. A meaningful life is more along the lines of the Jones with whom we must always keep up: a nice 4/5 bedroom house, two cars, flat screen TV, iPhones all around, and still enough left over for the family vacation and the kids college fund. We desire and work for a good life, a comfortable living. Here the culture also counsels money as the best means to living this meaningful American Dream. Yet it is more subtle. Certainly, ‘money can’t buy happiness, but it certainly helps.’

The Rich Young Man: In the Gospel, however, we see Jesus meet this man, a young man, searching for a meaningful life. Yet, wealth is not what He suggests.
And behold, one came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments." He said to him, "Which?" And Jesus said, "You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The young man said to him, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:16-22)

Why so Sad?: We can see in this man, this rich young man, although he knew it not, our own culture. After coming to Jesus excitedly desiring to know the way to attain eternal life, he hears Jesus’ advice and goes away sorrowful. Likewise those in our culture come to Church still every Sunday—we hope—looking for a meaningful life, yet when they hear the Gospel proclaimed, and go away sad, sorrowful, disappointed, unfulfilled, bored, indifferent. But why? Why does the rich young man go away sorrowful?

Fears to Face: The idea of lacking money, let alone giving it all away, is for our culture terrifying if not a heretical suggestion. How are you going to live or survive? What about the practical necessities of life: food, water, clothing, and a roof over your head? This is just irresponsible! Indeed, our culture, particularly in the south, embodies one of Aristotle’s greatest virtues: magnanimity or ‘large-souledness.’ In this view, giving oneself into poverty is a vice or bad thing to do, since it inhibits one’s ability to give to another. If I give away all my possessions, I will not be able to take care of my family, friends, let alone give to charity. If I do not hold on to these possessions, I will become a hindrance on society, rather than one who contributes. If I give up my wealth, however small or large, my life will be meaningless.

Poverty and Morality: Underneath many of these fears is a deeply embedded presupposition: Poverty corrupts, or said differently, poverty causes immorality. We can see this exhibited in the play Les Meserables. While slightly more pronounced in the book, the play offers a stark contrast between the goodness of Jean Valjean and the thievery of the Thenardier’s whose state of poverty causes them to beg, borrow, and steal just a squeak out a living. More profoundly in the book, both Jean Valjean and Fantine, originally normal kind and caring souls, are slowly corrupted becoming wretched and even wicked as they spiral into poverty. This cause/effect of money and morality is only confirmed as we watch Jean Valjean continually redeem the other characters primarily through what seems to be an endless supply of wealth. Indeed, Jean Valjean’s own redemption was wrought through the gift of two silver candle sticks given him by the Bishop.

We really believe that wealth will cause a person to shape up and to lead a moral life. And while there is certainly some truth to this correlation—certainly poverty can encourage more extreme measures—it fails to take into account the vast history of corruption and wickedness by those with a great deal of money. Certainly, there have never been any wicked or evil rich people!

Wealth and Suffering: Yet there is another assumption here, that wealth can prevent suffering. Suffering is to be avoided at all costs, for it is bad. Thus, wealth, which allows us to put off suffering, is good, the more of it the better. Again, while there is certainly a grain of truth here—proper medical care and certain standards of living remove a great deal of unnecessary suffering in the world—one cannot spend away all suffering. At the very least, death, the ultimate suffering, is inescapable. We see this most profoundly in our categories of 1st and 3rd world countries. These ‘underdeveloped’ countries experience great sufferings due to a lack of wealth. Yet to these categories, we have to ask: are we really happier than they who have less?

Poverty v. Destitution: To the rich young man in search for eternal life, Jesus recommends that he give all of his possessions to the poor and follow Him. Jesus calls the man to an act of poverty. In the Tradition of the Church, this call to poverty has been understood as the renunciation of all possessions. This is an important definition because it distinguishes what Jesus is asking from what we typically think of when we hear the word ‘poverty.’ We typically understand poverty as destitution. Poverty is a lack of possession, whereas destitution is the lack of the basic necessities of life. Jesus calls us to a life of poverty, that is, to a lack of possessions, not to starvation. To better understand this, think of the Religious Sisters. They take a perpetual vow of poverty. Thus they have no personal possessions. Everything is owned by the community. We do not, however, starve them of the basic necessities; they are not destitute.

Poverty v. Cheap: Another important distinction lies between cheap and poverty. Poverty does not mean that we or the Church cannot have nice things, lest we should reevaluate our Church buildings. No, again, poverty focuses on the lack of personal possessions.

Why?: But why? Why would Jesus ask us to do this? How does poverty remind us of our identity and help us attain eternal life? In other words, how does poverty help us live a meaningful life? Consider these words from the Second Vatican Council:

“All the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state… Let neither the use of the things of this world nor attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love. Let them heed the admonition of the Apostle to those who use this world; let them not come to terms with this world; for this world, as we see it, is passing away” (Lumen Gentium, 42).

Worldly Attachments: Here Vatican II lists two primary ways poverty helps us live a meaningful life. First and foremost, poverty helps us refrain from worldly attachments. Poverty, or a lack of possessions, helps us not “come to terms with this world,” that is, conform or get to comfortable here, thereby increasing our desire and longing for life hereafter. Attachments to things of this world, particularly riches, can weigh us down and keep us from look up and striving towards perfect love. We feel this particularly during Lent when we are asked to give alms. Such a time of intense love reminds us of our goal and purpose here in this life, that is to love and to serve the Lord in this life and be with Him in the next. In this way, poverty gives meaning to our lives by allowing us to focus more on those realities which actually give meaning to life: eternal life and relationships with others, particularly God.

Imitation of Christ: The second reason is that through poverty we imitate Christ. Christ was a poor man. From His birth in a manger to His death on the cross, Christ entered and left this world with nothing. During His life, the austerity with which He lived is astounding if not baffling. The pinnacle would be that moment during those long forty days in the desert when, thrice tempted, He denied the food, glory, and power of this world for something, someone greater: His Father in Heaven. We are encouraged to live in the same way, so that in times of trial we might not be brought down by the weight of worldly attachments, but lifted up by our gaze heavenward.

Vocation and Status: But how do we do this? Notice how the Second Vatican Council prefaced its remarks: “All the faithful are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state” (Lumen Gentium, 42). The call to holiness and the embrace of these counsels is always seen in light of one’s vocation: married, religious, etc…, and one’s status: Government leader, business man, etc… Our vocations inform us of our obligations to love. If you are married, you are obliged to take care of and to love your spouse and children, which includes feeding them and nourishing them. This will require a great deal of possessions in most cases. Thus a family’s embrace of this evangelical counsel of poverty will look quite different from that of a religious sister. Furthermore, one’s status, which we can understand here as job or role in society, requires certain worldly associations. In order to be a credible lawyer, you must have a particular kind of suit and car. Now, lest a Catholic be barred from ever passing the bar, poverty has to in some way adapt and reincarnate itself. Here the lawyer can live out this counsel of poverty by choosing a lower end, yet still acceptable suit and car; he need not have a Rolls Royce. The lawyer could certainly leave everything and become say a priest or religious, but we also need good Catholic lawyers. Someone needs to do it. To describe this distinction we use the words poverty and simplicity. Poverty is a radical embrace of Jesus’ counsel giving up one’s status in life for a different vocation, while simplicity is act of humility in accordance with our vocation and status in life. In short, either drop everything and follow Him, or just get an older model iPhone.

Pleasure: The second counsel our culture give us in order to live a meaningful life is that of pleasure. Certainly, by pleasure the culture means sex. The multibillion dollar porn industry, massive divorce rate, and abortion and contraception are sign clear enough to see that meaning and happiness in this life must, must include sex, and not a small amount. Sex is good for you, aiding in self-discovery, self-expression, and the maturation process. I have even heard it suggested as a good form of exercise! Yet, the suggestion of pleasure is not limited to sex. It also includes drugs, and other quick hit escapes: comfort food, movies, video games, etc… Again, these give meaning to life by allowing us to experience the pleasure of the moment and escape the drudge of day-to-day life.
Personal Fulfillment: The culture says that we will be incomplete and unfulfilled as persons without the consistent and frequent experience of this pleasure. Thus we must eliminate its consequences so that we are not punished by its effects: contraception and termination of a pregnancy. Can you imagine 9 months without sex! Or we must find other more perverse ways of attaining such please when it cannot be found or attained in this way: pornography, masturbation, and prostitution. Yes, it is hard to believe but in some circles these are spoken of and talked about as necessaries to living a meaningful life. If they weren’t then why would we spend so much on contraceptive for 3rd world countries? Never mind the extremely dangerous procedures and terribly damaging side effects of this behavior and these procedures, both physically and psychologically.

The most tragic part of this cultural counsel of pleasure is the advice given to those who suffer from “same sex attraction.” We have spoken of this in the prior session, but it merits repeating. Instead of looking out for the genuine dignity of these people which exceeds a simple reduction of their personal identity to their sexual orientation; instead of taking care of their health which is seriously put at risk to Aids/HIV and such; and instead of teaching them how true happiness is attained and a truly meaningful life is lived, they are cheated, sold short, and robbed by the lie that they will not be fulfilled, not be meaningful, indeed be meaningless, if they do not have these sexual experiences with those of the same sex. This is blatantly false. One’s personal fulfillment is not dependent on the pleasure of a sexual encounter! Again, we should feel deeply for these people and reach out to them, for they are true victims of a lie that our culture perpetuates both to heterosexuals and those with “same sex attraction.” It is this solicitude for their greater good that the Church teaches what she does.

Chastity: Counter to this, Jesus advises chastity, and what is more virginity. In another discussion on marriage and divorce, Jesus turns to the disciples and concludes with this second of His evangelic counsels.
But he said to them, "Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it." (Matt. 19:11-12)

The Church has traditionally understood these lines as the call to chastity. In addition to the vocation of marriage which Jesus holds in high regard, requiring deep commitment and fidelity, Jesus gives praise to those who have kept themselves chaste for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, He says whoever is able to do this should. In fact, the Second Vatican Council speaks beautifully of this counsel:

An eminent position among these is held by virginity or the celibate state. This is a precious gift of divine grace given by the Father to certain souls, whereby they may devote themselves to God alone the more easily, due to an undivided heart. (14*) This perfect continency, out of desire for the kingdom of heaven, has always been held in particular honor in the Church. The reason for this was and is that perfect continency for the love of God is an incentive to charity, and is certainly a particular source of spiritual fecundity in the world. (Lumen Gentium, 42)

Chastity, as if it found in those who commitment themselves to a life of virginity or celibacy, gives meaning to life by keeping, as Vatican II says, an “undivided heart.” This “undivided heart” held in “perfect continency” compels one to greater acts of charity, particularly a spiritual fruitfulness or fecundity; chastity gives spiritual, not biological life. Chastity in this way gives meaning to life by keeping our hearts set on that eternal life for which we strive, and establishing new relationships based on spiritual ties which define us as spiritual mothers and fathers, even spiritual spouses of the Lord Jesus.

Implications for Married Persons: The implications of this teaching are quite profound, even for those in the married life. Just as with poverty, there is a way for this to become incarnate in each of our lives. For the married person, this counsel is followed in three ways:  first and foremost is the fidelity of the two spouses. The choice to remain faithful both physically and emotionally to a spouse in directly related to this virtue of chastity. Secondly, in refraining or abstaining from sexual intercourse when a pregnancy is undesirable or possibly irresponsible, a couple exercises chastity. Anyone who is familiar with NFP (Natural Family Planning) is familiar with this. Lastly, a couple lives out this call to chastity by being faithful to the marital act, not separating the unitive or procreative aspects so as to simply attain pleasure. It is incredibly important that couples learn this virtue of chastity together, particularly if they are to expect their children to follow suit and hold off until marriage. Marriage is not a legalized or sanctioned sex contract! A meaningful life as a married person includes so much more. If it is seen this way or lived out in this way, it is no wonder our children reject it as an institution and see no value in waiting. A couple who lives chastity within their marriage will have a great deal more credibility and compassion in teaching this to their children.

Widows and Widowers: Jesus speaks of those who are made eunuchs by men. While certainly He is referring to those who experienced some sort of mutilation or torture, I think we can also see in this category those persons who have to accept a life of celibacy or perfect continence due to particular circumstances in life. For example widows and widowers and single man or woman who never finds Mr. or Mrs. Right. Here Jesus offers them a meaning to their lives, which certainly the culture would not see.

Born that Way: Jesus speaks also of those, who for whatever cause, were born this way. Here we understand those who suffer from great physical birth defects, mental retardation, and other such ailments. To these people as well, Jesus offers a meaningful way to live life and prepare for the kingdom of God. No their life is not meaningless even though they cannot partake in what the culture offers them. In fact, their life is venerated and celebrated by the Church as a clear sign and witness to the coming of the kingdom of God.

We might mention here those who suffer from “same sex attraction,” for many claim that this is a inborn tendency. I think that the science is still not clear on this, but suffice it to say that either way, individuals who experience “same sex attraction” can live meaningful lives by living out this evangelical counsel of chastity.

Priests and Religious: While a lot could be said about priests and religious in terms of their lives of virginity and celibacy, it is clear enough that the culture does not approve nor understand. The key to understanding this is that “spiritual fecundity” mentioned earlier in conjunction with the reality of being sign of the kingdom of God. Priests and religious live joyful meaningful lives through their fatherly and maternal care for souls. Most of us here have experienced this in one way or another during our lives. Indeed, we call them Fathers! Yet, even more they give witness to that eternal life for which we all strive, a life in which no one marries or is given in marriage (Cf. Matt 22:30). I think this is most felt by those who have to live such a life of chastity not by choice but by situation, such as the widows, or those born in such a state. They see in the priest or religious a sign of a meaningful life to come through eternity with God.

Imitation of Christ:  Yet lastly and most importantly, the priest and religious and all the faithful are called to this counsel of evangelical chastity because Christ Himself lived it. Christ never married. And that was no accident. He calls those closest to Him—His priests and religious—to do the same; and those He has called to married state to imitate Him by faithful marriages. Indeed, chastity makes the most sense and gives the greatest amount of meaning to our lives when we realize we not following the idols of this world, but conforming ourselves to Christ Jesus.    

Honors: The last of the major counsels that our culture gives us are honors. A meaningful life is one which receives recognition, accolades, and rewards for the various accomplishments and goals we achieve. Meaning is felt as the satisfaction of job well done and the trophy to prove it. We implicitly teach this to our kids through “the everyone wins” mentality seen in many of the competitions for young kids. Another good example is looking at the college application of any high school senior. The meaning of their past four years of life culminates in what one hopes to be a long list of accomplishments and rewards. It is not merely enough to be a good student. One must be recognized as such by this or that organization, receive this or that academic award, etc…The absurdity of this logic is felt when we receive participation awards. Oh wait, everyone loves those! Consider this: A Christian whose meaning in life and identity is dependent on God and a life hereafter is really okay with a winner and a loser. A man of the culture, whose identity and meaning in life very much hangs on this outcome, will out of fear find ways to redistribute these honors so the most win and least loose; he cannot handle failing himself or others, because to do so would be to take meaning from their lives.

In a more extreme way, this counsel of the culture is seen in those who do whatever it takes to rise to top of a given sport, career, cause, or group. A meaningful life literally hangs upon success and the accolades that follow. We see this “stop at nothing” pursuit of honors in various ways, for example the recent steroids scandal in baseball, a culture of cheating seen among university students, etc… When you identity and meaning in life is dependent on honor gathered from others, everything is directed to that 15 minutes of fame. What do you think drives so many hundreds of thousands of people to try out for American Idol!

Obedience: Contrary to the allurement of honors felt even in His day among the Pharisees, Jesus counsels evangelical obedience. We hear this counsel as a description of those who follow Jesus when He says: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). One of those sheep, John the beloved disciple, John put it best when he said: “He who says ‘I know him’ but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him” (1John 2:4-5).

Obedience to God by following His commandments set before by His Son our Lord Jesus Christ is the way to live a meaningful life. In many ways, this counsel by Jesus is the only counsel we need to follow, for in so doing we will adhere to the rest. But what are we talking about here? Listen to the Second Vatican Council:

Because the disciples must always offer an imitation of and a testimony to the charity and humility of Christ, Mother Church rejoices at finding within her bosom men and women who very closely follow their Savior who debased Himself to our comprehension. There are some who, in their freedom as sons of God, renounce their own wills and take upon themselves the state of poverty. Still further, some become subject of their own accord to another man, in the matter of perfection for love of God. This is beyond the measure of the commandments, but is done in order to become more fully like the obedient Christ. (Lumen Gentium, 42)

By obedience is meant the submission of the will or “renouncing” of one’s own will to another, primarily God. In its most profound expression this is done by the priest and religious who promises or vows obedience to a superior. That is what the council means when it says “some become subject of their own accord to another man [or woman], in the matter of perfection for love of God.” Obedience to their superiors whether they be Bishops or Mothers or Prior or Abbots, you name it, is a true act of humility. It is even called a poverty of will, giving up all possession even that of one’s own will. Such an act of obedience gives meaning to one’s life since it clearly adheres to the pursuit of a life hereafter, and also clearly defines the person’s identity as one in relationship with our Father in heaven.

Obedience in the Family: Yet obedience, like the others, is not limited to the priest and religious. Obedience is learned first and foremost in the family. Remember the 4th commandment: Honor your Father and your Mother. This is an important virtue for children to learn and to foster even as we get older, for it does not simply mean follow the rules of the house or do what they say. Certainly, it includes this, but it also extends to times when Mom and Dad are not around. What would they do? Particularly when we are surprised by a situation in which we have to act on their behalf, say a phone call, or an expected visitor to the house when they aren’t around. Later in life, this means being faithful to our relationship with them, visiting and staying in contact. Eventually, it will mean taking care of them and seeing them off into that eternal life. All of this falls under obedience.

For the parents, obedience is lived both between the spouses and with the children. This is seen easily enough in the “honey do” list for Saturday and the endless sacrifices we make for our kids to pursue what they love.

Other spheres: Yet obedience is not limited to the family. We must be obedient to our civil leaders, although only if the laws established are just, and we must be obedient to those for whom we work. Yes, one of the great calling cards of the Christian is that he is a good citizen and a good worker; we participate in society. We do not live our lives on some parallel track like some religions or faith backgrounds do. No, we engage the public square. Our success in this is greatly dependent upon our living out this counsel of obedience.

Imitation of Christ: Yet more important than any of thing, this evangelical counsel of obedience is meaningful and significant because Christ lived it. Think most vividly here of the Agony in the Garden: “Let this cup pass, but not my will, but thy will we done.” He complete obedience to God the Father is what kept Him even in His darkest moments in communion with God.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Meaningful Life: A Meaningful Identity

“A Meaningful Life” Part II
Lenten Faith Formation Series
For St. Vincent de Paul
By Sean DeWitt

A Meaningful Life: Meaning is given to life by its end or purpose. We saw last time how true meaning is found only in the Christian claim that there is eternal life hereafter guaranteed by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the good news, the Gospel Christianity proclaims: a truly meaningful life.

A Meaningful Identity: Yet, more personally, our lives take meaning from our very identity. Who am I? What is my identity? What is the meaning of life for me? There is a deep desire in us all to answer this question in a definitive and final way. In some ways, the young struggle with this the most: always searching to discover who it is they want to become, selecting and erecting idols and heroes to emulate. Yet it is a valid question for us all. Who am I? What does my life mean? What will it mean?

The Way of the World: Our culture has a very clear way of forming someone’s identity. Our culture says that when it comes to our identity “you are what you eat.” What you do, your actions, work or play, define who you are. We are sports players, business men, volunteers, journalists, writers, engineers, advertisers, beauty specialists, politicians, blue collar or white collar workers, stock brokers, stay at home moms, executives, project managers, programmers, etc…We are what we do. The actions we perform define or determine our identity; what we do gives meaning to our lives. Another way of saying this is that function defines meaning. Function defines what we are.

What can Brown do for you? A perfect example of this comes from a UPS commercial put out some years ago. Two men sitting around in a small factory, discus how to better their business through improved logistics, when in walks a UPS man. One of the two businessmen asks, gesturing towards the UPS man: “you know what I see?” “What” the other man replies, “Ben?” “No, I see logistics.” Ben—the nice hourly wage worker trying hard to make a living for his wife and kids—is not Ben, but simply logistics, function. He is his function. While this might sound sort of simplistic, but in very subtle ways this vision other people permeates and forms our identity. 

Inconsistencies: Certainly, we have to admit that this way of seeing ourselves and others, this way of defining ourselves is true. We are those who participate in and perform such duties, tasks, and activities. But, if these activities or functions are the only things by which we define our identity and give meaning to our lives, there are a couple of inconsistencies or even crisis we might run into.

Higher by the Lower: The first the simple fact that we are judging or determining the higher by the lower. The lower, more base aspects of reality—external material things and activities—are used to measure and determine the meaning and identity of higher, more noble creatures such as persons and living things. Does a soccer ball, a small round material nonliving thing really define who a person is? Do the things we can produce—a written article, work of art, buildings, or hardware—really determine the significance or meaning of our lives? Do things that have a lower dignity and quality than us, really define who we are? No, or at least they shouldn’t. Yet this is a struggle in our current society. People honestly do not see themselves as greater than, more dignified, nobler, more meaningful or significant than material or external things. Take for example the PETA environmental group and their famous saying: “fish are people
too.” Or take some examples of pop psychology which says we are the sum total of our actions, choices, and decisions. While we could take time to refute these views, that is not the current task. Rather the aim is to make it clear how the culture defines who we are.

To absurdity: Another inconsistency can easily be seen when we take this logic to its extreme: this is called a reductio ad absurdum. You are what you do. So if someone is dysfunctional or unable to do anything, their life is now meaningless? They lack an identity? This is certainly the ultimate conclusion of this logic. If you define yourself by what you do, what happens when you can’t do anything? More syllogistically: If you are what you do and you do nothing, you are nothing.

Here we see the underlying fault present in many of the dignity of life issues we currently face in the United States. Take for example Abortion and Euthanasia. Because these babies are unable to do anything—they are not viable outside the womb—they couldn’t be significant or meaningful and, thus, can easily be discarded and eliminated. Elderly folk can no longer function and contribute to society (so they say). So we must whisk them off to nursing homes and quicken their end so that they don’t feel meaningless.

More Subtle: Yet there is an even more subtle manifestation of this logic. In much the same vein, many will hold up a single passion or desire and define a person’s identity totally on that. Take for example “same sex attraction.” People who have “same sex attraction” have with the encouragement of our society begun defining their identity upon this one desire or passion. A person is clearly more than a single attraction or desire. I am more than my hunger and thirst. Here again we have defined the greater by the lesser, the higher by the lower. The sex drive of a person is an integral and essential part of who the human person is and contributes greatly to the formation of their personality and identity. But it is a part, and contributes. It is not the person. We should feel deeply for these people whose dignity as a whole and entire human person is being ignored. For the few people who struggle with same sex attraction and live in a chasteway with whom I have spoken, a huge part of their conversion or coming to peace with this way of life is their realization that they are greater than this one aspect of their lives; that they have in the eyes of God a greater dignity than simply their sexual orientation.  Yet we as a society struggle to understand and to trust the Church’s teaching because we all too often succumb to this vision of life: you are what you do.

Identity in Faith: How, then, does our faith see identity and meaning in our lives. If our culture says “you are what you do,” then what does our faith say we are? Our Faith teaches us that our identity is founded upon relationships, relationships with my neighbors and my relationship with Christ. We are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and grandparents. From these relationships, our identity and meaning in life grows and develops, giving us orientation and a purpose, what one might call a mission or way to act. I am a son because of my relationship with my Dad and so I act a certain way because of that. What we are determines what we will do and how we will act. In other words, my identity founded upon a relationship gives meaning and significance to my actions.

A certain school of thought in the Church explains this dynamic with this phrase: “Relationship-Identity-Mission.” My relationship with someone determines and informs who I am, giving me a mission or way to live my life. This view bases identity upon an intrinsic relationship in which I can find myself, my identity, and from that I can go forth and lead a meaningful life.

Movie Quote: In a once favorite movie of mine, there is a scene, which pits in a very succinct way this view, the view of our faith, against this view of the culture. Sitting at the dinner table for the Thanksgiving Day meal, the visiting nephew and uncle go at it: “Why is it always what are you going to do, do, do, do, do? and not more about who I am?” “Because, what you do determines who you are.” “No, who you are determines what you do.”

An Object: One could rightly object that this view is clearly inconsistent because who really lives up to these ideals they espouse? Aren’t we all sinners and at the very least fall short of our call to be disciples of Christ? Then, we must not really be Christian or believers, but something else, otherwise we would live authentically. Such a criticism is certainly felt as of late in the Church, but it does not challenge this inner logic. Yes, sometimes a duck does not act like a duck, but it is still a duck. We just call it a lame duck. The same is true for us. We often don’t live up to our relationship with others, but it doesn’t diminish who we are. Rather, we are challenged to be who we really are in a greater way.

Intrinsic Meaning of Life: This leads to the second aspect of our Faith’s claim on our identity: the meaning or significance of our identity is intrinsic. These relationships which inform our identity are immovable; they do not change. And so our identity cannot either. We as parents feel this most with mischievous children. No matter what they do they will always be our children. Indeed, we feel it a most grievous act to disown or to reject someone from the family. As children we feel this. They will always be our parents. This can be a comforting or agonizing reality, but we feel it all the same. Even more so with our faith, once a child of God, always.

I always like to point out to people the permanence of our Catholic identity: once a Catholic, always. Our being Catholic is not determined by our practice. Being Catholic is about our relationship to God through His Son and the Church He founded, and even if we deny that it remains the same. This is not the once saved always saved doctrine. No, it is about God’s fidelity to His relationship with us, which will never change. We can change, reject, or whatever, but He won’t. God is always faithful to the relationship He established with us. This reality is visible in the laws of the Church. The process for reconciliation with God and His Church is very different for one who was at one point in communion with the Church. Such a non-practicing Catholic is always one confession away from communion! For those who went through RCIA, the ease of this reentry is clear. To put it in biblical terms, Jesus is the vine and we the branches. Yes, some branches can wither or even be cut off, but they are still branches of the vine understood and known only in relation to the vine. In more theological terms, the sacraments bestow upon us a sacramental character, which we cannot shed, even for those in Hell. Like a tattoo which remains forever to our glory or shame, the realities received through faith are permanent and eternal because God who maintains them is forever faithful. Moreover, if life is given meaning by these relationships, we can see clearly now how life has an intrinsic meaning, for these relationships always remain if even just a creature of God.

Our Christian Identity:  Now, we have articulated and compared the way both the culture and our faith determine the meaning or significance of who we are. And hopefully it is clear that the Christian claim is a greater claim, a more stable claim which actually bestows meaning upon our identity. What then is our identity? Who are we in terms of culture and faith?

Priest v. Consumer: There are three aspects to our baptismal call and each has a counterpart in the culture. The first is the common priesthood of all the baptized. As the Second Vatican Council states: He [Jesus Christ] also gives them [the lay faithful] a sharing in His priestly function of offering spiritual worship for the glory of God and the salvation of men. For this reason the laity, dedicated to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and wonderfully prepared so that ever more abundant fruits of the Spirit may be produced in them. For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become "spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ".(199) Together with the offering of the Lord's body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God” (LG 34). Against this the culture speaks of us as consumers. Think of this the next time the news covers the consumer spending reports. They are talking about us! And largely they are telling us we are not doing our job. We aren’t spending enough and being good consumers so that the economy can keep going. Yet, which is greater: a priestly sacrifice which consecrates the world or eating stuff?

Prophet v. Individualist: the second aspect is the prophetic office. We in virtue of our baptism—our relationship to God as His sons and daughters—are called to be prophets of this good news, the Gospel. As the Second Vatican Council states: “In connection with the prophetic function is that state of life which is sanctified by a special sacrament obviously of great importance, namely, married and family life. For where Christianity pervades the entire mode of family life, and gradually transforms it, one will find there both the practice and an excellent school of the lay apostolate. In such a home husbands and wives find their proper vocation in being witnesses of the faith and love of Christ to one another and to their children. The Christian family loudly proclaims both the present virtues of the Kingdom of God and the hope of a blessed life to come. Thus by its example and its witness it accuses the world of sin and enlightens those who seek the truth” (LG 35). Against this our culture calls us to be individuals, to speak on our own terms. Particularly in Texas we are proud we did it our own damn selves. We do it our way. Yet, which is greater: speaking on our own behalf or on behalf of one greater than ourselves?

King v. Conformist: The third and last aspect is the royal or kingly stature of the baptized. In this part of our identity, we reign in the kingdom of God by reordering society and the world according to God’s commands. As the Second Vatican Council states: “The faithful, therefore, must learn the deepest meaning and the value of all creation, as well as its role in the harmonious praise of God. They must assist each other to live holier lives even in their daily occupations. In this way the world may be permeated by the spirit of Christ and it may more effectively fulfill its purpose in justice, charity and peace. The laity have the principal role in the overall fulfillment of this duty. Therefore, by their competence in secular training and by their activity, elevated from within by the grace of Christ, let them vigorously contribute their effort, so that created goods may be perfected by human labor, technical skill and civic culture for the benefit of all men according to the design of the Creator and the light of His Word. May the goods of this world be more equitably distributed among all men, and may they in their own way be conducive to universal progress in human and Christian freedom. In this manner, through the members of the Church, will Christ progressively illumine the whole of human society with His saving light” (LG 36). Against this the culture calls us to be conformists. We love to be individuals, but cannot think independently to save our lives. From standing in line to reciting prayers in perfect order, we cannot but conform. So which is greater: conforming to the whims of popular opinions or inaugurating the kingdom of God?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Sermon Notes: The Widow and the Orphan as Signs of God's Love

Reflection For 6:30am Mass
St. Vincent de Paul Parish
Thurs. Week I of Lent
March 13, 2014

And now, come to help me, an orphan” (Esther 14:3)

The Question: Why does God favor the orphan and widow so much? Could it be the difficult if not impossible social, economical, and psychological sufferings they will and do endure? Maybe, but are there not others such as the leper, the dumb, the blind, etc…who might fit this same bill? Why the orphan and the widow?

Scripture:Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

These are great exhortations, but God even identifies Himself by His relationship to the widow and the orphan: Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation” (Psalm 68:5).

The Orphan: God favors the orphan because it is symbolic of His love for us. As Jesus says in John’s gospel: “I will not leave you orphan” (John 14:17). We are an adopted people; we have received through Christ Jesus the “spirit of adoption” allowing us to cry out “Abba” Father (Cf. Romans 8:15). Thus we were an orphaned people, but not by God’s choice, rather by our own in the fall.

The Widow: God favors the widow because in them He sees His own mother Mary, herself a widow. Jesus is a momma’s boy and always has a soft spot for anyone who associates with His mother.

Contemplating Sacramental Signs of Love: God calls us to love in such a way that we grow in understanding of our relationship to Him. Thus He calls us to love those who symbolize the deeper reality of God’s love for us. Jesus uses this logic today when He says, Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asked for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asked for a fish?” The same happens everyday in our own families. Contemplate your relationships with those you love: your spouses, your children, etc… These relationships of love are deep symbols, indeed sacramental signs of God’s love for you.   

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Meaningful Life: Eternal Life

Lenten Faith Formation Series
For St. Vincent de Paul Parish

A Meaningful Life: In our search for happiness, goodness, and beauty, at the end, we all want to say that we lived a meaningful life. We all want to say that our lives meant something to someone, if not only just ourselves. We look and we strive to find certain things, different ways of life, particular people, all with the hope that they will give our lives meaning, significance, direction, or purpose. As with anything, we want to know that, if I am going to run this race, there will be a finish line and a reward, even for just participating; that, if I am going to invest in something, there will be a return; that, if I am going to make this choice, it will pay dividends; and finally, that, if I live this life, I can say it was worth it.

This four part series will look at this desire for meaning, examining the various paths to meaning offered to us by our culture and more importantly by our Faith, the Christian Faith. Tonight, we will begin with the end, the goal, the purpose. Where are we going? What is the purpose or end goal of this life? What will come afterwards? As the topic indicates, the answer will be Eternal Life, but we have some work to do before we get there.         

Two Extremes: Our culture offers us two extremes, two ways of validating our lives and giving them meaning.

Tonight’s the Night: The first extreme I like to call “Tonight’s the Night.” We know and hear of this option every time we turn on the radio or watch music videos: “Baby, tonight is the night so let’s whatever like there’s no tomorrow;” “Tonight’s gonna be a good night, so raise your glasses.” The image that comes to my mind most vividly is a music video from several years ago. It begins with a young girl waking up in the morning after what looks to have been a party to remember. She immediately stands up and begins walking around the house singing about how she cannot wait until the next night to repeat last night.

In this view, meaning is given to life by the vivid pleasure of the current moment, tonight. Such highs of emotion and pleasure validate our experience of hardship and pain by giving us a momentary escape. Happiness is the ecstasy of the moment and the hope of a return. Everything and anything is judged as good and beautiful in so far as it leads to this moment, to “tonight.” In a word, there is no meaning beyond or outside of these “nights,” so raise your glass and make merry while you still can!   

ESPN Man: Now, for many of us, refuting such a view of life would not be difficult, at least on a prudential level: “that just isn’t a smart or responsible lifestyle.” But consider a more nuanced or subtle version of this kind of meaningful life. Consider the “ESPN man.” This man works his average well paying 9-5 Monday through Friday with major holidays off job. He has a wife and kids, a good family. Yet the drudge of work and the difficulty of family life take their toll and do not provide real meaning for him. To what then does he look: Sunday, Sunday, Sunday: Football! After sleeping in and suffering through Church, he comes home to his lovely lazy boy and, perhaps with a few of the guys, reclines back to watch the game with a bowl of Tostitos. This is “tonight” for him, and depending on how it goes, win or lose, his whole week now has meaning. Monday on his way to work he listens to sports talk radio playing Monday morning quarterback. Yet, midweek offers a bit of a lull, almost a slight depression only held up by the hope of the next Sunday--God forbid there is a by-week. Looking to fill this gap, ESPN man takes on a college team. The college he attended isn't very good, but, no worries, a few purchases of merchandise and he is in: Saturday Game Day! Now, he has Saturday and, if things go bad, Sunday as well. Surely the excitement of two games and two days can get him through the week. Ah but alas, no bowl game and missed the playoffs again. So next season, Monday night football! Yes, waiting for a new coach to be hired and new recruits on Saturday, Sunday same old mediocrity, but Monday, if not his team, at least a good game. Surely, three nights and three games can carry him through this week, can give him something for which to live, some kind of meaning to 2 pm falling asleep needing a 5 hour energy drink and traffic and family drama. But alas, Tuesday
through Saturday is too much to bear. So now, Thursday night football, the Monday night of college football. Great a little pick him up during the middle of the long 4 day week without football. Now he only has to endure 2 days without football at a time, and surely there is enough criticism and gossip to fill up that time on talk radio and Sportscenter.

Summary: It is easy to see that as with the more vivid version of this extreme, happiness is the high or rise of the moment offering an escape from the difficulties and pain. The good are all those things which lead and are conducive to this moment of “happiness.” And because of this all of life is meaningful or worth it. My sufferings at work and with my family pay out in my ability to achieve this high or escape.

Really?: But we have to ask: does this really give life meaning, or simply distract us from the fact that it is meaningless? Indeed, in this view, life really does not have any meaning. The lie is that such pleasures or highs give meaning when in reality they only distract us from the lack of meaning. This is particularly devastating when our efforts to reach such a “night” are thwarted and we are consistently unable to achieve them. Particularly for the “ESPN Man,” it is this attempt at a meaningful life which will cause him to confront the proverbial midlife crisis. He will realize that such a life is not sustainable and, when the difficulties of family life and the drudge of work finally take their toll, that such a lifestyle is completely inadequate at giving meaning to life. In the face of such a meaningless life, he despairs and goes into crisis. Again, these pleasures only distract us from the lack of meaning until such a reality catches up with us and we are left with a meaningless response to life.

Legacy: The other extreme our culture offers us is much more “mature” and “responsible” and is in many ways an alternative to the former extreme of “tonight” and “ESPN Man.” This extreme I like to call “Legacy.” In this view, the meaning of life is derived from the legacy or memory you leave behind; how will you be known? By being responsible and mature you contribute to society making a name for yourself and living on in this way. Another way of putting this is how much “staying power” will you life have? This will determine its meaning.

Lebron James: Lebron James recently said that he would go down as one of the top four players in the history of the NBA, making allusions to re-chiseling the “Mount Rushmore” of Basketball with his face included.[1] While certainly a bold claim, I don’t mention this so as to air out my commentary, but rather to illustrate this point which I think Lebron articulates perfectly here. For Lebron, his life will be meaningful if he goes down as one of the greats; all the sacrifice of time and blood and sweat and toil will all have been worth it, meaningful if his legacy is “one of the greats.” If not, his life will literally be meaningless or mean less than it should have, if nothing else but a lesson for the next up and coming wonder. But who wants to be remembered as a lesson in achieving greatness. Other examples in different fields might be Donald Trump, the Clintons, etc…

Happiness and the Good: Happiness in this legacy vision is defined by successfully building up an image or establishing a name which will live beyond your own lifetime. The good becomes all those things which help us achieve this goal, no matter what. The trick with this view of life is that it can be as bad as it can be good. One can choose to search for meaning through a legacy such as Bill Gates, Oprah, Muhammad Ali, or Hitler, Stalin, etc…And while there are many moral problems and trappings in trying to achieve this kind of meaning for one’s life, I want to focus on something deeper: the folly of even searching for such meaning.

Really: But we have to ask ourselves, does this really give meaning to life? And if it does, is this the kind of meaning that we really want?

Exclusive Happiness: The first and major pitfall of this quest for meaning is that it is limited. Not everyone can have a legacy; not everyone can be remembered in such a grand way. So, meaning is limited to a small number of people? Is the rest of humanity left to a meaningless and insignificant life? Very much so in this vision. Meaning is something for the greatest, not the least; the powerful, not the weak; the minority, not the majority. Furthermore, happiness is available only to that same small group who were able to attain that legacy. Indeed, happiness is very exclusive in this search for meaning, and often comes at the expense of others. This is the reality if we choose to go down this road: meaning will be difficult if not impossible to achieve, happiness will come at others expense, and, if we don’t make it, we are left in the wake of meaningless failure.

Not really meaning: This troubling state of affairs causes us to really reconsider whether or not, then, this is true meaning. Looking more closely, meaning is defined by what is left behind in this life: the legacy. So like the first extreme of “tonight's the night,” meaning pertains only to this life, nothing more or beyond. Indeed, at the root of both extremes is a presumption: meaning is only attainable in this life. Yet, in light of the ever encroaching and inescapable reality of death, how can this really offer meaning, particularly for those who are unable to party “tonight” and/or establish any kind of legacy? I suppose that meaning is really that
far out of reach for us. Indeed, under both of these views meaning is extremely out of reach, indeed, non-existent. Thus both set up huge distractions to keep us from realizing that there is not meaning to this life, hoping that the pleasure of tonight or the name we have made will carry us through until we truly pass off into nothingness. This sounds depressing, and it is. These are the options, that is, without the Gospel.   

Christianity: It need not be this way. This life can mean something, but not on its own. It needs something greater, something beyond this life in order to give it meaning, orientation, and purpose. That is life eternal. St. Paul proclaims this saving message: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scripture, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1Cor 15:3-5). St. John makes it even more clear later on: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ, that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life” (3:16).Yes, in the face of these two options of  “tonight” and “legacy” the Christian claims that a meaningful life is attainable for any and for all because of a life beyond this one: Eternal life. In short: this life will mean something because of the next one. In the drudge of work, pain of difficulties, and sufferings, life becomes meaningful with an eternal life. Eternal life validates and makes all our experiences good and bad worth it.

Happiness, then, is a never ending life of complete fulfillment and joy which begins in this life. All things are good in so far as they lead to this end, as long as they lead us to this goal of life eternal. Imagine a never ending life of happiness. This is the claim of Christianity: this life means something because it will not end! 

Unlimited Meaning: This claim is astoundingly bold, for happiness is not limited to a small group of individuals who were strong enough to make a name for themselves, but rather bestowed upon everyone who believes in Christ, particularly the lowly and the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. Indeed, Christian happiness is all inclusive and upholds genuine equality. Everyone has the same chance at a meaningful life of happiness and joy for eternity.

Meaning from beyond: And unlike the two extremes, meaning is not dictated or dominated by what happens in this life good or bad, not even death. Meaning comes from the hope of living beyond these trials and tribulations forever. Furthermore, this hope frees the Christian to embrace the life he is currently living. Instead of distracting himself from difficulties and troubles by pleasures of “tonight” or the pride of “legacy,” he can take them on and acknowledge them with the confidence of a power which can overcome even death. The Christian can actually take on reality because he knows it has meaning, and is not afraid that he will be disappointed by the realization that it is all just a farce—meaningless!

The Resurrection: But what guarantees this for the Christian? How do we know that this claim is true or meaningful and not just another farce or distraction from the real meaningless reality we live? In a word, the resurrection: “If Christ has not been raised, the our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…But in fact Christ has been raised form the dead” (1Cor 15:12-20).
The Christian claim is based on cold hard concrete history. A man who claimed to be God suffered, died, and rose from the dead, and is still nowhere to be found. He is gone like he said. You have to deal with this claim. No one can truly avoid this historical fact. No writing it off to religious fanaticism or ignorance. This man who was dead came back to life, appeared to those closest to him, and ascended into that life which He promised to us. This resurrection guarantees the promise of eternal life for those who believe in Him and live a life worthy of such a belief. Because if it is not true, if He didn't really rise from the dead (like they find his bones), I am out; there are many more ways we can have fun and enjoy this life while it still lasts. I mean we could eat meat! But He rose. Our faith is not in vain.

Beware of the Pseudo: But I have to warn all of you now: beware of the pseudo! Beware of the fake, the knockoff. Beware of a fake Christianity. What is this, you say?

Fake Christianity: In this view, the Christian message of the resurrection is preached and taught, offering a new life already in the present. This resurrection is defined as a certain good feeling or rebirth brought about by good works both in the one doing the work and in the one receiving. This resurrection bestows meaning to life through an all inclusive and equal opportunity happiness. Virtues such as altruism and love are put forward as ways of living which give happiness and meaning to life.

What are we talking about here? Consider any generic feel good story you see on the nightly news, the person of the week or good deed of the day. Some young successful and talented individual takes time out from building their legacy or leaves behind a night scene and begins a charitable organization or giving back in some way. They garner meaning from their life by bestowing this sort of resurrection upon others, as it was on them. Happiness is defined as the sentiment or feeling brought on by such deed that force us outside of ourselves and into an encounter with another who is less fortunate or well off. 

What’s the problem: But what’s the problem with that? Isn't that what we are suppose to be doing as Christians. Isn't that the meaning of Christian life? I have even heard Pope Francis say almost the exact same thing!

Don’t be fooled: No, don’t be fooled. This view is right. Pope Francis has said very similar things. But don’t be fooled by the subtlety. Did you hear mention of eternal life? of Heaven or Hell, Judgment or Purgatory? Did you hear the promise of a life hereafter? No, and you never will. This fake or pseudo Christianity inverts the Christian message and corners it in this life and this life alone. Life is meaningful only in these passing moments of feel good works. But honestly why? Why do such works, why give oneself away like that if I am not going to receive it in return? Why throw a life of “tonight” and “legacy” away if not only for a life which will actually conquer death?

The Resurrection: Let’s make it a bit more clear. The resurrection St. Paul and St. John were talking about was not a surging emotion of happiness from the depths of the soul not yet felt before because we finally had the courage to be nice to someone. They were talking about bodies, a body, popping out of the grave! Yes, this other type of resurrection is present and true, but meaningless without the real McCoy. Life is only truly meaningful because a man who was God rose from the dead and promised me the same if I but follow Him.  

The Wager: I want to close with a thought experiment that I think will clear things up. You walk into a Casino in Vegas and go a corner where 4 slot machines sit. You have one coin, the sum total of all your possessions. After the life came crashing down you went to Vegas and had the night of your life, and now you have nothing but this one coin left. All the machines have a 50% chance of winning. On the far left, you have a 50% chance of winning one more coin, one more chance to play. On the far right, a 50% chance to win 10 coins. In the middle two machines: one holds a 50% chance of 1,000,000 coins, the other infinity. Where do you place the coin?

The Parable Explained: You see it would be illogical to put your coin anywhere else but in the slot for infinity, since all the odds are the same. Any good gambler would tell you the same. The machine on the left is the first extreme of “tonight.” Play to win for one more night, but if you lose its all over: life is meaningless. The machine on the far right is the “legacy.” Win the first go and you can play for a while, maybe even get pretty rich if you’re lucky enough. But be careful before the odds catch up and you lose everything and become a meaningless failure. In the middle two machines both boasting a quite a prize. What you could do with a million dollars! But this is the pseudo. It looks like a lot; it promises a lot; but it isn’t infinity. Such a life will always mean less than infinity infinitely. Infinity is the true Christianity, the true promise of eternal life guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Where will you place your life?

[1] Sports Illustrated: