On the roadway to Paradise

An unforgettable look emanated from James’ eyes as he told of the sacrifices he’d made to raise his son alone; neither boasting nor with shame, simply a narrative. He’d given up much to keep his son John, including his own family, who couldn’t accept the child. John had just been accepted into medical school — for which purpose James had for years been working overtime, postponing his own education. A look of shining peace, joy fulfilled, pain not gone or forgotten but changed, beamed from his eyes and radiated from his whole being.

In times of sorrow and suffering, joy can seem a far-off dream, an illusion. I’ve mentioned the word “joy” to people and seen the look of incredulity, as though I’d mentioned flowing waters to a Saskatchewan farmer in the midst of the 1930s drought. Could such a thing be?  Could it be for me?

It’s a trick of sorrow:  sometimes it can make joy seem imaginary. But could joy be present within the suffering that makes us sad? Joy can seem to forget sadness; but isn’t sorrow somehow present in joy, too, changed but recognizable, like the grown-up woman whom we last saw as a small child?

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked…
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
The more joy you can contain….

(Kahlil Gibran)

James’ joy in John’s accomplishment was pure and filled the room. Yet the pain — physical, mental, spiritual — that preceded it, and helped bring it about, was somehow present too.

Christian tradition reminds us we dwell in a place where sin and suffering are ever-present; that we’ve been exiled from paradise, an angel with a shining sword guarding the gate so we cannot return. Christianity maintains joy is the eternal reality, sorrow and pain the passing ones. So often it seems the other way round; our preaching, teaching, writing, witnessing, can be the other way round, dwelling on pain and letting joy fade away.  “Rejoice!” was the angel’s greeting to Mary, at the sin-shattering moment of the incarnation. Her “yes” to God’s overshadowing her brought with it the shadow of suffering, a sword that pierced her heart even as (because?) her heart was big enough to bear God Himself. Was that sorrow a masked version of the joy the angel brought her?

We don’t dwell in paradise. But does it dwell within us? One of our earliest Christian theologians, Irenaeus of Lyons, has a unique depiction of Adam and Eve. He describes them, and therefore all humanity, as living “in the roadway to paradise.”  He portrays them as children in the garden, destined to grow, develop, change; created in God’s image, with the capacity to become ever more like God. That destiny doesn’t alter when they move from Paradise into the roadway. What changes is that now, their capacity for God is to be fulfilled within a world of suffering and sin. Now sorrow is part of joy; pain is part of learning to love.

It may not be what we would choose. Had Adam and Eve consulted us, we might have said, “No, stay in paradise, we don’t really want sorrow and suffering even if they do lead to joy and wholeness. Let’s have the joy without the sorrow.” But there’s a surprising delight in being in the roadway to paradise, in discovering here (rather than in a paradise with no shadow of suffering) our capacity for God. Joy and sorrow are inseparable, writes Gibran; “together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.” Within their relationship is the mystery of how God is intertwined in our lives.

Irenaeus reviews Old Testament history, in which humanity is tripped up over and over by sin and sadness, seemingly lost. He retells the story through incarnation eyes, showing how Christ enters into that lostness, and by taking it up and making it his own, redeems it, “recapitulates” it (Irenaeus adopts this word from Ephesians 1:10). Christ brings the incarnation into the human story, thereby re-opening humanity to the divine. Thus a history of pain and sorrow and brokenness becomes moreso a history of joy and love and fulfilment. This is how Christ recapitulates human history; and each of our histories, if we will let Him.

James was telling his history with incarnation eyes: a story not of sadness only, but of sorrow taken up into joy. If we were to allow Christ into our sorrows, might they too be taken up into joy?

Those who do God's Word are justified

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) June 13 (2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13; Psalm 32; Galatians 2:16, 19-21; Luke 7:36-8:3)

There is nothing as painful as the knowledge that one has let God down. God had been very good to David — He plucked him from insignificance and obscurity and anointed him as King of Israel, saving David from his enemies in the process. God heaped blessings on David and was prepared to do even more.

What we remember and proclaim is greater than our fears

Body and Blood of Christ (Year C) June 6 (Genesis 14:18-20; Psalm 110; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Luke 9:11-17)

In many narratives there is greater meaning in what remains unsaid and unexplained. The passage from Genesis seems mundane and innocuous enough. After returning from a minor skirmish with the enemy, Abraham shares the booty with a mysterious figure named Melchizedek. But then the questions begin.

God is meant to be encountered

Trinity Sunday (Year C) May 30 (Proverbs 8:22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15)

Nearly every Christian home has a Bible — sometimes it is read with regularity, but often it is little more than an adornment. Unfortunately even many of those who read it do so in a superficial or literal manner.

Do Jesus' work of healing, redemption

Pentecost Sunday (Year C) May 23 (Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23)

“What we have here is a failure to communicate!” This was a famous line from the movie Cool Hand Luke. In fact, people are often separated and alienated by a common language. On the other hand, often those who do not speak a word of each other’s language communicate eloquently through smiles, kindness and generosity, and the medium of music.

The Spirit will guide us toward God

Ascension of the Lord (Year C) May 16 (Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:17-23; Luke 24:46-53)

We should beware when our perception of God’s will meshes too smoothly with our own fears, desires, worldview and opinions. While God has His own purpose and plan, human beings have their own — and it is usually of a very different and far less noble nature.

St. Damien teaches us to love

In Belgium recently, someone unexpectedly crossed my path.

A theological conference in Leuven included a service at nearby St. Damien Church. Entering, I met a man, a fellow conference-goer I hadn’t met before, who said, “Come down to the crypt where St. Damien is.” I followed him down, paused with my hand on the doorknob, sensing that that door led to a life-changing encounter.

To know God is to live a life of service

Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year C) May 9 (Acts 15:1-2, 2-29; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23; John 14:23-29)

Change does not come easily, especially when cherished and time-honoured traditions and ideas are challenged. And this is even more evident in the realm of religious beliefs as the struggle during our own time attests.

Love is the only way to know God

Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year C) May 2 (Acts 14:21-27; Psalm 145; Revelation 21:1-5; John 13:1, 31-33, 34-35)

What was it like to be a follower of Jesus Christ in the first century of our era? We are so used to a rather comfortable and undemanding Christianity that we can fail to appreciate the struggle, sacrifice and abandonment to divine providence that characterized the first Christians.

Jesus shares with those who follow Him

Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year C) April 25 (Acts 13:14, 43-52; Psalm 100; Revelation 7:9, 14-17; John 10:27-30)

Religious controversy is nothing new. New ideas and hot-button issues are always guaranteed to stir up passionate debates as well as the darker side of the human psyche.  

In this sense we share much with the people of the first century depicted in the pages of the New Testament. Paul and Barnabas recounted Israel’s lengthy salvation history (omitted passages) and proclaimed the Messianic status of Jesus by portraying Him as the fulfilment and summation of that history. Although some were intrigued and open to their message, it stirred up controversy among many others. People do not like change, especially when cherished ideas or traditions are challenged. Zealous “defenders of the faith” mirror the story’s intolerant behaviour in our own time.

Love others to the fullest, let go of ourselves

Third Sunday of Easter (Year C) April 18 (Acts 5:28-32, 40-41; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19)

It is extremely difficult to remain silent when we have exceptionally good news. The words burn within us and we can hardly wait to share something wonderful. Imagine how much more difficult it would be — if not impossible — to remain silent when the news we had to share had a universal and life-altering impact.