Carl E. Olson
A great paradox—perhaps the paradox—of Christian belief and spirituality is that true and everlasting life comes through death.
First, of course, it comes through the death of Jesus Christ, who “by death has trampled death,” as the Byzantine liturgies proclaim during Easter. Secondly, it comes through our own death in this life, when the waters of baptism, through the power of the Holy Spirit, destroy the bonds of original sin and fill us with new, divine life, so we might have communion with the Father.
That, in a nutshell, is the core of the Gospel. It is also—again, paradoxically—a message that people today are both desperate to hear and eager to avoid. Such has always been the case, right from the start. Adam and Eve enjoyed perfect communion with God in the Garden, yet they ended up seeking life and love outside of that communion. They knew what they had, and yet they wanted something else, letting the gift of free will slide into the dark waters of pride and self-love. Their decision, I think, was not a matter of intellectual calculation, but of relational destruction based on a false notion of freedom and existence.
Personally, I’ve been fortunate to so far live a life free of physical hardships and tragedies. However, from an early age I have always struggled with pride and self-love, more often than not flowing from a false (and always self-serving!) perspective on freedom and the nature of my existence. I’ve not had any hugely dramatic “breakthroughs” in my life; rather, I can now see that my life has been a succession of nearly countless little “breakthrough,” most of them deeply interior and hidden from the outside world.
Growing up in a Fundamentalist Protestant home, I constantly heard Scripture quoted and Bible stories told, as well as exhortations to do good, avoid evil, love God, and believe in Jesus. One day, when I was five years old, I asked my mother if I was going to heaven. “No,” she said, “not unless you ask Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior.” After further conversation, she and I knelt at my bed and I asked Jesus to come into my heart. A couple of years later, I was baptized in a rather perfunctory manner, told that my entering into and coming up from the waters was a matter of giving “public testimony” to my faith in God.
This unsatisfactory juxtaposition would later be one of many issues I worked through on the way to eventually entering the Catholic Church. That said, I am thankful that my upbringing was filled with Scripture, which we read daily and often memorized. Two Psalms made a strong impression on me: Psalms 23 and 51, both by King David. I was moved by David’s honest vulnerability, especially as he confessed his sins to God:
O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise. For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Psa 51:15-17)
A broken spirit. A broken heart. Yes, God desires that we be broken, for the hardness of our hearts is what keeps us from allowing His mercy and grace to transform us. David, of course, lived long before the Davidic Messiah came into the world and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:50). But David, despite his grave sins and failings, was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14) precisely because he worshipped the true God, he humbly acknowledged his sins, and he made no excuses for them: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned...” (Psa 51:4).
Jesus, the Incarnate Word, was sinless; he had no need to be broken and humbled. On the contrary, he deserves only praise and adoration. And yet he became man, dwelt among us, and “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). He entered into the dark waters; he purified and prepared them so that I, a son of Adam, might share in the life of the New Adam.
“Do you not know,” asks the Apostle Paul, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
The breakthrough—or, better, the many breakthroughs—for me has been to see, to know, and to joyfully accept the call to offer myself as “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” for that is my true and spiritual worship. Amen!
Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth!
You are everything present and fill all things.
Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life,
come and dwell within us, cleanse us of all stain,
and save our souls, O gracious Lord.