“We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification. For even Christ pleased not himself: but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me. For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.”
If through ever deepening conversions to Christ we more and more see the world of men and things the way Jesus sees the world, if we value what Jesus values, if we make his ultimate concern our ultimate concern, and if we behave the way he wants us to behave then we try to live, to believe, and to worship the way one who is in Jesus would live, believe and worship. But ever deepening conversions to Christ, seeing the world of men and things the way Jesus see the world and making his ultimate concern our ultimate concern is impossible if we think Jesus can be detached from history and in particular if we think he can be detached from the Old Testament which would be to detach him from Israel. Jesus’ horizon is Israel horizon transfigured by the mystery that Paul is constantly referring to and thus lifted to its greatest possible heights. The most notable transfiguration of Israel’s horizon is the inclusion of the Gentile in the Promise. Paul says throughout Romans that the Gentiles who are in Jesus are in Israel. This is his very point in Ephesians chapter 3, the epistle given for the Feast of the Epiphany, which sense may be paraphrased this way:
For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles… by grace, (God) revealed to me that which has been hidden in the past, the mystery of Christ, “that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs and of the same body” (as Israel), and partakers of God’s promise in Christ.
And thus Paul continued in Romans 15 to show that Jesus Christ came to Israel, to the circumcision, as a minister of the truth, that truth being that the Gentiles who are in Christ are in the Covenant, “fellow-heirs and of the same body,” and children of Abraham. And because of Christ we glorify God in worship, we rejoice together in worship and our life together may be characterized by peace, valuing one another as Christ has valued us all. Therefore if I work at seeing the world of men and things the way Jesus sees the world, if I work at valuing what Jesus values, then I will see my brother and sister in Christ as a person so highly valued by God that the Son of God died for him. If I really and truly believe that Jesus is God incarnate eventually I realize how profound a mystery that is and how hard it is to put into words his worth or your worth. At times it may seem that I have no way to express God’s value except in the most abstract manner so I say things like “Jesus is of infinite value,” which is to say that I cannot put a limit to Jesus’ value. Value by the way is a close modern equivalent to the word “glory,” a word that we see used in the Bible all the time. But when we read about the glory of God in the Old Testament or the New Testament we tend to take it as “God talk” or “bible-talk” that is untranslatable, but in fact, in our language today, the word “glory” is a reference to the measure or the value of God or whatever the word is identifying. But furthermore what we tend to think is that God’s worth or God’s value is greater and higher than we can possibly measure. That is true but that is not the whole truth.
This reminds me of the old story of St. Augustine and boy by the sea. One day while walking along the shore Augustine was contemplating the Holy Trinity because he was at that time writing De Trinitate, his famous book on the mystery of the Triune God. One morning he came upon a little boy who was running back and forth from the ocean to a pool with a seashell full of water. Augustine stopped and asked the little boy what he was doing and the boy replied, “Can’t you see that I am emptying the sea into this pool I dug?” Augustine replied, “Son, that is impossible. The ocean will not fit into that little pool.” The boy paused from his work and then replied, “I will empty the ocean into this pool before you get the mystery of the Trinity into your head.” Augustine was taken by surprise by the boy’s wit and for a moment turned his gaze to the sea. When he turned back to the boy he has vanished into thin air.
The point of the story is that the mystery of the Trinity is infinite and human understand is finite, just as the sea is greater than a little pool of water. And what I am saying is that the value of God is infinite and human understanding cannot grasp it. Right? Right. But today someone may respond to the story very differently. I can imagine a person who might argue with Augustine and say that in fact you could probably fit the whole Mediterranean into a hole on the beach if you could deactivate the sub-atomic forces that are holding the electrons and protons apart thus ridding the mass of all the empty space and tightening up all the sub-atomic particles into a ball. And if you did that you could get the whole Mediterranean into a hole about 7’ x 7’. If you really care about this you can google it and get the exact size and language. But then you would entirely miss the point of the story. Correct? Correct.
This illustrates another point that I want to make which is — so what that Paul and Jesus lived before we knew anything about atomic or sub-atomic particles? So what. What difference does that make? Why is it that the accepted wisdom today is that since Paul knew nothing about sub-atomic particles and other things that make us modern and thus make us superior to all who came before us — that because of that Paul or whoever has very little to offer us. He is an interesting historic figure. Well, first, I have to separate Jesus from Paul on this matter, but frankly I am not really sure what Paul thought things were composed of, and it certainly would be impossible for Paul to understand subatomic particles as they are understood today since he does not share our contemporary horizon but — what possible difference would that make that Jesus, or Paul or Augustine did not inhabit our contemporary horizon? Now understand that I am not dismissing the reality or the importance, or the sheer wonder and beauty of the of the sub-atomic world; I am not dismissing the great discoveries and mysteries of science like evolution, quantum mechanics, or interstellar space, but I am asserting that this knowledge makes little if any difference with regard to what most people, most of time, in most places have believed about what is most important to life. In fact I submit to you that as the Church we ought to take Jesus’ horizon even more seriously today because apart from Jesus’ horizon — and this is the most important point of all I am saying — apart from Jesus’ horizon all knowledge, without remainder, and in particular what we superficially refer to as “scientific knowledge,” is not only meaningless, but it has the dangerous potential of appearing to be ultimate reality itself, which it is not. It is a reality — yes, but it is a truncated reality, truncated due to a specific methodology — a truncated reality that has been shorn of finality, a reality shorn of final cause, a reality shorn of its true and ultimate purpose, which only comes from God through Jesus Christ. This is really the main point I want to make and this is why we ought to care deeply about our grasp of Jesus’ reality and this is why we ought to pay attention to what Paul says about how we may actualize Jesus’ reality by consciously and intentionally valuing what Jesus’ values and loving the way Jesus loves in the Church.
Back in Advent I made this point, illustrating our present day predicament through Terrance Malick’s movie, The Tree of Life, which explores the manner in which the stories of ordinary people have become part of the story of the cosmos. How on earth does consciousness and personality emerge from impersonal material; what has this value ladened, self-conscious creature Man to do with the utterly unconscious material universe? If you recall, in the film Malick is lovingly attentive to the members of an unremarkable family of four, two brothers, a mother, and a father, the O’Briens. The O’Briens live on everyman’s street, in Waco, Texas in the 1950s and like all our families the O’Briens grow and sometimes fail to grow into a larger life. The whole story is about the death of one of the sons when he was about 18 year-old and how the grief and sorrow of each member of the family is their attempt to love and honor the dead child and also to understand the meaning of his life and death. But Malick sets the life story of the family within the life story of the universe and he places before us the terrible beauty of the birth and evolution of the cosmos violently sculpted into stars and planets swimming together in a myriad of galaxies in interstellar space — here we witness a poetic apotheosis of matter in motion. But Malick draws down upon our planet’s birth and formation sometimes evoking a sense of awe and sacredness while other scenes of fang and claw are disgusting and without any apparent pity or purpose. Not only does life evolve here but in interstellar space at least one planet, one that looks much like our own, is swept clean of any life by something that looks like a solar tsunami. What could be more devoid of meaning than that? What could be more nihilistic? And that enormity placed next to a family like our own evokes not just wonder, but what the old philosophers of a previous generation say — it evokes fear and nausea, because man’s life is but a span, beauty consumes away like a moth, and all of it withers, decays, dies and rots, and all because of that people live in the fear of death their whole life. Malick’s vision brings us face to face with nihilism and yet as we witness this beautiful, but death-dealing cosmological wonder, a story that also contains our story, it is the voice of human sorrow, the sorrow of one mother whose plea for mercy and absolution begins with her lost son but now is seen to enfold the whole universe — it is the human voice, in the film, that infuses value and meaning into the cosmos. I suppose it is because of the enormity of human sorrow that swaddles this world of ours that our treatment of one another strikes me as ultimately important. St. Paul inhabited a different world from our world. His was a cosmos brimming with spiritual beings both friendly and hostile. His was a universe layered with meaning everywhere you looked, albeit not all meaning is good. The cosmos in Paul’s day was mostly enemy territory, though it be enemy territory under siege by Christ the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. But our world today is one of real absence, the poetics of matter in motion, not a field of combat, but a field entirely materialistic and mechanistic: today the universe is more like a big pool table without players, mostly devoid of life and certainly devoid of meaning. We inhabit a sick world and a sickening horizon in which those we love often fear that their lives are predetermined matters of fate, or chance, good luck or bad luck.
Even in the midst of the powers of heaven and earth shaking and even shattering the cosmos, Paul insists that our entry into Jesus’ horizon, our valuing what he values, making his ultimate concern our ultimate concern, our love for one another is redemptive and furthermore like the mother in Malick’s film, our love for one another infuses the cosmos with value. When nothingness appears to have the final word in life, when darkness descends upon us, when it appears that nothing really matters, that is when charity and our self-giving love for one another unmask the lies of nihilism. Paul calls us to love one another, bearing the infirmities of the weak, to practice self-giving love, and thus by imitating Christ we infuse the whole universe with its true and final meaning.
“We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification. For even Christ pleased not himself…”