“ You are not thinking as God does
but as human beings do ”
On Friday (14th), the Church celebrated the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The readings of this Sunday’s liturgy reinforce the feast’s emphasis on the centrality of the suffering of the Cross in the life of every Christian.
People of faith celebrate the feast each year knowing that the death of Jesus is the event that gives us hope. Jesus’ death and resurrection gives meaning to all human suffering. Therefore we are proud to make a crucifix visible in our homes.
It is important to remember that the cross was an instrument of torture and death for the ‘trouble-makers’ of the Roman Empire. The modern equivalent would be the electric chair in the United States, or the gallows in New Zealand before 1989.
So couldn’t the Church think up a more attractive title for the feast? ‘Exaltation’ of an instrument of torture? Well, yes, but this would be missing the point.
The Church is insisting that we stay in front of reality – whatever the reality is. And more often than we would like, it is suffering and death that motivates, occupies, and even pre-occupies us.
And this got me thinking about Baptism, this and the fact that it was the anniversary of my own baptism during the week. On the Holy Land pilgrimage earlier in the year, at Emmaus (where the Community of the Beatitudes have a house and care for the site), we saw the excavation of a baptismal font from the early Christian centuries.
On first glance it looked a bit like a stone grave, dug in a cross-shape, with steps down one end and up the opposite side. It was almost two metres from end to end and a metre deep, to be filled with water.
Why did the first Christians design their baptismal places to resemble graves? Because…
“Baptism, the original and full sign of which is immersion, efficaciously signifies the descent into the tomb by the Christian who dies to sin with Christ in order to live a new life. “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.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church par.628)
Fr. Timothy Radcliffe OP has titled his new book “Take the Plunge, Living Baptism and Confirmation”. In the opening pages he notes that about one-third of the world’s population is baptized. He continues:
“People are baptized for all sorts of reasons, perhaps because of a profound experience of conversion, or to pass on their faith to their children, but also just because it is expected, to please the grandparents, to get their children into a Christian school, or just as an excuse for a party or a new hat …. Yet Christians make the grandest claims for baptism. It is our sharing in Christ’s victory over death” (p.1)
Often when I baptise a baby, I want to begin the ceremony by asking the parents: ‘so you want me to baptise your baby; you want me to initiate this beautiful child into the life of Christ, a life of suffering, misunderstanding, betrayal and denial by friends, and death as a criminal…you really want me to initiate your child into this life?’
Now, before you get too anxious about my pastoral style, I can assure you that I have never asked this at a baptism!
But you get my point? When we baptise a child, (or an adult) we are in fact initiating this person into such a life. This does not mean that we are wishing suffering, misunderstanding, denial, betrayal and death on the child. But we are standing honestly before the reality that every human person who has ever lived, has suffered, has been betrayed and denied, has been misunderstood, and has (or will) experience death.
This is the point. Without Christ, we are hope-less. Without Christ we flail about in a forest of tempting escapes under the guise of (apparent) ‘freedoms’. Without Christ there is no point to life.
But wIth Christ, every human circumstance, however tragic, has meaning and purpose.
We baptise a new Christian because life with Christ is the ONLY life that offers hope in the midst of pain, betrayal, isolation and fear. For the Christian, death is not a future fear. The Christian is one who (in Baptism) has already passed through death ‘that s/he might walk in the newness of life!’
And this is where we are given an option. We are offered the choice between life and death. Another way of presenting this is to consider the challenge of Jesus in today’s gospel reading: we choose life when we cease thinking as the world thinks, and when we begin to think with the mind of God.
It is the wise person who wakes up to the reality that no thing can adequately answer the desires of the human heart. But there is some ONE, Jesus Christ (‘God-with us’), who is eager to satisfy every human need. By our very nature (i.e. as a fundamental characteristic of our human design), humans are made to live as a relationship with Jesus Christ who is God.
In this life with Jesus we appreciate that ‘human’ thinking is fatally flawed. Advertising tells us that we will be happy with a bigger house, a faster car, a later-model partner, obedient children, more money, better health…the list is endless!
Each of these pleasures might provide momentary satisfaction. But then the yearning returns because, through our persistent and niggling neediness, God is teaching us to think not as humans think, but as God thinks.