Saturday, June 4, 2016

The pain you leave behind

I came across this image on my Facebook news feed yesterday, and I experienced a poignant and startling reminder of the fact of  our deep, persistent sinfulness -- more than that, of the seemingly infinite tentacles that reach out from us because of our sins and entangle other people in our messes. The bad choices we have made leave behind miserable consequences which are inextricably connected to us: the ways we've mistreated others; the wrong things we've said or done and the effects these have had on others; and so on. How long could a process of reparation and healing possibly take? And how much pain and forgiveness and hurt would be involved in such a thing?

I was taken back to a reflection on Christian sinfulness in Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, in which Ratzinger quotes a few very impressive paragraphs from a homily of Origen's on Leviticus. Origen notes that, though the priests and such were permitted to touch alcohol during their outside lives, yet when they go to make atonement, they are not to touch any alcohol whatsoever. He compares Jesus' words, uttered at the last supper just before he was about to go and make atonement for the world, where he said that he will no drink the fruit of the vine until he drinks it together with his disciples in the Kingdom of God. Here are Origen's words:
If someone there is among you who draws near with purified hearing, let him understand an unspeakable mystery. What does it mean when he says, 'I will not drink...?'. My Saviour grieves even now about my sins. My Savior cannot rejoice as long as I remain in perversion. Why cannot he do this? Because he himself is 'an intercessor for our sins with the Father'... How can he, who is an intercessor for my sins, drink the 'wine' of joy, when I grieve him with my sins? How can he, who 'approaches the altar' in order to atone for me a sinner, be joyful when the sadness of sin rises up to him ceaselessly? 'With you', he says, 'I will drink in the Kingdom of my Father'. As long as we do not act in such a way that we can mount up to the Kingdom, he cannot drink alone that wine which he promised to drink with us. ... He who 'took our wounds upon himself' and suffered for our sakes as a healer of souls and bodies: should he regard no longer the festering wounds? Thus it is that he waits until we should be converted, in order that we may follow in his footsteps and he rejoices 'with us' and 'drink wine with us in the Kingdom of his Father'. ... We are the ones who delay his joy by our negligence toward our own lives. ...
But let us not ignore the fact that it is said not only of Aaron that 'he drink no wine', but also of his sons when they approach the sanctuary. For the apostles too have not yet received their joy: they likewise are waiting for me to participate in their joy. So it is that the saints who depart from here do not immediately receive the full reward of their merits, but wait for us, even if we delay, even if we remain sluggish. They cannot know perfect joy as long as they grieve over our transgressions and weep for our sins. Perhaps you will not believe me on this point ... but I will bring a witness whom you cannot doubt, the 'teacher of the nations' ..., the apostle Paul. In writing to the Hebrews, after enumerating all of the holy fathers who were justified by faith, he adds, 'These, all of whom received the testimony of faith, did not attain the promise, because God had promised something before for us, so that they should not be made perfect without us'. Do you see, then? Abraham is still waiting to attain perfection. Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets are waiting for us in order to attain the perfect blessedness together with us. This is the reason why judgment is kept a secret, being postponed until the last Day. It is 'one body' which is waiting for justification, 'one body' which rises for judgment. 'Though there are many members, yet there is only one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, I do not need you.' Even if the eye is sound and fit for seeing, if the other members were lacking, what would the joy of the eye be?
You will have joy when you depart from this life if you are a saint. But your joy will be complete only when no member of your body is lacking to you. For you too will wait, just as you are awaited. But if you, who are a member, do not have perfect joy as long as a member is missing, how much more must our Lord and Saviour, who is the head and origin of this body, consider it an incomplete joy if he is still lacking certain of his members? ... Thus he does not want to receive his perfect glory without you: that means, not without his people which is 'his body' and 'his members'... (In Leviticum homiliae, VII, 1-2, quoted in Ratzinger, Eschatology, pp. 185-6).
Origen's point is that the body of Christ is intimately connected in such a way that the sinfulness of one member impedes the perfect joy of all the others, especially that joy of the head, Jesus Christ. This is out of love and out of a concern for others: because Christ loves us so much, and suffered and died for our sins, he cannot be happy and enjoy himself fully so long as we wallow in the mire and swamp of our perversions and evils. My sin holds back the joy of the Lord and of all the apostles and of all those who care for my salvation.

Ratzinger goes on to comment on the inextricable ties by which all of us are bound together, and the consequences of our sins in light of this:
The guilt which goes on because of me is a part of me. Reaching as it does deep into me, it is a part of my permanent abandonment to time, whereby human beings really do continue to suffer on my account and which, therefore, still affects me (p. 187).
My guilt keeps Christ and all the saints from perfect joy -- not because I am dragging their attention away from that joy, but because they love me and look upon me with compassion and want to see me free from the things which hold me back in the swamp I find myself in. In my case, guilt keeps me form joy, but in their case it is love:
It is not only the guilt we leave behind on earth that prevents our definitive reclining at the table for the eschatological banquet, in joy unalloyed. The love that overcomes guilt has the same effect. Whereas guilt is bondage to time, the freedom of love, conversely, is openness for time. The nature of love is always to be "for" someone. Love cannot, then, close itself against others or be without them so long as time, and with it suffering, is real. No one has formulated this insight more finely than Therese of Lisieux with her idea of heaving as the showering down of love towards all. But even in ordinary human terms we can say, How could a mother be completely and unreservedly happy so long as one of her children is suffering? And here we can point once again to Buddhism, with its idea of the Bodhisattva, who refuses to enter Nirvana so long as one human being remains in hell. By such waiting, he empties hell, accepting the salvation which is his due only when hell has become uninhabited. Behind this impressive notion of Asian religiosity, the Christian sees the true Bodhisattva, Christ, in whom Asia's dream became true. The dream is fulfilled in the God who descended from heaven into hell, because a heaven above an earth which is hell would be no heaven at all (p. 188).
A sensitive conscience sees itself as deeply, profoundly sinful, yet this conscience, if it belongs to a Christian, also understands itself as an object of the most perfect love which exists -- the love of God in Jesus Christ, which is shared by all his saints and his people insofar as they belong to him. It remains in this stance of realizing its own poverty, its own brokenness, its own hopeless (if left to its own strength), and looks upward to God, pleading mercy and strength to get up and go about things differently from now on.

But what about the bad decisions I've made, and the persons I've hurt, and those who've suffered because of my sinfulness? Who knows how far the consequences reach -- to me they are unimaginable. Who can fix all of that? And how long will it take? And what is my role in all of that? It can't simply be made to disappear with the wave of a divine hand; that refuses to take seriously my role in all of it and my own responsibility to make things right. Will this take more than one night, like the voice told Charlie Brown?

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