Love, death, and the Resurrection

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Homily at Miraculous Medal Novena, April 29, 2013
1 John 4:7-10, 16-19

One line in the Song of Songs (8:6) tells us: “Love is strong as death.” And we recognize this desire within all love, don’t we? Within the love of a man for a woman, or a woman for a man; or parents for children, or other family relationships; or great friendships; or even in love for a place, a nation, an idea, a work of art. In love we want our love, and especially the beloved, and ourselves as those who love, to be impervious to death.

The young theologian Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI, wrote in his book Introduction to Christianity some 45 years ago:

…love demands infinity, indestructibility; indeed, it is, so to speak, a call for infinity. But it is also a fact that this cry of love’s cannot be satisfied, that it demands infinity but cannot grant it; that it claims eternity but in fact is included in the world of death, in its loneliness and its power of destruction. (p. 302)

The young Fr. Ratzinger considered two ways in which people have sought to gain a sort of immortality: to live on beyond their death in their offspring, or in their fame. But both of these, he observes, give us only an unreal existence, a mere shadow, more nonbeing than being; and then the descendant, or the one who knows our fame, also dies, and even that ghostly remembrance disappears. (p. 303)

Love wants more. But when love meets death, love always loses.

And, indeed, it can seem that, the more one loves, the more quickly one loses to death—the more quickly one’s life is ended by the violent, predatory act of a person or a natural force. We can defend ourselves against our enemies, as we have, time and again; but we see, time and again, that so often, to defend ourselves against them, we must adopt some of their methods and their thoughts; to survive, we must change to become like them. To survive at all, love must diminish.

And so, writes moral theologian Dr. Germain Grisez (one of my professors in seminary; in Fulfillment in Christ, pp. 298-99), in a world hemmed in by death, a morally good but rational person will hedge his bets, pull his punches, so to speak. No matter how much he might wish for all human persons to reach perfect fulfillment in all human goods, he recognizes that this is not an attainable goal, but merely an ideal. He will take care not to act against any of these goods; he will do good to others, actively and energetically; but he will not do so sacrificially. He will not “take up his cross.” Without doing harm to others, he will nevertheless seek to maximize the goods that he himself enjoys within the finite boundaries of this earthly life—since that, after all, is all there is. And this is what is moral yet also rational if there is no resurrection.

How very different was the life of Jesus of Nazareth: how very beautiful, and how very tragic. For he did not hedge his bets. He gave sacrificially, traveling to reach those in need, speaking truth in love; embracing, feeding, healing; liberating from forces natural and human and supernatural. And as violent threats circled around him and closed in, he did not change. He did not flee or stop what he was doing; yet he also did not fight back and so become corrupted into his enemies’ image. He continued to love; and he too was crushed: betrayed, falsely convicted, tortured, killed, and shut up in a tomb. When love meets death, love always loses.

But not this time! This time, on the third day, our Lord Jesus Christ rose again from the dead—glorious, triumphant, and transformed! This time, love conquered death; this time, love’s desire and heart-cry was finally fulfilled!

Our Lord Jesus did not do what the young Fr. Ratzinger observed that we mortal human beings often do. He did not strive for autonomy; he did not wish to stand on his own feet alone. Nor did he seek to live on in human descendants or in human fame, a shadowy existence entrusted to stewards who would also die. No, our Lord Jesus entrusted himself to he who is, to God the Father, the God of the living, the original source and strength of my being. He entrusted himself to the Father; and so his love was stronger than death. (pp. 302-04)

And so, Fr. Ratzinger concludes:

Either love is stronger than death, or it is not. If it has become so in him, then it became so precisely as love for others. This also means, it is true, that our own love, left to itself, is not sufficient to overcome death; taken in itself it would have to remain an unanswered cry. It means that only his love, coinciding with God’s own power of life and love, can be the foundation of our immortality. (p. 306)

With love having conquered death; with the Resurrection revealed and begun; then everything changes. If this earthly lifetime is like a finite room, then our Lord’s resurrection has knocked down the back wall, to reveal a vast expanse—indeed, an infinite expanse, so much larger than the original small room which is now revealed to be a mere entryway.

Thus love, boundless love, is not only possible; it is rational. Now, observes Dr. Grisez, it is truly possible that all human persons might reach perfect fulfillment in all human goods—in the heavenly kingdom, in cooperation with God; in Jesus, to become a perfect community, rejoicing and fulfilled Now our goodness knows no bounds; now Christian moral norms will not contradict natural law norms but will go beyond them. (pp. 297-99) Now it is truly rational to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, loving to the point of sacrifice, of suffering, even of martyrdom: for look what love gains!

Or as Fr. Ratzinger put it:

Only where someone values love more highly than life, that is, only where someone is ready to put life second to love, for the sake of love, can love be stronger and more than death. If it is to be more than death, it must first be more than mere life. (p. 304)

Thus in the resurrection of our Lord is love vindicated; thus do we know what love is; thus are we made able to love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him… There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear… We love because he first loved us.

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