Shortly after I became Catholic, someone asked me: “Okay, so some guy died 2000 years ago. What does that have to do with me?
Consider, if you would, the following thought experiment. Say you are walking along a city street and a man walking next to you is struck by a stray bullet and killed instantly. The man has suffered what seems to be a random tragedy. What can you do?
Now let’s say that the police investigate and discover that the bullet was meant for you; that it was fired by a certain group of people with whom you chose to become entangled but shouldn’t have. What seemed like a random tragedy is now no longer entirely “random.” It is a tragedy for which you bear a certain responsibility. But what can you do?
Let’s say that, upon further investigation, the police discover that the man struck by the bullet didn’t just “happen” to be there. It turns out that he had put himself in the way of the sniper’s bullet purposefully, precisely to save you. Now the randomness of the tragedy is completely gone. The bullet was aimed at you, and the man acted consciously to save you. But why?
One possible answer is that the man no longer cared about living, and decided to sacrifice his life for yours. That’s possible, I suppose, but let’s assume that the events of the man’s entire life showed every indication of caring about life very deeply. So why would he give his life for yours? The only answer could be: he cared about you more than he cared about his own life. But why? It’s hard to say.
Let’s say – just to increase the intrigue – that the police now find out that the man who took the bullet for you was, unbeknownst to anyone, your father. For complicated reasons having to do with the nature of his work, you never knew your father was still alive. But as it turns out, not only was he alive, he had been constantly monitoring your progress in life: checking up on you, sending money into your adoptive parents’ bank account to pay for things, advising them on good schools, and all the rest.
Let’s suppose that, in a way reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, this man has been behind just about every good thing that had happened in your life. He had dedicated his life to helping other people and finished it helping one person he loved most: you. And it was indeed precisely this love, as it now turns out, that had caused him to be on that street at that moment to take the assassin’s bullet meant for you.
Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck (1432)
Thus what you had assumed was a random tragedy, now turns out to have been a selfless sacrifice of love – a love so great that this man was willing to sacrifice his own life for yours, even though he was entirely aware that the bullet was the result of your bad decision to associate with some very bad people. Now what?
Cute story. But now here’s my question. If such a thing were to have happened to you – if you found out that there was a person who loved you so much that he had been willing to sacrifice his life for yours – would it change anything? Would it change the way you live your life? Would it put things into focus or bring any greater clarity?
Now let us consider the death of a man on a cross, one of many thousands executed by the Romans. It’s a random tragedy. Let’s imagine that this punishment was meant for you, because of choices you and your friends had made. Now it’s a tragedy for which you are at least partly responsible. Now let us say that the man in question knew about your bad choices, and yet he still accepted the death meant for you.
Why? Let us say, just to finish our little thought experiment, that everything about this man’s life spoke of love and life and hope and caring for others, so much so that no other conclusion could be reached than that he had selflessly loved you more than his own life. What began as a random tragedy and upon later realization had become a grim responsibility would now have been transformed into a quite different sort of responsibility. You’ve now had your life given back to you. What will you do with it?
If you thought that the Lord of the universe – that being who keeps all the stars and planets in their motions, who created every quark and gluon and lepton and who holds every black hole and quasar and galaxy as if in the palm of His hand – if you thought that that was the one who had become an actual human person precisely in order to take a bullet meant for you because of some bad decisions you had made, and that He had actually died for you, that is to say, in your place, would it change the way you live your life? Would it cause you to think about your life differently?
It might, of course, cause you to despair. How can I live up to that sort of responsibility? But what if you thought that the love that sacrificed itself for you was, in fact, still alive, still at work, both in the world, and, potentially at least, in you? What if it were only a question of reaching out, ever so gently, ever so tentatively, and just touching it? Would you?
Would any of it make any difference to you, for the kinds of choices you make from that point on, for the way you think about your life, in the way you choose to live your life?
Well, that’s pretty much the question of Christianity, isn’t it? And worth pondering as you make your New Year’s resolutions – and every day of your life.