The first lesson of the Baltimore Catechism begins with a brief exchange between two children and Christ. “Who made us?” “God made you.” “What for?” “To know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.”
This beautiful formulation succinctly captures the essence of the Christian life. Four objectives are stated, with a small division between the first three and the last: if we love God in this life, then we will be rewarded eternally in the next. St. Alphonsus Liguori is one of many spiritual writers who have echoed this perspective:
Each one shall go, in another life, into that house which he himself has chosen. Faith teaches us that, in the next life, there are two habitations. . . .Choose, my soul, to which of the two thou wilt go. If thou desirest heaven, thou must walk in the way which leads to heaven; if though shouldst walk in the way which leads to hell, thou wilt one day unhappily find thyself there.
It is a truth of faith that our worldly actions have eternal consequences, a sobering reminder of St. Paul’s injunction to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12) But it is possible to lose sight of the intrinsic connection between this life and the next if we postulate a heaven that is overly remote and beyond our reach. Such a view obscures the fact that our eternal life began at our baptism and is renewed each time we receive Holy Communion. These sacraments not only initiate us into the Church, they initiate us into the inner life of the Blessed Trinity, a reality that begins in this life and then is completed in the next.
In the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth Pope Benedict XVI emphasizes that eternal life is not something that awaits us after death, but is a reality that begins in this world: “‘Eternal life’ is life itself, real life, which can also be lived in the present age and is no longer challenged by physical death. This is the point: to seize ‘life’ here and now, real life that can no longer be destroyed by anything or anyone.”
In his high-priestly prayer Jesus declares, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) For Benedict, eternal life is communion with God who “becomes accessible to us through the one he sent, Jesus Christ…. ‘Eternal life’ is thus a relational event. Man did not acquire it from himself or for himself alone. Through relationship with the one who is himself life, man too comes alive.”
The Good Shepherd by Philippe de Champaigne, c. 1650
If eternal life is communion with God in Christ, it is not simply a destination to reach after death. It is the anchor of our very existence, and as such it transcends death:
Man has found life when he adheres to him who is himself Life. Then much that pertains to him can be destroyed. Death may remove him from the biosphere, but the life that reaches beyond it – real life – remains. This life. . .is man’s goal. The relationship to God in Jesus Christ is the source of a life that no death can take away.
Benedict’s insight revitalizes our understanding of our Christian vocation by placing eternal life at the heart of daily living. Accented this way, eternal life is not just a distant goal to be reached by accumulating good deeds or by carrying our crosses, as important and necessary as these are. Rather it becomes our source of joy in the present moment because we know Christ, who promises that if we see Him, no one will take our joy from us. (cf. John 16:22)
Benedict adds that, “the early Christians called themselves simply ‘the living.’ They had found what all are seeking – life itself, full and, hence, indestructible life.” Now centuries later, the success of the New Evangelization rests upon Christians who are genuinely alive in the joy of Christ. Rational arguments and instructions have a place in this great movement, but a Christian life well lived is the ultimate weapon. And how can we not be joyful at the realization that true life, eternal life, is already within us through our relationship with Christ?
This perspective does not mean salvation is automatic, or that our current relationship with God will be identical after we die: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” (1 Cor 13:12) In this world, we are still mere pilgrims called to build up treasures in heaven with our good deeds, and we can still squander this gift of life through sin. But awareness that our eternal life has already begun is the daily bread that animates our souls, strengthens us through trials, and brings us true joy that not even death can take away.
The Good Shepherd “came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Life in abundance, Benedict explains in Spe Salvi, “is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we ‘live.’” Eternal life exists here and now. It is our task to discover the infinite joy that is its very essence.