Last Sunday, we reached that time in Lent – Laetare Sunday – explicitly exempted from the penitential practices in order to rejoice, to celebrate. A day to briefly press the pause button on Lenten austerities. And who doesn’t welcome that. Who doesn’t prefer rejoicing to repenting? Now, here we are back with a few weeks of special penances again. What does this swing mean?
Sure, we may know intellectually – from experience or intuition– how vital repentance is to the life of our souls. Yet so many other road maps to the good life vie for out attention. Education, for example, is often viewed as a far more important category in life; without it, we are led to believe, a decent life is next to impossible.
Highly educated by some standards we may be these days, and yet: what of our souls?
Even knowing the preeminent value of repentance, however, there is always that pull towards letting it slide by asserting ourselves in destructive ways or, more benignly, by seizing the good things within our reach. And how many good things there are!
Well, as long as we are meditating upon repentance – in the context of a larger imitation of Christ – we might well contemplate the dramatic manner in which Jesus was unrepentant. We may ordinarily equate the unrepentant with the defiant, the rebel, or the amiable rogue. It’s a good look – a cool way to roll. But the self-emptying, obedient Jesus: unrepentant?
At least that is how Joseph Ratzinger depicted the relentless nature of His love. In an arresting passage of his 1968 book Introduction to Christianity, he writes:
There is a tranquility that knows: in the last analysis, I cannot destroy what he has built up. For in himself man lives with the dreadful knowledge that his power to destroy is infinitely greater than his power to build up. But this same man knows that in Christ the power to build up has proved infinitely stronger. This is the source of a profound freedom, a knowledge of God’s unrepentant love; he sees through all our errors and remains well disposed to us.
He knows far worse about us than we could stand to know about ourselves. Yet he loves us completely, loves us more than anyone in the world could ever love us. This combination, of being utterly known, yet unconditionally loved, is the only true liberation.
The truth about this love is that it has its own inherent properties, as do other sciences. It is as incompatible with license as it is with that other extreme: a formulaic or uptight legalism. It cannot undergo a convenient metamorphosis and become roughly synonymous with other widespread, undemanding connotations of the word. The basic form of love, Ratzinger maintains, remains justice; love exceeds but never destroys justice: “A love that overthrew justice would create injustice and thus cease to be anything but a caricature of love.”
In fact, Ratzinger’s inviting expression comes, of all places, under his treatment of this particular line of the creed: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” He goes on, after cautioning against harboring any “false Christian self-confidence” to write: “At the same time the Christian knows, however, that he is not free to do whatever he pleases.” Even such powerful grace – God’s unrepentant love – does not wipe out our freedom. We must decide how to respond. It is in this precise respect, he writes, that the equality of all men is truly confirmed.
To pretend that whatever we choose to do is fine because it is we who choose it is not only to normalize narcissism but is to excise the ultimate drama from human existence. He concludes with this: “Nothing and no one empowers us to trivialize the tremendous seriousness involved in such knowledge; it shows our life to be a serious business and precisely by doing so gives it its dignity.”
In this brief passage, Ratzinger crystallizes the foundational concepts of freedom, equality, and dignity by tracing them back to their relationship to God’s unrepentant love. And in so doing – by simply presenting the gold standard – he exposes the modern day understanding of those concepts for what they have become: a trinity of old Christian concepts gone mad, to paraphrase Chesterton.
The mad versions of these concepts – freedom as license, equality as cudgel against nature, dignity as autonomy – are what typically constitute the “quality of life” considerations upon which many people in the secular West, if only by default, filter momentous personal, cultural, and ethical issues.
Yet the superficiality, bleakness, and lack of purpose that has proliferated alongside material comfort – have yet to propel a critical mass from questioning the credibility of those words as commonly understood.
So, will Christianity at this historical moment, unlike, say, 1968 or 1989 (as discussed by Ratzinger in his updated preface) “make itself heard as an epoch-making alternative”? Now that we have a new pope, that remains to be seen.
I suspect many of us are simply too comfortable, that our pain has not yet exceeded our profligacy. But as we grapple with the great distance that divides us over what matters most – with the depth of error that has engulfed us, we can hope that many are prompted to turn back with us, recalling that the Father, who alone can restore all that has been lost, loved the Prodigal Son while he was still far off.
Isn’t that really the ultimate goal of all our repentance? That through self-denial and fidelity to justice, we may by His aid one day become like the Master: unrepentant in love.