How to Repay the Love of Christ

The most fundamental problem that confronts a Christian, in my view, is how to answer to the Passion of Our Lord – how to prove, as it were, that we have begun to appreciate it, and are grateful for His suffering and death for us.

Every other matter we may like to occupy ourselves with – “political theology” and church-state relations, corruption in the hierarchy, the putative decline of culture and society, the latest twisted fads, liturgical abuses, theological controversies –these, by comparison, are distractions.  We are fundamentally unjust, in Plato’s terms, as we do not “mind our own work” first of all.

What I mean is this. Love is repaid by love: anyone who properly views the Passion and has a human heart, will naturally be led to want to do something extravagant in response, even, to give up his own life similarly Yet how do we do this?

That we should – and should want to – reciprocate is echoed again and again in the saints.  “O my dear Lord!” St. Alphonsus Liguori writes, “Thou didst die in order to gain my soul; but what have I done in order to gain Thee, O infinite good?”  And again: “O my beloved Redeemer, Thou hast for love given Thyself wholly unto me; for love I give myself wholly unto Thee.  Thou for my salvation hast given Thy life; I for Thy glory wish to die, when and as Thou dost please.”  The fundamental logical inference for a Christian is this: “You died for me; I want to die for you.”

Is it too much to say that if we have not in Lent and Holy Week even once felt bewildered about how we could possibly in gratitude repay, those great seasons were lost on us?

St. Alphonsus in the same meditation tells of Blessed Henry Suso who “one day took a knife, and cut out in letters upon his breast the name of his beloved Lord.  And when thus bathed in blood, he went into the church, and, prostrating himself before the crucifix, he said, Behold, O Lord, Thou only Love of my soul, behold my desire, I would gladly have written Thee deeper within my heart; but this I cannot do.” Much to be preferred over tattoos and piercings.

I knew a brilliant theoretical physicist, then a graduate student at Harvard, who attempted to be as consistent in his Christianity, he thought, as in his physics.  If “the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head,” neither then would he: he slept in the city park, like a homeless person, under a bench on the ground, not on it.  Yes, some have entertained theoretical physicists too unawares.

*

I take it that many priests or religious do something like this, although not in as dramatic or outwardly romantic fashion.  They really do leave everything and offer up their own lives, as an oblation.  They are as good as dead from the moment they take their vows.

But what about a layperson?  A layperson might look at and envy a monk.  What can he do?  He is constrained to act like anyone else. As dramatic as the statement might be, it would hardly do for a surgeon, covered in dirt from a night on the ground in the local park, to show up for an operation with the bleeding letters of “JESUS” carved on his chest.  Nor would his gesture likely be taken to be a witness to anything about God.

Yes, we will eventually die, and we can offer that up, yet what can we do right now? Because if we grasp our salvation in the Passion, it’s with the greatest urgency that we’ll want to answer Christ’s love with a corresponding love.  It’s not something we can put off.

In perplexities like this, we might simply ask God.  “What would you have us do, to prove our gratitude for the Passion?”  The oldest answer has been:  repent and be baptized. (Acts 2:38)  Repent, because one can hardly be grateful for the Passion, if one continues to be a cause of it, which is what any sin is.   Be baptized, because such is the fundamental mode of reciprocal death which Christ asks of us, a sharing in his own death.

Baptism is “soft.”  It’s not itself a bloody martyrdom.  It includes no scourging or beatings, no hard works: “it is mercy I desire not sacrifice.” (Mt 9:13)  It’s something material done with belief: “this is the work of God, to believe in him who he has sent.” (Jn 6:29)  We might want to carve letters in our chest – good enough – but the simple direction we get, to start, is the direction given to Namaan: simply go and wash in the water. (2 Kings 5:1-19)

But now assuming we have been baptized, what next?   The other answer which God himself gives us is, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Lk 22:19)  Once again, St. Alphonsus, a priest: “O God of my soul!  Since Thou didst will that the object most dear to Thy heart should die for me, I offer to Thee in my own behalf that great sacrifice of himself which this Thy Son made Thee.”  We can “match” Christ’s offering of his life exactly by offering up Christ’s life reciprocally in the Mass.

For a layperson there is indeed the patient work of turning our every good over to God, such as reckoning time and money as his not ours.  But, more fundamentally, “the faithful are destined by the baptismal character for the worship of the Christian religion. . . .Taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life, they offer the Divine Victim to God, and offer themselves along with It.” (Lumen Gentium 11)

I am saying that we should conceive of the Mass as our fundamental act of love. We are tempted by activism, but let’s be serious – and clear that the sacraments and prayer come first.

 

*Image: The Anchorite by Teodor Axentowicz, 1881 [National Museum in Warsaw, Poland]

You may also enjoy:

Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas’ Friendship with Christ, the Law and Love

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli’s Loving and Knowing Jesus

Michael Pakaluk

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available.

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