We leave the maternal womb and enter into this world; after childhood we enter adolescence; we leave adolescence for youth, youth to mature age and old age. Finally, the time comes to leave this world to which we have grown fond of perhaps to the point of deeming it to be the final abode and not wanting anymore to leave it. Yet on this earth our aspiration to the fullness of joy and life is continually frustrated.
When, with disenchantment, we consider the reality, we check everywhere for signs of death—diseases, ignorance, loneliness, frailty, fatigue, pain, betrayals—and our conclusion is: no, this cannot be the definitive world; it is too narrow, too marked by evil. Then the desire to roam beyond the narrow horizon wherein we move emerges in us; we even dream of being abducted to other planets where maybe we are freed from any form of death.
In the universe we know, the world to which we long for does not exist. To satisfy the need for the infinite that God has put in our heart, it is necessary to leave this land and embark on a new exodus .
We are asked for a new exit, the last—death—and this frightens us.
Even the three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, they heard Jesus who spoke of his exodus from this world to the Father (Lk 9:31). They were seized by fear. “They fell with their faces to the ground, and were so afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, and said, arise and be not afraid” (Mt 17:6-7).
From the third century there appears, in the catacombs, the figure of the shepherd with the sheep on his shoulder. It is Christ, who takes by hand and cradles in his arms the person who is afraid to cross alone the dark valley of the death. With him, the Risen One, the disciple serenely abandons this life, confident that the shepherd to whom he/she has entrusted his/her life will lead him/her towards lush meadows and quiet streams (Ps 23:2) where he/she will find refreshment after a long tiring journey in the desert of this dry and dusty earth.
If death is the moment of encounter with Christ and an entry into the wedding banquet hall, it cannot be a dreaded event. It is something we expect. The exclamation of Paul: “For me, dying is gain. I desire greatly to leave this life and to be with Christ” (Phil 1:21, 23) should be uttered by every believer.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “Teach us, O Lord, to count our days.”
Israel has experienced the faithfulness of his God. For him, Israel coined the term hesed we ’emet that occurs frequently in the Bible and which can be translated as: faithful in love. When the Lord stipulates and alliance he is faithful to it, even if the other party betrays its commitments. When He makes a promise, he never misses a word.
Paul was deeply convinced of it: “The faithful God who has called” (1 Cor 1:9); “If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13) and, recalling the unfaithfulness of Israel, he says: “Will their unfaithfulness do away with the faithfulness of God? Of course not” (Rom 3:3-4).
But will people ever match this love?
The Bible speaks of the hasidim (the faithful: from hesed, loyal). Even before Christ, a group of pious and virtuous men—who were given this name—were meant to embody the loyal, law-abiding Israelite, willing even to be martyrs rather than betray their faith. This spiritual power has remained to this day in the Jewish people. Here is what one of these hasidim has written in front of the gas chamber: “God of Israel, you have made the possible so that I would not believe in you. If you thought of being able to divert me from my way, well I’ll tell you, my God, the God of my fathers, you will not succeed. You can hit me, take away from me whatever is precious and dear I have on earth, you can torment me to death, but I will always believe in you. I’ll love you forever. I die as I have lived, firmly believing in you.”
When the wind of test blows “the lamp of the godless is extinguished, the light of the virtuous is bright” (Pro 13:9).
To internalize the message, we repeat: “Grant, O Lord, that on the last day, I can repeat, like Paul, ‘I have finished my course, I have kept myself faithful.’”
Solitude, silence and asceticism are needed to create a climate conducive to contemplation, “inner life” and encounter with God. However, they will be signs of disease if they distance us from people, if they lead to the neglect of those we live among. The contrast between love for people and the worship of God is founded on pagan myths and not derived from the Gospel.
Friend of humankind, Prometheus, had taught them numbers, letters, the art of domesticating animals, agriculture, navigation and metalwork. He ascended to Olympus to steal fire from the gods and bring it to the people below. For this Zeus had him chained to a rock in the Caucasus and ordered a vulture to eternally rend his flesh. This is how the lord of the gods poured out his grudge against the man who, having benefited people, had antagonized the gods.
Nothing is more contrary to the biblical message. Any promotion, any growth of man realizes God’s plan. “So let us love one another since he loved us first. If you say, ‘I love God’ while you hate you brother or sister, you are a liar. How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your brother or sister who you see? We have received from him this commandment: let those who love God also love their brothers and sisters” (1 Jn 4:19-21). With reason, from a biblical perspective, Prometheus has been called “a man after God’s own heart.” In fact, the Lord has taught his people “that a righteous person must love his human fellows” (Wis 12:19).
To internalize the message, we repeat: “Who does not love his brother whom he sees cannot love God whom he does not see.”
Man does not live alone. He is part of a civilized society and should establish collaborative relationships with others. From the need to organize the coexistence comes the need to determine the rights and duties, to give institutions, to set ways and forms to contribute to the common good. It is not easy to determine what is right: Diverse interests come into play; various objectives to achieve are envisaged. There are those who claim favors, demand privileges and inevitable tensions arise.
To further complicate the problem, there are relations between the state system and religious institutions with their principles, norms, customs, traditions, indispensable claims. Many, feeling subjects of two competing powers—which often intrude each other, exchanging mutual accusations of pitch invasions—have a torn conscience. To resolve the conflict, there are those who choose fanatical and fundamentalist positions and attempt to impose their convictions. Those who renounce a confrontation from which they fear coming out defeated and place themselves on the margins.
In the famous Letter to Diognetus, composed around the middle of the second century A.D., wise and timeless principles are suggested: “Christians neither by country, nor language, nor customs are distinguished from other people. Living in Greek and barbarian cities, as it happened, each one must adapt himself to the customs of the place, in clothing, food and rest. They witness to a way of wonderful and undoubtedly paradoxical social life. They live in their homeland, but as strangers; they participate in everything as citizens and detached from all things as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else and have children, but do not throw newborn babies. They share their meals, but not the bed. They dwell in the land, but they have their citizenship in heaven. They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws. To put it short, as the soul is in the body, so are Christians in the world” (Letter to Diognetus, The Manners of the Christians V, VI, 1).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Christians shine as lights in the world: exemplary citizens, consistent with their beliefs, respecting those of others.”