Two Views of Human Life

Fifth Sunday of the Year. Job 7:1-4,6-7-20, 10; Ps 147:1-2,3-4,5-6; 1 Cor 9:16-19,22-23; Mk 1:29-39

Today the youth apostolate of this archdiocese celebrates Scout Sunday. Now many of the older scouts here today, particularly those moving to high school next year, may be of an age when people begin to ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” By this question, most people mean, “What do want to be in about ten to twenty years' time?” But I have never heard anyone ask the question, “What do want to be in a thousand years' time or a million years' time?” While it seems that we can control what we shall be in ten years' time, it does not seem, at least from a conventional view of life, that we can control what we shall be in a thousand or a million years' time. By that time, we shall be dead, and it is widely, though wrongly, assumed that all our being will have ceased.

So what, then, is this conventional view of life? This view considers the story of a human life to go something like this. People are born; they grow up; they accumulate knowledge and experience. They go to college and then start work as adults. They date and perhaps meet someone whom they marry. They have children. Their work increases in responsibility. In middle age they are at the peak of their profession. Their children gradually grow up and leave home. Their working responsibilities decrease. They settle into a comfortable and happy retirement. Perhaps they go on cruises; or become pillars of the local community. After some years, they decline in health. After a brief illness they pass away peacefully, lamented by friends and relatives, but widely considered as having lived a full life.

In one variant or another, the life I have just described is the life that many desire to enjoy. In fact, people are often bitter when some aspect of this 'good life' is taken from them, for example, by illness or unexpected tragedy. Job indeed expresses such bitterness in today's First Reading. Job has lost almost every good thing from a conventional point of view: his children are dead, his possessions are stolen or destroyed and he has been struck down by illness. And Job complains, saying, “My days ... come to an end without hope. I shall not see happiness again.” Yet in practice, even when someone like Job does retain every good thing in this life, even for several decades, he or she cannot keep them; for death brings such possessions to an end.  

Fortunately, however, as Christians we have a larger view of life, a view that is full of hope, not just for this life but forever. And this is the hope that underpins today's Gospel and Second Reading. Notice how Jesus spends himself extravagantly, moving from village to village, healing people of diseases of the body and driving out demons, which are like diseases of the soul. Nevertheless, while Jesus is making the experience of this life better for many people, his real mission is to draw them to follow him to true life, to lead them to heaven. Similarly, St. Paul, following Christ in today's Second Reading, will do anything, spending himself extravagantly without charge, in order to save at least some people, to bring at least some to become saints in heaven. And this extravagance illustrates a strange paradox. We are much more likely to achieve extraordinary things, even here on earth, if the focus of our lives is fixed on eternal life in heaven, on seeing God face-to-face in the company of the saints forever.

What, then, are the practical lessons for us here and now? How do we live in this world but with our minds fixed on heaven? The first lesson is recorded in today's Gospel. Despite the intense activity of much of Jesus' ministry, the Gospel mentions that he rose early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. The practical lesson for us here is that we too should try to pray every day, the early morning normally being the best time for doing this. So I urge you to set aside at least some time every day for prayer. Not only does Christian prayer prepare us for friendship with God in heaven, but by means of prayer God will also make our lives more fruitful here on earth. The second practical lesson is that God has plans for our lives. When the question is asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” God's purpose for our lives appears to be overlooked. As a child, St Paul never planned to grow up and become a Christian missionary, yet his dramatic encounter with Christ caused him to leave his old life behind and travel throughout the Roman Empire to save souls. God may also call some who are here today, like St. Paul, to follow Christ in a specially consecrated life, such as the religious life or priesthood.

So when considering what we should be doing with our lives, we might like to take some inspiration from Our Lady, and incorporate her words into our daily prayer. When surrendering her whole life for the love of God, Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

 Father Andrew Pinsent, Saint Ambrose Church, Saint Louis, 8th February 2009

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