We must overcome the pessimism which stops us experiencing the saving power of love, argues Joseph Evans.
We all have a sense that something has gone wrong. I don’t just mean the great injustices and crises we are witnessing in the world today. We don’t have to go so far. We simply need to look into ourselves. The addictions we can’t overcome (and who doesn’t have an addiction of some sort?). The barriers we erect and cannot bring down. The destructive habits we develop. The wrong things we say and then wish they could be unsaid. The time we waste. The good we fail to do … The sad list goes on.
Religious tradition – especially Jewish and Christian – expresses this inner trauma through the tale of the fall of Adam and Eve, found right at the beginning of the Bible. Catholicism calls this ‘Original Sin’. Told in a story form, the text narrates how our first parents, deceived by the devil, rebelled against God. Made good by him, made to enjoy the happiness of the garden, they decided to break the unique commandment he had given them: not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Or in simple religious language, don’t sin.
It is now the great Christian feast of Easter, which many of us celebrated yesterday but which continues through the rest of this week. The feast simply describes God’s response to man’s sin according to Christian belief: God, who is one and three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, sent his Son to earth to save us, to take our sins upon himself, to accept the punishment these deserved and to die because of them. But then to rise above them: his rising to new life showing how God’s life and grace are more powerful than human evil.
Whether one believes this or not, it suggests to me two key realities we need to consider when thinking about God, or about religion, or salvation in general. The first is the fact of God’s love. We might have heard many a sermon on the topic but we still struggle to be convinced. Adam and Eve, it seemed, had the same problem. But this seems to me part of our wound: our inability to believe in love. How can God love me so? How can anyone love me so? We seem determined to believe more in evil than in good, in treachery than in fidelity, in self-interest than in love.
Sure enough, we have plenty of evidence to doubt love and fidelity. Reading any newsfeed could confirm us in our cynicism, as could the daily experience of many of you. But if only we were ready to open our eyes, we would also have plenty of evidence to believe in love. For all the immense power and means of evil, love and goodness live on, nature shows incredible resilience in spite of our efforts to destroy it, destroyed communities revive, and hope can never be totally obliterated. Resurrection seems to lie in the very being of creation.
The second reality is the consideration that God’s salvation – for it to be from God – necessarily needs to be beyond our power and even beyond our imagination. That is the amazing thing about the Resurrection: nobody could see it coming. The possibility that God could become one with us, to save us from the inside, as one of us. That he could take on the curse so as to rise above it. That he could swallow the poison so as to make himself the antidote. All this had never even entered mankind’s mind.
The problem with us humans is that we want to save ourselves. We resist a salvation which we have to receive gratefully. Gratitude doesn’t come easily to us, and even less humility. Just as we find it hard to give disinterestedly, we find it hard to receive.
We would never have imagined a salvation so generous and so complete and which not only restored us to a good relationship with God but took us to a higher level all together. As the early Church fathers put it so boldly, God became man so that man might become God: that is, that we might in some way share in his nature and life.
When humans try to save themselves, their very vision of salvation is so limited. We reduce it to health, or economic distribution, or at most social justice. For this reason, we precisely need a salvation which comes from outside and is beyond our narrow structures. The salvation offered us is sometimes glimpsed in the saints, who manage to love at a higher level, beyond themselves, loving with the very love of God, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta seeking out the most destitute to love and serve precisely because they are destitute. It is through people like her that suffering humanity can be resurrected, at least in part, as we await the final resurrection at the end of time – or so we Christians believe.
This is the message of Easter, which even non-believers would do well to consider. The need to believe in love, that it is possible, it has the power to resurrect. And the need to consider that any salvation worth its name has to go beyond our own limited horizons. Not only are we incapable of saving ourselves, we don’t even know what our salvation truly consists in.
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