For the Feast of St. James on Wednesday, the first reading was from the Second Letter to the Corinthians. In it, St. Paul speaks of the Christian life on two levels: the individual and the Church. Let’s look at each.
Level One: The Individual
Many times every day we are asked, “How are you?” We often respond by saying, “I’m doing OK.”
But consider, fellow Christian, the truest answer to this question. For us who are Christian, St, Paul supplies a beautiful answer:
Always carrying about in our bodies the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifest in us (2 Cor 4:10).
As Christians, the Paschal Mystery is our life. We are immersed in the dying, rising, and ascending of Jesus. At every moment of our life, the great Easter mysteries of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection are at work. With Jesus, we are ascending to the Father. No matter what you may think, this is what is really going on.
This cycle may go on several times each day as both good and bad things happen to us or around us. The pattern is also evident in the fact that there are challenging and difficult years in our life as well as ones that are more serene and joyful. Yes, we die, and we rise with Christ. This is the Paschal Mystery; this is our life.
We experience trials, difficulties, disappointments, losses, and even devastation. This is the dying of Christ. That dying, however, leads to new life and so we rise with Christ. It may take “three days” in the tomb, but if we are faithful we rise, not just to where we were before, but more and more alive in Christ Jesus. As the old Adam dies in us we gradually experience the New Adam, Christ Jesus. The old life that dies is replaced by the fuller life of Christ.
Unless the gain of wheat falls to earth and dies to itself it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies it [rises and] produces abundant fruit (Jn 12:24).
Consider how much greater the mighty oak tree is compared to the acorn that fell to earth and “died.” There is hardly a resemblance at all. So it is that the life of the New Adam is incomprehensibly greater than the life it replaces: the dying life of the old Adam.
We are dying, and we are rising, but it is not a simple trade off, for in all of it we are ascending higher and higher with Jesus. The next time someone asks, “How’s it going?” or “How are you?” surprise him with the truest answer: Always carrying about in our bodies the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifest in us (2 Cor 4:10). No matter what you think, this is what’s really going on: the Paschal Mystery is writ personally in our lives.
Level Two: The Church.
In the same passage, St. Paul writes on another level, that of the Body of Christ, the Church. Referring to himself, his sufferings, imprisonments, and difficulties he says,
So death is at work in us, but life in you …. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; … Everything indeed is for you, so that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God (2 Cor 4:8-9; 14-15).
In this way, St. Paul views his suffering (and that of others in the apostolic band) as being for the sake of others in the Church. He suffers so that they might have faith and life. Historically this has been the case: The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church (Tertullian). Some in the Church have suffered and died so that others might have faith and life. One of the hard but freeing truths of life is this: “Your life is not about you.” The ink of the Creed is the blood of martyrs. We ought never to forget how much others have suffered so that we might have faith.
This is the Paschal Mystery writ large: some in the Church are suffering, even now, and others are thriving and experiencing growth. The Church, the Body of Christ, is dying and rising. St. Paul says elsewhere,
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake … (1 Cor 4:9-10).
Indeed! Of the first 33 popes, thirty died as martyrs, two died in exile, and only one died in his own bed. Today’s bishops are often protected, surrounded by layers of staff, cautious in the face of conflict, and in some cases possessed of a comfortable life. St. Paul calls bishops and pastors to a willingness to suffer for the flock if necessary.
Many in the Church today are suffering, although this is often unnoticed by our inwardly focused eyes. (To remedy this, read regularly here: Today’s Martyrs.) Yet in their sufferings the Church obtains mercy and continues to grow. The blood of martyrs is still seed for the Church. In the often-decadent West, we should be somewhat embarrassed at how others are willing to suffer loss, imprisonment, and even death for the faith, while we can barely stir ourselves to roll out of bed and get to Mass on Sunday.
The Lord has so designed His Body, the Church, such that some do suffer, do carry the weight, so that others may thrive and grow. We should be grateful for these sacrifices, often hidden from us but not from God. From their sufferings come life for the rest. It is the Paschal Mystery writ large!