Monday, December 23, 2019

No, Christmas wasn't easy for God.

“But Father, it’s not easy!” I hear this remark often both from penitents at confession and when members of the laity seek my counsel for their personal issues.  This is especially so when in my advice to them, I suggest that they practice some form of selflessness and altruism in their actions and attitudes, putting the other before the self.  This includes forgiving those who betray or hurt them, being generous in being patient with others, excusing rather than accusing, and loving those who do not return the love given.  No, I do not believe that any of these are easy things to do, but I think that part of the reason this retort is often shot back at me is because our frail and weak human nature just doesn’t do well when it comes to living in ways that require of us some degree of effort and sacrifice.  Our sinful nature has a certain default position that is partial toward the path of least resistance, and often this is a path that wants things easy, with little demands made on discipline and effortful love.  

The easy life, however, is hardly ever the life that is lived meaningfully and the life that can be defined as flourishing. Looking at anybody in history who has impacted history with their skills, talents and contribution to human flourishing.  Look at all of the saints of the Catholic Church.  What they share in common is that their lives were lived with effort and discipline, with a purpose that was beyond themselves being molly-coddled.  

I would agree that the choice that we make to live our lives with a sense of purpose and dedication, to live with integrity, fidelity, honesty and justice is not easy.  But since when has anyone promised that living this way would be easy? There is somehow hardwired in us a general false belief (or hope) that the whole enterprise of living life with an eye toward holiness and sanctification is meant to be easy, and just about everybody I have counseled seems to have bought this lie hook, line and sinker.

But there is a truth about life that we also tend to overlook, and this feeds the lie that we believe that life shouldbe easy.  The truth is that the things that are easy for us in life hardly ever lead to growth and maturity.  Easy often means effortless.  And if we apply this to life, when things do not ask of us to put in effort for them to be attained and achieved, it also necessarily means that there isn’t much value in those goals, and there isn’t much asked of us in terms of resources, time, energy and most of all, love.  There is hardly much merit in anything that doesn’t cost us anything in terms of effort.  Any Olympic Gold medalist will tell you that because that gold medal and that moment when one stands at the top tier of that medalists’ podium is so glorious, so splendid and so triumphant, he or she was willing to go through all the sacrifices, tear-inducing trainings and gut-busting competitions to get there.  It was worth the effort.  It wouldn’t have been possible if he or she was just a couch-potato with hardly any sign of gumption or drive in them.  The same is just as applicable to the spiritual life.

In the spiritual life, not taking that path of least resistance is asking of us to take on some form of hardship and put ourselves in some inconvenience, and it will be terribly unattractive and meaningless if we are doing it just so as to make our lives difficult.  That would be not only madness but also terribly masochistic of us.  

But the Christian life is called “Christian” precisely because it is a life that has a Christian dimension to it.  There is a Christian goal for us, and the path to this goal is to live a life that follows a blueprint and a model, and that model is Jesus Christ.  He was not just a good man or a model human being.  He is God as well.  We need to be clear that the incarnation of God becoming man in Jesus Christ was a deliberate choice of entering into our world mortality and sharing in our fallen state.  In the mystery of the incarnation, God himself made that conscious choice of hardship, sacrifice and stripped or emptied himself of his divinity to take on humanity (Phil. 2:7).  The life that Jesus lived was one which saw him pouring out his love on the least and the littlest, and while doing so, showed humanity glimpses of the Kingdom of God. As he moved toward the moment of salvation on Calvary, he was in a progressive state of self-donation.  This emptying of himself reached its apogee on Good Friday, and with his total giving, came a total receiving on Easter Sunday.  

The incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas each year is surrounded with sentimentality and is rather bucolic.  This romance often puts into the shadow the reality that there is a huge amount of hardship taken on by God for him to become man. No, this display of lavish love on God’s part was not easy for him, and it certainly wasn’t easy as well for Mary and Joseph.  If it was not easy for God, we should hardly expect it to be different for us.

The next time you find yourself wanting to retort “but it’s not easy!” to any advice that suggests that you practice a virtue, some form of mortification or self-denial so that your goal of holiness and sanctification can be realized, remember that at the incarnation, God didn’t let “easy” have the last say. 

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