Inside God’s covert rescue operation

In the last edition of the Denver Catholic magazine, I began a three-part series on our story as Catholic Christians, the story of our identity and what we are called to do. With this current issue I will focus on how God chose to rescue us. Our story picks up after Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. 

Satan knew the power and glory of God. He saw that men and women were destined to receive a share of that glory and he rebelled. So, aware of God’s power, the devil waited to see how he would respond to the fall of Adam and Eve, looking for an impressive rescue plan. Instead, God launched a secret counter assault. He came as a humble and defenseless child, born in a stable, in poverty, to the little-known Mary and Joseph.

It might seem like a stretch to talk about Jesus’ life and death in terms of waging battle, but this was not a strange idea for the early Church Fathers. Today we think of Jesus’ death on the cross as him showing us the love of the Father or as making atonement for our sins, but in the first centuries of the Church, Jesus’ mission was described as him going to war to save us. 

St. Ephrem the Syrian described it in this way:

“Death had its own way when Our Lord went out from Jerusalem carrying his cross; but when, by a loud cry from that cross, he summoned the dead from the underworld, death was powerless to prevent it.

Death slew him by means of the body which he had assumed, but that same body proved to be the weapon with which he conquered death.  Concealed beneath the cloak of his manhood, his godhead engaged death in combat; but in slaying Our Lord, death itself was slain.  It was able to kill natural life but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of man.”

St. Maximus the Confessor observed:

“Just as the devil had poisoned the tree of knowledge and spoiled our nature by its taste, so too, in presuming to devour the Lord’s flesh he himself is corrupted and is completely destroyed by the power of the Godhead hidden in it.”

But what changes for us because Jesus conquered death? What does this mean for our story? His victory means that we have been rescued from the kingdom of darkness, and that Heaven is possible for us to enter. It means that death’s eternal grip on us has been broken and that we will rise again to new life. And it means that we can, with the power of his grace, break free from the enslavement of sin.

The reality of Jesus’ victory can seem hard to grasp, but the visions of numerous saints who experienced the internal anguish and utter isolation of hell bring it into sharper focus. In addition to these depictions, modern clinical research into near death experiences helps fill in the picture. One study quotes a man who was severely beaten and who recalled how he “suddenly was surrounded by total blackness, floating in nothing but black space, with no up, no down, left, or right…. What seemed like an eternity went by. I fully lived it in this misery. I was only allowed to think and reflect” (Distressing Near Death Experiences: The Basics, Missouri Medicine Journal, Nov.-Dec. 2014).

Jesus’ victory over death means that rather than being abandoned, you have been rescued. It means YOU matter, that you are loved and worth Jesus’ sacrifice and that he has given you a mission. His mission for us is to build the Kingdom of God on earth and to take it back from the evil one, relying on God’s love, power and grace that he wants to pour out on us.

In the May edition of the Denver Catholic, we will look more deeply at what our response to God’s love requires of us in return. In other words, how are we called by grace and the Holy Spirit to build and grow the Kingdom of God.  

Thank you to all of those who read Our Apostolic Moment, my Lenten pastoral note (archden.org/our-apostolic-moment) and participated in the three invitations this Lent. To help us continue to journey with Jesus Christ through these challenging and blessed times, I will be releasing a digital resource that all can use to encounter Christ and pray their way through the Easter season. Visit denvercatholic.org/subscribe now so you don’t miss it!

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.