I can’t help but notice the grim mysteries of Holy Week are upon us this year in the middle of a national debate in which one side sees religious believers and institutions as a thorn in the side of progress and wishes to marginalize their ability to influence society. For Christians, the week we enter into the mysteries of sin, suffering, death and judgment are our holiest (and strangely, happiest) days of the year. But what has Good Friday to say to the world? Is it one more proof of the backwardness of Christians?
For an answer we might return to Benedict XVI’s 2007 encyclical "Saved in Hope." You don’t expect a knock-out punch from a man in his 80s, but that’s what His Holiness delivers –rhetorically, of course-- to the assertion that if we banished religion, there would be “nothing to kill or die for” as some imagine.
To summarize one section, modernity has tried to place its hope in “progress” brought by science. If we just do everything “scientifically” the thinking goes, our difficulties will melt away.
The problem is, technology progresses, but morality doesn’t. Each generation can build on the factual discoveries of the last (the wheel never has to be re-invented), but has to be won anew for truth and goodness. The permanent things endure, but human attachment to them doesn’t, not automatically.
However technologically advanced we become, no system or institutions this side of heaven can achieve perfect harmony, because nothing guarantees men will cooperate.
Any institution that could guarantee our behavior would be evil because it would coerce our freedom. We have ample proof of that from the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.
Even institutions like the Church that foster human flourishing can only be as good as the human beings within them. Therefore only some reference point outside the material world is strong enough to motivate us to do the good instead of the pleasurable or convenient. This capacity to sacrifice for the common good is the basis of every human commitment from marriage to the business contract.
Viewed in this light, Christianity doesn’t threaten human freedom; it makes it possible. You can’t do business or make plans or abide peacefully by the results of an election if you can’t basically trust in the honesty and good will of your fellow citizens.
A culture that loses the hope outside itself cannot hope to remain free … not for long, because the inner logic of its laws and institutions will wear away.
Furthermore, strange to say, if the material world is all there is, the savor of even our earthly hopes disappears. Heaven, hell, death judgment –which the culture rejects outright and we tend to soft-peddle—turn out to be the source of happiness even in this life. Without them, nothing matters. Life goes from being a gift and adventure to a barely tolerable monotony of day upon day.
The certitude that my life has meaning -- that, as the pope puts it, whatever happens, I am created by love and “I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good”-- is what makes Christianity more than a personal creed but a force to be reckoned with.
Hope isn’t just a piece of information for our files; it’s the seed of heaven in a baptized soul, imparting a great interior liberty to act for the good in the face of any exterior pressure. It is the joy of the saints and the strength of the martyrs.
Hope gave the first Christians and all subsequent saints the power to make sacrifices for the good of others and to sacrifice their comfort to stand up for the truth – because “God’s love was worth the gift of themselves.”
What is the source of this certainty that we are loved? Good Friday. That God so loved us that he gave his only begotten son. And what is the source of our hope? Easter Sunday.
May you have a blessed and fruitful Holy Week and Happy Easter.