When I read the lectionary readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent in the Novus Ordo yesterday, I was struck by how well the Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel fit together. Each speaks on the topic of the “resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” (as we recite in the Apostle’s Creed). The resurrection and eternal life are both very important to my understanding of Catholic Vitalism.
I believe it is worth including the full text of the first two readings before I expound upon them. I will be using the English Standard Version for all my scriptural quotations in this post.
First, Ezekiel 37:12-14
Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”
And now, Romans 8:8-11
Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
In our Gospel we read about the raising of Lazarus from the dead, one of Christ’s greatest miracles. I will share a portion of this reading, from verse 17 to verse 27:
Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
There are a few themes that are present in each of today’s readings. For example, the Holy Spirit and its effects upon us. We are taught of “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life” in these passages. It is the Spirit which raised Christ, and it is this same Spirit that dwells within us. We will be raised through this very same Spirit. Our mortal bodies will eventually die because of sin, which is what St. Paul means when he says, “although the body is dead because of sin…” Now, what does St. Paul mean when he says the spirit is “alive because of righteousness”? He means nothing less than that it is Christ’s righteousness that makes the Spirit alive within us. We are righteous only because He was first righteous. We have the Spirit only because He first had the Spirit. We rise from the dead only because Christ first rose from the dead through the Spirit on Easter morning. This is why Jesus says that he is “the resurrection and the life” and that “whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
The second half of this sentence is especially important to Catholic Vitalism. What does Jesus say? He says that everyone who lives and believes in Him shall never die (and of course he means eternal death). We are not called merely to belief, but to LIFE, and life means ACTION. “Vitality” can be defined as “lively and animated character” and it is this, a life of vitality in Christ, which we have been called to, and which will allow us to live forever.
Because we shall live forever, we believers—we human beings—are no longer mere mortals, for being mortal means being subject to death! Romans 8:2 says, “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” We are free and we are immortal! Why are we not rejoicing over this? Who has the guts to proclaim this loudly and without fear? Do we think we are too small and weak to make such a claim? After all, we have been told all our lives that we are mere dust, and yes this is true of the flesh, but we are not mere flesh, are we? The Scriptures are clear: Christ has overcome sin and death, and because we share in Christ and have the Spirit in us, we too will overcome sin and death. But there’s more. It is not only our soul which lives forever. We profess and hope for a bodily resurrection. We do not believe that it will only be our souls which live on forever, but that this very body we inhabit will be raised and glorified. How often is this doctrine forgotten? And does this not give even more importance to the body, even, yes, this earthly one? Yes, it is true that it will die, but I am of the view that a bodily resurrection says to us, “You are more than just a soul trapped in flesh. Your body, your mind, it is part of who you are, and it is not something to be treated lightly or with disdain.” This is further supported by another verse that has great importance to Catholic Vitalism, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, which says, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
Today, we are told by the secular world that there is nothing beyond death. When we die, we simply cease to exist. Our bodies decompose and we “return to the earth” (a half-truth but perversion of “from dust you came and to dust you shall return”). We are told that “death” is merely the ceasing of bodily functions. It is just our brain turning off for the last time, our heart no longer beating, our lungs taking in breath no more. Today’s readings rebuke such a position in no uncertain terms. But is it cowardice to believe in life after death? Is it just wishful thinking, or a way for us to cope with the “reality” of our eventual non-existence? Does belief in eternal life diminish the importance of our earthly lives? Nietzsche would tend to say so. In his fourteenth and fifteenth aphorisms in the first essay of Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche attacks Christianity and its notion of eternal life and “reward” with great force.
On the contrary, eternity only adds value and importance to this life. Eternity, and life after death, means that this life has great implications for our eternal life. What we do or do not do during this mortal life—this unique and singular God-given mortal life—will determine our eternal fate. What does this mean? Nothing less than that each action is now of eternal consequence! This should frighten and excite us. It adds weight to our virtue and to our sin. Some may retort that this is exactly the problem, and that we ought to value life despite the existence (or in their mind because of the non-existence) of heaven and hell. But ultimately, we must ask ourselves why we believe in eternal life at all? Despite what Nietzsche or anyone else wants to say, we believe in eternal life because of the person of Jesus. If you accept that Jesus Christ is the Son of God—that he is who he says he is, and that his words are true, and that his death and resurrection really did happen—then you must accept eternal life and the eventual resurrection of the body.
Why, then, should we care at all about this life? The simple answer is because it is a gift. God declares in Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” We were predestined to exist. Creation was an act of God’s supreme Will, and for what? For us. God did not create the world for His own pleasure. He did not create you, or me, because He needed us or needed our praise. God did not create you or me just to praise Him, either. He did not just want our eternal praise.
No, God created the world for us. Life is for us. Yes, I declare it now to you! God created us and gave us life, yes, this mortal life, not just because He wanted us to love Him, but primarily because He wanted us to experience His infinite and overflowing love. Now, obviously God wants us to love Him and to praise Him. But why does He want this? Because this is how we best share in His love. It is how we unite ourselves to Him, and through this unity we are able to partake in God’s love most perfectly. We accept His love, and we give it back. 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because he first loved us.” So why do we live? To be loved by God and to love God back. Unfortunately, we cannot perfectly love God due to sin—that perfect love is what will be achieved after we die—but we live so that we can be loved, and so that we can love. And it is not just God whom we are called to love but our neighbor, because “love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). Further, “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). Therefore, not only were we made to be loved by God and to love Him back, but to be loved by others (we are always first loved by another) and to love others back. Loving God and loving others in this mortal life is the greatest act of all. It is what we were made for. It is why we are here.
Eternity, then, will not be merely a bodily bliss of many pleasures. That is far too simply. It will be a most sublime existence, yes, but why? Because when we pass on, and when we have attained to eternal life through Christ and the Spirit, we will then be enabled to perfectly and wholly love God and to perfectly and wholly loved others, and thus we shall be enabled to perfectly and wholly receive God’s love and the love of all others who are united in Him. Our life’s purpose will be achieved. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:12 that, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” And what is it we shall know? God. And by knowing God we will know His love, for “God is love.”
This, my friends, is the meaning of life and eternal life. Our life is a journey and journeys are of great value, but only when they have a final destination. For us, this final destination is not death. Rather, it is eternal, resurrected life in Christ and perfect unity with God. Amen.