November 21, 2019

The God of Life

The Apostle Paul, 1635, by Rembrandt

Once upon a time there was a man named Ezra, his wife Susanna, and their young son Joshua. One day Joshua came home crying after being hurt in a playground fight, and Ezra—who didn’t consider crying very manly—told him, “Josh, crying won’t help you at all; it will simply make you look weak. Now, suck it up and make your dad proud, okay?” Joshua agreed as he wiped away his tears, and so from an early age he learned the lesson that real men don’t cry. When his favorite grandfather died a few years later, Joshua grieved deeply—but he kept his feelings carefully bottled up inside, so as to make his dad proud of him. At the gravesite Susanna cried freely as her father was being lowered into the ground, but Ezra expected that from a woman. He and Joshua kept a strong face, however, and Ezra whispered, “I’m proud of you, son; you’ve become a man.” “Thanks, Dad,” Joshua whispered back, while ignoring the ache in his heart.

By the time Joshua was a young man, everyone considered him so self-assured and steady; nothing seemed to bother him—not even the death of his father Ezra. This really tested Joshua’s strength, but he responded in the way he had learned. In the weeks that followed, Susanna was crying constantly, but Joshua didn’t shed a single tear. Everyone admired him and said, “He’s so strong,” or “He’s bearing this with such grace,” or “His dad would be so proud.” However, no one knew what was happening inside Joshua, and he didn’t even understand it himself. A part of him was dying, and soon everyone began to notice it—especially when he stopped eating, working, or leaving the house. Then Joshua took to his bed, and wouldn’t move. Susanna tried without success to get her son up, or at least have him to say something to her—but he wouldn’t. “He’s dead; he’s dead—or at least he might as well be,” Susanna cried. “What can we do?” A relative suggested putting Joshua on a stretcher and carrying him around outside the town, hoping the fresh air and sunlight would revive him, so that’s what they did—but to no avail.

Then the prophet known as Jesus of Nazareth happened to come by, and seeing the situation, told the stretcher bearers to lower Joshua to the ground. After sending Susanna and everyone else off to the town gate, Jesus lay down on the ground next to Joshua, and began wailing loudly to the heavens, over and over again, “Why have you left me? How could you do this?,” while His whole body heaved and was wracked by sobs. Susanna and the others stared in shock, but then after a few minutes they noticed Joshua’s body begin to heave in tandem with Jesus, and then he also cried out, “Why have you left me? How could you do this?” Susanna cried out, “He’s alive! Joshua is alive!” In the meantime, Jesus stood up, reached out His hand toward Joshua, and said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” Joshua did so, and Jesus smiled at him and said, “Joshua, today you have become a man.” Jesus then led him over to Susanna and told her, “Here is your son; he is alive,” and all the people exclaimed, “A great prophet has arisen among us; God has visited His people!” (Andre Papineau, Biblical Blues, p. 177). This imaginative retelling of the story presented in the Gospel of Luke (7:11-17) makes a simple but important point. Whether we are dead in a physical, moral, spiritual, or emotional sense, Jesus came that we might be fully alive.

Our God is a God of life. He created us, and He has the power of life and death over us. This is true in a literal sense; through the power of God, the prophet Elijah was able to restore life to a young man who died. Jesus, of course, is far more than just a prophet; not only did He perform a similar miracle outside the town of Nain, but on Easter Sunday He Himself rose from His tomb as the conqueror of sin and death. Moreover, the Lord promises that if we place our trust in Him, follow after Him, and rely upon His grace, He will one day raise us to a new, glorious, and everlasting life.

St. Paul describes how he had once tried to persecute and destroy the early Church. He was spiritually dead, but by means of his dramatic conversion, Jesus brought him back to life. Divine grace made all the difference in Paul’s life—and the same thing can be true for us. The Lord has a perfect knowledge of our weaknesses and failings—but this knowledge doesn’t cause Him to turn away from us in disgust; rather, He looks upon us with an even deeper love, and desires to touch us in a liberating and healing way. Jesus challenges us to surrender and trust and grow in holiness and faith—and no matter how difficult or frightening this may be, He promises to be with us every step of the way.

For instance, have we learned to keep our feelings firmly under control, to maintain an appearance of strength no matter what, and to repress or deny any emotional needs that might make us appear weak? If so, Jesus comes to us, touches us, and says to us, “I tell you, arise!” Have we been so hurt or betrayed by someone, by life itself, or even by the Church, that we hide behind the walls of our hearts and refuse to let anyone in? If so, Jesus stands outside knocking on the door to our hearts, asking us to let Him enter with His gifts of freedom, inner peace, and healing. Have we somehow come to believe that religion is only about obeying rules and fulfilling obligations, that it has little to do with life in the real world, and that growth in holiness is only for a few select people, but not for us? If so, Jesus comes to us by means of Scripture, the Eucharist, and the local Church community and invites us to open our hearts and come to know Him personally.

As Joshua came to discover, if we deny who we are, and ignore or repress our spiritual and emotional needs, a part of us will eventually die. In a similar way, if we continually and deliberately ignore our conscience, we will become morally dead, and if we make no effort to know God and use His grace, our relationship with Him will wither away. None of these tragic fates are inevitable, and all of them can be prevented—or overcome— through the gracious and loving presence of Jesus. When He sees that some part of us is dead or dying, He is more than willing to come to us, touch us, and restore us to life. This may occur in an instant, or it may be a process lasting weeks, months, or even years; it all depends on how much we have to overcome, and on how completely we’re willing to trust in Him. No matter how deeply we’re wounded or how fully we’re imprisoned, Jesus is the One Who can heal us and set us free. He says to us, “I tell you, arise!”—and only if we heed His summons will we know what it means to be truly alive.

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper

REVEREND JOSEPH M. ESPER is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Anchorville, Michigan. He received his Master of Divinity degree from St. John's Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. Through the years, Father Joe has lectured at Marian conferences, appeared on EWTN, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and other publications. He is also the author of numerous books, including Saintly Solutions, More Saintly Solutions, After the Darkness, Lessons from the Lives of the Saints, and Why Is God Punishing Me? In addition to Amazon, many of his most recent books are available through Queenship Publishing.

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Written by Fr Joseph Esper
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