by William Deatherage, Executive Director
“Praise” and “rejoice” are terms that may seem rather foreign to us these days, as “fear” and “uncertainty” are likelier candidates to categorize our times. Between COVID, racial tensions, and natural disasters, we are reminded that the Godlike institutions which we depend on are nothing more than human mechanisms built by human hands. Trust in the present has been shattered and bridges to the past have been burned, yielding an uncertain future for millions of people throughout the world. As Independence Day passes, depression and anxiety have disturbed what would otherwise be a time for celebration. Our renewed search for meaning has left many asking whether or not life is worth living, revealing a black hole of despair in our hearts.
Think about a gift. In a seemingly distant era, the reception of a gift required a bit more effort. Before two-day shipping and mass transit, it was quite the chore to carry back a parcel from the post office. In our Summer climate, it is easy to visualize trudging along in the hot Sun, carrying something heavy and asking ourselves, “is this really worth it?” Upon coming home, we quickly realize that it definitely was worth the journey.
Usually, the bigger the gift, the nicer it is. But a big gift is hard to carry home. Additionally, higher quality gifts often require more maintenance. A big house is more difficult to clean, a nicer phone is usually more prone to malfunction, and fine jewelry must be constantly polished. Now, what gift does God give us? Life. It is the ultimate gift, the gift of gifts. It is the gift that keeps on giving, for without it we could not receive any other gifts. But because of its status as the ultimate gift, it is often associated with the weight of the smaller gifts we carry. From a bad day at the office to a sudden life-threatening accident, there are a multitude of bad moments that can cause us to question the value of our entire lives. Furthermore, unlike a physical present that is taken home and enjoyed, there is no clear-cut destination where we can definitively “sit down and enjoy life” without any fear of disruption. Despite technological innovations, humanity is so easily brought to its knees by forces of nature that are outside of our control. The nicest car will inevitably break down. The perfect house can crumble from a single tornado. The finest dessert will go stale. There is no security in material wealth, and there is no place we can go or thing we can do to escape this reality. Life is finite, and once we finally find a place to retire, we die. Nothing is constant or certain. Moving in an out of existence, calling the Earth our dwelling place for a fraction of the universe’s history, humans are, essentially, homeless.
We carry the gift of life on our backs, hopping between destinations, unsure of where the road that lies ahead goes. Funnily enough, while Western culture glorifies the dream of settling down with a family, we are not domestic creatures. Humans are natural wanderers, nomads in search of sustenance: eternal sustenance that no physical thing can provide us with. We may convince ourselves that caving into material possessions will satisfy us, but this is far from the case. Despite the “progress” that has been touted by the pseudo-intellectuals and media personalities who dominate public discourse, human nature reigns supreme. We were never meant to be tethered to the Earth. When we give in to our bodily desires, which is only encouraged by the dark side of capitalism, we commit idolatry. In this time of uncertainty, COVID reminds us of our most natural vulnerabilities. Suddenly, there is a renewed interest in human finitude. There is a renaissance of death.
Our hearts are black holes of despair. Feeding a black hole matter will only make it bigger. Thus, in order to overcome this “black holeness” of our hearts, we require something that transcends matter. We need God. But when human institutions and innovations replace God as the source of happiness and sustenance, they only amplify the agony and frustration we feel towards the world. Anxiety and panic course through our veins as we struggle to make sense of a world that eludes our grasp at every turn. “How could God let this happen?” “Why won’t these pills make me happier?” “I’m earning more money, but I feel empty.”
The gift of life is one that is only slowly unraveled. Like an Advent calendar, you can only open parts of it at a time. Even then, some aspects will make more sense than others. One day the gift will present you with a brand-new sports car. The next day it will present you with a pair of crutches as you sulk out of the hospital from that freak crash that was not your fault. Then, we stare into the same black hole that Biblical figures like Job did, begging God to explain Himself to us. This, of course, never happens until the moment when the gift of life fully unravels: the hour of death. When people die, they often report seeing their lives flash before their eyes. This is the grand revelation of the gift. Finally, all of the answers are climactically given to us! What happens next? Nobody knows. At that same moment that the gift of life is fully opened for us, it is cruelly wrapped back up, leaving us unworthy observers weeping over its untimely recipient.
This realization paints a rather mysterious and bleak picture. We are homeless beggars with this so-called gift of life strapped to our backs that will only be fully opened when we die, just to have it stripped away from us at that same moment. How are we supposed to respond to this? Can such a burden even be called a gift to begin with? The Bible tells us yes, and we are called to answer God with praise and rejoicing, of course!
There is perhaps no greater example of the weight of God’s gift than the story of the Jewish people. For centuries, this great people of God, a first among nations, was subjugated by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Their Exile by Babylon, in particular, provides a vivid example of how crisis situations yield existential questions. During the Exile, we see a once proud nation reduced to nothing. Its people are driven from their homes. The temple, the center of the Jewish people’s culture and livelihoods, is destroyed. Their God, whom they have relied on for spiritual and temporal sustenance, is nowhere to be found. There are varying reports regarding how badly the Jewish people physically suffered, but their entire society was utterly decimated. Their loss of the promised land God had given them led to mass despair and sorrow. Humiliated and divided, the Jewish tradition easily could have been lost altogether. Every gift God had given them was taken… or was it?
It was through the Babylonian Exile that some of the greatest Jewish literature was written. Most scholars agree that it was only after the Exile that the Jewish people began to systematically compile their oral teachings into more organized books that we associate with the Bible today. Biblical scholars are well-aware of strange grammatical inconsistencies and historical contradictions with these texts, which provides clear evidence that the Bible was gradually edited until it became one unified work. While many of the stories in the Bible are as old as they claim to be, the commentary that unites all books of the Bible is driven by one grand existential question that emerged from Exilic oppression: Why would God do this to us? What could possibly explain His abandonment of His people?
The wise authors and redactors of the Old Testament correctly understood that their immense suffering played an integral role in the grand gift of human history. They knew that for every temple torn down, for every man slain, and for every tear shed, that their suffering served a greater purpose. This understanding of the world may seem foreign to those of us conditioned by the dangerous Western tradition of ultra-individualism, which has driven much greed, corruption, and ignorance of broader history. The human story is a common collective, not in a Marxist way but in a mystical one. Whether or not you realize it, the gift you are given gives to others in return, thus playing a part in this great drama called life. The entire human story is one massive gift that slowly and painstakingly reveals itself to us, united by an underlying self-realization of who we are and what we were meant to be. As the Old Testament authors excellently show us, such self-discovery is driven by suffering, which in turn gives meaning to life.
Every generation struggles, and such struggle it is part of their gift to the world. No matter how awful the situation, we understand that everything has a purpose and a place in human history. This is why we are called to praise and rejoice. We are called to play a part in a great mystery that unfolds before our very eyes! And just as Christ hung on a cross in His greatest act of love, we are called to join Him and exclaim words of love in the face of violence, uncertainty, and persecution.
“I will extol you, O my God and King,
and I will bless your name forever and ever.
Every day will I bless you,
and I will praise your name forever and ever.” (Ps 145: 8-9)
In this passage, we sense great jubilation and triumph from a people who suffered so much. By all modern measures of success, the Israelites had no right to praise anything or rejoice in anyone. Philosophers of our times, like Frederick Nietzsche, boldly accused the Judeo-Christian tradition of encouraging mediocrity in its embrace of suffering and referred to Christianity as a hinderance to human progress. To Nietzsche, our Israelite predecessors stand before human history as a pathetic pestilence who embraced an ideology of weakness and vulnerability. To Nietzsche, success is to be measured by the authority and respect we can command only if we lord our powers over others. To Nietzsche, seeing the face of Christ in the stranger and vulnerable man shows weakness and futility. To Nietzsche, the death of a sickly infant only furthers the species. To Nietzsche, human rights are an invention that only serves the weak. To Nietzsche, God is dead and we have a duty to replace him.
Every day, when we go about giving into material desires, subconsciously placing trust in aluminum idols we call iPhones, we edge closer to that depressing void of darkness. By replacing God with colorful screens and fragile governments, we seek meaning in those things that are meaningless, and our backs are broken by a gift that we can never really appreciate. It is only when our phones break, cars crash, homes collapse, and health is threatened that we see the black hole of despair for what it is. Then, we are scared. Then, we are anxious. Then, we are depressed. There is nothing to praise and rejoice because the idols we worshipped are all gone. We are left with a void that can only be filled with the transcendent life, a gift that can only be unraveled through reflection and meditation.
“Thus says the LORD:
Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion,
shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king shall come to you;
a just savior is he,” (1 Zec 9:9-10)
The prophet Zechariah wisely urges us to await the coming of God, who reveals all things. In our Christian context, we are called to embrace our suffering by proudly carrying our crosses. We understand that suffering has meaning precisely because Christ suffered for us. Acknowledging the hiddenness of the gift, Christ proclaims:
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to little ones.
Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father.” (Mt 12:25-30)
Without a Pharaoh, there never would have been a Moses, without a Pilate there never would have been a Resurrection. Without a King George, there never would have been a United States of America. Without the ridicule I endured in high school because of my faith, there would be no Clarifying Catholicism. I look back at every “curse” in my life and have learned to scold myself for dwelling on failure, for the greatest of blessings have only arisen from times of despair, and for that I will praise and rejoice in the Lord.