Radiant Beams from the Gospel of Life

Chapter Two: God is Self-Subsistent Life

John Paul II begins Part II of his encyclical on The Gospel of Life with a reflection that God is Himself Life. His life is known to us chiefly through its manifestation in Christ: "The life was made manifest, and we saw it" (1 Jn 1:2). We fix our gaze on Christ, "The Word of life" he writes (Intr. to #29).

The Gospel of Life is not simply a reflection about human life, and about bringing about significant changes in society. It is more than that:

It consists in the proclamation of the very person of Jesus. Jesus made himself known to the apostle Thomas, and in him to every person, with the words: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6). This is also how He spoke of himself to Martha, the sister of Lazarus: "I am the way, and the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die" (Jn 11:25). Jesus is the Son who from all eternity receives life from the Father (#29).

As the Father gives life to the Son in the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity, so the Son has come into our created world to impart a sonship of adoption to humans: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (Jn 10:10; #29). To receive God's eternal life into ourselves in some fashion is, therefore, the purpose of our lives: "God's eternal life is in fact the end to which our living in this world is directed and called" (#30).

Such is the paramount message which God gave to the Israelites in the Old Testament of the Bible. God freely chose to befriend and save the Israelites when they were threatened, remembering them in the kindness of his heart: "I formed you, you are my servant, O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me" (Is 44:21; #31). He came to their rescue in their darkest hour, when a pharaoh was attempting genocide. The pharaoh had given command to midwives to kill all their male babies: "When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter she may live" (Ex 1:16).

God then decided to stretch out his hand and free the Israelites from the slavery they were experiencing "in the iron smelting furnace of Egypt" (Ex 4:20). He would make them to be his own people, give them his laws to obey, and introduce them into the promised land of milk and honey. In preparation for all this, God first of all introduced himself to Moses as having the name which we pronounce Jahweh, meaning "He who is." The significance of that name is profound. Jahweh is not one who has this or that, who has life, for example; He Who IS, IS. Period. And so Christ, Son of God, said plainly: "I am ... LIFE" (Jn 14:6).

The remarkable story about God's name as "I AM" is related in the Book of Exodus. Moses, after he had fled from Egypt into the desert of Sinai was tending the sheep of his father-in-law; one day he saw the strange sight of a bush on fire, which was not being consumed by the fire. Moses said: "I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt" (Ex 3:3). The symbolism tells us something: God is intense activity, like fire, yet exists enduringly in this intensity. Moses probed to learn more about this God, so that he could identify Him to the rest of the Israelites:

Then Moses said to God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, "The God of your fathers has sent me to you," and they ask me, "What is his name?" what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "... I AM WHO I AM. Say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you'" (Ex 3:13-14).

AM means BEING, means EXISTENCE; means existing by one's own being, without dependence upon another. SUBSISTENT BEING is by nature limitless; is eternal, omnipresent, almighty, good, kind, benignant; is love; is positive, not negative; is LIFE. It is beyond our powers to conceptualize self-subsistent being, an essence which simply IS. We know something about love, of course. But only God knows what it means to be self-subsistent LOVE; love released from any limitation and expanding into and beyond cosmic proportions.

We pause a moment to ponder the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, God one in Being, three in Persons. Although this section is not in the encyclical, reflection on the nature of God's Trinitarian Life has relevance to what follows about the manner in which we humans can participate in this divine life. I include it also because I have sometimes been accused of false beliefs by Moslems with whom I discussed the matter. "God is One!" they insisted, "Never three!" They spoke loudly, neglecting my answer that He is indeed one in Being, but three in Persons. But if we follow carefully the teaching which God has revealed to us, we can believe that He is not only one in nature, but also Three in Persons.

What follows is so carefully crafted in expression by saints and theologians that I dare not try to explain the contents in my own words. If you do not understand, you are in good company. The Mystery of the Blessed Trinity is beyond the intellectual powers we now have to understand. We cannot understand how it is possible; neither, however, can we prove that it is impossible. We can only believe it now because God has revealed this mystery. When we see God face to face in heaven, then we will also understand for the first time how He is Three Persons in one Being. Bear with me as we approach, on tip toes and humbly, the deepest mystery which God has revealed to us through Christ.

The Holy Father, during a homily delivered in St. Peter's Basilica on 29 June 1995, in the presence of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, expressed a desire that "the traditional doctrine of the Filioque [be clarified] in order to highlight its full harmony with what the Ecumenical Council of the year 381 [in Constantinople] confesses in its creed: the Father as the source of the whole Trinity, the one origin of both the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (L'Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, 20 September 1995). In partial response to this request, L'Osservatore Romano of 20 September 1995 published a report approved in Munich on 6 July 1982 by a Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. It states that:

... We can already say together that this Spirit, which proceeds from the Father (Jn 15:26) as the sole source of the Trinity and which has become the Spirit of our sonship (Rom 8:15) since He is also the Spirit of the Son (Gal 4:6), is communicated to us particularly in the Eucharist by the Son upon whom he reposes in time and in eternity (Jn 1:32).

The explanatory article indicates that the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church recognize that the Father is the sole source of the Trinity; The Father alone is the Principle without principle. He begets the Son; He likewise breathes forth the Spirit, through the Son. St. Maximus the Confessor expresses it thus: "By nature the Holy Spirit in his being takes substantially his origin from the Father through the Son who is begotten." And St. John Damascene articulates it: "I say that God is always Father since he has always his Word coming from himself, and through his Word having his Spirit issuing from him." And St. Cyril of Alexandria writes: "The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son; he is of the divine substance, proceeding substantially in it and from it." The Commission then explains:

The fact that in Latin and Alexandrian theology the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son in their consubstantial communion does not mean that it is the divine essence or substance that proceed in him, but that it is communicated from the Father and the Son who have it in common. This point was confessed as dogma in 1215 by the Fourth Lateran Council: "The substance does not generate, is not begotten, does not proceed, but it is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, the Holy Spirit who proceeds; so there is distinction in persons and unity in nature... So the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from them both, are one same reality.

The new Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that:

The eternal order of the divine persons in the consubstantial communion implies that the Father, as the "principle without principle" (DS 1331) is the first origin of the Spirit, but also that as Father of the only Son, he is, with the Son, the single principle from which the Holy Spirit proceeds (Second Council of Lyons DS 850).

The article explains that it is in the Spirit that the relationship between the Father and the Son attains its Trinitarian perfection: "They are Father and Son in the Holy Spirit." And the Father only generates the Son by breathing through Him the Holy Spirit and the Son is only begotten by the Father insofar as the spiration passes through him. The Father is Father of the One Son only by being for him and through him the origin of the Holy Spirit... A tradition dating back to St. Augustine has seen the Holy Spirit ... as the eternal Gift of the Father to his "beloved Son." (So far the article in L'Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, Sept. 20, 1995).

In his encyclical the Pope explains that Jesus, Son of God become Man, has merited through His passion and death, that He can now bestow - infiltrate into ourselves - a created share in this uncreated life of the Blessed Trinity:

"When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, 'It is finished'; and he bowed His head and gave up His spirit" (Jn 1930). Afterward the Roman soldier "pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water" (Jn 19:34).

Everything has now reached its complete fulfillment. The "giving up" of the spirit describes Jesus's death, a death like that of every other human being, but it also seems to allude to the "gift of the Spirit" by which Jesus ransoms us from death and opens before us a new life (#51).

With the sacrifice by Jesus now complete, God opens Himself to share His life with man. He does so through the sacraments of the Church which are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the wound opened in the side of Jesus by the spear. The sacraments are now the fountains of grace which flow into our lives to make us children of God. "From the cross, the source of life, the 'people of life' are born and increase" (#51).

What follows in the next paragraphs is not in the encyclical. It is an effort to express in language, inadequate though human words are when touching on that which is divine, to picture the life which exists in God in its absolute and uncreated nature; that life which He now shares with us in a limited and created manner, imparting it to us especially through the channels of the sacraments.

As noted above, in the Trinitarian life, the living Father begets the Son in one eternal act; the Son is forever born of the Father: "A prince from the day of your birth, on the holy mountains; from the womb before the dawn I begot you" sings the psalmist (Ps 110). The Father is Father because He begets the Son; and the Son is Son because He is begotten by the Father. The Father bonds Himself to the Son, if we may say so, by breathing forth the Spirit and so affirming His Fatherhood in the Son; the Son receives the Affirmation and by this mutual aspiration of the Spirit gives the eternal "Yes" to the Father. The Spirit who proceeds from Father and Son is their eternal Bond, their living embrace.

Why is it that we cannot receive new and created life from God unless we live in a "divine life-style?" That is, unless we observe the ten commandments and all that God has revealed to us about proper human behavior? This is surely founded on the fact that, if there is to be any life of God in us, it must be compatible with its source as it exists in the Blessed Trinity. As our bodies tend to reject foreign organs implanted into them, so our supernatural life tends to reject what is foreign to God's life in us. Only what is godlike in our behavior can limb with the divine life which God implanted into us from heaven. Therefore Paul urges that we cultivate divine-like behavior within ourselves: "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Phil 4:8).

In the life of the Blessed Trinity, the Son could gain nothing if He were to seek anything but Sonship; if He were to be disobedient to the Father or attempt to live independently of Him. This eternal fact is absolutely founded on the nature of the Trinitarian relations. The Son is SON, the Father is FATHER, and ne'er can the twain be other. The Father breathes the SPIRIT through the SON, and ne'er can the Triune be other. Life in the Triune God is so absolutely bound to its trinitarian nature, that a departure from such life is a non-entity. Is nothing. Is deception in its very contradictory mis-conception.

Christ spoke about the futility of the prodigal son, who sought adventure in the world outside by leaving the house of his father. He spent all his property in loose living, and then began to suffer want. Finally he came to himself and reflected that life was of no value when spent away from the house of his father. And so he said: "I will arise and go to my father" (Luke 15:18). The story may be interpreted to reflect the fact that, in the Blessed Trinity, the Son and Father are inseparable. The one cannot be without the other. If Son and Father would separate, each would lose identity. And that is impossible in the Blessed Trinity. Christ teaches that it is likewise foolhardy for humans to attempt to live apart from God.

The utter folly of any thought of separation from each other is eternally apparent to Father, Son and Spirit in the Blessed Trinity. For unless they are three in one, they cannot BE. And the stupidity of any divorce from God in our own lives should be apparent to us as well. Unless we live within the life-style of God, we cannot live supernaturally. Too often, however, we learn the lesson the hard way; like the prodigal son who didn't learn it until he felt the pangs of hunger; like Adam and Eve who didn't learn it until they had eaten the forbidden fruit and then saw that they were naked. We humans are often tempted to likewise eat forbidden fruit - to attempt to be new gods who can live independently of the life-force of the Blessed Trinity.

When husband and wife are bonded to each other, each of them is half-life for the other in the two-in-one-flesh union. Yet it is a common experience of marital partners that one of them chronically yearns to re-shape the nature and behavior of the other, to make it identical with one's own. Each desires to dissolve the other and to refashion him or her into the self-image. The man craves to have the woman give up womanliness to re-shape it into manliness; and the woman has intense desires to re-shape her man so that he abandon his dominance and aggressiveness and become woman-like and receptive like her image of humanity. Yet they both know that to succeed in such a craving would be the undoing of their bliss in marriage; they cannot love each other into the marital unity if either of them ceases to be that male and female which they are.

There is no need for such tension in the Blessed Trinity; for the three Persons are already one in Nature. The Father indeed desires the Son to be like Himself in totality - if we may speak thus - and there is no resistance. For the Father is of the self-same substance and being with the Son. Their nature is entirely one; they differ only in their posture of relationship - Father to Son, Son to Father. Their desire to be one is completely realized in their common Being.

The eternal Son accepts His Sonship and does not wish Himself to be other than He IS. He receives the Spirit of Love whom the Father breathes through Him and reciprocates this initiative by His mutual acceptance. The Spirit thus affirms the Father's Fatherhood, and the Son's Sonship, and is united with them as the Third Person proceeding from Father and Son. There is no competition in this one divine Substance in three Persons. There is no inequality for each is a Person only by reason of relationship to the other two Persons, all three subsisting in the same substance and nature. Their eternal YES to each other is the love and life of the Blessed Trinity.

When we humans participate in this eternal life of the Blessed Trinity we call this "adopted sonship." The Son imparts to us thereby a created participation in this life of the Blessed Trinity. We become images of God in a supernatural living condition, being raised one rung higher than the already existing lower rung of our natural existence. The I AM of God's eternal self-subsistent Substance, which is utterly indestructible in its solidarity, is engrafted into us in some created manner, making us into new beings, capacitated now to live forever with God in heaven.

Peter sensed keenly that this new life can come only from Jesus, when he said: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68). We ask what kind of life it is that He imparts to us.

Is the uncreated life of God - of the God who created heaven and earth - ALL POWERFUL and ETERNAL? Then God, by sharing His life with us in a created manner, makes us created sharers in His glory. We become attached to Him by a life-line; to the One to whom Esther addressed the words:

O Lord you have given everything its place in the world, and no one can make it otherwise. For it is your creation, the heavens and the earth and the stars: you are the Lord of all (Esther 13:9, 10-11).

Be receiving divine life within us, we throb with the glory of the One who - if scientists describe creation aptly - who created the initial plasma which released its pressures into the "Big Bang" and exploded itself into our still expanding cosmos. We share the life of Him who presided over the shaping of the cosmos for the past 15 billion years - take or add X billions - and who will supervise its final days when "the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken" Matthew 24:29). How impatient we are when time is heavy on our hands - when we cannot sleep at night, or when the train is late. But God lives in no hurry. He allows the cosmos to unravel itself, to "do its thing" even if it takes fifteen billion years to do so. For God lives in eternity in one great life of divine fullness and rest and satisfaction. Time does not weigh heavy on His hands.

We share this life of God which is IMMENSE and OMNIPRESENT, beyond even the expansion of cosmic space. God is everywhere supporting the earth, the sun and moon and stars. We cover three or four miles per hour when walking, or fifteen miles per hour when running the four minute mile. To reach the moon we speed the rocket to escape the pull of gravity; even so it takes several days to reach the moon whose distance from the earth varies in an elliptical orbit between 221,600 and 252,950 miles. Whereas God is effortlessly present everywhere in the cosmos - supporting us here on earth, holding the moon in place, and the sun at 93,000,000 miles away; and the stars and galaxies, be they ten or more billion light years distant from us. Our life, grafted into this immensity of God's timeless and spaceless solidarity, partakes of His own stability. God suggested to Job that he should look into the night sky of the Arabian desert and see there the work God is doing: "Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth, or can you guide the Bear with its children?" (Job 38:31-32).

This life of God is sprightly and imaginative, FULL OF SPLENDOR AND MAJESTY. Orchids of fetching shape and color tell us that God is an artist who loves to make things beautiful. Fish of marvelous variety in shapes and sizes tell us that He knows how to fit beauty, loveliness, and efficiency into the dynamics of the eco-system of the brine. The ever busy beaver reminds us that God works hard to achieve success in the creation of the cosmos; and the ever-playing otter tells us that God enjoys His work thoroughly. He loves all the plants and animals which He has made. To Job He describes with pride the noble characteristics of the horse which He made, in this magnificent passage of Scripture:

Do you give the horse his might? Do you clothe his neck with strength? Do you make him leap like the locust? His majestic snorting is terrible. He paws in the valley, and exults in his strength. He laughs at fear, and is not dismayed; he does not turn back from the sword. Upon him rattle the quiver, the flashing spear and the javelin. With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground; he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet. When the trumpet sounds, he says "Aha!" He smells the battle from afar, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting (Job 39: 19-25).

The thunderstorm also tells us much about God's inner life and activity. Beethoven inscribed the glory of a storm into the much loved music of his pastoral symphony. The first distant boom of thunder makes the dancers glance at the sky with concern; the clouds darken, swirls of storm winds blow dust over the stage; initial heavy drops of rain splash down; then all the instruments of the orchestra make the rain to pour down, the wind to shake the house, the lightning to strike nearby, and the rumbling thunder to crash with power. That God is uncreated drama in Himself becomes evident to us in the thunderstorm. Psalm 29 celebrates God's overwhelming power as shown in a thunderstorm arising from the waters of the Mediterranean, then rolling over the mountains, forests, fields, and finally deserts of the Holy Land:

The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord upon many waters;
The voice of the Lord is powerful,
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty...

But humans - in body and soul - are the paramount image of God. Michelangelo perceived as none other the beauties of the human body, which he painted into the plaster of the vault and frontal expanse of the Sistine Chapel; which he also sculpted into marble to express the overwhelming commanding power of Moses on the one hand, and the sheer pathos of the Pieta brooding over her martyred Son on the other. And which ancient artists expressed into the curvaceous Venus de Milo, and the strenuous exertions of Laocoon. "Thou has made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor" (Psalm 8). Christ gives us the privilege of tapping into the life of the God who made all this.

Because in God life is identical with truth and beauty and splendor and authenticity, and because there is no shadow or hint of baseness in Him, therefore the life which He imparts to us to render us into His adopted sons is likewise genuine, true, radiant, vivacious, rich as a fountain, and expansive in love. All that is false is far removed from God, and everything in our lives which is deceit and sham is foreign to the life we receive from God. By living in accordance with God's way of life - with His commandments - we celebrate His life in ourselves. By making His commandments the rule of life for ourselves, we grow into Him, and share His life. As the Encyclical testifies:

In that covenant, God's commandment is offered as the path of life: "I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of" (Deut 30:15-16; #48).

The message which the Pope here repeats from the Old Testament is that those who aspire to share richly in the life of God, must live and act as God would have us do. "The Lord is your life" (Deut 30:20) said Moses to the Israelites. Moses teaches that their lives will flourish so long as they abide in the Lord. And God's words are for them not just external commandments: "They are your life" (Deut 32:47). It is by living God's laws, that they will find life worth living.

It is an ancient wisdom, as old as the insights of various hunter-gatherer peoples whose traditions go back as far as anyone can remember. The Lenape Indians, for example, speak of a "white path" which a good person has constructed by a virtuous life, which the soul can then follow after death to travel towards its final destination in eternity. The path is called "Beautiful" and "Righteous" and none except those who had led a righteous life could follow it to the desired goal. The unrighteous "are turned aside here and wander off on a branch path to some unhappy fate." The Lenape who had led a good life can follow the path further to where they enjoy a heavenly existence temporarily now; and when the end of the world will come, they will then be able to pass over into the realm where the Great Spirit exists, to live in His presence forever (see Speck, 174-175). By their good works in this life they pave for themselves the white path on which they can march in the next life to eventually reach the dwelling of the Great Spirit.

Traditional Ainu inhabitants of Hokkaido in Japan expected to be rewarded or punished after death in accordance with how they had behaved during their lifetime. Pastor John Batchelor reports how souls who departed from the body at the time of death were said to migrate down to Hades, there to be directed to proceed either to heaven or to Gehenna:

As soon as the spirit from the "upper world" - that is, our earth - passes down to the centre of Hades, a watch-dog informs it that he has received a message from the Creator, sent through the goddess of fire, as to where it is to go. If it has done good during life it passes along the road to heaven, at the doors of which gods and men meet it and lead it inside. If the spirit belonged to a person who did evil during life, it is informed that, a message having been received concerning its evil deeds, it has now to proceed to Gehenna for punishment. Should the spirit deny having done any wrong, the goddess of fire is summoned and she causes a great picture, representing the whole life of the spirit, to be placed before it. Thus the spirit stands self-condemned, and there is no escape, for the fire goddess has a perfect picture of every word and act the spirit ever said or did while in its body upon earth (Batchelor, 568).

Belief that God holds heaven in store for those who live in accordance with His life- style on earth, is dear not only to hunter-gatherers, but is shared to a great extent by all peoples on earth, no matter what religion they may adhere to, and regardless of the level of technical development which they may have achieved. John Paul II has reason to be confident, therefore, that a great part of humanity will heed his call to revere with awesome respect the human life which God alone creates and owns.

Next Page: Chapter 3: The Contraception-Abortion Duo
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