michelangelo

Dying in the Prime of Life

michelangelo

It has always struck me that the Lord started His life’s work at such a young age and died a mere three years later. There is not much recorded about Jesus’ early and teenage years through His twenties, but the Gospel notes the age at which He began his public ministry shortly after being baptized: “When Jesus began his ministry he was about thirty years of age” (Luke 3:23). The Lord is immediately led by the Spirit into the desert to begin a period of testing for forty days (Luke 4:1-2), after which He spends three years healing the sick, raising the dead, and proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

It is generally agreed that Jesus was crucified and died when he was thirty-three years old. Msgr. Charles Pope offers a good (Thomistic) perspective on why these ages matter, namely, that Christ was sacrificed in the prime of His life so as to make the sacrifice that much greater, and that one’s thirties was considered an age of perfection.

The stages of life

Much of our lives as human beings follow predictable stages: the self-exploration and rebellion of the late teens and twenties; the matching up, settling down, and charging forward phase of one’s thirties; the crisis-prone “half-way” point of the forties that often opens up to reassessment of previous choices; and the settling and “golden years” of the fifties and beyond.

I’ve been through one of those decades and am wrapping up another, but that is as far as I have come. I have lived a little, have had some experiences and some kicks, learned one or two things about regret and mistakes; however, like many people, I would be forgotten pretty quickly if the book ended here. I feel as though I am just cracking open a new chapter of living for people and things beyond my self – particularly, in living for my wife and young children. I can honestly say that I have never been happier, more fulfilled, and full of purpose than I am now. I am in good health – thankfully; our family is in good shape financially; and work is going well.

Letting go and losing is often a gain

The danger, of course, is to hold on to and guard this prime state of life against anything that might threaten it. Of course we know the Lord’s teaching when it comes to holding on to life in a “Would that this moment might last forever!” kind of attitude – “He who loves his life will lose it, says the Lord, “and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal” (John 12:25). When the Lord sent the Israelites manna in the wilderness, Moses said to them, “Let no man leave any of it until morning. But they did not listen to Moses, and some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul” (Exodus 16:19-20).

St. Alphonsus de Liguori recounts in his slim treatise, Uniformity With God’s Will, the great saints who held a good death as a supreme grace, even if it should come when young:

St. John of Avila was convinced that every right-minded person should desire death on account of living in peril of losing divine grace. What can be more pleasant or desirable than by dying a good death, to have the assurance of no longer being able to lose the grace of God? Perhaps you will answer that you have as yet done nothing to deserve this reward. If it were God’s will that your life should end now, what would you be doing, living on here against his will? Who knows, you might fall into sin and be lost! Even if you escaped mortal sin, you could not live free from all sin. “Why are we so tenacious of life,” exclaims St. Bernard, “when the longer we live, the more we sin?” A single venial sin is more displeasing to God than all the good works we can perform.

The perennial challenge

I know I have it good right now. My challenge, about which I pray a great deal, is loosening my grip and turning it all over in a spirit of detached gratefulness: my job, my wife, my kids, my house, my car, my friends, my health, my life itself – everything that makes life in this world worth living and fulfilling. I pray to be willing to offer it to the Lord to do with as He wills. If these things did not mean so much to me they would not be worth so much. And yet I have been praying, as St. Paul writes,

More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:8-11).

It takes a lot to conform ourselves to Christ’s death, to learn to love crosses; it goes counter to our nature. The cross is an ugly, malicious, stained and sordid thing in eyes of the world, an altar of torture to run from and avoid. We’ll usually do anything to get away from it. We know that the Lord called Abraham to sacrifice his only son (Genesis 22:2), and that the Lord himself did not spare His only-begotten as a spotless offering. Would He not expect the same of us?

My wife was reading the story of St. Felicity to me in the car as we were searching for girl names for our new baby:

She appeared with her pious sons before the prefect of Rome, who exhorted her to sacrifice to idols, but in reply heard a generous confession of faith. “Wretched woman”, he said to her, “how can you be so barbarous as to expose your children to torments and death? Have pity on these tender creatures, who are in the flower of their age and can aspire to the highest positions in the Empire!”

Felicity replied, “My children will live eternally with Jesus Christ, if they are faithful; they will have only eternal torments to await, if they sacrifice to idols. Your apparent pity is but a cruel impiety.” Then, turning to her children, she said: “Look towards heaven, where Jesus Christ is waiting for you with His Saints! Be faithful in His love, and fight courageously for your souls.”

The Judge, taking the children one by one, tried to overcome their constancy. When the interrogation was finished, the Saints underwent the penalty of the lash and then were taken to prison. Soon they completed their sacrifice in various ways: Januarius was beaten until he died by leather straps capped with lead; Felix and Philip were killed with bludgeons; Sylvanus was thrown headfirst from a cliff; Alexander, Vitalis and Martial were beheaded. Felicity, the mother of these new Maccabees, was the last to suffer martyrdom.

The Cross holds the key to life

The Christian believer knows that the Cross holds the key to life, and to run or insulate ourselves from it is to deny our very ontological existence. We need to see it through eyes of faith to transform such a horrifying landscape. In the Christian economy, we die to live and live to die, according to St. Paul: “For if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). How much more value is there, then, if we offer the Lord our best, the prime cut of our lives, when to do so would cost us dearly, and not only us, but those we love?

Make no mistake: if we follow Christ – whether at twenty, thirty, forty, sixty, or ninety, whether single or parents of many, whether well off and esteemed or poor and despised – we will suffer. The road to Golgotha is clear to see, and we should pray for courage to follow when the Lord threatens to take everything away from us, even our families, our livelihoods, and our very lives. Believers know how the story ends and that there are no shortcuts – even in the prime of our lives.