The greatest paradox: That God, who is Life itself, would die for us

Union with God is the highest purpose and destiny of human life.

I suppose that at one level what I’ve just written seems obvious. But the problem is that we don’t always choose union with God over other things. We often choose lesser goods than union with Him. We often choose things that only appear to be good, but in fact draw us away from God or separate us from Him altogether. 

So it might help to think again about why union with God is the greatest thing we can possibly have. This union is the deepest purpose of the season of Lent and of each of our lives.

To be united with God is to be united with the greatest possible good. It is to be united with the One Who is goodness itself. God is not just better than the second most good being in the universe. God transcends the whole universe; He is the Source of the universe and all that is good in it.

From the moment when God created Adam and Eve, He offered humanity the gift of union with Him. We could never have made this happen on our own. We wouldn’t even know how to begin. And yet God created us to live in union with Him and in harmony with the world around us.

And we blew it. In Adam and Eve, who represented the whole human race because they were the whole human race, we chose to eat the forbidden fruit, which in its own way stands for anything that looks so good to us that we forget about God and go for it.

But God desires union with us, and He wouldn’t give up on us. We see this again and again throughout sacred Scripture. Much of Scripture is taken up with recounting God’s covenants with His people. Think, for example, of the Lord’s covenants with Noah, Abraham and Moses.

By means of these covenants, God forges the bond of union with His people again and again. In this context, it is important to remember that a covenant is very different from another kind of relationship, a contract. 

A contract involves two or more parties making a partial and conditional commitment to each other. We’ve all engaged in contracts, whether in business or in our personal lives. Even shopping involves a kind of contract. “Party A” agrees to give something to “Party B,” and in exchange receives something from “Party B.” If one or another of the parties fails to hold up his end of the deal, the whole thing usually falls apart.

The Cross, more than the symbols of other covenants (e.g. the rainbow in God’s covenant with Noah), communicates to us the total gift God makes of Himself to us and for us. And He gives Himself at a moment when we are not only not repaying Him, but in fact we are the ones crucifying Him!

In God’s covenant with His people, on the other hand, He gives everything of Himself to us and gives it unconditionally. We see this most clearly in Christ’s death on the Cross. The Cross, more than the symbols of other covenants (e.g. the rainbow in God’s covenant with Noah), communicates to us the total gift God makes of Himself to us and for us. And He gives Himself at a moment when we are not only not repaying Him, but in fact we are the ones crucifying Him!

That God could and would die for us is a much greater paradox than anything we see in the Old Testament. To die is impossible for God, Who is life itself. It is only by taking on our humanity that it becomes possible for Him to die for us, and bring us back into union with Himself.

We see another such paradox in the sacrament of baptism, which is one of the major themes of Lent and the first means by which we are brought into union with God. In baptism, natural water brings supernatural life. We are cleansed from sin by the very element that was once the punishment for sin, in the great flood of Genesis 6-9. And in baptism, we are brought into union with Christ’s death precisely so that we can also be brought into union with His Resurrection. 

We are so used to these truths that we easily forget that ours is a crazy religion! At least, according to the “wisdom” of this world, it is crazy. But we are not from this world, and this world is not our true home.

This “otherworldliness” is part of the explanation of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, about which we heard in the Gospel of the first Sunday of Lent. It was in a garden that our union with God was broken by the Original Sin, which also wounded our harmony with nature and even the harmony within ourselves. Not in a garden, but in a desert, Jesus begins the work of healing us. He is life itself, and so even a desert can be incredibly fruitful when He is present there. 

The Gospel tells us that in the desert Jesus was “with the wild beasts” and that “the angels ministered to him.” At this moment, Jesus is already healing humanity at both the natural and supernatural levels. And we know that Satan tempted Jesus, but that Jesus never sinned. Christ even heals the corruption of our human will, a corruption that began in the Garden of Eden.

Jesus forges the New Covenant with God, which was prophesied by the Prophet Jeremiah and which Jesus Himself would speak of explicitly at the Last Supper as He gave His Body and Blood to His apostles. We will hear those exact words, the “new and eternal covenant,” during the consecration at every Mass. The Holy Eucharist, more than anything else in this world, forges our union with God, binds us to Him in love and makes us like Him.

But in order for us to enjoy the benefits of the Eucharist, we need to fight our own battle against evil. Lent is for us a privileged time to “go out into the desert” and to make God our priority once again. Each of us faces a somewhat different battle. Each of us is tempted to betray God in different ways. But the basic dynamic is the same for all of us. And we all face the same basic question. 

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his book, Jesus of Nazareth (p. 29): 

“God is the issue: Is he real, reality itself, or isn’t he? Is he good, or do we have to invent the good ourselves? The God question is the fundamental question, and it sets us down right at the crossroads of human existence.

“...The issue is the primacy of God. The issue is acknowledging that he is a reality, that he is the reality without which nothing else can be good. History cannot be detached from God and then run smoothly on purely material lines. If man’s heart is not good, then nothing else can turn out good, either. And the goodness of the human heart can ultimately come only from the One who is goodness, who is the Good itself” (pp. 33-34).

We live in a time of great evil. I don’t say it’s an evil time! We will pray at the Easter Vigil at the end of Lent that “all time belongs” to Christ. But we know there is a lot of evil in this world. We see so many examples of this evil in our daily lives and in the news. 

There are things we all need to do together in order to make the world a holier, better and safer place. But the first thing each of us needs to do is to allow God to conquer the evil in our own hearts. We need to live in union with God and cling to Him as if our very lives depended upon it. Because they do.

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.