Spe Salvi 10: Eternal Life – What Is It?

10. We have spoken thus far of faith and hope in the New Testament and in early Christianity; yet it has always been clear that we are referring not only to the past: the entire reflection concerns living and dying in general, and therefore it also concerns us here and now. So now we must ask explicitly: is the Christian faith also for us today a life-changing and life-sustaining hope?

So we begin a section of Spe Salvi exploring a question: Eternal Life – What Is It? The New Testament hope involved in part the immanent return of the Lord, as some thought. Today we know that Jesus’ return “soon” after his Resurrection and Ascension did not happen as a matter of incarnation. So we ponder the  fate of today’s believer.

As Pope Benedict XVI frames it here, is our hope something in which we participate? Or is it just another bit of theological knowledge, a mystery like the Trinity?

Is it “performative” for us—is it a message which shapes our life in a new way, or is it just “information” which, in the meantime, we have set aside and which now seems to us to have been superseded by more recent information?

I like that Pope Benedict also suggests that we journey with him in search of an answer. We may never get a “full” story in this life. He realizes it. So we begin with liturgy, another plus in my mind:

In the search for an answer, I would like to begin with the classical form of the dialogue with which the rite of Baptism expressed the reception of an infant into the community of believers and the infant’s rebirth in Christ. First of all the priest asked what name the parents had chosen for the child, and then he continued with the question: “What do you ask of the Church?” Answer: “Faith”. “And what does faith give you?” “Eternal life”. According to this dialogue, the parents were seeking access to the faith for their child, communion with believers, because they saw in faith the key to “eternal life”. Today as in the past, this is what being baptized, becoming Christians, is all about: it is not just an act of socialization within the community, not simply a welcome into the Church.

I’ve often termed it as a membership ritual. Many Christians view their baptism as something like a member’s card, entitling them to certain benefits. While eternal life is certainly a wondrous benefit, I don’t think it is the prime reason for the sacrament(s).

The parents expect more for the one to be baptized: they expect that faith, which includes the corporeal nature of the Church and her sacraments, will give life to their child—eternal life. Faith is the substance of hope. But then the question arises: do we really want this—to live eternally? Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment.

I think the prospect of living in an eternity is far from the thinking of many people. We see many ancient things in this life: human monuments as well as natural wonders. We don’t imagine ourselves having such longevity. Maybe also people of previous ages had far less experience with the life of today’s elderly–folks living more than three-quarters of a century or more. Maybe we dream of youthful vigor, those days long passed.

To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable.

The most famous of the Milanese archbishops has a testimony for us to consider:

This is precisely the point made, for example, by Saint Ambrose, one of the Church Fathers, in the funeral discourse for his deceased brother Satyrus: “Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin … began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labor and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing” [De excessu fratris sui Satyri, II, 47: CSEL 73, 274]. A little earlier, Ambrose had said: “Death is, then, no cause for mourning, for it is the cause of (human) salvation” [Ibid., II, 46: CSEL 73, 273].

Do you, reader, think about eternal life? What is your expectation of it? Does the witness of Saint Ambrose make sense?

This document is Copyright © 2007 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana. You can find the full document online here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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