“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est)
Sometimes I struggle to make relevant connections for my students. Other times, the perfect words come to mind and I am pleased that, despite myself, I was able to connect it to their lives.
I was reviewing the above quote from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est. Ethics, I told them, are a part of Christian living but they are not the reason we are Christian. Intellectual Theology, while beautiful and true, is also not the primary focus of Christianity. Instead, we are Christian because we have encountered the Living God. I told them that if Christianity was merely a system of rules, then I could not do what I do. I would never be able to remain passionate, day in and day out, if I simply presented an intricate system of rules. It would not bring such joy to my life to belong to an institution situated around rules.
In a similar way, I told them that our relationship with God should in some ways mirror our relationships with friends.
“What are some of the ‘unwritten rules’ of friendship?” I asked them.
“Listen to the other person.”
“Don’t tell their secrets.”
“Be nice to them.”
We briefly discussed each of the different “rules” they came up with and how they applied to their friendships.
“Do you find these rules burdensome to follow?”
They shook their heads.
“When you are friends with someone, you shouldn’t find it boring to listen to them talk about their day. When you are friends with someone, you don’t get upset that you can’t share something they confided in you. You don’t dislike spending time with them, do you?”
And then I related it to God: in our relationship with God there are rules. But the primary focus isn’t the rules or how burdensome they seem to be. When we are friends, the focus is more on the relationship than on what you can or cannot do to your friend. The burden we feel in following God’s rules is the result of our becoming too fixated on what the relationship demands rather than the joy of being in a relationship with God Himself.
When God asks us to attend Mass each Sunday, it only feels burdensome if we focus on the rule. It is difficult to get excited about something that is perceived as a duty or a command. If we focus on how it is Jesus asking us to come to Him, spend time with Him, and receive Him so as to be strengthened for the trials ahead, we no longer feel burdened by a “rule.”
Sometimes it simply requires a change in perception. The rule is still there and still needs to be followed, but the focus is on desiring to be with the other and delighting in their presence. Friendships, marriages, and family ties can all become strained when the emphasis falls on the obligations and restrictions of the relationship. These relationships ‘bind’ us in a way, but it should be freeing to enter into intimacy with the other, even knowing that something will be asked of us.
Of course: following Jesus will require us to change and to die to ourselves. We will not be able to do whatever we want whenever we want to do it. Life will no longer be solely about me but must include focus on the other. This, however, is true of any relationship. Being in relationship with the Living God isn’t about all that you give up, but rather is about all that you receive: a new life in Him.
Encounter the person of Jesus Christ and experience the joy that He desires you to have by living in His will. It entails a great deal more Yeses than Noes.
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.