Published August 12, 2021
When I was in second grade, I jumped out of a tree in the woods near my home. I landed on my feet, but the ground was uneven, so I put my hands out to help break my fall. Instead of finding bare dirt, or dried leaves, or gnarled roots, my right hand landed hard on the shards of an old beer bottle. Brown glass plunged deep into the fleshy part of my palm below my thumb.
I held my wrist tightly to try to slow the bleeding. I was afraid if I ran, the bleeding would get worse, so I walked deliberately back to the house. I remember being careful to avoid getting blood on my clothes. My Dad, who was a physician, took one look at my hand and said, “It looks like you’re going to need a few stitches.”
At which point I completely lost it and burst into sobs.
I had never needed stitches before. I suppose I was somewhat proud of this fact. I had had injuries before, of course. Bumps, bruises, cuts, sprains. But all those were the sorts of things that, given time, simply went away. Up to that point, healing had always meant that things get restored to the way they were before. Good as new.
This gash on my hand was different. It would not just go away with time. Things were not ever going to be the way they were before. It would never be “good as new.” To this day, I have a jagged scar, three-quarters of an inch long, on my right palm. It was this realization, this immediate awareness of the irreversible corruptibility of my own body, which upset me so much. I wouldn’t have put it in those words at the time, but that was a pretty heavy realization for an eight-year-old.
Needless to say, as I hurtle toward middle age, I can recall many more such moments involving hurts and losses far greater than a cut on my hand and few stitches.
Maybe it is just me, but these present days seem to hold ever more reminders of the corruption all around us. Maybe it’s the pandemic. Maybe it’s the Chicago Cubs trading away all my favorite players. Maybe it’s our interminably exhausting politics. Maybe it’s the madness of a culture increasingly divorced from reality. Maybe it’s the careening scandals and failures of the Church in recent decades. Maybe it’s all of these together.
Maybe these are all just, in one way or another, the same thing. After all, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
My aim here is not to lament the human condition, pitiable though it may be. There is something unseemly about a Christian who complains about the age in which he finds himself. At the very least it smacks of ingratitude, and ingratitude always carries the whiff of pride – as though one were “too good” for the world as he finds it or too important to have to endure the frailty of our own human nature.
It is unseemly for Christians to think this way precisely because such thinking ignores the central mystery of the Christian faith: God so loved the world – a world seemingly unworthy of love – that He sent His only Son, Who took upon Himself our frail humanity, suffered death, and rose again. In Christ, we find the perfect resolution and fulfillment of all the frightful indeterminacy of human existence. As Pope John Paul II put it, Jesus Christ is “the existentially adequate response to the desire in every human heart for goodness, truth and life.”
This is no mere abstraction, either. Jesus knew hunger and thirst, temptation and pain, humiliation and loss. He wept for his friend Lazarus. But His plan for salvation was not to undo any of these things. While some expected Him to restore the kingdom, to return Israel to her former power and glory, He had something very different in mind. When He rose on Easter morning, things were certainly not as they had been before, not even as they had been in the beginning.
Our salvation is not a restoration, a reversal of corruption or weakness or mortality. Our destiny is not to return to the way things were once, before all was made subject to corruption. Rather, our redemption lies through corruption, through suffering, through even death, to what lies beyond. And this world, this life, at once broken and precious, is our chance to accept a share in what He offers:
Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away.
If, by God’s mercy, I am one day blessed to dwell in the presence of the Lord, I don’t know if my right palm will still bear a scar. I don’t know what other marks upon my body or soul will accompany me in the next life. But I do know that, if I am there, it is by the grace of the One who still bears the marks of His own crucifixion.
And He is the one who declares: “Behold, I make all things new.”
*Image: The Baptism of Christ by Pietro Perugino, c. 1482 [Sistine Chapel, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City]
© 2021 The Catholic Thing.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.