Clearing a Path

In The Apostle’s Creed, we profess that at some point between His death and resurrection, Christ “descended into hell.” Though the origins of this doctrine are obscure and scriptural references sparse, the logic is strong that salvation – to be truly universal – must reach into the very heart of darkness, the jaws of evil itself. If the waters of grace gushing from the pierced side of Jesus are to embrace everyone, great pains must be taken to reach those living a hell on Earth.

Where are such persons found at this moment, in this Advent? Pope Francis has suggested that the loneliness of the aging and the unemployment of youth are among the gravest the evils afflicting the world today. In each case, the sufferer is “crushed under the weight of the present” which offers no hope for family or future. Such alienation, we might also suspect, is not limited to the young or aging. Though less visible, a vast wasteland of suffering, suffocating souls lies entangled under the spell of addictions associated with substance abuse, sex, money and power – the many forms of hedonism affecting not only individuals but all their relationships.

Our culture assumes that feelings of pleasure are the highest and final aim of our conduct; that, consequently those actions which increase the sum of pleasure are right, and, conversely, what increases pain is wrong. To process life this way stifles it by denying its deeper mystery, both the good and the evil, reducing it to mere sensation.

No wonder the most fundamental of relationships, commercial, social and political, even personal friendships and marriage itself – in practice even if not by legal reinvention – become increasingly utilitarian but, ultimately, useless, sterile and loveless. The essence of love is sacrifice, the offer of the unearnable, often unexpected gift. For those of a Trinitarian faith, such love is modeled after the very image of God: three Persons, different yet wholly one, eternally revolving about the Other. It is a truth with enormous implications, practically and personally.

In sacramental marriage, that image is visible in the two equal though different persons, united by a love which, when expressed in its full humanity, invites the existence of yet other persons. This divinely imaged order of loving need not be absent from the marketplace, where it is often expected the consumer is at the mercy of the advertiser. The pope and the parish preacher are right, particularly in this busy shopping season, to critique the hollowness of consumption for consumption’s sake. Yet truly free trade only occurs when both parties are rendered better off by the transaction. In a free market, manufacturer, retailer and shopper must each make a moral choice.

In all free, authentically human relationships, there needs to be a give and take, an element of giving up – a sacrifice or a loss of something – to receive something in return. At one time, it had not occurred to theologians how interest charged for loaning a sum of money could be morally justified. Usury, as it was termed, was deemed sinful. While in excess this may become extortion, a good lender suffers the loss of money he or she might otherwise have invested elsewhere. The interest on the loan rewards the investment, and the borrower profits from the loan.

It may be painful – even harrowing – to re-envision and reform our day-to-day relationships under the Sign of the Cross, before the God we adore and pray to, in whose image we are all made. This will lead to a measure of restraint, self-discipline, generosity – and, yes, sacrifice – that challenges a hedonistic frenzy masquerading as “the Christmas spirit.” It will also clear a path to every heart waiting for a peace that money, power and self-indulgence can never buy.

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