When we think about the progress of our lives, we often have major milestones that we point to. And once we reach them, we have a sense of having moved forward or up a step. For example, when we are young, we spend a long time in elementary school pointing to and waiting for high school. When we enter the ninth grade, we have a sense that we have moved forward one step or up one rung on the ladder of life. And then we point towards the next thing. Perhaps it is college or technical school.
This pattern continues throughout the rest of our lives. For a long time there is the sense of climbing and progress. We climbed through our childhood education towards more education and then the beginning of some kind of career. We then climbed through our career. There comes a point, however, when we sense that the climbing or ascent is largely over, and we enter a period of neither up nor down but we know the descent is already beginning. This frequently comes when our work career and our marriage has reached a level of stability, and this is often the time when we have some kind of midlife crisis.
We can have the same sense in our faith lives as Christians. Many of us had some kind of spiritual experience that reminded us that God wants us and loves us and saves us. We burn like a candle during this exciting early stage of our faith journey. We might crack open our Bibles and read the good news, and we might open our Catechism and devour the teaching of the Church.
It’s exhilarating as we grow in knowledge and wisdom and in faith. There comes a point, however, when we realize we are going over the same territory again and again. Certainly in the confessional, we notice we are asking forgiveness for the same patterns of sin, and we might wonder where that sense of progress went. Some lose their sense of progress and they begin to enter a mid-faith crisis, where they wonder what it all means and why it’s so often the same thing over and over again.
We have these moments of progress in our family lives, too. Certain occasions or events in our lives mark our progress in one way or another.
My eldest child was married last Saturday. I feel like I have moved forward from one slot position to the next. My next thing in my family is to be a grandfather. That’s the same sort of fundamental change as the move from elementary school to high school. But grandfathers are men closer to the end than to the beginning.
It’s the same sort of thing when both of our parents have died. When our parents have died, there is the stark reality that we are next. It’s not that our end is imminent, but we are no longer the children and have become the parents when our own parents have passed on.
So there is this sense of progress in our lives, and certainly for the first half of a normal lifespan the progress seems upward. Many of the troubles in our secular lives come during that middle period when the progress no longer seems upward but flat and we can sense that it will begin downward at some point in the not-too-distant future. But as Christians, we know that this sense of progress is not secular but eternal.
The feast of Christ the King Lord of the universe helps us to remember that we are not here for elementary school, high school, advanced education, work and marriage, children and grandchildren, and everything else that we accumulate and lose through the course of our human lives, but we are here to be with Christ the King ultimately in heaven.
In our lives of faith, in our relationship with God and our brother, the bright light of the candle must give way to something that lasts longer and burns hotter: the coals in a fire. The candle flame flickers and dances, but it does not last very long. The coal is perhaps less pleasing to the eye, but it generates real and lasting heat. We cannot progress in our lives of faith if we always pursue the dancing light of the candle and never learn to be the lasting heat of the coals.
So much of the message of the gospel, and so many of our readings over the last couple of months, have been focused on reminding us not to get caught up in the trappings in the ranking system of the world but to focus on what is truly important. Today’s readings remind us that everything came from God and everything progresses to God’s end. That is the progress we should care about.
In his homily last week, Fr. Neil preached on the fact that at the heart of the mass is a mysterious re-presentation of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross at Calvary. In this mysterious sacrament, we who are bound by time break the limits of time. We are miraculously transported back to another point in time — that day when Jesus took all our sins upon himself on the cross — and are also connected to the eternal heavenly mass banquet which is timeless and never-ending.
It is important for our spiritual growth as Christians to recognize these moments in the mass for two reasons. First it is what we teach; it is what we profess in the creed; and the liturgy of the mass is the source and the summit of our Catholic faith. Second, this willingness to perceive the eternal while we live in the created world is what frees us to live as sojourners in a strange land. This was God’s instruction to Abraham and the Israelites: that they would be sojourners in a strange land. We might update it for the 21st century this way: we must always remember that we are merely renting in the world, we are not owners. Most of the world thinks that it owns what it has. We as Christians must always remember that we are stewards of what we were given.
There is only one king. There is only one Lord of the universe. Jesus was, as the gospel of John says, at the very beginning of creation, and all was created through him and in him. Being attuned to this reality liberates us from the dominion of Satan, who Jesus called the Father of Lies. And it allows us to put ourselves under the dominion of the Lord of life.
With Jesus as our King, the progress of the universe finally makes sense, and our human progress finds its deepest meaning.