What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of human existence? This isn’t just a modern question, born of the yearnings of post World War existentialism. It is a question as old as time—a question which has given birth to great works of art, music and poetry. The ancient Jewish sage Qoheleth, as we read in the book of Ecclesiastes, struggled with this question, coming to the conclusion that the things with which we busy ourselves in this world, our work, our pursuit of pleasure, our pursuit of material things– are all vanity. He concludes that they have no ultimate meaning and that if we try to find our meaning in them, then we will simply be lost.
In our Gospel passage, Jesus makes very much the same point in the parable he tells about the rich man who hoards his possessions for the future. He tells this story to remind us that if we search for happiness in the things of this world– in our possessions, in money, in material things, in the pursuit of pleasure– then our lives will be empty of meaning. And if our lives are empty of meaning, then we forget what it means to be human. And in forgetting what it means to be human, we lose sight of the great dignity that is ours in having been created in the image and likeness of God.
Nearly 50 years ago, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council grappled with this very issue of the meaning of human existence and the meaning of our creation in the image and likeness of God in the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. They write: “It follows, then, that if man is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake, man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself.” (Gaudium et spes, 22) In other words, we find meaning as human beings not in hoarding our riches, not in collecting them for the future, not even in the blind pursuit of pleasure, or knowledge, or wisdom, but in giving ourselves away as gifts. And if the only reality for us is one that we can possess, one that we can grasp at, then our lives will have no meaning.
Pope St. John Paul II, writing before his election to the papacy, reflected upon this reality in the context of the relationship between man and woman in what he called the “personalistic norm,” which, he noted that, “in its negative aspect, states that the person is the kind of good that does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end. In its positive form, the personalistic norms confirms this: the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love. This positive content of the personalistic norm is exactly what the commandment to love teaches.” (Love and Responsibility, 41)
St. Paul reminds us that if we are Christians, then we are a new creation. Our lives are not our own, but belong to Jesus Christ. And if our lives belong to Jesus Christ, who emptied himself of everything, giving of himself, of his very life, for our sake and for our salvation, then our lives must reflect this. Our love must reflect this. Throughout the Scriptures, the most significant analogy of God’s love for his people is that of a bridegroom for his bride. Such is not a love in which the groom seeks to use the bride or control her for his own gain or satisfaction but rather one in which he empties himself out of love for her. He gives himself completely to her and for her. What this means, Saint John Paul tells us, is that “God’s gift of himself to (us) …can only have the form of a participation in the divine nature.” (Man and Woman He Created Them, 95b:4)
God gives himself to us completely, holding nothing back from us. This gift of self is “realized in time by Christ as the love proper to a total and irrevocable gift of self by God to (us) in Christ.” (Man and Woman He Created Them, 95b:2) This is the very meaning of grace: “God’s self-communication in his very divinity, not only to the soul” but to every aspect of what it means for us to be human. (Man and Woman He Created Them, 67:3) As Christopher West states, grace is “God’s Spirit breathed into the dust of our humanity.” (Theology of the Body Explained, 139)
Because God loves us in this way— because God chooses to give himself to us completely in this way, so that we share in the life of God himself– we ourselves and our world are dramatically and radically changed. If we are to be disciples of Jesus and sharers in this love, then we must see reality differently, recognizing that there is ultimate meaning to human life beyond pleasure and material possessions. There is an ultimate meaning to human life beyond what we consider to be useful. Every human life has value beyond our ability to understand. And every time we fail to recognize Christ in our brothers and sisters, we deny Christ in ourselves. Every time we seek to grasp for ourselves rather than give of ourselves for the sake of others, we deny Christ in ourselves. Every time we close our eyes to Christ in the poor and the suffering, we become a little less human. Every time we refuse to recognize Christ in the person who is different from us, the person who speaks a different language or who looks different, we close our hearts to the possibility that our God is loving and merciful. Every time we use someone as an object of our lust or our desire for possessions, we deny our own humanity and dignity. Every time we act as if things are more important than people, we deny the truth. We become people of the lie—people who deny the existence of God if not in words, then at least in our actions, in the manner in which we fail to share the love that God offers so freely to each and every one of us in giving us of his very life.
If we believe that life has meaning, then we must live lives of meaning—lives in which we recognize that life is not something to be grasped at, as if we could hold onto it for ourselves alone, but rather a gift to be shared for the sake of others. If we believe life has meaning, then we must be willing to recognize the great dignity that is ours as human beings, created in the image and likeness of a God who defines himself not as power or might, but as self-emptying love. If we believe that life has meaning, then we must be more than Christian in name. We must be Christian in heart, in body and in soul, recognizing that we find our meaning in giving of ourselves, in allowing ourselves to share in the Cross of Jesus, who lived and died and rose again not for his own sake, but for our sake, that we might know the great gift life is, and that we, in turn, might make a gift of ourselves in the same way, sharing our love, sharing our lives, with the world around us.
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Fr. John Keehner, a priest of the Diocese of Youngstown for twenty one years, is currently pastor of St. Christine Parish in Youngstown, Ohio. He is enrolled in the TOB Institute Certification program, has attended seven courses and served as chaplain on three different occasions. He has also taken part in the TOB Institute Clergy Enrichment Program.