One of the best things about angels–at least the angels recorded in the Sacred Scriptures–is that they are never “wordy.” Truly, they are the best of messengers. They do not mumble, they do not emote, they do not repeat needlessly. Everything they say is worth pondering.
Consider, for example, the words of the angel to the apostles after freeing them from prison in Jerusalem: “Go out now and take your place in the temple precincts and preach to the people all about this new life.” (Acts 5: 20) The first part of this message is obviously tailored to the situation, though all Christians are called to preach the Gospel in some way. Nevertheless, we know that God is not calling most of us to do that “in the temple precincts.”
But the end of the angel’s message is more interesting and provocative, and I believe that it casts a wider net, as it were: he calls Christianity a “new life.” The angel presumes there is something that sets Christian life apart, and this is a mystery that we ought to ponder. Granted, if one was baptized as an infant, then one is not likely to have a “before and after” grasp of that newness. Furthermore, it is a fact that Christianity did much to transform the religious and cultural situation of Western civilization, so what once may have been a decisively different way of life may no longer be as outwardly distinctive (an achievement that is in the process of quickly crumbling).
Nevertheless, I still believe that this newness of life is a worthy question with which to examine one’s conscience. Is there a something “new,” something different about our Christian life, something about it that distinguishes it from the lives of the non-Christians around us? The question is a two-edged sword: it can fill one with gratitude or with shame.
With gratitude, for the Christian life is indeed different. If we obey God, then we have the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:32). We recognize God’s presence as a quiet presence, not a burden–but nevertheless, the Spirit’s touch upon our lives can be discerned. I have written of this before, of the “Christian instincts” that the Holy Spirit gives us through his Gifts. And, when we cooperate with those gifts, we experience what the Church has called the Fruits of the Holy Spirit, the good effects of God’s action in our lives: peace, patience, joy, etc.
With shame, for the question can also indict us. That is to say, this “new life” not only a subject for self-congratulatory meditation; it is difficult, in an affluent society, not to simply “go with the flow,” to follow the path of least resistance. When things are easy for us, then nothing challenges our pride, and we have little incentive for course corrections.
But even in terms of great natural achievements, as Nietzsche knew, there is a deadly inertia about the world. As he writes in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life:
“For all else which also lives cries no. The monumental ought not to arise–that is the counter watch-word. Dull habit, the small and lowly which fills all the corners of the world and wafts like a dense earthly vapour around everything great, deceiving, smothering and suffocating, obstructs the path.” (trans. Peter Preuss)
If this is true even of natural achievements–being a great athlete, starting new companies, producing beautiful art–how much more is it likely to hold true of Christianity, to which “the world” is opposed? In this sense, we are unfair to Christianity–or to speak more properly, to God. We know how great an effort is required for great natural achievements, or even just to maintain whatever is ours (our jobs, our property, our marriages), yet we expect our relationship with God to magically take care of itself. And so we can easily find ourselves leading lives that differ in no tangible way from the lives of the non-Christians around us: lives that does not include daily personal prayer or the reception of the sacraments, lives in which we adopt the same attitudes, evaluations, and behaviors of those around us.
Consider contraception, for example. While statistics on the Catholic artificial birth control rate are generally more misleading than enlightening (see the end of this Patheos blog post by Deacon Greg Kandra, and this Washington Post blog post by Sarah Kliff), it is hard to find a Catholic who does not know some proudly contracepting Catholics. So whatever the rate actually is, it is higher than we would wish it to be. And that is not surprising, because in Western culture, using contraception is just the statistical norm–the “old life,” not the “new life.” I have been picking on contracepting Catholics here, but the reality is that all of us live such “old lives” in one respect or another.
Perhaps, then, we should not just assume that we have this new life. Perhaps we should instead take it as a goal to create it for ourselves, to do something different. In that endeavor, I think we could rightly expect the help of the God who, in St. Augustine’s words from the Confessions, is “ever new.”