Why do we call human life sacred? It is an extraordinary word, yet I often use it without a passing thought. It is far more than saying that human life is precious, or non-negotiable or even invaluable. Sacred means holy, relating to God. How can we say that? If we believe it, what must we do? The tradition of the Church will tell us why our lives are sacred and todays Gospel will show us what to do about it.
We read in the book of Genesis: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”. (Ge 1:27). Jews and Christians have taken this very seriously and sought to understand what it means to be created in the image of God. Catholics have emphasized that God has revealed himself to us as the “Trinity”. Three persons in one being bound together by love. God is least badly understood as a community even a family. Therefore, we are created to be in relationship with God but also with each other. To paraphrase a key Church teaching: “a human person is not a solitary but a social being, and unless men and women relate themselves to others, they can neither live nor develop their potential” (Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 12).
Our resemblance to God is not a physical likeness but a spiritual one. We can only be human because we are in relationship with God and other people. The purest and most important relation is love: effectively willing the good of the other.
The implications are both broad and deep and we mark our successes and failures on the news each day.
Abortion is the clearest example of ignoring the sanctity of life. Although the overturning of Roe v Wade will have little practical effect in NYS the Bishops of the state hope that it will open a serious dialogue about the meaning of life. This begins of course with bringing a child to birth but that is simply the beginning. We must build on that to fulfill the needs of the whole person from “womb to tomb”.
Our society does not treat people as made in the image of God at any stage of their lives. The national experience of the Covid pandemic is a case in point. Some communities, like ours, had very few fatalities. Others were hit severely. I stopped counting after 20 former parishioners died in Bed Stuy and south Jamaica. The racial and economic lines are obvious but went far beyond immediate care. A lifetime lack of access to medical help and poor living conditions played their part as well. People who were forced to live in cramped apartments were much more likely to be struck by the virus. Yet we know the price of housing in the city and desperate people do not have much of a choice
It seems the aftermath will also be disturbing. The workers who delivered our food and kept society functioning were so important that we called them essential but how are they doing now? Although we are close to full employment many jobs do not provide meaningful health and other benefits. A recent government press release proudly proclaimed that a record 68% of American households could raise $400 for an emergency This leaves millions who cannot? Spend a moment thinking of the consequences? Would you give up food or medicine, what utilities would you ration? Would you think you were being treated like the image of God.?
If we wish for children to be brought to term, then most immediately we must assist the poor, working or not married or not with the costs of pregnancy. Many state governments offered assistance for women to come from states which would eliminate abortions but did any government agency offer a subsidy to women in low wage, no benefit jobs to have the children? What is our role?
Today’s gospel tells us that the kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus offers perfect peace, shalom: harmony between God and humanity, among all humans and humanity and nature. It has begun with him but continues in the lives of all Christians. He sends us into the world as instruments of this peace but the world changes and our obligations as Christians change with it.
The very static society of Jesus’ day could not be radically changed. Over the centuries Christians were able to make some progress in improving the lives of common people but ultimately life was “poor, nasty, brutish and short” In our age we can make changes to the actual lives of people of which the apostles could only dream. We must preach the word, but the word must be made flesh, and our discipleship will be real only if that world is made more peaceful, more harmonious, by our actions. The church teaches the preferential option for the poor. At minimum this means that decisions are made to enhance the dignity of everyone and that no one is thrown away. Yet it is more than that.
Pope Francis has reminded us that in real times of need change comes from the peripheries, the outside, to the center. He has taken this to heart and chosen a Cardinal from Mongolia and hosted members of a hostel for trans women at Easter. Most of all he has greeted the poor as equals and seen them as necessary to the church. The poor are not where we end evangelization, they are where we begin. Only when we treat them as sacred can we spread the Gospel wisely and effectively.
This weekend we celebrate our independence and examine the American experiment. We were once on the periphery but now have become dead center. The abortion decision, the Jan 6th commission and the migrant deaths in Texas reveal that we must examine ourselves closely. If we remain uncritical and unmoved the kingdom of God has come near us but is ever so far away.