What if? Do you ever play “What if?” games? What if your life had turned out differently? What if you had gone to a different school or chosen a different career? What if you had made different choices about values or relationships?
Sometimes, it’s fun to speculate about the possibilities that never happened. At other times, it can be instructive to reflect on what might have been.
The meaning or purpose of human existence is one of the most popular topics of speculation for most people. What is the purpose of life on this earth? There have been countless theories and responses proposed for this question.
Sigmund Freud speculated that the purpose of human existence is the pursuit of pleasure. Friedrich Nietzche speculated that the purpose of human existence is the pursuit of power. In the twentieth century, some speculated that the purpose of human existence is the pursuit of meaning. Contemporary consumer culture defines human existence as the pursuit of possessions. If you’re young enough to know how to use TikTok, the purpose of your life is probably the pursuit of notoriety.
I’d like to suggest yet another line of speculation about the meaning of human existence. In fact, I’d like to propose a “What if?” game based on today’s feast and the Scripture readings for Mass.
What if the purpose of human existence is to experience death? Yes, I know that most of you just had a cardiac episode. I’ll give you a moment to take a pill, then you can rejoin the conversation. Death is a topic everyone avoids assiduously, but what if it’s a topic that should be the focus of our daily attention?
Today’s Gospel reading reports the conversation between Jesus and the repentant thief. Quite obviously, the point of reporting the conversation was not to elucidate Jesus’ social life. This conversation about God’s Kingdom is a reference to a previous episode in the Gospel.
In Chapter Four of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was led into the desert by the Holy Spirit where he was tempted by Satan. The Gospel portrays Jesus as the New Adam. Adam sinned by giving into temptation to eat the apple, gain god-like wisdom, and become immortal. (Gn. 3:2-6) Jesus, the New Adam, reversed humanity’s sinful destiny by resisting the temptations to make bread out of rocks, rule the earth, and defy death by jumping from the top of the Temple. (Lk. 4:3-12)
The Gospel identifies Jesus as the New Adam when he says to the repentant thief, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk. 23:43) Jesus, the New Adam, re-opened the gates of Paradise that had been closed behind Adam and Eve as they fled the garden of Eden. (Gn. 3:23-24) Adam’s disobedience brought spiritual death to human nature, but Jesus’ obedience to God created the possibility of spiritual rebirth for all who believe. Today’s second reading expresses the same idea when it says that God, “delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col. 1:13-14)
Jesus’ death became for us the door to eternal life. This gives an entirely new meaning to our death. Now, for God’s faithful, death is the finalization of a lifetime’s work of imitating Jesus’ obedience to God’s will. For us, death is no longer a topic to be avoided. Rather, it is a reminder of the everlasting value of everything we do in this life.
I’m not suggesting a morbid fascination with death. Nor am I suggesting fatalism. I am suggesting that everything we do in life is of the utmost importance because our lives are finite. There was a time before each of us existed. There will be a time when we no longer exist in this world. Our birth and passing, though finite, have lasting consequences. In the death of Jesus, we have been given the offer of forgiveness and eternal life with God.
Accepting this offer from God, however, entails much more than merely wanting it. Some people want pleasure, others want power, many want meaning, all of us want more stuff. Our wants (concupiscence) are the result of Adam’s sin. The consequences of sin in our lives are not reversed by our wants. The consequences of sin and disobedience are reversed only through our imitation of Jesus’ obedience to God’s will. For this reason, I ask, what if the purpose of human life is to experience death? In other words, what if there is a very specific agenda to be accomplished with the limited time allotted to us in this life?
The limited span of our lives is a stark reminder of the gravity of our daily choices. There are no do-overs, no second chances. We can choose to live according to God’s will or we can choose not to do so; there is no middle ground and little time for dawdling.
Each of us should be very, very attentive to how we live each day. We should be very attentive to keeping our promises of faith to God and one another. We should be very attentive to being honest, trustworthy, forgiving, generous, and compassionate. We should be very attentive to safeguarding the lives of those around us. We should be very attentive to giving good example. What if the reason for our existence is to have sufficient time to learn to be decent people? If this is true, then we can’t waste a day or a moment by not imitating Jesus’ example of obedience to God’s will.
What if? What if the choices you make today will determine your life forever?