JESUS, EVER YOUNG
Bishop Ambo David
(Talk to the PCNE on Chapter 2 of “Christus Vivit”, July 18, 2019)
Have you ever heard of the “fountain of youth”?
The Fountain of Youth is a legendary spring that supposedly restores the youth of anyone who drinks of it or bathes in its waters. Stories about such a fountain have been recounted across the world for thousands of years.The obsession about finding it became particularly prominent in Europe, in the 16th century. Two explorers, a Spaniard named Juan Ponce de Leon, and a Portuguese named Vasco Da Gama, embarked on separate expeditions with the purpose of finding this legendary rejuvenating spring supposedly located in a fabled land called “Bimini.”
The idea must have fascinated the Englishman, St. Thomas More, it became the subject of a book authored by him, entitled UTOPIA. The word has become part of English vocabulary. It comes from the Greek OU-TOPOS, meaning, “not a place.” Perhaps it was clear to Thomas More that Utopia was actually more of a dream or a vision to be aspired for than a place that actually existed already. He described this fabled Utopia as an ideal society where people supposedly remained youthful and lived in peace and harmony with one another.
Up until the 20th century, we have writers like James Hilton writing about the same thing. His book, “The Lost Horizon,” inspired the making of three films, an earlier one in black and white, and a more recent one in the seventies, and a musical in the eighties whose songs were composed by Burt Bacharach. Hilton referred to the mysterious land described as a “Lost Horizon” by the name of “Shangrila.” It was supposedly a paradise-like place nestled in the heart of the Himalayas, naturally made inaccessible by mountains and precipices.
Fountain of Youth and the Garden of Eden
Perhaps the oldest version of such a legend is actually present in the Bible itself. The Book of Genesis also describes the Garden of Eden, as a paradise from which Adam and Eve had been expelled, after they ate of the forbidden fruit. The writer describes Eden as a fertile land, “from which a stream was welling up out of the earth and watering all the surface of the ground.” (Gen 2:6) A few verses later, on v. 9, we read, “Out of the ground the LORD God made grow every tree that was delightful to look at and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
The allusion to paradise repeats itself in the final two chapters of the last book of the New Testament and is described as a “new heaven and a new earth” in Rev. 21. In Rev 22:17, we read, “Let the one who thirsts come forward, and the one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water.”
In the 4th chapter of the Gospel of John about the Samaritan woman, Jesus says in verse 4, “Whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst. The water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John of course alludes to the life-giving waters of Baptism through which we receive the grace of participating in the risen life of Christ and “the power to become children of God.” (Jn 1:12).
How strange that explorers had to cross oceans in their quest for the fountain of life when they probably did not even have to go very far to find it. Although it is clear that the writer is speaking metaphorically, I wouldn’t be surprised if, several hundred years ago, there were people who took all of this literally.
Bread of Eternal Life
In a parallel sort of way, aside from the fountain of life, there were also legends about quests for a kind of food that could make people immortal. In the ancient classical Greek Literature, this food for the gods and goddesses was “ambrosia mixed with red nectar”. Genesis suggests to us that Adam and Eve had been tricked by the serpent into aspiring for this food, but getting it from wrong tree. Instead of eating of the fruit of the Tree of Life that could have made them live forever, they ate of the forbidden fruit which, as the Lord had already warned them, would cause their death. In the New Testament, this legendary tree would become the Cross, and its fruit would be no other than Christ himself.
In Jn 6:27, after the narrative of the multiplication of the loaves, the writer tells us the crowd ran after Jesus in order to make him king. Jesus supposedly turned to them and said, “Do not seek the food that perishes. Rather, look for the food that endures for eternal life…” In the same way that the Samaritan had begged Jesus to give her the life-giving waters, the crowd in John chapter 6 would plead, “Sir, give us this food always.” Then Jesus would speak to them about the “Bread of Life” as the food they really needed. The bread that came down from heaven, which alone could give them eternal life.
When the crowds realized that the “Bread of Life” he was speaking about was his own flesh and blood, they walked away in disgust. And when Jesus asked his own disciples also wanted to leave, Peter supposedly said, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Rest and Divinity
In the Old Testament, the term eternal life did not necessarily mean what it did to the Greeks, which was the concept of immortality. It could simply mean a long and happy life as against a life made miserable by illness of mind, body and spirit, or by conflict, war, or natural disasters. Remember that famous passage in Matthew 11, where Jesus says in verses 28-30: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” This passage became the inspiration for the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which promises an unburdened existence, a kind of lightness of being which is summed up by the Hebrew word SHABAT, which is supposed to be the conclusion of God’s creative activity. He worked for six days; on the third day, he rested. And since on the sixth day he created humankind in his image and likeness, not only must humankind imitate God and play his proper role as a co-creator. He also has to learn to rest, if he does not want to end up finding himself saddled with weariness and a burdensome existence.
But is Sabbath really just about learning to take a rest? More than three decades ago now, I heard the most fascinating interpretation of the third commandment from the Jewish philosopher Immanuel Levinas when I was still a student in Louvain. The old Jewish philosopher spoke for only around ten to fifteen minutes. He started by saying that we miss the point if we think the third commandment is just about REST. He says, the commandment actually says, “Thou shalt KEEP HOLY your Shabat.” Keep holy, as in consecrate. He said, “We all look forward to REST, especially after a long and tiresome work. But how come there are people who remain weary and burdened even after a long weekend and do not actually look forward to starting a new week?” His answer is, “Because they miss the point about REST. People in the western world work themselves to death during the weekdays so that they can splurge in wild abandon during their weekends. They say, TGIF (Thank God it’s Friday.), or TGIS (Thank God it’s Saturday), depending on when their weekend begins. Their Shabat is turned into an opportunity for COMPENSATING. Sabbath, he said, is an opportunity not for compensating but for consecrating. A compensatory rest is never really restful, he said. What matters is to consecrate the fruit of our labor, to lift it up to God and make it holy, to look at it all as a mere participation in God’s creative activity as his image and likeness. It is not enough that we rest. What matters is that we consecrate our work in a manner that will make us look forward to the next week, so that the work is not burdensome but light. I think this is what Jesus himself meant when he said that we must learn meekness and humility of heart so that our souls will find rest, so that we will discover the yoke that is easy and the burden that is light. That is what youthfulness is about!
In the chapter about JESUS EVER YOUNG in “Christus Vivit”, Pope Francis says,
“(Jesus) wants to make us sharers in the new life of the resurrection. He is the true youthfulness of a world grown old, the youthfulness of a universe waiting ‘in travail’ (Rom 8:22) to be clothed with his light and to live his life.”
“With him at our side, we can drink from the true wellspring that keeps alive all our dreams, our projects, our great ideals, while impelling us to proclaim what makes life truly worthwhile.”
Youth Wasted on the Young
The Irish playwright and political activist, George Bernard Shaw once said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” He is referring, of course, to young people who squander their youth and throw it away too soon because they tend to splurge on it irresponsibly and quickly become old, tired and weary, unable to truly find their life’s meaning and purpose. If we are to use the words of Levinas, they are programmed to compensate. They will not be able to find true joy and fulfillment until they learn to consecrate, not compensate, for their labor.
Remember the rich young man in the Gospel whom Jesus had challenged to live life generously, but who went away sad because he had many possessions? The image that we get there is a man whose possessions had become his source of misery, not happiness. Jesus came precisely to save the young from throwing away their youth. Remember his parable of the prodigal son about the young boy who ended up in misery after wallowing in dissolute living?
The Gospels are full of stories of many young people who had found in Jesus the real fountain of youth, the spring of lifegiving water, or the real, not the fairy tale Bread of Life. He met a young man who was paralyzed by a life of sin who needed to hear only a word of forgiveness in order to be able to stand up, pick up his mat and walk his way home again (Mark 2:1-11). He met another young man who had lost his sanity, described by the Gospel writer as enslaved and tormented by evil spirits, living a fruitless life, isolated from the community, hurting himself or causing harm on others. The contact with Jesus restored his sanity so that he could live life with meaning and purpose all over again. Mary Magdalene was described that way, “The women from whom Jesus had expelled seven devils.”
Resting in the sense of Consecrating his labor through prayer was the secret of Jesus’ strength and youthfulness. The disciples had observed this. That is why they came to him one day, asking them to teach them HOW TO PRAY. Most people nowadays associate solitude with loneliness or isolation. For Jesus, solitude was an opportunity for a profound experience of communion with his Father. He met the leper in the wilderness because the leper was living a life of negative solitude, the solitude of rejection and isolation. But look what happened when he touched the leper. The effect is the exact opposite. All others avoided contact with lepers because they regarded it as a curse that was contagious. Jesus is able to prove that, if evil is contagious, goodness is even more contagious. Instead of him contracting the disease, it is the leper who contracts healing when he comes into contact with Jesus. The leper’s solitude of isolation is ended the moment Jesus touched him. Coming from his solitude of communion, Jesus takes him out of isolation, back to the community.
The Many Things vs. The One Thing
It was for the same reason that Jesus reprimanded Martha when this otherwise gracious host was starting to turn into a grouchy old maid. Jesus told her, “You are worried and distracted about many things, and yet only one thing is necessary.” How many young people get old too quickly because of worries and fears, because of too many distractions that make them lose focus and a sense of direction in life? How often have we gotten lost in the many things, our many preoccupations in life, and lost joy, zest and youthfulness because we have forgotten the ONE THING necessary? Did not Jesus say this in another way when he said, “Seek FIRST the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness and ALL THESE OTHER THINGS will be given you besides.” He doesn’t say we should not seek these many other things. He knows we need them too. But he reminds us constantly never to lose our sense of priorities, to attend to first things first, if we want to keep ourselves focused. This is the better part which Jesus tells Martha she should be after. This was what her sister Mary was trying to pursue and she should not prevent her sister her from taking this path.
How many Zaccheuses was Jesus able to convince to come down from their sycamore trees? From the burdensome life of pursuing power, prestige and wealth? How many Bartimaeuses was he able to touch so that they regain a sense of vision and direction in life? Pope Francis, in Christus Vivit, calls attention to two young men in last chapters of Mark’s Gospel. On the one hand there is the “young man who wanted to follow Jesus but in fear ran away naked” (Mk 14;51-52), on the other hand he points at another young person ‘dressed in a white tunic’, “who tells the women not to be afraid and proclaims the joy of the resurrection.” Young people, do not ran away naked and terrified; come instead to Jesus who will give you the courage to be a witness and a participant to his risen life.
Do not follow the path of King Herod, whose ambitions and intoxication with power turns him into an old, corrupt, insecure and murderous king. Look, he’s just a short distance from Bethlehem, but he could not find the newborn king. Follow instead the path of the Magi who have the wisdom to to look up to the sky and be guided by the stars. They come from far away, but they find their way to the Messiah in Bethlehem, because of their eagerness to lay down their gifts and offer them to the newborn king. Herod was a very gifted man himself. But how sad, he did not know how to lay them down. He held on to them and worshipped them instead.
Eternal Youth vs. The Curse of Aging
Many times, the disciples themselves had the tendency to follow the path of Herod instead of that of the magi. Remember what Jesus did when the disciples were arguing who among them was the greatest? How he took a child and placed it in their midst and said, “Unless you become like this little child you cannot enter the kingdom of God”? Remember on another occasionhow they were driving away the women who wanted to bring their children to Jesus to ask him to bless them? How Jesus said, “Let the children come to me. For to such as these belongs the kingdom of God”.
The Church becomes old when she gets seduced by the lure of power, prestige and wealth, when she refuses to grow, to change, to renew herself. It is then that she turns into a museum piece. When she gets steeped in narrow-minded orthodoxy and stops being a bearer of the good news of joy, love, mercy and compassion. When she limits salvation only to the good and the deserving and becomes purely retributional. When she proclaims a wrathful and vengeful God, it is then that she stops being an instrument of redemption. When she turns the Eucharist into an exclusive meal for the righteous and forgets that she receives Christ precisely so that she herself can be the Body of Christ, a body broken for broken people. When she is quick to condemn, to point an accusing finger at others. When she is more eager to throw a stone than to forgive.
Pope Francis says in CV 13, ”Jesus, the eternally young wants to give us hearts that are ever young.” He takes this from St Paul who says “God’s word invites us to strip ourselves of the ‘old self’ and to put on the ‘young self’ (Col 3:9-10). How do we do that? By putting on “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, bearing with one another and forgiving each other if anyone has a complaint against another.” (Col 3:12-13)
He also says, “True Youth means having a heart capable of loving, whereas everything that separates us from others makes the soul grow old.” (CV 13). And so he says, borrowing again from St Paul, “Clothe yourself in love which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
The Gospels tell us the disciples had a vision of JESUS EVER YOUNG when he was transfigured before them while in a deep conversation with Moses and Elijah over his MISSION, his Exodus in Jerusalem. Your see, Moses and Elijah stand for the Law and the Prophets, the Scriptures for the Jews. It means that soaking in God’s work transforms us, transfigures us to become truly youthful and beautiful, because it keeps us focused on our mission. In his version of the transfiguration story, St Luke adds that Jesus was at prayer when it happened.
Baptism: Bathing in the Fountain of Youth
I hope this little sharing has helped you see that the Fountain of Youth is not an empty legend. If we desire to find it, I assure you that God desires it even more for us. He wants to lead us all to the lifegiving waters, to the Bread of Life which alone can give us the youthfulness, the fullness of life we all seek. It was the whole point why he sent us his son. Remember John3:16 “For God so loved the world, he gave us his only Son so that all who believe might not perish but might have eternal life.”
Please remember, we have already been washed in the Fountain of Youth, the font of baptism. All he asks of us is learn to empty ourselves so that we can be filled with the life of Christ. All we need to learn is to be ready to live our lives generously, to live by faith in the Son of God who loves us and has given up his life for us, so that we too can live in the eternal youthfulness of God, the eternal now, the eternal I am.