Consider how the revolutionary ideas of Aristarchus of Samos changed our understanding of the cosmos. Wait…who?! The remarkable Greek mathematician and astronomer Aristarchus of Samos lived a couple centuries before Christ and is the first natural scientist known to have proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system. Well, sometimes revolutions take a while. That just might give us comfort. Over a millennia passed before Copernicus penned his pivotal book, On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres, and the rest is history. Today we still have to ask ourselves, what is the center of our reality?
A staggering amount of time is necessary to change the mind of human beings. Old Aristarchus was all but dust before his ideas saw the light of a heliocentric day. If it takes that long to change the mind of man how long must it take to change the human heart? If you believe Christianity then the actions of God, in the person of Jesus, changed reality forever and yet we still wrestle with and turn away from God. And for many the New Testament simply tells the story of a great humanitarian teacher. So for a moment, put to one side the atonement of Jesus and look exclusively at these revolutionary teachings. Anyone who thinks the Gospels are just a series of aphorisms designed for self-help has not taken much time with the Gospels. And if there is an argument for Catholicism in the 21st century it is this: The Catholic Church teaches us to live out an authentic life centered on Christ and his Gospel and the those teachings are the most radical form of living the world has ever seen.
Reflect on one simple principle, “The last shall be first, and the first last.” (Mt 20:16) A rudimentary knowledge of history should suffice to show that humanity has never taken this idea to heart and carried it out en masse. It defies the human instinct for competition and challenges all of our neuroses and self-obsessions. To “be last of all and servant of all,” (Mk 9:35) strikes us as almost anathema to good living. Think for a moment what this idea entails. We tend to think we already serve our friends and loved ones but do we really? Is it truly the case that most of the time we start by considering the best interest and highest good of those around us before we act or speak? If you’re anything like me then you tend to think first about your own desires and interests and then work others into the picture. Even many of our attempts at altruistic activity are grounded in a self-interested need. And that is just with our friends but Jesus instructed his disciples to follow this approach with all people, even our enemies.
To be able to follow such an approach we have to reorient our minds and hearts. We have to put Christ at the center of our reality. Jesus knew in his bones how to put self-interest aside and live for the good of the other. All others. In short, all of us. To give ourselves in total subservience to Christ is not a loss of who we are, it is the fulfillment of our original nature. As the Catholic Church teaches, before original sin there was original holiness (CCC 398, 399). Contrary to popular belief, the Church does not teach that we are sinners from the beginning. Human beings are constituted in a state of utter purity destined to be divinized before we fall into pure self-interest. Before we put ourselves “first.”
So Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, introduces himself as “a slave to Christ Jesus.” (Rom 1:1) All his concern has been placed in service to his master. “Do you not know,” Paul goes on, “that if you present yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.” (Rom 6:16) As Americans we chafe at this sort of language. We are independent people, we forge our own destiny. Self-made men and women, we carve our lives and legacy into monuments of our own achievement. Sin then becomes the preferred option for us because we imagine there was no obedience involved. We tell ourselves we are free.
We know that the will of God is written in the human heart (Rom 2:15) just as the fate of planets and galaxies are foretold by their orbits. Yet it is so hard to change the heart of man. What a paradigm shift to move from egocentrism to Christocentrism. It has never been done; not except by the few. G.K. Chesterton observed, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” At some point humanity will simply have to recognize that love is the center of the human soul and that love is a person and that person is God. Someday we will realize that there is no real freedom except that which comes from following the will of the one who is Love. We might pray, as St. Paul did, that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened to see the hope which comes from Christ’s call. (Eph 1:18)