What do you think when you hear the words: “eternal life”? Life after death, I presume. That’s what I thought until I read this thought-provoking piece by Pope Benedict (from his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week). I have to say I kept thinking of Bl. John Paul as I read it . . .
“Eternal life” is not–as the modern reader might immediately assume–life after death, in contrast to this present life, which is transient and not eternal. “Eternal life” is life itself, real life, which can also be lived in the present age and is no longer challenged by physical death. This is the point: to seize “life” here and now, real life that can no longer be destroyed by anything or anyone.
This meaning of “eternal life” appears very clearly in the account of the raising of Lazarus: “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn 11:25-26). “because I live, you will live also”, says Jesus to his disciples at the Last Supper (Jn 14.19), and he thereby reveals once again that a distinguishing feature of the disciple of Jesus is that he “lives”: beyond the mere fact of existing, he has found and embraced the real life that everyone is seeking. On the basis of such texts, the early Christians called themselves simply “the living” (hoi zōntes). They had found what all are seeking–life itself, full and, hence, indestructible life.
Pope Benedict then goes on to describe how, in fact, we obtain this life:
The high-priestly prayer gives an answer that may surprise us, even though in the context of biblical thought it was already present. “eternal life” is gained through “recognition”, presupposing here the Old Testament concept of recognition: recognizing creates communion; it is union of being with the one recognized. But of course the key to life is not any kind of recognition, but to “know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17.3). . . .
“Eternal life” is thus a relational event. . . .
Man has found life because he adheres to him who is himself Life. Then much that pertains to him can be destroyed. Death may remove him from the biosphere, but the life that reaches beyond it–real life–remains. This life, which John calls zōē as opposed to bios, is man’s goal. The relationship to God in Jesus Christ is the source of a life that no death can take away.
Isn’t this what we witnessed in Bl. John Paul in his latter days, this zōē that so clearly sprang from his relationship with the living Christ?