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April 25, 2011

The great Second Reading for Easter Sunday provokes a challenge: "If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth" (Colossians 3.1-2).

After the discipline of Lent and the glory of the Triduum liturgies we might just believe that, with God's grace, we can do it. Now is the time to be completely focused on seeking the things that are above and turning our backs on things that are on earth.

That is a marvellous desire, one to be pursued with all our might. But because of the fallen human condition, it is never straightforward.

The American novelist John Steinbeck pointed to "the strange duality" in that human condition. We recognize qualities such as tolerance, wisdom, generosity and humility as good. Other qualities such as cruelty, greed and self-interest are seen as undesirable.

"Yet in our structure of society, the so-called and considered good qualities are invariable concomitants of failure, while the bad ones are the cornerstones of success." We admire the good qualities in the abstract and detest the bad ones, again in the abstract. "But actually (man) would rather be successful than good," Steinbeck wrote (The Log from the Sea of Cortez).

We are torn. We want to be successful and we want to be good. In our fallenness, our ethics are pragmatic. "This is what I must do to attain my goals." In our redeemed selves, we have integrity. "I will do the right thing, no matter what it costs."

This paradoxical situation is the setting for the drama of human existence. Even an apparently strong religious faith, moreover, is no guarantee that one will consistently choose goodness over success. Who wants to be a misfit, to be the soul always standing on the margin of human endeavours? The roar of the crowd and the comforts of financial success are a compelling draw for even the most faithful.

We convince ourselves that we can have both. We might even subscribe to that misbegotten theology that claims that faith brings worldly success.

"Jesus was an aberration," we might think. "His fidelity to God's will led to Calvary; my fidelity will lead to a villa in Mexico."

The biological ill-adaptation of humanity to its environment is actually a sign of something positive. We can be, ought to be, more than beings that feather their own nests. We do have the capacity to choose the things that are above. We can deal with the most basic necessities of life, but give our greater attention to the glory of God and the needs of others.

This is a most uncommon thing. It goes against the grain. But it is a genuine human possibility in the face of Christ's resurrection from the dead.