From Our Way of Life by Bishop Francis Hodur
The notion that man may have a new spiritual birth has been the topic of many memorable discourses and sermons. It receives a great deal of attention in books on religion and it has been the subject of considerable philosophical inquiry.
Jesus Christ made his first reference to “rebirth” in a conversation with Nicodemus, who, to avoid jeopardizing his position in society, used to visit our Lord at night. Nicodemus would ask questions about many aspects of life. Apparently, one of his questions must have dealt with the requirements for entry into the kingdom of God, because Jesus replied:
“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
“Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5)
It was in this way that Christ first introduced the idea of rebirth. But he never gave it a precise meaning, and so, to this day, we find various individuals and churches offering different interpretations of it. In the early Christian Church there were some who contended that man is reborn through baptism; others argued that it was through the martyrdom and resurrection of our Lord; and there were still others who claimed that it was through penance, holy communion, confirmation, fasting, or prayer.
They believed that rebirth occurred through the working of Divine Grace, and they associated it with the notion of being reconciled with God and of being freed from sin through the power of faith.
But this is not what rebirth means.
Rebirth comes from a spiritual transformation which changes man into a new being. It begins with an understanding of our true relationship with God and moving into closer union with Him. This understanding and this union become sources of the great power which is needed to complete the transformation.
This reborn individual becomes a completely different person. He has changed spiritually and morally. He has changed his attitude towards God, towards his fellow man, and towards his environment. Insofar as external or physical changes are concerned, these are limited to the extent that the effects of this new inner spiritual force can be perceived in his features. But, from a moral or behavioral standpoint, we have an entirely new person.
If the reborn individual had previously been easygoing, then he will continue to be this way after his change. If he had a fiery disposition, he will continue to be lively and impulsive. If he was outspoken, he will continue to be so. If he was a father, then this certainly will not change. But his spiritual temper and his moral character will be completely changed.
Above all else, he has a different way of thinking and a new understanding of God, the world, life, life’s purpose, and his final destiny.
The sophisticated modern man does not pay much attention to God nor to his own relationship with God. Although he professes to believe in God, and would become very indignant at any suggestion to the contrary, his daily life is not structured on a thorough comprehension of God. Nor is such comprehension a factor in his thoughts, words, or deeds.
But the man who has been reborn acts in a very different way. God is his entire point of reference. He begins his work in God’s name, he looks to God for a measure of its worth, and he finds his reward in God’s approval of it. He lives with an instinctive awareness of the presence of God and the benefits of His grace.
The reborn individual’s basic attitudes towards life and towards his fellow human beings also change. The man who has not been reborn if often greedy, covetous, a seeker of sensual pleasures, and a pursuer of wealth and status. He desires recognition, accolades of applause and worldly fame. But the man who has been reborn does not care about any of these things. Neither wealth, nor fame, nor honors, nor fleshly indulgence have any significant or lasting value for him. He sees them as transient aspects of life, which are not worth the risk they entail to the spiritual treasures of the soul and to its share in eternity.
This does not mean, however, that reborn man neglects his mundane affairs, becoming a poor citizen, worker, teacher, priest, or doctor. On the contrary, he carries out all of his responsibilities in a conscientious, honest, faithful and exact way. He does this because he believes that the fulfillment, of his vocational obligations are essential for maintaining proper stability and order in human affairs, and because it represents a gradual realization of the conditions necessary to achieve the kingdom of God on this earth.
However, the obligations of this earthly life do not totally absorb the reborn man. In this sense, he is much like a sailor, who, when he is at sea, does everything necessary to guarantee a successful trip. He does not ignore any safety precautions, and he calls upon all of the skills he has acquired through training and experience. But when he reaches his port, he leaves his navigational equipment on board, and he forgets about the trip’s hardships, labors and dangers.
Reborn man has the same attitude towards life and its responsibilities. He treats them as a transitory phase of his existence, which is the journey to a better and happier country. The reborn man does not scorn, nor neglect, nor make light of his earthly pilgrimage because he knows that each act in his life contributes something to his total achievement and brings him closer to his ultimate goal. But, at the same time, he does not attach excessive importance to its material by-products. He properly assesses their relative value as mere implements for the attainment of eternal happiness.
The reborn man. also knows different joys and different sorrows.
The worldly man considers himself successful when he is able, in some degree, to satisfy his sensual drives and desires; when his ambitions are realized; when he acquires wealth; when he defeats his adversaries; when he enjoys good health; when his fellow men hold him in respect, even though this may have been gained by falsehood and hypocrisy. He grieves if he is deprived of one or more of these essentials of his existence.
How differently the truly religious, reborn man finds his happiness!
The basis of his happiness does not lie in the conditions and elements of his worldly life. It comes, rather, from within himself, from his soul, and especially. from his relationship with God, the first and final source of true and untroubled contentment.
Material needs and human relationships are part of the reborn man’s total concern, of course, but not in the same sense that they influence the worldly man. Reborn man rejoices when he sees divine intelligence and the accomplishment of God’s purpose shining through all the manifestations of human enterprise and endeavor, whether by individuals or by nations. Thus, he is happy when he sees love and peace thrive in the family circle. He is glad to see human faults and imperfections decrease. He is happy when his country wins praise and maintains prosperity, not through bloody wars of conquest which crush and destroy weaker peoples, but, rather, through productive enterprise and a harmonious structure of religious, social and political relationships. He is happy to see all mankind develop and advance, insofar as this physical and material progress truly brings man closer to perfection.
Reborn man’s reactions to the causes of sorrow and pain are similar.
The worldly man grieves when things go poorly for him in his business, on his job, or in any of life’s competitions. He worries about losing customers or clients. He plunges into despair when his illusive dreams of personal or national power are dashed.
The reborn man evaluates these things from a loftier point of view. He will also grieve, but his sorrow will be caused by other considerations. He grieves if he is convinced that he is responsible for his and his family’s misfortune because of his own failings, carelessness, or dissipation. He grieves if he sees that his country is unwilling to recognize impending disaster; does not try to rid itself of vice and crime; does not try to improve its present way of life; does not understand that a complete spiritual rebirth is the only way in which it can be saved. He grieves if, instead, it turns to some false and misleading doctrine and looks for its recovery in the magical potions brewed by various charlatans who make fleeting appearances on this earth.
The reborn man grieves, but he does not despair and he does not abandon hope. For him, everything in this earthly life is transient and relative. Even sorrow, trouble, misfortune and adversity are seen as healing agents for him and for his country. He receives useful lessons and benefits from them.
The reborn man’s situation is worth envying. It brings him closer to the essence of God.
But how does one attain this situation? How can we bring about this miraculous transformation of the human soul, which changes the wretched and sinful human into the fortunate one who finds satisfaction even among life’s greatest adversities?
There are two incentives for this change: one flows directly from God; the second is inherent in human consciousness.
Any man who has never sensed his own intrinsic worth must persistently feel a certain degree of dissatisfaction. In the bustle of daily life, with its din and clamor, surrounded by the outward appearance of success, admired and acclaimed by the world, envied by his rivals, the individual who has not been reborn will, nevertheless, often feel an inner emptiness. He begins to sense that he is actually quite poor, unhappy, alone, and most un- fortunate.
In reading the biographies of famous men, we find that they often experienced such moments of bitterness, and internal conflict, when they longed for illumination and peace. They found little gratification in the brilliant military victories they had won; their successes in diplomacy; the masterpieces of art or literature they had created; the fortunes they amassed; or their ability to sway and influence others. All these achievements did not satisfy their inner needs. They would become enveloped in an uncontrollable melancholy. A feeling of great emptiness would settle on their souls, while bitterness and despair alternately flooded their hearts. And this was because the lives of these otherwise great and ostensibly successful people were often sinful and, in many ways, contrary to the will of God.
Their ambitions and their cravings for fame and power drove them, trampling on the bodies of their victims, to the ceremonies in which their bloody hands delivered the crowns they had won for themselves or for others. They reached society’s highest peaks. But their efforts and their accomplishments were in disagreement with their own inner senses, in conflict with their consciences, and at variance with God’s moral order. They could not, therefore, find happiness.
Some of them sought relief or even oblivion in new military campaigns, others in carousing or licentiousness, while some even became absorbed in scholarly activities. Some died, despairing and hopeless, cursing fate with their last breath.
But there were some who did find comfort and who revealed to us the sure road to a new and better life, to rebirth and unending happiness.
Among those who made such discoveries of life’s true purpose, we find Paul of Tarsus, and Augustine of Tagasta. The former came to be known as the greatest apostle of Christianity, while the latter achieved fame as a writer, bishop and philosopher.
They arrived at their understanding of life after much meditation, reflection and consideration of causality.
In their early lives they pursued earthly goals, just as millions of people, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, had done before them and continued to do after them. They were ready to make any sacrifices necessary in order to win the success, fame, fortune, power and status they desired, but they did not find and enjoy real happiness. One of them, steeped in pride and vanity, searched for this happiness by catering to sensual lusts and passions. The other became an instrument of fanaticism, bitterness and hatred. But, neither folly nor licentiousness, nor self-righteous dedication to dogmatism soothed the tormented souls of Augustine and Paul. They found themselves, figuratively, on the brink of an abyss of torment and despair. A sense of hopelessness and a feeling of the insignificance of human life emanated from it.
At such a moment in their lives, they met the Divine Teacher from Nazareth. This meeting determined their subsequent way of life and their entire futures. It became their rescue, deliverance, and rebirth.
Through this contact with Christ, their uncertainty vanished, their doubts disappeared, and they no longer heard the voices of despair. An energizing force flowed into their souls, and along with it came great perception, holy fervor, unbounded love of God, and the desire to dedicate their lives to the service of mankind.
In the same strange and mysterious way that the joining of positive and negative poles creates the flow of electricity which gives us light and heat, so is the union of the human element with God. The act of dedicating ourselves to Him through Jesus Christ, produces a discharge of creative power in the human soul. It gives us strength we have never known before. Truths which date back to the beginnings of time become clear to us. We understand life’s purpose both as individuals and as members of the human race.
The man who had previously been selfish, apathetic and useless now becomes God’s implement, He helps his fellow man. He is like a lamp which burns with a flame of love, enthusiasm and self-denial.
Such a man is blessed a hundred times over!