In the ancient world, people were identified by their city, economic status, gender, and social class. Crossing these various boundaries was nearly impossible. People were boxed in and determined by factors beyond their control.
The Christian community, however, was a shining exception.
Among the Christians, people of different cultures, genders, and social tiers worshiped together and served alongside each other. Such a broad perspective was grounded in the Christian belief that a person’s identity was given by baptism and not by one’s social standing, money, or other worldly factors.
Grounded in baptism, Christians held the unprecedented belief that all people were children of God and all people held an inviolate dignity.
While universally accepted today by all people of goodwill, such a belief was radical at the time of the early Church. And, truth be told, such contemporary convictions of human dignity and human rights find their genesis in Christian theology.
Since Christians believed in the dignity of all men and women, rich and poor, native and foreigner, they reached out and sought to serve all people, especially those who were abandoned or discarded. This was particularly true in terms of widows, orphans, the sick and starving. In general, such groups were either ignored or manipulated by popular cultures in the early world.
People feared the sick, avoided the starving, and enslaved the widow and orphan. The Christians, however, were called to do no such thing. In fact, they labored to accept and help all people, especially those on the peripheries.
Grounded on such a foundational belief in human dignity, the Christian community felt compelled – by faith and goodness – to denounce any offense against a person’s dignity, such as abortion, the abandonment of the elderly, and the euthanizing of the sick. The Christians did not only condemn offenses, however, they also actively sought to surround the vulnerable with love and selfless service.
This led believers to create innovative services that became the antecedents to contemporary institutions such as hospitals, orphanages, schools, and outreach centers.
Today, in the Gospel Reading at Mass, all believers will once again hear the Lord Jesus’ own commission to his disciples (and to all people of goodwill): “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
It is precisely these words (and others like them), matched by the Lord’s own actions, that present to the world today “the most excellent way of love.” The disciples of the Lord are especially called to pick up this mantle and to speak as he spoke, to love as he loved, and to serve as he served.
This is not an easy summons, but it is a good one. The believer knows in her heart that any cross is worth it since it points to the resurrection.
In our world today, by words and deeds, Christian believers are expected to be different. Each believer, according to her own talents and means, is called to be a selfless and generous servant of life and an ardent defender of human dignity.
Rather than a political issue, or merely a justice or moral issue, the protection and care of all human life is a heartfelt credal issue for the Christian. It is one born from the very core of Christian belief, namely, that God became a human being, redeemed us by his sacrificial love, and reasserted the dignity of all men and women by showing us again that we are all the children of God.
Flowing from this core belief, Christians have received – and willingly follow – a way of life that asserts the worth and value of every human life, especially of the most vulnerable among us. This way of life is lived out in multiple and various ways. Each aspect is essential as they all extend from and point back to the dignity of all men and women.
No one outreach is prominent. Each is necessary – spiritual, political, educational, charitable, and familial – in order for the entire person to be ministered to and fully loved.
In these ways, Christian believers, and all people of goodwill, listen and fulfill the inviting words of the Lord Jesus: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”