What will separate us from the love of Christ?
So St. Paul asks in Romans 8:35. The apostle then lists what won’t: anguish, distress, and persecution. Nor can famine, nakedness, other dangers, or the sword. Then Paul winds up to this conclusion:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (vv. 38-39).
In other words, there is no created or fallen thing or condition that can separate us from Christ. Of all the things listed, death is surely the most terrible. For death is the ultimate separation: not only from our friends, family, and the rest of humanity, but even from ourselves, as death means the separation of the body from the soul. Indeed, fallen angels, earthly powers, heights and depths, and the passage of time are most frightful when they bring us to our deaths.
But Paul says not even death can separate us from Christ. (Specifically: from the love of Christ. The significance of this will soon become apparent!) How do we know we know this to be the case?
We know it because even when Christ Himself died we were not separated from His love.
This is the powerful lesson of the crucifixion scene recounted in the gospels.
It is important to realize that the day of Christ’s death was a moment of total abandonment and separation. On the Cross, the One who had fashioned the entire universe (see John 1) experienced the fullness of death in the fullness of His humanity. No wonder all creation trembled at such a spectacle. The earth quaked and the sun was hidden from view as ‘darkness came over the whole land’ (Mark 15:33).
On a smaller scale, we see Christ anticipating the separation from loved ones entailed in his death: in the Gospel of John he entrusts His mother Mary to the care of the beloved disciple.
But none of this was the worst of it.
Instead, the abandonment reached its climax when Christ cried out from the cross to His Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In His baptism God had spoken from heaven, expressing how well pleased He was with His Son. So also in the Transfiguration scene, God had spoken approvingly from the cloud that enveloped the mountain. But this time, at the moment Jesus is imploring it, heaven is silent. The fundamental separation from God that had been the fate of mankind since Eden was now felt most acutely by Christ Himself.
Consider the implications for the rest of the human race in that moment: Christ was our mediator, the intercessor on our behalf with God. He was the One who brought our words of supplication to God and He was God’s final Word to us. But, in this moment, the all-powerful Word cries out for an answer and receives none. In this moment, even the Word itself experiences death in the flesh.
In his book, Mysterium Paschale, the noted Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar devotes an entire chapter to what it means that the ‘Word’ of God had gone silent. “Then the silence closed around, as the sealed tomb will close likewise. At the end of the Passion, when the Word of God is dead, the Church has no words left to say,” Balthasar writes.
But, after Christ’s death on the cross, as recorded in the Gospel of John, something extraordinary happens:
So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and then of the other one who was crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out (verses 32-34).
In his encyclical Haurietis Aquas, Pope Pius XII connects the Sacred Heart of Jesus with this verse in Isaiah 12:3, With joy you will draw water from the fountains of salvation. Likewise, in John 4, Jesus had identified Himself as a source of eternal life-giving water.
This biblical imagery, taken together, suggests that even in His death, this fountain of life continued to bubble forth for us. And it is most fitting that its wellspring is from Jesus’ heart, for it is out of Christ’s love for us that He offered Himself up on the Cross.
This connection between Christ as a fountain of salvation and eternal life and the heart gushing forth fluid has led the Church to further identify the blood and water that came out with the sacraments of the Eucharist and baptism, respectively. Thus, at that very moment in His death, Christ’s love, signified in His Sacred Heart, not only remained present to us but became a source of abundant life for us.
As St. Augustine put it, “The Evangelist has expressed himself cautiously; not struck, or wounded, but opened His side: whereby was opened the gate of life, from whence the sacraments of the Church flowed, without which we cannot enter into that life which is the true life: And forthwith came thereout blood and water. … O death, by which the dead are quickened, what can be purer than that blood, what more salutary than that wound!”
What can separate us from the love of Christ? Not even death. Not even His death. May we remember that as we enter into this month dedicated to the Sacred Heart.