Monday, December 02, 2013

Saved in hope: What is salvation?

(My notes for tonight's second talk for Saint Cecilia's Mission, "Christ our Hope.")

In that reading from Paul,
you may have noticed him say,
“For in hope we were saved.”
That’s tonight’s topic.
So we’ll look more at just what “salvation” means.

And you may recall Pope Benedict XVI
wrote a letter using this very passage as the theme.

If you want to go through what Scripture says on the subject,
Benedict’s letter is a great resource.
I’ll touch on it a little,
but you may want to go look at it in more depth.

I don’t know if people realize that Pope Benedict
may well have been one of the finest scholars
ever to be elected pope. I repeat: ever.

So let’s take a look at what he said.
First, he talks about the world into which
Christ our hope was born.

The non-Jewish people
to whom Paul and the other apostles
brought the news of Christ were not without any religion.

But the key thing about the pagan religions of that time was this:
The purpose of their ritual and sacrifice
wasn’t to draw closer to God--that wasn’t possible!--
Rather, it was merely to see
if you could gain some favor from supernatural powers;
or at least, keep them from turning against you.

To quote Pope Benedict:
“The Divine was seen in various ways in cosmic forces,
but a God to whom one could pray did not exist.”

Remember the opinion survey I cited last night?
About how many people, in our time, believe exactly that:
if there is a God, we can’t really know anything about him.
For whatever reasons, our society looks more and more pagan every day.

A little bit of paganism in all of us

And before we point the finger at someone else,
let’s look closer to home.
Do we ever look at prayer and religious observance
as being about winning favors
or warding off some divine retribution?

Let me tell you a story about myself.
One of my bad habits--which I’m getting better at--
is that I tend to let my gas tank run down too close to empty.

And the trouble with that, of course,
is that sometimes, I’d cut it too close, and run out.

Father Weber--weren’t you with me that one time,
when we were driving from the seminary in Mount Washington
to Thomas More College?
It happened right there on I-275!

So this a bad habit of mine.
If I’m late tomorrow night, you’ll know why.

At any rate, I remember one time,
getting into the car, taking off,
and only after I’m on the highway do I notice:
oh my goodness, it’s on “E.”
And I remember now, it’s been on “E”
the last two times I got into the car.

I don’t recall where I was going, but I was in a rush;
and I really, really, didn’t want to run out of gas.

So I did what you would do: I prayed!
Oh God, I’m sorry!
Please, please just get me
to the next gas station, and I promise!
I won’t ever do this again!

Now, I don’t even remember whether that worked!
But I did realize, pretty quickly, how silly I was being:

Because it was as if
my running out of gas was a capricious punishment--
from a God whose favor I’d lost--
and now I was going to bargain to get it back.
Rather than it being a case
of something that would happen naturally
Because I tried to drive too many miles on one tank.

So there’s a little pagan in me;
and maybe you can think of times
you have thought the same way.

Now that’s a trivial example,
but it is a mindset we often have.
More often, about things that matter a whole lot more.

Have you ever known anyone
who gets into trouble--real trouble--
and they’ll say, they wonder if God is punishing them?

We can find people in the Bible who acted this way.
Let’s look at Job, in the Old Testament.
At the beginning of his story,
He is dutiful about his religious observance,
wanting to keep God’s favor.
When everything falls apart, what happens?
His friends say, you must have done something wrong!
And he says, No, I know I didn’t do anything wrong--
so why is this happening?

And when God finally speaks,
He tells the friends: you were wrong to accuse Job of sin!

And he says to Job:
All the goodness of this world, which I created,
is not something you buy from me, but it is a gift!

And Job learns that what’s important
isn’t the stuff God gives him,
but knowing God himself.
Once God speaks to him,
he asks nothing more.

The reason this is important to pay attention to is this:
If we fall into thinking that our faith,
our relationship with God,
is a kind of transaction, a contract,
where we do certain things,
expecting God to do certain things in response:

So, for  example, we go to confession and Mass,
train our kids in the Catholic faith,
and in exchange, God gets us at least into purgatory.

But if it’s a contract, that’s not salvation.

Let’s recall Saint Paul again, from this same letter to the Romans:
“But God proves his love for us
in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

So let’s state it plainly:
to be saved, by definition, isn’t something we earn!
Salvation is 100% gift!

We’ll look at that some more in a moment.
But I want to return to the way Pope Benedict
was describing the religious emptiness
of the pagan world into which Jesus Christ was born.

He quotes an epitaph from a grave:
In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recidimus 
(How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing);
And he says, “In this phrase
we see in no uncertain terms the point Paul was making,”
About how many lived without God--and without hope.

So we have the picture.
And if we were filling
the whole side of the church with a mural,
we could paint lots of images
representing all the ways humanity,
even now, is in darkness, and without hope;

Including so many who have decided
the only thing they can “hope” for
is whatever pleasure or meaning they can get
out of a few decades on this earth.
And then they die.

Notice, for example,
how much people are advocating planned suicide,
and “mercy killing” for those who are disabled.
Even for children!

There it is: a world of darkness and no hope.

Let’s not stay in that darkness!
As Father Jamie would say: “Amen?” Amen!

God dwells with us

Let’s go to Pope Benedict one more time to get out of that darkness.

He asks the question, what’s the relationship between faith and hope?
And he takes a familiar passage from the Letter to the Hebrews
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen.”

Now, he actually goes pretty deeply into that word “substance”
but I’ve got to skip over all that.

Then he shares something from St. Thomas Aquinas,
who taught that faith is a habitus--that’s Latin--
Which means “a stable disposition of the spirit,
through which eternal life takes root in us
and reason is led to consent to what it does not see.”

Now, that word, habitus, is interesting.
It the source of our word, “habit.”
But it’s also related to another word, “habitat”--
a dwelling, like a house.
So you have that great charity, “Habitat for Humanity”--
and they build houses for people.

So what that means is that a “habit”
is a behavior that, in a sense, “builds a house” in us;
It takes root and it’s always there.

Here’s why I think that’s interesting.
Because what Benedict is saying is that our faith--
our choice of believing, and our practice of the faith,
Builds a home in us where hope can live!

So against the desolate scene
we painted of hopeless darkness, we find a house!
And it is filled with light!

Isn’t that the image we have of the birth of Jesus Christ?
We have the long tradition of him being born at midnight--
which is why we have Midnight Mass on Christmas.

While the world is in spiritual darkness,
At the middle of the night; at the darkest time of the year,
Christ was born!

But there’s something else here.
We might wonder, why this plan?
Why did God become human anyway?
Why not just send a messenger--
and remember, that’s what a lot of people say Jesus is,
only a messenger, not God himself.

So what’s wrong with that idea?

Well, because of what Pope Benedict--
working from Aquinas--said:
Hope needs a secure dwelling in us in order to take root.

And what is a better, or more secure “dwelling”
than to have God himself with us!

Not a vision, or a prophecy, or even a messenger--
“but true God from true God”!
Say it with me:
“For us men and for our salvation,
came down from heaven,
and by the power of the Holy Spirit,
was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

That’s a secure dwelling! God dwelling among us!

And when we look around our world today,
And wonder what we can say to a world
that thinks it knows everything and has everything,
That’s what we say!

Light shining in the darkness

And if we want to draw others, then we know what to do:
We have to be that dwelling where light shines out.
That’s what our parishes need to be;
What our families must be;
What each of us must be.

If we wonder
what God wants us to do with our lives--there it is.
That’s our basic vocation.
And it’s a necessary one.

Look at this church, right now.
It’s all lit up; it’s dark outside--
so right now, we can’t enjoy the beauty of these windows.
But anyone who’s outside can!
Anyone walking or driving down Madison Road sees that light.

So there’s a simple but pretty complete plan
for how each of us is called to live our lives:
Let his light shine out for others.
It’s prayer and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist,
that feeds that fire, and makes it burn warm and bright.

When we simplify our lives,
we’re clearing away the stuff that crowds our life,
but doesn’t really add to the fire--it creates no light.
It just sits there, taking up space,
and taking our attention.

The sacrament of confession can be understood two ways.
If we’ve closed out the Holy Spirit, by sin,
we cut off the air, the oxygen, that feeds the fire.
And sin also clouds the windows, obscuring the light.

In confession, we allow Christ
to wash away all the crud
and to open us up again to the oxygen of the Holy Spirit.

Now, in theory, just one confession can do it.
In theory.
In practice, we need it again and again and again.

Parents, you’ll get this one:
The habit of being dirty
needs to be replaced
with the habit of being clean.

I notice you put out a sign on Madison Road saying,
Eucharistic adoration--come in!
Wonderful! That’s the exact idea!

Our Lord is here on the altar,
just as he was there, in that stable,
surrounded by Mary and Joseph,
perhaps some animals, and before long, shepherds.

If you ever feel that not enough people come to Mass,
remember that night.

The God-man born to die

Of course, God’s plan for our salvation
wasn’t just being born among us--
but also dying for us.

I want to recall something Bishop Fulton Sheen said.
Jesus is the one man who was born to die.

The shadow of the cross
reached all the way back from Calvary,
to the moment of his birth.
In fact, even before.
When Gabriel appeared to Joseph, he said,
You are to name him Jesus,
Because “he will save his people from their sins.”

Notice, not: “from the Romans,” or “from their enemies”--
but from their sins.

It was just a hint.
But Joseph and Mary would have known
that the Prophet Isaiah had described
a “servant,” a “Just One,”
who would suffer “for our sins,”
And his wounds would “justify many.”

They and others would have remembered,
again from Isaiah, that this servant
would give sight to the blind
and would set captives free.

Keep this in mind as we recall
Jesus walking into the synagogue,
and reading from the scroll of Isaiah, saying,
“The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me”--
to do these wonderful things--
And then rolling up the scroll, he tells them:
“This passage has been fulfilled in your hearing”!

So often people will write about our Savior,
and claim he didn’t know
what his mission was, or who he was.
But that is not what the Gospels show us.
He knew who he was and why he came.

It was everyone else who was confused--
even his closest friends.
So when he told them, the Son of Man must suffer and die,
It was Peter who said, Oh no, not so Lord!”

Again, as Bishop Sheen said:
Jesus is the one man who was born to die.

Why did Jesus ‘have’ to die?

So just as we might wonder why God’s Plan
called for him being born among us,
even more we wonder, why did he die?

Why was that the plan of salvation?

I’ll say more about that tomorrow,
but I won’t completely leave you hanging tonight.

There is a sense in which the Cross was “necessary”--
Jesus speaks of it in the Gospels--
but it was not a necessity anyone imposed on him.

He said: “No one takes (my life) from me.
I have power to lay it down
and the power to take it up again.” (John 10)

Saint Thomas Aquinas said something
I think is astonishing when you think about it.
“Any suffering of his, however slight,
was enough to redeem the human race.”

Any suffering of his--however slight!

That means that when our Savior was an infant,
and he was circumcised.
Or if he ever scratched his finger or scraped a knee.

“Any suffering of his, however slight.”

That means that the “necessity” of the plan of the Cross
was something God “imposed” on himself.

Where the minimum would have been more than enough,
God chose to do the maximum!

So when we talked earlier about the gift of salvation,
there it is again.
God didn’t have to give us the gift;
and he didn’t have to give it in the way  he did;
and he didn’t have to be so astonishingly--
even shockingly--generous.

There’s more to be said,
about why the Cross was the perfect plan.
Not just for us as individuals,
but for what Paul said in the reading we began with:
The need of all Creation, “groaning” in futility, to be redeemed.
Because that points to the Resurrection:
Not just escape from this life,
But reclaiming and truly restoring life--
our human life--to what it truly is.

Just a hint of what this means:
When God became human, and lived among us;
And when he rose from the dead
and his friends saw him in a new--
and sometimes strange--way,
In none of this was he in any way “less human.”

On the contrary: in all this
they were seeing what being human truly is!
And that’s something we still only get a little glimmer of.

Christ was born, has died, and his risen for us.
All those things have happened. They are solid for us.

But what we shall later be?
If we cooperate with him,
and let him work his plan in us?

What will resurrection mean for us?
That still lies ahead!

We’ll talk about that tomorrow night,
when we go from the Cross
to Empty Tomb, and beyond.

Now we have time to pray,
to receive the Benediction of the Lord himself,
and then go to confession,
And receive the generosity of his salvation,
Not in the future, but here! Tonight!

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