Wednesday, December 11, 2013

R U Ready for Christmas? (Part 4)

The Centrality of Salvation 
by Blessed Pope John Paul II (excerpts from the book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 1994)

[T]he Enlightenment [movement] strikes at the heart of Christian soteriology, that is, [the] theological reflection on salvation and of redemption.  "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (Jn 3:16).  In this conversation with Nicodemus every word of Christ's response constitutes a point of contention for a mind-set born of the Enlightenment [movement].

Addressing the question, "Why is the history of salvation so complicated?"  Actually, it is very simple!  We can easily demonstrate its profound simplicity and wonderful internal logic by starting with the words Jesus addressed to Nicodemus.  The first affirmation is: "God so loved the world."  According to the Enlightenment mentality, the world does not need God's love.  The world is self-sufficient.  And God, in turn, is not, above all, Love.  If anything, He is Intellect, an intellect that eternally knows.  No one needs His intervention in the world that exists, that is self-sufficient, that is transparent to human knowledge, that is ever more free of mysteries thanks to scientific research, that is ever more an inexhaustible mine of raw materials for man-the demigod of modern technology.  This is the world that must make man happy.

Christ instead says to Nicodemus: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish" (cf. Jn 3:16).  In this way Jesus makes us understand that the world is not the source of man's ultimate happiness.  Rather, it can become the source of his ruin.  This world which appears to be a great workshop in which knowledge is developed by man, which appears as progress and civilization, as a modern system of communications, as a structure of democratic freedoms without any limitations, this world is not capable of making man happy.

When Christ speaks of the love that the Father has for the world, He merely echoes the first affirmation in the Book of Genesis which accompanies the description of creation: "God saw how good it was....  He found it very good" (Gn 1:12-31).  But this affirmation in no way constitutes the absolute assurance of salvation.  The world is not capable of making man happy.  It is not capable of saving him from evil, in all of its types and forms-illness, epidemics, cataclysms, catastrophes, and the like.  This world, with its riches and its wants, needs to be saved, to be redeemed.  The world is not able to free man from suffering; specifically it is not able to free him from death.

The entire world is subject to "precariousness," as Saint Paul says in the Letter to the Romans; it is subject to corruption and mortality.  Insofar as his body is concerned, so is man.  Immortality is not a part of this world.  It can come to man exclusively from God.  This is why Christ speaks of God's love that expresses itself in the offering of His only Son, so that man "might not perish but might have eternal life" (Jn 3:16).  Eternal life can be given to man only by God; it can be only His gift.  It cannot be given to man by the created world.  Creation-and man together with it-is subject to "futility" (cf. Rom 8:20).

"God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (cf. Jn 3:17).  The world that the Son of man found when He became man deserved condemnation, because of the sin that had dominated all of history, beginning with the fall of our first parents.  This is another point that is absolutely unacceptable to post-Enlightenment thought.  It refuses to accept the reality of sin and, in particular, it refuses to accept original sin.

Saint John expresses in the words of Christ, who announced the coming of the Holy Spirit who "will convince the world in regard to sin" (cf. Jn16:8). What else can the Church do? Nevertheless, convincing the world of the existence of sin is not the same as condemning it for sinning.  "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him."  Convincing the world of sin means creating the conditions for its salvation.  Awareness of our own sinfulness, including that which is inherited, is the first condition for salvation; the next is the confession of this sin before God, who desires only to receive this confession so that He can save man.  

To save means to embrace and lift up with redemptive love, with love that is always greater than any sin. In this regard the parable of the prodigal son is an unsurpassable paradigm.  The history of salvation is very simple.  And it is a history that unfolds within the earthly history of humanity, beginning with the first Adam, through the revelation of the second Adam, Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Cor 15:45), and ending with the ultimate fulfillment of the history of the world in God, when He will be "all in all" (1 Cor 15:28).

At the same time, this history embraces the life of every man. In a certain sense it is entirely contained in the parable of the prodigal son, or in the words of Christ when He addresses the adulteress: "Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin anymore" (Jn 8:11).  

The history of salvation is synthesized in the fundamental observation of God's great intervention in the history of humankind. This intervention reaches its culmination in the Paschal Mystery-the Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ to heaven-and is completed at Pentecost, with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles.  This history, while it reveals the redemptive will of God, also reveals the mission of the Church. It is the history of every individual and the entire human family, created in the beginning and then re-created in Christ and in the Church. 

Saint Augustine had a profound insight into this history when he wrote The City of God.  But he was not the only one.  The history of salvation continues to offer new inspiration for interpreting the history of humanity, but also confronts the problem of the meaning of man's existence.  

Sunday, December 8, 2013

R U Ready for Christmas? (Part 3)

Consider what Jesus taught about the final judgment (Matthew 25:31-46): he never said we’d be judged on how religious we were, but on how we treated others especially the poor, the dispossessed, the powerless, and the disenfranchised.  Did we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, cloth the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, or visit the imprisoned?  In other words, did we help bring the Kingdom of God into the world through love, peace, justice, and good behavior?  Or, did we act like everyone else and oppress the poor and downcast, lie to others, cheat others, treat others badly, and hate our neighbors? 

Christians believe that we cannot separate our faith from our everyday lives.  We cannot compartmentalize our lives by behaving righteously in some circumstances and behaving unrighteously in others.  What good does it do to go the church on Sundays but behave poorly during the rest of the week?  We can oftentimes fool other people; sometimes we can even fool ourselves; but we can never fool God!

Persevering in our Christian faith is an integral and necessary part of becoming better people.  But ultimately, Christians don’t believe we become better people by getting smarter or through our own hard work, but through our trust and faith in God to work in us and through us.  We must try to do our best and then let God do the rest. 

Some call this cooperating with God because all we can really offer to God is our free will.  St. Paul wrote (Ephesians 2:8-10): For by grace you have been saved through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Because of this, practicing Christians don’t claim to always be perfect, upstanding citizens.  We’re human beings—just like everyone else—full of flaws, weaknesses, and insecurities.  But the process of persevering to overcome our sinful ways and live honestly, decently, ethically, and morally is what God is looking for from us, and then his grace will do the rest in us.  St. Paul discussed the necessity of persevering in our Christian faith this way (Philippians 2:12-13): Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

These are all encouraging things to meditate on, but what about the big problem that the philosopher Qoheleth brought up in his book Ecclesiastes: the problem of death?  Recall that Qoheleth believed that it is death and our fear of death that make life so pointless, frustrating and meaningless for all of us.  Well salvation is not only being liberated from evil or the undesirable but it’s also being liberated from death!

For practicing Christians, our hope is in the resurrection from the dead so that we no longer have to live in fear of death.  As Christ conquered death by rising from the dead, we believe that someday he’ll raise us from the dead as well.  Our belief in the resurrection from the dead is what gives Christians hope beyond our futile existence that somehow God will one day raise us from the dead to an everlasting life with Him in heaven.  And since we no longer have to live in fear of death (our necessary end), we can live a meaningful life knowing that our persistence in living honestly, decently, ethically, and morally won’t go unrewarded.

In short, based on the premise of original sin, redemption, and salvation, we can become Christians through faith and baptism.  And then we become better people by persevering in a life of love for God and others through honest, decent, ethical, and moral living.  These are what save us.  For Christians, faith is the beginning but the end result is love for God and others.

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