NB. I almost forgot that I am celebrating a Vigil Mass for the Carmelite sisters and their benefactors today.
4th Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Mt. Carmel Academy, NOLA
For all the weirdness of the Catholic faith – things like chapels made of skulls and monks sleeping in coffins – we Catholics are a practical people overall. We like prayers that work for us. We like devotions that console us. One of the ways that we sometimes keep track of our salvation looks something like a bookkeeper's ledger. Good deeds on the credit side. Sins on the debit side. We look at that ledger and think, “If I can manage kick off while the credits are larger than the debits, I'm good.” With this mindset firmly in place, we look for ways to build the credit side – indulgences, extra penances, more time in the confessional, maybe a few extra bucks in the collection plate. We may even take on trying to reduce the debit side of the ledger by giving up a few vices or fasting once and awhile. Lent is a particularly time of year to kick a few bad habits and pick up some good ones. At the end of these 40 Days we sit down at the ledger and hope the balance looks good before Easter! While all this is a sensible, practical way of growing in holiness, it does nothing to the bottom-line of our salvation. Paul writes, “God, who is rich in mercy. . .brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved. . .”
By grace we have been saved. Not prayer or good deeds or donations or extra penances. By grace. Through a gift from God. His gift of His only Son, Jesus Christ. Being the practical people we are we sometimes have difficulty really believing that our redemption is free. In fact, our redemption from sin and death is so free that we were given our freedom before we could do anything to earn it. Paul writes, “God, who is rich in mercy. . .brought us to life with Christ. . .” Why? “. . .because of the great love he had for us. . .” When did He do this? “. . .even when we were dead in our transgressions.” Even when we were dead in our sins, God's love for us, His mercy for us brought us back to life with his Christ. We did nothing to earn this. Nothing to merit it. Nothing we could do would gain us this life in Christ. We hear this echoed in John oft-quoted verse: “For 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.” The kicker here is that even our desire and ability to believe in His Son is a gift!
So why do we work ourselves into a frenzy “doing holy things” to assure our salvation? I have no idea. Doing holy things can help us grow in holiness, to become more perfect in Christ, but they can do nothing to save us. Why? Because we are not saved in degrees. Being Saved is like Being Dead. Either you are or you aren't. Now, you can sin to such an extreme degree that you effectively reject your salvation. But even then God's offer to return remains open and free. Just turn around. Confess. Do your penance. And receive the Father's mercy. Here's a suggestion for the remaining days of Lent: sacrifice your religious pride; that is, give up any false notion that you can “do your own thing” in order to be saved. You can't. You can't earn what's already free. You can sacrifice your religious pride by adopting a program of prayer that focuses exclusively on giving God thanks for all that you have. No other prayer than: “Thank You, Lord, for my family, my friends, my health, etc.” Thank Him for your trials so that they can be made holy. Thank Him for your temptations so that they too can be made holy. Work for holiness not salvation. John writes, “whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”
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