Salvation and Afterlife

Yesterday was the first Mid-Day Dialogue of Faith of the year at UST Law School. Mark Osler and I have been doing these dialogues several times a year over the last several years, where we take some issue as to which Catholics and Protestants have varying thoughts and talk about them. Our subject for yesterday was Salvation and Afterlife.

Christians uniformly believe that human existence does not end with our physical death. But what happens when we die? What is salvation and how is it obtained? Although there is greater consonance in how Christians of different denominations answer these questions than exists between Christians and non-Christians, not all Christians necessarily would answer these question the same way.

I shared some thoughts on the subject from a Catholic perspective, after which Mark shared his thoughts from an Episcopal and Baptist perspective. We then had a lively conversation with the audience.

You can access a recording of Mark and my dialogue here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 24:29.)

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Hope in the Lamb

Today is Election Day in the United States. Today we elect a new President of the United States, along with other public servants who will serve us in the years ahead. And in many states, such as Minnesota (where I will be voting today), there are important measures on the ballot.

There is no question this is an important election. That is particularly true with respect to our vote for President, which presents us with two candidates with very different visions. It is an important election and each of us has the privilege and the responsibility to participate in the process of selecting which of those visions will animate our government.

BUT we also shouldn’t lose sight of the message I saw posted on Facebook the other day, taken from a Presbyterian Church, the important reminder that our hope is “not in the Donkey nor the Elephant but in the Lamb.”

So vote. Please vote. But dont’ lose sight of the fact that the winner of this election will not change the reality that our ultimate salvation is in Jesus.

Separating The Wicked from the Righteous

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples what it will be like “at the end of the age.” The wicked will be separated from the righteous and the former thrown into the furnace. In several other passages in the Gospels, Jesus conveys the same message about separating the wheat form the chaff.

One question you might ask yourself is: how do you react to that news?

I get the sense that some people hear passages like this one with something approaching glee, happy that those they deem unworthy (on whatever grounds they make that calculus) will get their comeuppance. They are confident they will be chosen with the righteous and are happy to dismiss those who will be thrown in the furnace. And so they hear this passage with a kind of “gotcha” reaction.

I don’t think that is God’s reaction. I believe that God wants to reconcile all people to God’s self. And I am confident that if God had God’s druthers, at the end of the day there would be no one tossed into the furnace. Everyone would be sitting around the table enjoying fellowship with God.

God’s reaction should guide our own. These warnings of Jesus are not meant to cause us to judge each other. Rather, they should cause us to examine what we might do to help advance God’s desire. How might we help and encourage others so that they will be gathered with the righteous?

Our Role in Fulfilling the Promise of Advent

We had a Taize prayer service at St. Hubert’s on Thursday evening. As our Taize services alway do, the evening included song, readings, a brief reflection on the readings, petitions and a final prayer and blessing. A growing group of us take different parts in the services from month to month. For this month, I selected the readings and gave the reflection.

My theme was The Promise of Advent – God’s promise that no matter how bleak things seem (and at times our own situation and that of the world around us can seem pretty bleak), God will make things right. God hears the longing and cries of God’s people and answers them.

However, God doesn’t do all the heavy lifting alone, but invites us to participate in his great redemptive scheme. Just as God invited Mary to be an integral part in the Incarnation by bearing Jesus, each of us is invited to do our part to help incarnate God into the world. A key word is “invite.” God never forces our yes, but always leaves us free to choose, as Mary freely gave her consent to her role in God’s plan.

The readings I chose for the evening were Psalm 142:2-8a (expressing the lament and suffering of the people and their longing for God’s rescue), Micah 4:1-7 and Isaiah 11 (beautifully expressing what God’s reign will look like) and Luke 1:26-38 (the Annunciation). For ease of reference, the readings are here. You can find a podcast of my reflection (which runs for 7:50) here.

My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, when the Catholic Church recalls the day on which Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus, to the temple “to present him to the Lord,” in accordance with the scripture that “Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord.”

The Gospel reading for today’s Mass contains Luke’s account of the event. We are told that when Mary and Joseph arrive at the temple with Jesus, they are met by Simeon, a “righteous and devout” man, to whom it had been revealed “by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.”

When Simeon sees Jesus, he takes the child in his arms and prays, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”

I almost tingle every time I hear this scripture proclaimed. I can feel the joy and the peace Simeon felt when he beheld Jesus. The sense that everything else is now bearable because of the presence of the Lord. That nothing else is necessary for life to be complete.

Simeon waited his entire life to see Jesus. But what Simeon experiences, the joy and peace that come with recognition of the presence of God, is not unique to him. Jesus is ours to behold each day of our lives. In the Eucharist and in each other.

Unlike Simeon, who waited for years to behold Jesus, for us each day is the Presentation of the Lord. The salvation Simeon beheld is always right there before our eyes.

Immaculate Heart of Mary

Today, on the day after which we celebrate the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we commemorate the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy calls this memorial “a celebration of the complex visceral relationship of Mary with her Son’s work of salvation: from the Incarnation, to his death and resurrection, to the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

I’ve written about Mary at various times, and posted some podcasts from a retreat I gave on Embracing Mary. This memorial of Mary’s Immaculate Heart reminds us that Mary’s consent to the Incarnation, her Yes, was not merely a consent to bear a child in her womb for nine months. Instead, in the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, “she speaks her perfect Yes to the person and work of her Son, who himself cannot be understood except as one of the divine Trinity.” While he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, that Mary’s Yes was a consent “a priori to her child’s whole destiny.” She births a child, watches him grow and lets him go so that he may enter upon his mission. She watches him arrested, stands at the foot of the cross (where she accepts her motherhood of all of his disciples) and holds her dead Son in her arms. (Ratzinger describes the image of Mary holding the dead Christ as “the purest reflection of the divine compassion that is the only true consolation.”) And she remains in the upper room with the disciples afterwards, and receives of the Holy Spirit.

Thus, writes Ratzinger, to say Mary is “full of grace” is to say that her life was “intimately connected with God.” So when we celebrate the Immaculate Heart of Mary, we celebrate a way of live intended for all of us. A Yes to the fullness of Christ in us and in the world.

A Den of Thieves

In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus angrily drives out those who are selling things, telling them, “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”

It may be difficult for us to get a feel for the temple during the time of Christ. But to understand what Jesus is trying to convey by his act of driving the traders and moneychangers from the temple, we need to understand the difference between going to temple during the time of Jesus and our going to worship in church today. We dress up nicely and get in our cars and drive to church, arriving all neat and clean and we make our offerings by putting a check or some money in an envelope into the collection basket.

In Jesus’ time, people traveled for long periods, sometimes days, over miles of rough road, walking or riding donkeys, to get to the temple. Important to their worship was offering animal sacrifices in the temple. The animals sacrificed had to be unblemished in order to be fit for God – something impossible if the animals were driven or carried for days over miles of rough road. That meant that, as a practical matter, in order to make the necessary sacrifices of unblemished animals, people had to buy their sacrificial animals from people selling at the temple.

This is a reality that Jesus was well aware of, meaning he couldn’t have simply meant, when he drove everyone out of the temple and criticized them for making his Father’s house a “den of thieves, that people should stop doing what they were doing but also to continue to worship as usual. Worship as usual would have been impossible without the buying and selling that took place at the temple.

So Jesus is not calling for a change in how business as usual is conducted. Instead, Jesus is proposing something much more radical here. In driving out the traders and moneylenders, Jesus reveals that salvation is no longer to be found in offering animal sacrifices at the old temple. There is a new temple, a new place of God’s dwelling, and that temple is Jesus. Jesus’ own body replaces the temple as God’s dwelling. And, unlike the temple building – a temporal structure that can be destroyed, Jesus will die but will be raised up and live forever. No power on earth can destroy this temple.

What does it mean to call Jesus a temple? It means that Jesus is where we go to worship, Jesus is where we go for solace, Jesus is the source of our salvation. Once the Word becomes flesh, Jesus is the place where we encounter God and where we enjoy communion with God. Once we have Jesus, he is the focal point; it is through Him that we are saved. And he is not a passive temple, like the building in which animal sacrifices are made. Rather, he shows us the way.