Friday, March 10, 2017

Good Enough For God?

2nd Sunday of Lent (A)

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The Transfiguration of Christ
During Lent we are encouraged to take on additional spiritual practices and disciplines such as fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Why do we do these things?

Do we do them as part of a divine self-improvement plan? Do we fast from dessert in order to shed a few pounds? Do we say an extra rosary during the week because we think it will make us a better person? Do we spend a few hours volunteering at the soup kitchen because we think it will gain us some divine favor?

We need to be careful. There can be a danger any time we set out to increase the practice of our Christian devotion, in thinking that by so doing we can make ourselves "good enough" for God.

This is the heresy of Pelagianism, condemned long ago by the Church. Pelagius was a fourth century monk who denied the existence of original sin. That meant that, at least in theory, it was possible for a person to live his or her entire life without committing any personal sin, and therefore be in no need of a savior. The Church has always taught that Adam's fall from grace affects all men and therefore Christ died to save all men.

We practice a form of Pelagianism when we act as though our prayers and charitable acts will earn us a place in heaven. We are wrong if we think God will let us in if only we spend enough hours helping the poor or pray enough Hail Marys. The truth is that there is nothing you or I can do that will ever "earn" us anything from God.

We simply can't. We are not on God's level. You and I are able to merit favor from one another because we share in equal human dignity. If you do a certain amount of work for me, I owe you a certain amount of money. This is a matter of justice. We can enter into contracts and hold one another accountable. We are equals. 

This is not the case between a human and an ant. No matter how good an ant may be at digging tunnels and whatever else it is that ants do, no ant will ever put me in a position of owing it anything. It is incapable of earning anything from me, because it is not my equal.

As far above the ant as we are, even further above us is the Almighty God. We are simply incapable of earning our way to heaven. There is nothing we can do that will make God owe us anything. We will never be "good enough" for heaven. Not on our own.

The only one who can merit God's favor is one who is of equal dignity to God. I'm talking about Jesus Christ, revealed in the Transfiguration as God's divine Son. He and only He is the one of whom God said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

We are saved not by our own efforts but by the efforts of Christ. St. Paul tells us that, "He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to His own design" (2 Tim 1:9). 

Does this mean we should not bother with prayer, fasting or almsgiving? Does this mean we should not strive to grow in virtue? Does this mean we do not have to repent of our sins and follow the moral commandments? No, we must do all of these things. As St. Paul said, we are called to "a holy life." The question becomes why? Not because we think that by doing these things we are meriting heaven, but for other good reasons. 

First, because by doing good and charitable works as baptized Christians, we do them not on our own efforts but with the strength provided by Christ, as a member of His mystical body. We grow in conformity to God's only Son, in whom He is well pleased. God is pleased by Christ's work in us.

Second, because we cannot get to heaven on our own. I don't care how far you walk, drive, swim or fly you simply cannot get there from here. God Himself must reach down to us and draw us up to Himself. This is precisely what He does in Christ. But we cannot ascend to heaven with Christ while we are holding fast to the things of this world. This is why we fast during Lent; to learn detachment from the things that may be holding us back from God.

And third, because we learn through our penance to rely solely on Christ. As Paul says to Timothy, we are to bear our share of hardship for the gospel, with the strength that comes from God (2 Tim 1:8). By bearing small burdens voluntarily for the sake of Christ, we learn to bear the harsher burdens of our fallen world as Christ bore His burden for us on the cross. 

God has only one begotten Son, Jesus Christ. But those who are reborn in Christ become adopted sons and daughters of God. God becomes for us more than our Maker; He is our beloved Father. By living in Christ and cooperating with His grace, we can have sure and certain hope that at the end of our lives we, too, may hear the Father's voice crying out to greet us, "This is my beloved son/daughter, in whom I am well pleased."

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