Sunday, 22 August 2010

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Salvation is a touchy issue for some of us. In this country, it is called a “sensitive” issue. But, seriously, how can we conceive of salvation but more importantly, whom is it intended for? In the Gospel, someone asked Christ pointedly: “Sir, will there be only a few saved”? The question was a number game and the person who asked probably had in his mind that salvation was restricted to the Jews. He was not wrong because the Jews thought themselves to be God’s chosen people. They still do. But, note that even as early as the time of the first reading, the question in the Gospel was already rendered academic or moot because the concept of salvation there was unmistakeably universal. God willed the salvation of all mankind. There was no restriction as to how many and whom was to be saved because God’s blessing on Israel was always meant to be shared amongst the nations of the world. “I am coming to gather the nations of every language”.

If God wills the universal salvation of mankind, then the relevant question is how is this universality to be achieved? This is where it becomes touchy or sensitive. Let me give an example.

Once I had to celebrate a Mass for a particular place. There was a purpose for the Mass: to pray that the students will pass their exams. I had been told that a large section of the congregation would be made up of non-Catholics and the suggestion was to tone down the “catholic” feel to it. No need to be so “catholic” about Jesus as the Saviour of the world.

I actually said to organiser, “Personally, I don’t really care what you want to do but what you are requesting begs this question: ‘Why do it when you need to apologise for being Catholic?’”

The Church believes that Christ is the Saviour of all mankind. He did not come to save Christians only. He came to save everyone. The theory that Christ’s salvation is intended for everyone is known as apokatastasis or apocatastasis. At the end of time, everything will be restored in Christ. Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution of Vatican II, described the Church in relation to this work of restoration that Christ is doing. In respect of Christ restoring all creation, the Church is the ‘universal sacrament of salvation’.(GS45).

We now wade into deeper waters. Some Catholics already have difficulty accepting that Christ is the Universal Saviour of the world—a claim which sounds arrogant. [1] And now, the Church is brought into the picture—to be the “universal sacrament of salvation”. According to the controversial document Dominus Iesus, what we say of Christ can be said of the Church as well. Christ has a significance and a value for mankind and its history and so does the Church for He did not merely constitute a community of disciples but He constituted the Church to be His instrument of salvation. As such, He and the Church forms the “whole Christ”. Thus as there can be no salvation apart from Christ, there can also be no salvation apart from the Church that is one with Him.

This is intolerable language in this age of “inclusivism”. How dare we?

The point is, when I go to a mosque or a temple, I do not expect a Muslim to pray quietly or a Buddhist monk or Hindu priest to chant softer because I am there. When the Buddhist speaks of Karma, he means that everyone and not just Buddhists are subjected to the judgement of karma. In other words, religion, if it were to be true to its character, must necessarily make ultimate truth claims. And even if it sounds alien, that is what it does and it should never apologise for its claims. For us, the name Jesus means “God who saves” and would it not be a contradiction that God can only save “Jews” or “Christians”? If God can only save this or that group of people, then He is no better than a magician for God is Saviour only in so much as He saves creation in its entirety and creation includes the whole of mankind.

Thus, from the universal claim of salvation, we come to what is personal to each of us. The universality of Christ’s salvation is not a guarantee that we will be saved. The mere fact of being baptised does not equate to “salvation”.

In conclusion, three questions can be posed from today’s readings. First, who is to be saved. Everyone is to be saved. That is the meaning of the universality of salvation. Second, how are we saved? The unequivocal answer is that salvation comes from Christ through His Church. This explains the Catholic focus on the sacraments. She is the sacrament of Christ and so she makes available His life-giving sacraments to those of us who have been incorporated into His Body. The role of the Church is to make the means widely available. It explains why the Church is evangelical in her mission. In bringing Christ to the world she becomes a part of His apokatastasis. Third, the Gospel speaks of entering the narrow gate. The question now is “Are you saved?” The narrow gate indicates that salvation is not cheap. It is not expensive from the point of view that we have to “earn” our salvation. "Salvation is not cheap" means that we need to cooperate with the grace of God in order that we may avail ourselves of the salvation that He wants to give.

I often say this to underline how privileged we are and what a heavy burden it is to be a Catholic. I tell people that there are more popes in hell than there are bishops. There are more bishops in hell than there are priests. There are more priests in hell than there are laypeople. But, consider the proportion. There have only been 200+ popes and you will work out that there are actually more laypeople in hell than there are priests, bishops and popes. But that is playing the number game as in the Gospel. What is important is to note as Christ Himself pointed out in the example of the narrow gate. The more you are given, the more will be expected of you. This may sound like some kind of “work” or duty enjoined upon you, but, the truth is we have been immensely blessed to be called by Christ into His Church. Let us live that vocation to the fullest of our abilities. Let us exude the joy of our Christian calling so that the world will know that indeed Christ has come to gather all peoples unto Himself.

[1] Part of our problem is the result of mutually excluding “sensitivity” and “expressing the truth”. Some of us think that “expressing the truth” would make us “insensitive”. The philosophy of “inclusivism” seemed to have placed a premium on “sensitivity” to the detriment of truthfulness. Expressing the truth and being sensitive are not mutually exclusive. What we should strive is to be truthful without being strident or that we should sound “triumphalistic”. In a world characterised by competitive capitalism, the challenge is to “sell” the truth of a religion without the arrogance of aggression and superiority. In the marketplace of shifting opinion, the truth of a religion is to be found in the authenticity of one’s life.