An Unshakeable Hope

Rembrandt van Rijn, Repentant St. Peter | 1631, Oil on Panel | The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Rembrandt van Rijn, Repentant St. Peter | 1631, Oil on Panel | The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

When the body is wounded, the interior becomes exterior: flesh and blood reveal themselves. What is wounded must then be cared for in order that healing take place. Someone must intervene.

The same holds true in the spiritual life. Christ reveals explicitly that the meaning of the Incarnation is to bring healing to a fallen world, “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Lk 19.10) He came to seek out, and He came to redeem.

St Thomas Aquinas speaks to this truth: “The work of the Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, the Incarnation would not have been. And yet the power of God is not limited to this; even had sin not existed, God could have become incarnate” (ST III., q.1., a.iii) The Incarnation becomes the means chosen by God to bring healing to our fallen nature. The need for this healing presupposes a real brokenness.  Because of his boundless goodness, God intervenes.

We take this theological truth and apply it to the natural order of things, and so consider our personal woundedness through the superabundance of grace. The Sacrifice of the Cross can never go to waste. It is a perennial sacrifice, and it has perennial potency to transform us: to make us more and more like Christ himself. As St. John Paul II once exhorted, “Do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it! We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”

St. Paul also proclaims a deep confidence that grace perfects our broken nature: “Where sin abounded, grace did more abound” (Romans 5:20). But he goes further, and sees how the Christian is called to participate in the work of perfection that is inherent to the members of the Body of Christ though the communion of grace that purifies, strengthens, and vivifies the Church

Now whether we be in tribulation, it is for your exhortation and salvation: or whether we be comforted, it is for your consolation: or whether we be exhorted, it is for your exhortation and salvation, which works the enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer. That our hope for you may be unshakeable: knowing that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so shall you be also of the consolation. For we would not have you ignorant, brethren, of our tribulation, which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure above our strength, so that we were weary even of life. But we had in ourselves the answer of death, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raised the dead.  Who has delivered and shall deliver us out of so great dangers: in whom we trust that he will yet also deliver us.

-2 Corinthians 1.3-10

The process of our sanctification, of the perfecting of our sinfulness is messy. In the disappointments and betrayals of this life, in the sins we commit against God and each other, in the division and selfishness and fear that rend families and friendships apart, in the failures of honesty and truth, in the seemingly unbearable shame of our brokenness and deception, what stands unchangeable is that God will not be reduced, and that the One who is the Truth cannot lie: Goodness can-not betray itself.

The mess of perfection, therefore, requires an unshakeable hope which stakes everything not on our own feebleness or pride, but on the power, the limitless goodness and mercy of God who came “to make all things new” (cf. Rev 21.5); a hope that believes what the Word Made Flesh says and does in the world – that believes the One who once and forever has claimed us for Himself: “I have come to seek and save what is lost”.

This unshakeable hope has fueled Christian souls on the arduous road of charity for millennia. Only through our continuous act of faith in the power and efficacy of divine grace can our imperfect love be true, be pure.

Since Christ walked the earth and offered his life for our redemption, we have each been given a share in His life and His charity, and have been asked to shed our own blood in union with Him: to love as He has loved. As the new High Priest, He takes the mess of our lives and makes of it the perfect offering.

And so it is that the priestly work of the people of God is a participation in the work of perfection after the pattern of Christ the Priest, who redeems our human woundedness by assuming it.

“Since we have such a hope, we are very bold… And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

-2 Corinthians 3. 12, 17-18

Our prayer then must take on a bold confidence. Like Azaraiah, the priest of old, we plead for mercy even as we pray for the glory of God to be manifest in us

With a contrite heart and a humble spirit may we be accepted,
as though it were with burnt offerings of rams and bulls,
and with tens of thousands of fat lambs;
such may our sacrifice be in thy sight this day,
and may we wholly follow thee,
for there will be no shame for those who trust in thee.
And now with all our heart we follow thee,
we fear thee and seek thy face.
Do not put us to shame,
but deal with us in thy forbearance
and in thy abundant mercy.
Deliver us in accordance with thy marvelous works,
and give glory to thy name, O Lord!

Daniel 3.23

It is no accident that the greatest saints are those who have first known in themselves the deep shame of their sin. St. Peter denies Christ three times, and weeps bitterly. Three times he then professes love for Him. St. Paul goes from persecuting Christ’s Body to taking on its suffering all over the gentile world. Two millennia of men and women have followed in their stead: an endless procession of human insufficiency to manifest that true fidelity does not consist in never falling, but that it is birthed by a faith that stands firm against the temptation to sell short the power of grace.

The price of our shame is paid in blood. Christ took on human shame and betrayal, choosing to suffer such sorrow even from his closest friends. No intimate love is spared this sorrow. In the mess of perfection, grace triumphs: the greater shame, the greater still is the glory.

The greater sin, then, is the failure of confidence and hope. And the antidote to this tendency of despair is the bold conviction that suffering and rejoicing go hand in hand; that love and sacrifice are wed; that the greatest betrayals are not beyond the power of the Blood of Christ: that human flesh can still be raised from the dead – after the pattern of Christ, firstborn of the dead.

“Christ loved us and gave Himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Ephesians 5.2

Strengthened in this truth, each soul is called to take on a share in the work of personal perfection and corporeal redemption – for the dynamic of salvation is that we are not saved alone, or by our own efforts, but that we are incorporated into Christ and into his Flesh  – that we belong to the Body of One who gives us a share of Himself to sanctify what is wounded in us, and who wills to makes us like Himself, in glory.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. To him be the dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Peter 5.6-11

This process of humiliation and glory is the narrative of salvation. It is a story of purification that takes us through some of the greatest sorrows we will ever know to the greatest joy we will ever now. Paradise is the rest that awaits us in this cosmic struggle between the love of God and our defiance. The victory has already been won.

Yet, all too easily we despair of grace and of God’s love – we despair and think ourselves unworthy. Boundless, gratuitous love offends our pride. We want to be the ones to offer more than God can. The spirit of the world drowns the diffusive purification that grace enables in the heart that is docile and humble enough to be loved so lavishly by someone else.

In the end, we can ask ourselves: Who is worthy? How can human standards of goodness or of sin align with the infinity of divinity? The bloody passage from the fallenness of our fleshly state to its redemption makes the shame of our sin into the material of perfection. At the end, there will be little left of us – but we will possess all of God. This is the promise and plentitude of beatitude.

Like St. Paul we can voice the paradoxical delight of a faith that has been purified into the consummation of union with Christ

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

-Colossians 1.24

Ultimately it is Christ Himself who leaves us to continue his priestly work of perfection. And knowing that the hour of trial brings us through the darkness of confusion, and the paralysis of fear, He prays for the faith of the Twelve in the Hour of His own passion

I do not pray that thou should take them out of the world, but that thou should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.

I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world.

-John 17.15-24

For their sake I consecrate myself, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and Thou in me.

The offering of our redemption has already been made. Our consecration depends not on our own will-power or perfection, but on the superabundance of grace that flows from the consecration of God to God effected in us – where division has nothing to divide, and the unity of divine love remains undiminished, untarnished – pure and unaltered.

He consecrates Himself for them, making up in his consecration what was imperfect in theirs. He pours out his love for them in blood, and, by that immaculate offering of God to God, institutes the unshakeable hope that conquers their darkness forever.

In the depths human insufficiency and frailty, may we not also reduce Christ, by diminishing the power of His love in us, by refusing the joy that should be ours, the hope that impels us, that divine charity that strengthens us to believe that we are made for more than the misery of this vale of tears; that we are made through Him, and with Him, and in Him to love as He loves – in our flesh.



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