FROM THE PASTOR
February 26, 2017
by Fr. George W. Rutler
There is nothing new in being told that we are dust and shall return to dust. We hear it every year. Ezekiel pondered that when he saw a valley of dry bones. The answer came when God breathed, and the bones came alive again, “an exceedingly great army” (Ezekiel 37:10).
One of the longest discussed, and often most harshly argued, questions for Christians has been how much divine breath, or saving grace, is needed to give eternal life when physical breathing stops. The idea that man is “totally depraved” took wide hold in the sixteenth century, but had already been engaged in the fourth century. Self-styled Reformers had lost their grasp on the original form of creation. All heresies are an exaggeration of a truth, to the exclusion of its subtleties. The Council of Trent affirmed the truth that man cannot be in harmony with God’s plan, or “justified,” by his own good behavior without the breath, or “grace,” of God which comes through Jesus Christ. This is why Christ said that no one is good except God (Mark 10:18). But Trent also rejected the lie that “since Adam’s sin, the free will of man is lost and extinguished.”
Dry bones and limp lives can come alive by giving God permission (as St. Teresa of Calcutta often said) to make us what he wants us to be. While no one is good except God, each of us can become perfect (Matthew 5:48). This is not a contradiction. Goodness is a quality of being; perfection is the result of contact with that goodness. Perfectionism is a neurosis based on the confusion of goodness and perfection. The secular progressivist dreams of building an ideal society on earth through human effort, and learns the hard way that utopias end up being hells.
Antoine de Saint Exupéry said that perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away. Perfectionism tries to add, as though goodness were a sum, while perfection subtracts that which obscures goodness. Michelangelo said that he sculpted Moses simply by chipping away from the marble all that was not Moses, as Moses had been there all along.
Exactly two years ago this month, twenty young Coptic Christian Egyptians were kidnapped by Islamic State militants while on a work crew in Libya. They refused to renounce Christ and chanted in chorus “Ya Rabbi Yassou!”—“Oh my Lord Jesus!” A black youth from Chad, Mathew Ayairga, not a Christian, was watching and, when asked by the captors, “Do you reject Christ?” he replied, “Their God is my God.” He was baptized by blood when all twenty-one were beheaded. While these martyrs had never heard of the theological disputes over grace and justification, they were confident that Christ can raise life eternal from dust and ash. The purpose of Lenten disciplines, not salvific in themselves, is to train voices to join their chorus of faith.
Father Rutler’s book, The Stories of Hymns – The History Behind 100 of Christianity’s Greatest Hymns, is available through Sophia Institute Press (Paperback or eBook) and Amazon (Paperback or Kindle).
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