Saturday, December 5, 2015

Patience is necessary

Readings: Bar 5:1-9; Ps 126:1-6; Phil 1:4-6.8-11; Luke 3:16

I've been thinking once again about Christian universalism, the idea that, in the end, everyone is saved, that all attain heaven. The reason I have been pondering universalism is because I just read a great antidote for it: C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. Since becoming a Christian in my mid-20s, my conception of last things (i.e., death, judgment, purgatory, heaven and hell) is fairly consonant with Lewis'. Setting aside any detailed attempt at analysis and comparison, what I want to note is that, without a doubt, God is generous with salvation. After all, revelation tells us that God desires all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4).

In The Great Divorce Lewis does a masterful job of illustrating how the refusal of salvation might look. It basically boils down to one's refusal to repent, that is, to resist being changed, or failing to even to grasp that one needs to change, and to demand, in a godlike manner, that reality be reduced to my measure and conform to my will. This refusal takes as many forms as there are refuseniks. It boils down to refusing to let go of anything and everything that is antithetical to the end for which one exists. In the end, what you desire for yourself must conform to what God desires for you.

Praying the Office of Readings today (something I do when I don't pray Morning Prayer) I came across an excerpt of a treatise on patience by St Cyprian. In this portion of his treatise, Cyprian sought to highlight the importance of perseverance and patience to salvation: "Dear brethren, we must endure and persevere if we are to attain the truth and freedom we have been allowed to hope for; faith and hope are the very meaning of our being Christians, but if faith and hope are to bear fruit, patience is necessary."

It occurred to me that the phrase- "if faith and hope are to bear fruit, patience is necessary"- expresses the spirit of Advent very well. Advent is a time of waiting. Waiting, as we all know, requires patience. Since waiting constitutes most of history and a lot of our lives, it seems that practicing waiting is an important way to begin each new year of grace.

Before anything else, a Christian must experience metanoia, or repentance. Why? Because everything else depends on this experience. Maybe the best way to describe repentance is the realization both that I need to change accompanied by some idea of what and how much I need to change, followed by the realization that I am incapable of completely transforming myself. In other words, repentance is a process that takes time. It is not a one time deal akin to what many call "getting saved."

Can God change me in an instant? Sure. In truth, through baptism God does bring about such an instantaneous change. God also does this whenever I make a good confession. God is merciful. But what good is the offer of mercy if you don't accept it? How can you accept it if you don't think you need it?

Because repentance is a process, so is justification. But even after baptism, even after making a good confession, the pull of my godless ways remains. We call this pull concupiscence. Because this is the reality in which we live, fallen though it be, we need to learn patience, not just patience with God, but also patience with ourselves, as well as patience with others. Letting one's self be changed in this way is the main work of any Christian's life.

St Paul assured the Christians in ancient Philippi of his confidence that God would "continue and complete" the "good work" He had begun in them until the coming of the Lord. I firmly believe that those of us who have experienced repentance can also rest assured in the Apostle's promise. For those who have not repented, it is not too late. In this life it is never too late. This is the call of the Baptist, which we hear anew each year on the Second Sunday of Advent: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths" (Luke 3:4).

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