When I was a preteen, I used to be embarrassed by those signs, some of them in garish neon, which sported the phrase, “Jesus Saves.” It seemed so primitive. I also remember those Sunday morning television programs that piously ended with, “I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly.” Who on earth would be so arrogant as to make such a claim? And I also thought for the longest time that the “IHS” over graves stood for “I have suffered,” a somewhat self-indulgent epitaph. Little did I know that “IHS” means Jesus.
It has all changed for me—as, I think, it does for any believer who persists in the journey, who lives through disappointments and disillusionments, who comes to the startling realization that there is no way under the sun for us to save ourselves.
Our sacraments, our rituals, our prayers and our hopes mean little if Christ has not saved us, if Jesus has not given us the promise of abundant life, if he has not, indeed, suffered and died for us.
One day in this journey of faith, I was reminded how easily we misunderstand and are misunderstood in these matters of belief. While teaching a seminar on the philosophy of Sigmund Freud, I was confronted by a Christian fundamentalist graduate student one evening after class.
“I think you Catholic priests were misled in your training.”
For some reason, my hunch was that he was upset by my friendly but critical reading of Freud. I defended myself: “We can all learn a lot from nonbelievers.”
“I don’t mean Freud,” he said. “It’s your seminary training that has led you away from the truth.”
In retrospect, I don’t know what prompted me next to say what I did, but with a tone of resignation I sighed: “I can’t remember much of what I learned in four years of theology, but not much of my faith rides on it. All I know is that my life would be meaningless if Christ has not saved us.”
His jaw dropped. “You actually believe that Christ has saved you.”
“Of course. Otherwise, I’d have no hope.”
“But you Catholics believe that priests and rituals save you. You think the pope and Mary save you.”
“No, those things are great, but they’re a waste of time if Christ hasn’t saved us.”
He couldn’t believe it. I guess he thought I was still the child embarrassed by the “Jesus Saves” sign. It was no longer an embarrassment. It was my hope.
The people of Judah had to have a similar hope. They surely could not trust in their own righteousness. Their priests and people only piled up infidelities. They amassed abominations. They mocked and scoffed. Only a good and gracious God could have compassion, overcome their infidelities, and lead them back from exile. “God so loved the world,” Jesus told Nicodemus, the seeker by night, “as to give his only Son.”
This is not as easy to accept as it first may seem. To be loved as a free gift, to be saved by the favor of another is a precarious state of affairs.
Paul, in a splendid passage from Ephesians, is well aware of our reluctance to entrust ourselves to God’s love. That is why he seems compelled to reiterate: “I repeat, it is owing to God’s favor that salvation is yours through faith. This is not your own doing. It is God’s gift. Neither is it a reward for anything you have accomplished.” (Eph 2:8-9)
“Oh, if it could only be our accomplishment,” we might say in high and happy times. We would love to point to our successes, our virtues and improvements, our earnestness in trying so hard, our ardent confessions or even our nine first Fridays. But it is not our own doing, this salvation. It is not a result of our effort.
On the other hand, in our times of failure or discouragement we may lament, “Alas, we have accomplished nothing.” If only we could have made ourselves more worthy, if only we had tried harder, if only we had succeeded in our task of self-perfection.
Again, we sadly miss the point. We stumble about in the dark, bereft of the hope that we had in our projects, stripped of plans that might have saved us, purged of the pretense that we had no need of redemption. We are unaware that, when we acknowledge the futility of our efforts, we are at the moment of conversion. It is the very invitation to abandonment to divine grace.
True, we can resist the hope, we can hate the light, we can fear the exposure to love and to the truth on which it rests. And our resistance can come between us and the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. We can refuse to accept the grace that is always there.
As men and women of faith, our major labor and effort is not to achieve our salvation. It is to entrust ourselves to it. “God is rich in mercy; because of his great love for us he brought us to life with Christ when we were dead in sin. By this favor you were saved.”