Salvation comes to us by God’s grace
(Readings: Jeremiah 31:7-9; Hebrews 5:1-6; Mark 10: 46-52)
Introduction to Mass
The readings today present God the Father, and his Son, the Saviour he sent, as the source of our salvation. They convey the message that in our fallen state, we can’t do very much to save ourselves and we need the outside help that God gives us. Acknowledging this, surrendering notions of self-sufficiency and turning to God instead is the fundamental stance of the believer.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate Mass let us examine our consciences to see where we might have fallen short in this area and ask God to forgive us and heal us.
Looking at these three readings I think the best place to start is the short passage from the letter to the Hebrews in the second reading.
“Every high priest,” says the author of the letter to the Hebrews, “has been taken out of mankind and is appointed to act for men in their relations with God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin”.
The imagery here is taken from the sacrificial worship that the Chosen People practiced in Old Testament times and in the time of Christ. The author is comparing Jesus’ work of reconciling mankind with God to the action of the high priest offering ceremonial sacrifices to God to express the community’s devotion to God, to atone for their sinfulness, to restore as far as possible the damaged relationship between God and man.
The whole assumption behind the sacrificial religion of the Old Covenant was that humankind is alienated from God by its sinfulness. The book of Genesis, as we know, talks about a mysterious Fall from an original state of grace.
This isn’t the place to start trying to explain every aspect of the “mystery of iniquity”. Let’s just recognise the important reality symbolised by the story of the Fall: that rather than living in a close natural harmony with God, human beings find themselves estranged from him.
We choose other goals and purposes in our lives apart from God – what the Bible calls idolatry. Even when we feel that we want to establish contact with God and to live in accordance with God’s values, we’re powerless to achieve this purely by means of our own abilities and efforts. We fail in our efforts, we constantly fall back into selfish habits.
And so part of the picture which the author of the letter to the Hebrews is trying to put across is that to release us from the prison of our fallen nature, to bring us back into harmony with God and to bring out our potentiality for love and holiness – to bring about our salvation in other words – something needs to be done for us. It requires an action on God’s part, a work of grace. We’re not capable of bringing about our own salvation.
This is where I think the story in this week’s gospel reading comes in.
The blind beggar, Bartimaeus, is an example of someone who can’t, by his own efforts, bring about the healing of his affliction or the restoration of his lost faculties. But just as important, he’s an example of someone who candidly admits his own inability to heal himself. He’s free from any illusions of self-sufficiency.
The people around him try to tell him to be quiet but that only makes him shout out for Christ with a more urgent or even desperate note: “Son of David, have pity on me”. He freely admits his indigence and his dependence on outside help.
This attitude of Bartimaeus’ - admitting his own powerlessness to heal himself and throwing himself at Jesus’ feet – makes him a sort of prototype of Christian sanctity or holiness.
When we look at the lives of the saints, or anyone who is obviously very holy or spiritually advanced, our tendency I think is to see individuals with enormous strength of will-power, huge single-mindedness in their dedication to God, heroic perseverance in spite of all kinds of difficulties.
They seem to be people with superhuman qualities of patience, compassion, love for others, men and women who have absolutely no thought for their own interests. In other words, we tend to attribute their holiness to their own strength of character and we conclude that they’re people who are completely different from ourselves!
But when we read what these genuinely holy people say about themselves, it usually turns out that they insist vehemently on their own weakness and sinfulness. They’re quick to deny that they have done anything except respond to God’s grace, and they express a strong sense of having been redeemed by God’s actions, not their own. They take no credit themselves for anything they achieve. They put everything down to God’s influence and direction.
If we turn to the first reading this Sunday we find the prophet Jeremiah suggesting that this is the basic quality that’s needed at the heart of the community of believers in God. Jeremiah seems to be imagining a renewed community of faith, a community being re-constituted by God after a period of destruction and exile.
And at the core of this renewed community, again, are people like Bartimaeus, who admit their dependence on outside help, their inability to save and comfort themselves: the blind and the lame, he says, women with child, women in labour: images of weakness, of indigence, images of people who need the help of others in some regard.
The truth is, God can’t do much with individuals who have a high opinion of themselves, or with people who pride themselves on having made it in life – acquiring great wealth, power and status, perhaps - by being tough and determined. Or maybe we should put it the other way round: people with a strong belief in their own self-sufficiency will never be very susceptible to the influence that God has on us if we’re open to it.
So taken together the readings this Sunday point to an important element of Christian faith, an important reality in the life of faith of each believer, something which marks us off from unbelievers or atheist humanists: we don’t and can’t save ourselves. God brings about our healing, the removal of our blindness, our salvation.
Obviously there’s always a balance to be struck between the idea of depending on God’s grace and responding to God by our own free-will and by freely chosen decisions. In our spiritual life it’s always possible to exaggerate in one or other direction, either overstressing God’s influence and giving no role to our own will-power and intelligence, or else exaggerating human capacities for moral goodness and virtually denying that God’s grace has any role to play.
Keeping a proper balance is something we have to do almost daily as we try to fathom the mystery of God and enter into his life more closely.
But certainly the emphasis in today’s readings seems to be on warning us against our fallen tendency towards pride and self-sufficiency, and on acknowledging that the starting-point in our relationship with God is to surrender any such notions and to admit our blindness and our weakness instead - to recognise that salvation is a gift from God, not something we create or bring about for ourselves.