Our Lady’s Birthday (St Mary’s)
SUNDAY 9TH SEPTEMBER 2018 – S MARY’S, LANSDOWNE RD
How does God save us? It’s such a vast question, of unimaginable scale, that it seems impossible to answer, but S Paul, with his usual clarity, manages to do it in a few sentences, as we heard in our second reading. A better translation would be: “For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom He predestined, He also called, and those whom He called, he also justified, and those whom He justified, He also glorified.”
This might sound complicated, but it is not beyond our grasp to follow S Paul’s way of thinking about salvation, especially if we keep in our minds three sorts of person as we go along: first the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of the Universe, conceived without original sin, Mother of God and of the Church, Mediatrix of all graces.
Second, pick any saint you like: S John Chrysostom, if you like, whose feast we celebrate on Thursday, or S Gregory, or S Augustine (either of them!), or any of the thousands upon thousands of heavenly witnesses who stand around the throne of the Lamb. Of both of these, we can say that they were foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified, by God. They must be, because they are in heaven, and S Paul tells us that this is how this happens. So, in third place, then, for the sake of a change, let’s choose someone about whom we might not be so sure. Let’s take ourselves in the third place, poor sinners that we are.
Let’s start with the foreknowledge of God. God’s knowledge is infinite, because He is infinite: He is infinitely powerful, infinitely good, infinitely merciful, and infinitely wise. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” says the Lord to Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5): and this is true for everyone. So, before even the Blessed Virgin was Herself conceived, in the womb of S Anne, God fore-knew Her: He knew what She would go on to do, knew that She would be the Mother of His Son, knew that She would cooperate with Him in the salvation of all mankind.
And this is true for all the saints, whom God fore-knew. He knew that S John Chrysostom would be would go on to be the Archbishop of Constantinople, knew that S Philip Neri would found the Congregation of the Oratorians, knew that Pope S Gregory would send S Augustine of Canterbury to England to preach the Gospel, and knew all the failures and successes that S Augustine would have here, before even the world was formed.
And it is also true of us: God knew, before the Creation of our first parents, Adam and Eve, what each of us would do with the lives He has given us; how each of us would react to the circumstances of our lives; the choices we would make, for good and for evil.
So much for fore-knowledge. Now for predestination, a word which gets some people so hot under the collar that whoever translated the Jerusalem Bible decided not to use it, but to say “intended” instead. Which is a shame, because the word Paul used really does mean ‘predestined’; and because it’s not something of which we need to be afraid. It isn’t only loopy Protestants who believe in Predestination: we Catholic Christians do, too.
Now, predestination is different from foreknowledge. God intended, predestined, the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the Mother of His Son. God predestined S Augustine of Hippo to become the greatest Christian teacher after the Apostles. But here is where foreknowledge and predestination start to come apart, because unlike Mary, S Augustine was a sinner. God did nor predestine that. God did not predestine Augustine to believe wicked and heretical things as a young man, or to live in sin with a women to whom he wasn’t married.
The difference lies in the Holy Will of God, which in its infinite freedom has allowed us a measure of free will, with which we can choose to defy God. God wills good for us, because He loves us; He does not will the sin which we commit, and which takes us farther from Him. Search your hearts, brothers and sisters: what is lurking there which God did not intend? What jealousies, what lusts, what hatreds, what dark sinks of sin? God fore-knew them all, but He did not intend for them to be there; He did not predestine them. We must pluck them out, by penance and by Sacramental Confession, so that we can be the people God wills for us to be.
Those He fore-knew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son,” writes S Paul. This means heaven, and its joys. But does this mean that God also predestines the damned to Hell? We know that He does not predestine, does not intend, the sin that the damned have committed. But, because our God is a just God, as well as merciful, He does intend the punishment of sinners. For some, their choice to turn from God will damn them, and God has predestined their punishment. He wills, not the sin, not the choice they have made, but their
right and proper punishment. This is the teaching of the Church, and we must believe it. Some protestants believe other things about God predestining people to be damned, but we needn’t worry about them at all.
So, how far have we got? “Those whom He fore-knew, He also predestined […] And those whom He predestined, He also called.” God calls us in two ways: one call is outward, and the other inward. The outward call is given when we hear the Word of God preached, for, as S Paul writes to the Romans later on, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear with a preacher? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14) The second call is interior: it is a call to our heart, a movement of the mind by God, compelling us to follow, as the Song of Songs says, “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come, my dove” (Song of Songs 2:13).
And so, in the Archangel Gabriel’s declaration to Mary that She would bear Jesus Christ, we hear God’s outward call; and we know too that it was accompanied by an inward call on Her heart, to accept the Lord’s plan for Her. Throughout the lives of the saints, we hear the same story, a chance encounter, like S Augustine overhearing a child sing “Tolle, lege” ‘Take up, and read’ and so was drawn to read the Holy Scriptures, moved by an interior call of the heart, knowing that this sign was sent by God. Some will not hear the call, as Our Lord says to His disciples, quoting Isaiah: “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand” (Mark 4:12; cf Isaiah 6:10). Let us not be like them, brothers and sisters! Let us turn to the Lord and heed His call, and be healed.
Those who hear the call, the Lord calls his sheep, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27). God fore-knows us, and He calls us to follow Him. But to be his sheep we must first be washed, washed of our sins, purged with hyssop that we may be clean, and washed whiter than snow in the Blood of the Lamb. This is our Justification, which means ‘being-made-righteous’. He does this, as Paul says earlier on in his letter to the Romans, “by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom3:24). God’s grace is given to us even before we accept his call, as we know in the case of the Blessed Virgin, whom Gabriel calls “full of grace” even before She has said yes! to the divine plan. We call this Prevenient Grace, ‘grace coming before’; but we also need Subsequent Grace, ‘grace coming after.’
Where do we receive this grace? From the wounded side of Christ, dead on the Cross, came forth Blood and Water, signs of the two great sacraments of Baptism and the Mass: here we find the washing away for our sins in the waters of the font which regenerate us. At the altar we find grace to persevere in the faith to which God has called us. For beware falling away! It is not enough to have been called, to have been justified, to have received the sacraments, if we do not persevere. “Many are called,” says the Lord, “but few are chosen,” (Matt. 22:14) and “Not everyone who says to me Lord! Lord! will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven” (Matt. 7:21).
We can see how Our Blessed Lady did God’s will, how She said ‘yes’ to God: S Luke records Her very words – “Be it unto me according to thy word” – which is the essence of persevering in justification, a process of growing ever closer to God, which we call sanctification, ‘being-made-holy’. The saints, too, have done God’s will, even despite immense hardships. But, as Paul has said, God turns everything to the good of those He has foreknown and predestined. Trials are given to the Elect to fit them for Heaven, by curbing their pride, by teaching them patience, by making them close to Christ in His sufferings. Think, brothers and sisters: how are the trials which beset you being turned to your good by God? Even our sins can be turned to good by God, because, if we are wise, we rise from our falls humbler and more cautious than before, and so are less likely to sin again. And so we should hate and despise our sins – yes! – but we should also learn from them, “For those who persevere to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13).
And what awaits us, having been known, having been predestined, having been called and justified? Glory. Glory, says S Paul. This glory is in two parts, just like our call was: part of our glory is in the good deeds that grace will enable us to do. So it is that all the miracles wrought by the saints give them glory in this world, but they also point beyond this world, to the glory which awaited them in heaven.
For it is heaven at which we aim, brothers and sisters, heaven, where, in the bliss of paradise, surrounded by the saints in light, in the company of the Blessed Virgin, we shall worship God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.