Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Hell exists because the invitation can never be forced

Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

I’ve often joked that Catholics make easy targets for Protestant proselytising, because they just don’t seem to know how to give the right answers. Why aren’t Catholics able to give an answer? It’s not just a matter of shallowness of faith and ignorance of their catechism. Somethings are just beyond the radar of most Catholics. Salvation being one of them. When was the last time you heard a Catholic discuss salvation? Like ‘never’! It’s not because he doesn’t believe in it, but more precisely, because he believes that salvation is guaranteed for everyone, including himself. “All people would be saved!” “Anyone who dies would go to heaven” (we don’t even have to pass through Purgatory). And finally, “the Church no longer teaches nor believes in hell.”

The discussion of salvation has been largely rendered redundant in modern times because of the belief that everyone would, in the end, be saved. A notable proponent of this view in the early Church was the great Origen, who, in the third century, set forth a theologically and philosophically complex doctrine of “Apocatastasis” according to which all creatures, including the devil, will be saved. This belief, of course, was condemned but it continued to trigger the imagination of many over the centuries. Among theologians, there has been something of a rediscovery and re-appreciation of Origen in recent decades, we have  Hans Urs von Balthasar. To be fair, so as not to place Balthasar in the same heretical basket as Origen, it is important to note that Balthasar’s is a very careful argument, clearly distinguishing between universal salvation as a hope and universal salvation as a doctrine, or a certainty. He supports the former and rejects the latter. In sum: we do not know; only God knows; but we may hope.

The hope that all will be saved is precisely that, a hope. It is not a doctrine, not a statement of fact, nor something proven with certainty. It is one thing to say, when speaking of someone who has died, “Tommy is in heaven.” That’s a statement of fact, a certainty of belief. But the truth is that we will never know. We can, however, pray, “Let’s pray for Tommy, that God would forgive his sins and offer him a place in heaven.” That is why we Christians use the epitaph, R.I.P on our headstones and obituaries.  It is often mistakenly translated into English as “Rest in Peace,” whereas the actual abbreviation stands for “Requiescat in Pace,” (May He rest in peace). The former is a statement of fact, whereas the second is an invocation of hope.  The problem is we can never be certain that Tommy is indeed in heaven, but we can hold fast to the hope that he is. We can only pray and hope, but we do not know that that will be the case. That is also why millions of Catholics pray the rosary every day, adding at the end of each decade, the Fatima Prayer, “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.”

While Christ’s redemptive suffering makes salvation available to all, it does not follow that all men are saved. This is because our salvation is contingent upon us making the correct response to God’s invitation. The parable of the Wedding Banquet is the perfect illustration of this point. The Prophet Isaiah helps us to understand that this is the Feast of Judgment.

In the parable, the King, which is none other than God the Father, is holding a feast on the occasion of his Son’s wedding. And so the king sends out his servants to announce his invitation, “Come to the wedding!” But not all respond positively. And it is here that we see how the parable combines two stories. The first has to do with the original guests invited to the feast.  However, they offer an insult to the King and his heir by declining the invitation. They put their own interests above his.  The second part of the story focuses on those who would never have considered getting such an invitation.  When the first group rejected the invitation, the servants were asked to go out into the streets to collect "the good and the bad.” This is an invitation of grace - undeserved, unmerited favour and kindness!  But this invitation also contains a warning for those who approach the wedding feast unworthily.  You need to be appropriately “dressed.”

The parable points to two forms of scorning God’s supreme gift of salvation. The first form is indifference: those invited care nothing for the grace offered them – they have better things to do, their earthly business is more pressing. How often have I heard the excuse that people have no time to come to Church, that they are tired, that their children have to be ferried to tuition, that they wanted to spend quality time in the shopping malls or were busy arranging for a holiday on a Sunday. The second form of rejection comes from the over familiarity with the sacred which ultimately leads to contempt. Rather than realising that we are coming into the presence of the King of Kings, the Ruler of the cosmos, we quite often witness the greatest contemptuous familiarity by our lackadaisical behaviour. But the story certainly points to more than mere church attire. The attire symbolises a person’s state of grace. The Church constantly cautions us that we should receive communion only in a state of grace; for to receive Christ unworthily in a state of serious or mortal sin would transform what was originally a blessing into a curse.

It is quite clear from the parable that God wishes the salvation of all since He makes the invitation to everyone. And we do know that some are saved, on the basis of infallible teaching, for example, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of the Lord, and the saints.  But the parable also provides us with a warning too. Make no mistake: Hell is real and we should treat it with the utmost seriousness. Just like the invited guests who spurned the king’s invitation, some may never make their way to the heavenly banquet because they had unknowingly chosen hell. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end… the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want ‘any to perish, but all to come to repentance’” (1037).  It’s good to remember that the joy of our salvation is not contingent upon the misery of damned souls.

It is true that God bestows things on us without measure. It is true that He wishes the salvation of all. It is certainly the gospel truth that Christ died not just for a few but for all. But it is not true, that we can presume that such salvation is guaranteed without any effort on our part, without any true conversion of the heart, without any transformation, rather, by conversion and sacrifice that comes from the core of our being. God bestows the grace of salvation and offers it to all of us, but now we must be willing to give ourselves entirely to Him without hesitation.

We are all bidden to come to this Great Banquet. But the invitation is never forced. The invite can be set aside and past over due to daily concerns and sin. But God continues to appeal to us to join in the feast. Day by day, week by week, and year by year, as we go through life, we should be weaving the garment that we shall wear for this great Wedding Banquet. It is the garment that had been given to us at our baptism, where we, as St Paul reminds us, have “put on Christ.” It is the garment that is strengthened and fortified by the Sacraments. It is the garment that is knitted together with all the tears of sorrow for our sins and tears of joy at the reconciliation with our brethren, adorned with the jewels of virtue and good deeds. When the day of that Great Banquet arrives, let us be dressed, not just for the kill, or to the nines, but to be presentable before the King of Kings. Let’s start with honouring God by dressing well. 

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