The Word Among Us

May 2008 Issue

Personality, Priorities, Prayer

How does the “garment of salvation” change us?

Personality, Priorities, Prayer: How does the “garment of salvation” change us?

You changed my mourning into dancing; you took off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness. (Psalm 30:12) Jesus told Nicodemus: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5).

St. Paul told the Corinthians: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Corinthians 5:17). And Peter told his readers: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). What were these men of God talking about? Baptism, of course!

In baptism we are truly born “from above” and made into a new creation. At the moment of our baptism, we are given everything we need to live a holy and perfect life. But this new life in Christ comes to us as just a seed—brimming with potential, but needing to be planted in the soil of faith and nurtured through prayer, sacraments, and obedience. Or, as we said in the previous article, we are given the garment of salvation, but it is still up to us to put on that garment day after day.

At the most basic level, this seed of baptism, this garment of salvation, is our way to heaven. But if we want to please Jesus—and if we want to experience everything our baptism is meant to give us, simply admiring our new clothing or thinking good thoughts about our baptism will not be enough. We need to give the Holy Spirit the freedom to transform us as we continue to put off the old life and put on the new.

Confess and Believe. We can look at Jesus’ parable about a king inviting guests to a wedding banquet as one way of understanding the most basic aspect of our salvation (Matthew 22:1-13). After most of the invited guests rejected his invitation to his son’s wedding, the king sent servants out into the streets to invite anyone they could find—good or bad. When the banquet hall was finally filled, the king noticed that one of these new guests was not wearing the traditional wedding garment. Enraged, he had this man thrown out of the banquet.

How could the king be so cruel? In Jesus’ time, it was customary for the host of a wedding reception to provide his guests with a special garment. We can assume that in this parable all the people who came in from the streets “put on” this garment when they arrived. But this one man chose not to put the garment on. This was an insult to the king, and was seen even as a rejection of his son. Without the garment, the man was no longer welcome, so the king had him ejected.

Writing to the believers in Rome, St. Paul said: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Every Sunday at Mass, we proclaim an expanded version of this promise when we say the Nicene Creed. The creed is not just a statement of Catholic doctrine; it is, more importantly, meant to be a proclamation of living faith and a confession of trust. Whenever we confess that we believe, and when we believe this with all our hearts, we too are putting on the garment of salvation that God generously gave us at our baptism. It is as if we are reaching into the closet of our hearts and dressing ourselves with his “wedding garment.”

However, living a holy life includes far more than just putting on the garment of salvation. As we learn how to wear this garment, we find ourselves being changed—over time—into the very image of Jesus. And this change happens in three ways: in our personality, our priorities, and our prayer lives.

A Transformed Personality. Describing the change in personality that Jesus’ clothing effects in our hearts, Fr. Henri Nouwen once wrote: “Being a believer means being clothed in Christ. . . . This is much more than wearing a cloak that covers our misery. It refers to a total transformation that allows us to say with Paul: ‘I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me’ (Galatians 2:19-20). We are the living Christ in the world. Jesus, who is God-made-flesh, continues to reveal himself in our own flesh. Indeed, true salvation is becoming Christ.” (Bread for the Journey)

This is God’s goal for our lives. He wants us to become “Christ to the world.” This means changing our personalities deep down. It means making us holy—that is, different and set apart for his purposes. It means that, more and more each day, we think and act like Jesus.

Jesus thought and acted differently. For instance, when he saw Zacchaeus, he could have ignored or made fun of this small man sitting in a tree. He could have chosen to rebuke the sinful tax collector. But instead, he chose to invite himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’ home. When he met a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, he could have rebuked the five-time divorcee. He could have ignored her since she was a lowly Samaritan. But he chose instead to offer her living water. Finally, when a Roman centurion came asking him to heal his servant, Jesus could have expressed resentment against the Roman occupation of Palestine. He could have told the centurion to go ask the Roman gods for healing. But instead, he chose to heal the man’s servant.

Clearly, Jesus’ way was God’s way. Being clothed in Christ, we have the power to respond to life just as Jesus did. Maybe we can’t be as perfect as he was. Maybe we still have some of those “old rags” clinging to us. But as Henri Nouwen said, we are still the “living Christ in the world.” If we do put on the garment of salvation, we will see people, events, and even life itself in a new and different way—through the eyes of love—just as Jesus did.

New Priorities. A second result of putting on the garment of Christ is that our priorities begin to change. Jesus becomes our first priority. Prayer becomes a priority. Resisting sin becomes a priority. Everything we do becomes an effort to please him.

We find ourselves wanting to love more and being more patient and more considerate toward others. We want our homes to resemble a miniature church—concerned not only with raising moral kids but with teaching them about life in the Spirit. We find ourselves wanting to get our lives in greater order. We want our work to be fair, honest, even a gift back to God for all he has given to us. We find ourselves seeking to serve the unfortunate. In short, we begin replacing ourselves with Jesus as the one who sits on the throne of our lives.

Praying a New Way. Finally, with changed personalities and priorities comes a change in our prayer. It can be very easy to let the many concerns and challenges we face in life preoccupy our minds and overtake our prayer lives. “How will I resolve this family crisis? How will I pay those bills? How will I have a happy marriage? How will I have a successful career?” But Jesus told us not to worry about these things. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” he said, “and all these things will be given you besides” (Matthew 6:33). And this is what happens in our prayer as we put on the garment of salvation.

The contrast between being anxious and seeking the kingdom of God is clear in Luke’s story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus rebuked Martha for allowing herself to get so caught up in serving him that she lost her peace and criticized her sister. At the same time, he commended Mary for making the better choice of sitting at his feet and listening to him speak.

Does Jesus want us to prepare for special events like family gatherings? Yes. Does he want us to apply ourselves and develop our skills and talents at work? Yes. Does he want us to have fun? Of course. So what does it mean to “seek his kingdom first?” It means trying our best to live under his rule by loving him, praising him, and learning how to listen to him in daily prayer. Jesus promises that if we seek him first, we will find him. In fact, the more we pray like this, the more we will find our personalities and priorities changing.

Get Dressed! Jesus turned the prospect of eternal death into the promise of eternal life. And in so doing, he has clothed us with joy (Psalm 30:12). It is now up to us to seek this joy each and every day. St. Paul tells us that the corruptible has been clothed with the incorruptible, the mortal with immortality. Death has been swallowed up in victory 
(1 Corinthians 15:53-54). All we have to do is put on our new clothing, and we will see our personalities, our priorities, even our prayer lives, change. And that means we will become “the living Christ in the world.”