Every Ash Wednesday, we hear these words from St. Paul. They invite us to spend Lent welcoming Jesus into our lives.
They tell us that Lent offers us a unique opportunity to grow in our faith and to experience God’s love more fully. They tell us that God is holding out extra grace for us this season, if we will just accept his invitation.
But how can we take up God’s invitation if we don’t know what this “salvation” is? How can we grow in our faith and deepen our relationship with him if we aren’t clear on what he wants to do in our lives? In a world with so many competing philosophies and ideas about God, it’s easy to get confused. What’s more, in a world that tends to place God in a box, reserving him only for Sunday mornings, it can be easy to lower our expectations and reduce our faith to a matter of church attendance and adherence to a set of laws.
But here is Jesus, every Lent, offering us so much more. Year after year, he offers us a powerful season of grace so that our hearts can be changed even more deeply and our lives renewed even more fully. Now is the time! Not next month or next year or after we have retired from work. Right now, this time of grace, this is our time!
So in order to take up this invitation, we want to focus on the salvation that Jesus has won for us. We want to look at this passage: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). We want to ask what these words, which capture the gospel of salvation, mean for our lives.
I Believe . . . There is probably no better capsule summary of the message of salvation than the creed that we proclaim every Sunday at Mass. The creed tells us that God is our Creator and Father. It tells us that Jesus is his only Son, a divine Person of the Blessed Trinity. It tells us that Jesus became a man like us, and that he died on the cross for us and for our salvation and that he rose again from the dead. It tells us that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to give us a share in divine life. It tells us that Jesus instituted the Church as a worldwide sign of his power and presence. And it tells us that Jesus will come again at the end of time to raise us all to eternal life.
This is the heart of our faith, the core of the message of salvation. It is the message that Peter preached on the day of Pentecost and the message that Paul spread in all of his missionary journeys. It’s the message of all the apostles, a message that the Church has guarded and proclaimed for the past two thousand years. It’s the message that filled the early martyrs with courage, the message that drew people like Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena to a life of prayer, and the message that propelled Teresa of Calcutta and John Bosco into a life of loving service.
No matter where we look in the history of the Church, we find the same transforming message at work: we are all sinners. Jesus saved us from our sins. And through faith in him we can live a new life.
More Than Pardon. When we think about the gospel, we almost automatically say that Jesus died for our sins. This is true, and it is a marvelous truth. But Jesus did more than win our pardon. Think about it like this: If you had a debt of a million dollars and a stranger came and paid it off, you would undoubtedly be very grateful—probably overjoyed! Your circumstances would change dramatically, but you would still be the same person. You might even go ahead and repeat the same actions that got you into trouble the first time because nothing inside of you would have changed.
Jesus did die for our sins—all of them. He did redeem us from death and set us free from the judgment we deserved. But as amazing and generous as this is, it is only part of what he did for us on the cross. Jesus came not just to save us from our sin; he came to give us new life as well. If his mission were limited just to pardoning our sins, he would not have sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts, and he would not have given us all the sacraments and teachings of our Church. Jesus came not just to forgive our sins; he came to give us new life. He came to make us into a new creation!
Remain in Christ. About five hundred years before Jesus came, the prophet Ezekiel gave us a picture of the magnificent work that Jesus would do. Ezekiel said that God wanted to cleanse us, to give us a new heart, and to place a new spirit within us. He went so far as to say that God wanted to put his own Spirit in us (Ezekiel 36:26-27). In other words, God wanted to save us and impart his own divine life to us.
Jesus himself spoke about this great promise when he told Nicodemus: “You must be born from above” (John 3:7). He spoke about it even more clearly at the Last Supper when he told the apostles: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (15:5) and “Remain in me, as I remain in you” (15:4).
What do you see when you look at something like a grapevine? You see leaves, branches, roots, and even fruit. But you don’t really see them in isolation from each other. What you do see are different parts of the same grapevine. In a similar way, Jesus wants us to be united with him, one with him, “in him.” He wants his power and his life to flow into us just as the branches on a vine receive their life. He wants to fill us with his life to such a degree that we know we are connected to him on a deep and intimate level.
We Can Be “Divinized.” As far as the Fathers of the Church were concerned, this promise of being filled with God’s own life was at the heart of the gospel message. And no one was clearer and more eloquent in describing this promise than St. Athanasius, a bishop who lived at the end of the third century in Alexandria, Egypt. In his treatise, On the Incarnation, he wrote these famous words: “God became man so that men might be made God” (54). He went on to explain that God has “divinized” us by uniting us with Christ in baptism. Just as Jesus took on our human flesh, so it is God’s plan that we humans would take on Jesus’ divine likeness. Of course, “divinization” doesn’t mean that we become individual gods and goddesses or that we become divine objects of worship. Rather, it means that God’s Holy Spirit can transform us so much that we begin to think and act, to live and love, just as Jesus did.
According to Athanasius, Adam and Eve experienced a direct and intimate union with God in the Garden of Eden. Day after day, they were experiencing God’s blessings and sharing in his life. And that meant that day after day they were becoming more and more like him.
But all that changed when our first parents disobeyed God and fell into sin. The loss of their original state of grace crippled them—and all of us. But when Jesus died on the cross, he not only forgave our sins; he also raised us from the deadly condition that sin had put us in. “He both rid us of death and he renewed us” (On the Incarnation, 16).
Athanasius also said that divinization is impossible without God’s grace and power. “No one else could bring what was corrupted to incorruptibility, except the Savior himself” (26). When Jesus took on human nature, he not only lowered himself to become like us; he also raised us up to become like him (49).
Now Is the Time. Lent truly is the “very acceptable” time that God has set for us to come closer to Jesus and experience his love and his power. This whole season is the “day of salvation” for us (2 Corinthians 6:2). So let’s use this time to take hold of that salvation. Let’s make sure we are putting away our sin and asking God’s forgiveness. But let’s also make sure we are pursuing the promise of divinization. Let’s take the time to sit at Jesus’ feet and ask him to show us how he “destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).