Saturday, May 17, 2008

One part gift, one part choice

FRIDAY, MAY 15, 2008:

"See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead." (James 2.26)

This question that James poses in today's reading is at the heart of Christian-Protestant divisions for 500 years. The question is how are we saved? Is it through faith, or can we earn some part of our salvation through the good works that we do? Martin Luther famously proposed sola fide, that we are saved through faith alone. The Catholic tradition has long held the importance of our good works.

It took us 500 years to recognize that we are really saying the same thing but looking at two sides of the same coin. The reality is that our salvation is a total and complete gift from God. We could never be worthy of it; we could never do anything to earn it.

But, if we have received that gift of faith; if we have embraced the graced gift of salvation that God offers us, it will by necessity show itself forth in good works. And hence, James says, "I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works."

One way of thinking of this is in this way: our salvation is one part gift and one part choice. God gives us the gift of faith and hence the possibility of salvation and holiness, but we can reject that gift. Our good works are our way of making the choice to embrace the gift we've been given, to make a difference in the world, to move forward on the road to holiness.

This is shown forth in the life of the saint we celebrate today, St. Margaret of Cortona. Margaret was born in Tuscany in 1247 and when she was just seven years old her mother died. Her father remarried, but her stepmother rejected her. Margaret eventually left home with a lover and headed for Montepulciano where she had a son out of wedlock. A few years later, tragedy struck her again as her lover was murdered.

Margaret returned to her father's house to live the life of a penitent, but was again rejected. She now turned to the friars in Cortona who welcomed her and her son. At the Holy Mass one day, she renounced her sinful past, put behind her the works of her former way and embraced the gift of faith that had been within her all along. She made a choice to act on the possibility of holiness that God had invited her into and today we celebrate her as a saint.

Sometimes I think it is important for us to remember that holiness and sainthood is never further away from us than our choice. Those we recognize as saints did not receive something extra that we didn't get. Saint Padre Pio, Saint Francis, Saint Margaret all received the same gift in the same measure that we have. But, they made a choice to act on it.

The same choice is available to each of us.

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