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The Desire for Salvation

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Brothers and sisters:
Work with anxious concern to achieve your salvation.
It is God who, in his good will toward you,
begets in you any measure of desire or achievement.
In everything you do, act without grumbling or arguing;
prove yourselves innocent and straightforward,
children of God beyond reproach
in the midst of a twisted and depraved generation—
among whom you shine like stars in the sky
while holding fast to the word of life.
As I look to the Day of Christ,
you give me cause to boast
that I did not run the race in vain
or work to no purpose. (Phil 2:12b–16)

A hard passage to meditate on in the presence of historical theologians. Thus saith Pelagius: “work with anxious concern to achieve your salvation.” Rise up, tradition of grace and mercy, and dispute the idea that we must achieve our salvation, or be anxious over it. Rise up, Augustine, and smite your foe. Rise up, John Cavadini, and be Augustine’s caddy, handing him clubs. Salvation is supposed to be given with ease (by God) . . .  but does it mean salvation can be received with ease (by us)? And can you think of any greater concern about which to be anxious, engaged, interested, concerned?

But it all comes right in the next verse: God begets whatever desire we have, whatever achievement we accomplish. Our desire for salvation, or progress in its path, God has begotten. It comes from God, not ourselves: it is begotten, not made. My phrasing seems a faint echo of something familiar. The Father begot a Son from all eternity, then, once upon a time, he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary. And now, in our time, this Lent, another Lent, God begets in us a measure of desire. All three Persons of the Trinity are involved. At one point in our frail history, the second of those Persons of the Trinity was sent by the first of those Persons of the Trinity, to be made incarnate in Mary’s womb by the third of those Persons of the Trinity. They did this in order to transform us. What Christ is by nature, we are to become by grace.

So we are confessing that whatever measure of desire or achievement we find within ourselves is a sign that Christ is within us. He stirs up our appetite for God, as he had no other desire than doing his Father’s will. He empowers our struggle for virtue in the midst of a twisted and depraved generation, as he faithfully acted out the Kingdom himself. Christ in us antecedes even the tickle that Pelagius feels to achieve his salvation.

St. Basil proclaimed (in a homily from the Office of Readings a couple days ago):

It is God who is active within us, giving us both the will and the achievement, in accordance with his good purpose. Through his Spirit, God also reveals his wisdom in the plan he has preordained for our glory. God gives power and strength in our labours. I have toiled harder than all the others, Paul says, but it is not I but the grace of God, which is with me.

In the third Chronicle of Narnia, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Jill and Eustace wonder how they might get into Narnia, and think of reciting a charm or spell to do so. When Jill finds herself before Aslan, and he says he has summoned her, she corrects him because it was she who had asked to come. Aslan’s reply, simply, is, “You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.”

It’s Lent. We think we are calling to God by our fasting, and more intense prayer, and increased almsgiving. We think we are stirring up the anxious concern we feel inside during Lent. But actually, we would not feel this forty-day increased focus upon salvation unless God had been calling to us. He calls us into Lent. Every year. “Try it again,” he says. “Act without grumbling or arguing; prove yourselves innocent and straightforward; become my children beyond reproach. This is how I like you to be.” If we like being that way, too, it is because he has begotten in us whatever measure of desire we feel this Lent. And that is a sign that Christ is at work in us with his Holy Spirit, so that we may give the Father glory like shining stars in the sky.

Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a reflection at Vespers on Wednesday, March 2. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.

David Fagerberg

David Fagerberg is a professor of liturgical studies in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, and Senior Advisor to the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.