By Fr. Peter de Rosa IN The Diary of A Country Priest, the consumptive Cure was dying. A friend, an ex-priest living with a woman, gave him absolution since he had asked for it. This friend voiced his regret that the delay of the local priest meant the Cure might die without the final consolations of 'the Church. But the Cure whispered in his ear: "Does it matter? Grace is . . . everywhere."
Grace is present as an offer to everyone everywhere. It is easy to forget this. Perhaps we are inclined to suppose, says Karl Rahner, "that grace would be no longer grace if it were too generously distributed by the love of God."
Grace is not a rare commodity watchfully rationed out only to Christians. It is the life of God become the very life of mankind. God made the world for the sake of his Son, to reveal and communicate himself fully in his Son. "He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ" (Eph. 15). But this is God's will for all men. He wants them all to be saved, to be enlightened, by his Son.
Of old, God created a people for himself. the Jews. God's Word was already active among that people. revealing God to them. Then the eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us; he was rejected by "his own" (that is by all of us. his brothers) and died to atone for sin.
Out of his dead side the Church as second Eve was born, the new people of God, a people so close to him, and so representative of him as to be called his "body". Here in the -Church through the authoritative teaching and gentle guidance of the Spirit and through the Christian sacraments we are made one with Jesus, the Saviour.
Still. Christ's grace is everywhere. It was present even among pagans before the Word became flesh. How else could anyone have been saved? We must confess, also, that the great religions of the world, Mohammedanism Buddhism. Hinduism, are more than the product of man's own spirit. They are the response of man's spirit to God's Spirit.
These religions, In so far as they are worthy, are the result of the striving of groups of men to comply with the knowledge and will of God as yet dimly apprehended. Further, even those who do not know God explicitly are still enlightened by God's grace to do his will and so to tread the path of salvation (Conmitution on the Church sect. 16). how to present Christ to unbelievers, whether theists or non-theists. We must not speak to them as if we had a monopoly of Christ. He is not the totally unknown whom they are meeting for the first time. He is the secret source of their holiest strivings. He is the one who makes sense of what they have, in their best moments, already inchoately felt. Christ has been helping and saving them all their lives.
We need to present Jesus as both the perfect revelation of human goodness and of God. The perfect Man is the only vehicle of knowing and meeting God. It is not difficult, as past experience shows, to misuse the miracles of Jesus in our apologetics. The impression can be given that divinity is to be equated with the capacity to do "tricks".
Jesus, children often assume, was the greatest conjuror the world has ever known. Moreover, the older apologetics have gone out of fashion because miracles, simply looked at as eyeboggling wonders, have ceased to cut very much ice in an age when we are used to "miracles" of a more permanent, satisfying and verifiable sort, narnely, the miracles of science.
Christ, we should remember, worked his miracles in response to a faith already present. They were more than proofs of his teaching, they were "signs", therefore part of his teaching. The miracles indeed spoke of God but only to those who accepted Jesus and who believed that God was at work in him. The paradox of the scriptures is that while Jesus reveals God all the time—since he is one with God—he reveals him best of all not by his works of power but by his weakness, not simply by the wonders he does but by what he suffers. The cross shows us that God is love, "that the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (I Cor. 129.
THE cross of Christ, it would seem, makes explicit something which good men, influenced by the grace of Christ, understand implicitly but of which they need confirmation : that suffering love is the only way to save mankind; that such love is infinitely weak and infinitely successful. This is because Christ's cross is the final revelation of God himself as love, as love at once vulnerable and victorious. the good-willed unbeliever something else: that nothing is unforgivable. It can happen that we ourselves say of this or that instance of inhumanity that it is "unforgivable". We may sincerely claim, "Hitler's persecution of the Jews is completely unpardonable" and even think we are expressing thereby a Christian sentiment. When one queries it one may be accused of never having suffered personally, of never having been subjected to diabolical fury. It may even be intimated that one is secretly condoning the persecution of the Jews.
THE simple truth is that to confess any particular horror to be unpardonable means the end of Christianity. Christ's cross is the proof that not only is everything forgivable, it is in fact forgiven. Christ came so that no one should be lost. We, too. as his disciples must desire that no one should be lost. We are forbidden to write off anyone, however horrible the things he may have done. We must grieve at sin, our own and that of others.
But we have to remember that God has shown himself to be greater than our sins. If we turn our backs on any one as being unredeernable, if we cease to love, reverence. be concerned for any single fellow human being we are in danger of being cut off ourselves from Christ who came to save and pardon all. No one is beyond redemption. No one is beyond the need of redemption.
With the consoling lesson that nothing is unforgivable goes a warning: if we do not accept this lesson we are not forgiven ourselves. Nothing is unforgivable, we said. Perhaps we should amend this. Only unforgivingness is unforgivable. "Forgive and you will be forgiven", "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive", "if you will not forgive, neither will God forgive you". The message could not be clearer.
It is this message we must preach to the unbeliever. the message of Calvary. No humanism can possibly approach this perfect revelation of God as love in the cross of Christ. Think of Stephen echoing Jesus' dying prayer on Calvary. "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 760). How thrilling this tender solicitude of the persecuted for the fate of their persecutors.
In the Ravensbnick concentration camp a piece ' of wrapping paper was found with this prayer on it : "Lord, remember not only the men and women of good-will but also those of But do not only remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us: remember the fruits we bought thanks to this suffering—our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of this, and when they come to judgment let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness." No doubt but that Jesus smiled on Ravensbruck.
There is room for righteous indignation at sin but none for self-righteous indignation towards the sinner. Angry we must be at times. Indeed, there is in the world at large not enough of fierce, consuming, unrelenting wrath when the innocent suffer at the hands of the guilty. But we must not be so pharisaical as to align ourselves only with the innocent and not with the guilty, too. We are guilty with the guilty.
In John 8 we see how the first Christians read the mind of Christ. The scribes and pharisees bring in a woman caught in the act of adultery. The Law, the law of Moses, the law of God, says she should be stoned to death. What will Jesus say? They want to know if he will go against the law of Moses, if he will show himself to be an "atheist". Jesus replied: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at her."
The scribes and pharisees left one by one beginning with the eldest,. with those whose own memories of sinning were longest. Jesus was left—the only One without sin—and the adulterous woman who is told to sin no more. And besides this: 'Neither do I condemn thee." Jesus came to save not to condemn. The only sinless One, the only man who has the right to condemn, does not condemn. This is why there is hope left for a race of sinners.
CHRISTIANS accept this teaching which far from leading to acquiescence in evil is, in fact, the most worldshattering doctrine ever propounded : the doctrine of grace. Our goodness is God's gift; our failures are our refusal of God's gift. We cannot boast of our goodness; we can only weep over our failures. Because our sins (not our goodness) are our own we do not sit in judgment on the sins of others but pray lovingly for them, our fellowsinners.
Iniquity is only overcome when men hate it passionately and yet love with equal passion those who do it. To hate the doers of iniquity is to increase iniquity and leave the world unredeernable. To pity the evil-doers and to cherish them; to be resolved never to punish except with pity and the sense of personal guilt and failure—this is to bring into the world a new power, the only power which can extinguish hate. This is divine love. To accept Christ is to acknowledge humbly that the greatest love of which man is capable is God's gift and a share in the love of the Crucified.
The suffering love of Christ for men showed Tolstoy. as his life drew to its close, the only satisfactory pattern of relationship that can exist between man and man. In his last great novel, Resurrection, Prince Nekhlyudov attempts to rectify the sin of his youth and in so doing associates with many brutally-treated prisoners. Towards the end of the book Nekhlyudov ponders Matthew's gospel. He reads of Christ's words, "The Son of Man is come to save that which is lost," and the reply to Peter that we are to forgive not seven times but seventy times seven times. that is endlessly, numberlessly. We must pity because we have been pitied.
" 'And can that be the whole answer?' Nekhlyudov suddenly exclaimed aloud. And the inner voice of his whole being said, 'Yes, that is all.' " The idea seemed strange at first and then the simplest, incontrovertible truth-. "The answer he had been unable to find was the same that Christ gave to Peter: to forgive everyone always, forgive an endless number of times, because there was no man living who was guiltless . ."
The Sermon on the Mount ceased to be in his eyes beautiful, abstract thoughts making impossible demands but "simple, clear practical commandments which if obeyed . . would establish acompletely new order of human society."
We should tell unbelievers that the story of God's forgiveness granted in Christ's cross is no solacing myth about a brainless, benign, soft-hearted deity. It is a thing of terrifying power and revolutionary import. If we ourselves do not feel this, have we begun to understand the cross at all?