Holiness Received, not Achieved

Through her ministry the Church communicates genuine holiness to all her members, regardless of economic, social, educational, or even ecclesiastical status.  A university professor receives the same grace as a beggar, not some more sophisticated or erudite version.  Mother Teresa received the same absolution as we do.  The Pope receives the same Eucharist as the smallest altar boy.

lamb

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

Saint Paul addresses the Corinthians as “sanctified” (1 Cor 1:2) – a laughable description to those familiar with ancient Corinth, a city practically synonymous with sin.  “Corinthian girl” was Plato’s term for prostitute.  For the playwright Aristophanes, “to Corinth” meant to fornicate.  Nor did Saint Paul have any delusions about the city’s virtues.  After all, he had to address the issue of incest in his own congregation (cf. 1 Cor 5).  And in this same, he sternly warns the Corinthians: “neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.”  He then observes, “That is what some of you used to be” (1 Cor 6:9-11).

And yet holy writ describes those same Corinthians as sanctified.  We can make sense of the seeming contradiction here by observing the grammar: “sanctified” describes what had been accomplished for and in the Corinthians by Someone else.  On their own the Corinthians seem indeed to have been dissolute.  But by God’s action they were made holy: “washed…sanctified…justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11).

The dichotomy between ancient Corinth and sanctity brings us to this essential fact: Holiness is received, not achieved.  We participate in His holiness – not by dint of effort, not by inheritance, not by good looks, fame, fortune, or any other human or earthly accomplishment or trait. Only by grace.

The dichotomy between ancient Corinth and sanctity brings us to this essential fact: Holiness is received, not achieved.  God is the Holy One.  We participate in His holiness – not by dint of effort, not by inheritance, not by good looks, fame, fortune, or any other human or earthly accomplishment or trait. Only by grace.  It is something that comes to us “not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision” but from God (Jn 1:13).  Thus, even Corinthians could be made holy.

This truth frees us from the vice of the Pharisees, to which we seem so inclined and chained.  That is, the tendency to think that we have attained holiness, or that we can or ought to achieve it on our own.  Our Lord rebuked the Pharisees not because they sought holiness but because they thought they had attained it themselves, by merely keeping the Law.  Such self-righteous souls are ever with us – indeed, this attitude is the trap of those who take holiness seriously.  (You know, the kind of people who read boring blogs about the topic.)

graceBut we find the Pharisees’ attitude also in those who despair, who think that God is waiting impatiently for them to make themselves holy – the stern taskmaster looking at His watch, tapping His foot, exhausted with their feeble efforts.  Such despondent souls think that if they cannot make themselves holy, then it cannot be done.  They seem to be the opposite of the Pharisees, but they in fact proceed from the same false premise: man-made holiness.  Some think they achieved it, and boast.  Others think they cannot, and despair.

Sanctified – made holy.  This is the effect of His grace.  By way of the Sacraments, and Baptism most of all, God Himself gives us a share of His own holiness.  He imbues us with a holiness that, although real, is imperfect – that is, not defective but still in need of coming to full maturity (cf. Eph 4:13).  Holiness is His work within us. 

He imbues us with a holiness that, although real, is imperfect – that is, not defective but still in need of coming to full maturity.

…All of which helps us to understand and appreciate the Sacraments properly.  They are not, primarily our work or effort but God’s work upon and within us.  Through His sacred ministers, it is Christ Himself Who sanctifies through Baptism, Who strengthens that holiness through Confirmation, Who nourishes it by the Eucharist and Who restores our holiness in Confession.

Further, since holiness is God’s work, not man’s, it is not limited by human talent or accomplishments. Thus, everyone can be holy.  Even those dissolute Corinthians! If sanctity depended on human effort, then only the best, brightest, and/or wealthiest could achieve it.  But it is instead a gift that can be received by anyone willing to receive it – young, old, educated, ignorant, rich, poor, weak, strong, etc.  The Catholic Church is the most democratic institution in the world.  Through her ministry the Church communicates genuine holiness to all her members, regardless of economic, social, educational, or even ecclesiastical status.  A university professor receives the same grace as a beggar, not some more sophisticated or erudite version.  Mother Teresa received the same absolution as we do.  The Pope receives the same Eucharist as the smallest altar boy.

…everyone can be holy.

…all are required to be holy.

This democratic nature of holiness also means that no one is off the hook: all are required to be holy.  But that brings us to the second part of Saint Paul’s phrase and next week’s reflection:

What does it mean that we are “called to be holy”? (1 Cor 1:2)

One thought on “Holiness Received, not Achieved

  1. In all fairness, I think that human behavior without grace can rise to noble occasions. Folks with no grace at all can do good and noble things perhaps the reason for a Limbo for those without grace who none-the-less conduct their affairs in charity. However, grace is absolutely necessary to move toward the ultimate goal of Heaven in the Beatific Vision and can only come from GOD.

    Like Pope Francis who remarked that many Cardinals and other church leaders think they are special just because they provide over the Mass and want to advance their careers, I’ve seem many folks including clergy revile at those deemed less ascetic or more base. These spiritually weak and lowly, the social and psychological bottom feeders will be among the greatest, for tax collectors and prostitutes are getting into Heaven before the Pharisees. What was true back 2,000 years ago is also true today.

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