Friday, March 09, 2007

Reparation: Our Contribution

Pray, fast, do penance! We hear these exhortations frequently, especially during Lent. Such salutary practices aid spiritual growth and strengthen our souls. But can our mortification help someone else who may be far from God? Can we really help to "repair what is shattered" (Ps 60/61)?

Scripture and Tradition say, Yes. St Paul offered his sufferings for the sake of the Church (Col 1:24), and he remained "in travail" until his people were fully alive in Christ (Gal 4:19). The lives and teachings of the saints call for reparation even more forcefully. Pope Pius XII wrote: "The salvation of many depends on the prayers and voluntary penances which the members of the mystical Body of Jesus Christ offer for this intention" (Mystici Corporis).

One of the images of the power of intercession and reparation found in some of Our Lady's apparitions is that of her "holding back the arm of divine justice." I have never found this to be a helpful image. It seems to imply a conflict of wills between God and Mary, since it apparently puts Mary alone on the side of mercy while God has to be the Enforcer of Justice. Now it is true that our Merciful Mother is not the judge of mankind, and that God is. Yet God's preferred manner of revealing Himself is as the Compassionate Savior. And whatever mercy in is the Mother has its only source in the Son.

Moses offers us a pertinent biblical paradigm (see Exodus 32). The Israelites sinned grievously, and God told Moses to stand aside so He could vent His wrath and destroy them. Moses pleaded with God to spare those with whom He had made a solemn covenant. And so God did not destroy the people.

God did not really want to destroy his people, so there was no conflict between his will and Moses'. But there was this matter of sin to be resolved, and without the repentance which draws down mercy, there remains but justice. Without someone "standing in the breach" there is no forgiveness (Ezek. 22:30-31). Moses was willing even to suffer condemnation if it would help save the people (St Paul followed suit in Romans 9:3). God did forgive them, for this was his will, but they had to endure a plague in reparation for their sin.

Now the offering of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was condemned to death that we might live, was alone sufficient to atone for all sin. Through Him God reconciled mankind as such to Himself. So where do we come in? "You are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it" (1Cor 12:27). As members of his Body, we share in the power of Christ's death and resurrection. Our own prayers, our voluntary penances and involuntary sufferings, if offered in union with Jesus' Passion, acquire a power and a meaning they could not otherwise have. We can "stand in the breach" for other members of the Body, so that God's will to save can be personally realized for them. We help forestall divine justice while we pray and sacrifice that their hearts will open to divine mercy. With St Paul we “complete in our own flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, the Church” (Col. 1:24). What is lacking is the full incorporation of all into Christ’s Body, the personal acceptance in faith by each of their redemption. This could not happen at the moment of his historical sufferings, but must continue in time until the end of the world. Our intercession and labor toward this end is our contribution to the salvation of souls.

The Mother of God participated uniquely in the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption, so in her the fullness of the Church's power of intercession and reparation resides. Her will and God's are as one, but He expects her as our Mother to offer intercession on our behalf. We have only to call upon her to open the floodgates of God's free gift of grace for ourselves and for others. Grace is free, but it's not cheap. Mary will call upon us to stand with her at the Cross, to repeat her "yes" to the price of our redemption. Our prayer must be from the heart, and our penance in the full fervor of love's required sacrifice.

We should rejoice that we have been made "God's fellow workers" (1Cor 3:9), sharers in Jesus' perpetually fruitful self-oblation. We are to go forth and keep bearing fruit (see Jn 15:16) until every member of Christ's Body personally accepts the gift of forgiveness and salvation. Freely we have received; now we are called freely to give.