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Sacred Scripture tells us in various places that Christ died “for all”. His saving Passion and Death was more than sufficient to save every human being of every time and place. We call this the “objective redemption” – objectively, Jesus is capable of saving all because he suffered the penalty for all. However, the Lord himself in Sacred Scripture also warns us about entering “through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life…” – he himself tells us that not everyone will be saved. We call this the “subjective redemption”: for subjectively, not everyone accepts Christ’s gift of salvation. Or, having once accepted it, they forfeit it through sin from which they do not finally repent.
Therefore, Sacred Scripture also tells us – as we heard in today’s readings – that Christ died for “many”. Isaiah the prophet spoke of how God’s faithful servant, the coming Messiah, would, “through his suffering…justify many”. And Jesus says in the gospel passage from Mark that he, the “Son of Man”, would “give his life as a ransom for many”. These are salutary reminders for us: heaven is not automatic; not everyone is saved. For this reason, St. Paul once wrote that we are to work out our salvation “with fear and trembling”. He also spoke of himself as having fought a fight and run a race, gaining the prize of life. Our life on earth is a battle – a battle to get ourselves into God’s light and stay there; it’s also a race – we need to hurry, for we truly do not know how much time we will ultimately have.
I’m afraid that many people today think that basically everyone goes to heaven – except, perhaps, awful people like Hitler and child molesters. Is it flippant for me to put it in those terms? Maybe – but I have heard such ideas expressed on many occasions, and even by people who should know better. As long as we are “basically good” – so the thinking goes – then God will somehow work things out for us in the end. But nowhere does our faith teach a doctrine like this! Hear again what Jesus himself says: “The Son of Man [came] to give his life as a ransom for many”. Will you and I be among the “many” who are saved? Or will we, God forbid, be among the “many” who are not saved? It is crucial that we understand this distinction between Christ’s salvation on the objective and subjective levels. He certainly can save you and me. But his gift must be applied to us individually, subjectively; and the gift is not automatic.
The second reading, then, tells us about Christ’s sympathy for us, as one who shared in our condition and so understands us intimately. “Let us confidently approach the throne of grace”, it says, “to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help”. Where is this throne of grace? It is the Cross of Christ, and we are first united with it at Baptism, when we are renewed and set right in God’s sight for the first time. But then we fall into sin throughout our lives. We cannot be re-baptized, but the Lord allows us to approach his throne of grace again through another means – through Confession. There, humbling ourselves before his representative, the priest (who himself must go to Confession also!), Christ reaches down to us from the Cross yet again and renews us inwardly, setting us back on the right path. Thus the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says to us, “let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy”!
I wonder how many of those who follow the wide and easy path to destruction appear before God at their particular judgment and have to admit to him, “You know, Lord, I decided to do it my way. I didn’t want to confess my sins. I was too embarrassed. I was too nervous…”, and so forth – there are so many excuses! May we not be among their number – a number which, according to Scripture, is not small! May we, rather, confidently approach the throne of grace and receive mercy from God on a regular basis, so that we can have his gift of salvation applied to us and so live and die in his grace; so that we can be among the “many” who are saved and spend eternal life in unspeakable happiness. Heaven is not automatic; we truly must work out our salvation with “fear and trembling”. It is, at times, a daunting task. But our psalm response today gives us the words that we need: “Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you”.
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