The 40 days of Lent is leading to a dramatic climax in our
liturgical imagination: the prayer, fasting, almsgiving is pointing us directly
to what we’ve been promised and hoped for–salvation. These days of Lent offered
us an entrée into the Divine Mystery and yet I fear that a great many people,
including myself–may not have heard Jesus’ prophetic rebuke of the Pharisees
and others for their errors and for their self-righteousness and have missed
the essential purpose of our Lord’s sharp words. Certainly hearing Peter deny
Christ three times indicates that same tendency in us to stand back from that
which is life-giving. In the Scriptures we heard at Mass and in the Divine
Office we hear the Lord not condemning the people for love of God’s Law but
calling them to follow him more closely and in doing so enter more deeply into
the spirit of the Law. Christ makes it clear that living in the Kingdom of God
requires us to be sacrificial: to turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.
Here is the certainty we have: to follow Christ entails self-denial and the
acceptance of his cross as ours. No embrace of the cross, no life eternal.
Yesterday a few of the monks and I were speaking of those who come to the monastery and live the monastic life in a way that it has no bearing on them. They’re miserable and they make everyone else grouchy. Our conclusion that conversatio morum (conversion of life) hasn’t worked. I sometimes think that these people don’t believe in the hundred-fold that the Lord spoke of in the Gospel. And then last evening I was speaking with a friend about a similar thing following Christ and sacrifice. We share the same spiritual father and so we, for different reasons, hear similar things. One such thing that we verified was that our spiritual father is big on reminding us that service in the Church requires a great deal of sacrifice for the good of the Gospel and of Tradition. There seems to be no way around this point but that’s not what you experience in many places in the Church today. Sacrifice is a foreign concept and often met with disdain. Some of this conversation got me thinking about Catholics who for some strange reason who think the Second Vatican Council had ushered in an era of approval of secularity, i.e., worldliness, as if openness to the world at all costs–as such–were of any value at all.
I’ve got another friend who has brought to my attention that “the term ‘People of God’ in reference to the Church has led many to think that the Church had decided to conform to the Spirit of the Age, and that the Cross and self-denial had no place in the modern mentality.” As Dom Ambrose says, “Well, I simply don’t know what Bible they were reading: the term ‘People of God’ originally belongs to Israel, and to say that the Church is the Pilgrim People of God recalls Israel’s forty-year wanderings in the wilderness. That period in Israel’s history was one of sin and punishment and privation–not of comfortable conformism. And yet, for all that, Israel remained always a people of hope, trusting in the Lord’s promise of a land and a home. That, too, is the attitude of Christ’s Pilgrim Church in this world: as the Second Vatican Council said, the Church must follow the path of penance and purification in this world, until we at last enter into the promised Kingdom. This is the meaning of the term “People of God.”
In other words, all of Scripture points us to the fact that following Christ and the Church means nothing if there’s no conformity to the cross, repentance for sin so that entering into the communio of the Trinity is possible. Therefore, we can say there’s no cheap grace. And what is cheap grace? Isn’t grace, by definition, a pure gift of God, freely given and un-earned? Yes, it is. The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who himself laid down his life for Jesus Christ, explained this idea of a life without conversion (i.e., sacrifice) means by criticizing the notion of cheap grace. Bonhoeffer described cheap grace as follows:
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 47).