In the first reading for today’s Mass we heard these words from St. Paul to the Philippians, “My beloved, obedient as you have always been, not only when I am present but all the more now when I am absent, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work.” (2:12-18)
“…work out your salvation with fear and trembling…” These are powerful words from Paul and words that can help us get to an understanding of how we as Catholics use the word “works” when it comes to the process of our salvation and sanctification. Catholics do not, as some often suppose, believe that we achieve or merit our own salvation. It is through Christ alone (his taking on sin for us, his death and his resurrection) that we are saved. But we do cooperate with God in the continuing work of our salvation and sanctification. We do have a role to play.
I would like to share an image that I find helpful in this regard.
Imagine a situation where a man stands in need of heart surgery. He cannot save himself. Left to himself he is lost and will surely die. The man goes to the doctor, he undergoes surgery and his condition is rectified. But the healing does not end there, in fact it would be foolish if it did. The man has to undergo physical therapy, he has to receive medications, he even has to rest. He has to follow the doctor’s orders. The healing does not end with the surgery; it must continue afterwards and the man must make the conscious choice to cooperate with the healing process.
To go to physical therapy, to receive the necessary medications, even to rest are all forms of “work” in this regard. Works that are truly essential to the full healing process. Also, it is important to note that the doctor is just as present and active in this recuperative phase of the healing process as he was at the moment of surgery.
The healing grace of Christ does not end after the cross and resurrection (the surgery) and to cooperate in the ongoing healing process is not to deny or diminish either the role of the physician or ones own reliance on the physician. In fact, the opposite is the case, the work of cooperation in the ongoing healing process demonstrates both an awareness of and dependence on the art, wisdom and skill of the physician.
Christ is the Divine Physician. Through the grace of the cross and resurrection, the grace freely bestowed at baptism, our “hearts” are rectified – once again made right – but the healing process continues after the initial surgery and it would be foolish to act like it does not. Ongoing participation in the sacraments, living in the community of the Church, serving one’s brothers and sisters, reflecting on God’s Word found in Scripture, praying, fasting, giving alms – all are cooperating and needed works in the full healing process.
To acknowledge the surgery but deny the need for and efficacy of the ongoing recuperative treatment might allow an awareness of the heart rectified but there it ends – life remains reduced and limited. The man remains in the hospital bed. It is the ongoing “work” of faith – cooperating with and receiving grace – that enables one to rise from the hospital bed, grow to maturity in the Christian life and attain fullness in discipleship. This awareness of the full dimension of divine healing does not deny the role of Jesus as the Divine Physician in the least but truly acknowledges our need for his presence in all the phases of healing.
“…work out your salvation with fear and trembling…”