Lent is an appropriate time to reflect on salvation, not only the particular Christian proclamation of human salvation and our participation in it, but the idea of salvation in general: what does it mean to be “saved,” and what is the source of our assurance that it is possible? When I have experienced salvation, what is it that I have gained? Into what reality does salvation bring us?
The readings for this Sunday invite us to contemplate salvation in reference to two defining events in the biblical narrative: the exile of Israel into Babylon and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Christians naturally gravitate toward the latter when explaining what salvation entails, but to do so without reference to the former would be a mistake.
A couple of years ago, I was walking across campus with an outspokenly agnostic colleague, and we happened upon the topic of life after death. He told me when his brother died, many people tried to reassure him that his brother lived on, and that he would see him again. The prospect offered no comfort to him, though. “The problem is, I don’t want him in the future; I want him here now.” The idea of his brother’s “saved soul” was an empty abstraction to him. What he desired was his brother—his whole brother—here and now, in the flesh.
What is it that we desire when we desire salvation? What is the image that appears to our mind? What is the idea that fills our head? The terms in which St. Paul and St. John describe salvation are sublime and exalted—light, life, being raised up and seated with Christ in the heavens—but with what do they connect here below? Of what this-worldly goods are they the perfection and outgrowth? It is here where Israel’s prayer for and experience of salvation is instructive.
What the people of Israel longs for when they yearn for their salvation is not some supernatural state of ecstasy, but simply to return home. That is not only the object of their hopes and prayers, but also the governing image by which they attempt to understand what has happened to them as a people. Keeping in mind all the salutary warnings and qualifications from other books of Sacred Scripture such as Job concerning any attempt to comprehensively explain evil and misfortune in human terms, one can nevertheless take something important away from the claim in the first reading that Judah’s downfall comes as the people “add infidelity to infidelity.”
What is infidelity other than a way of “leaving home?” God gave Israel the Law in order that they might live in accord with the purposes for which he created them as well as the whole world. Torah obedience is thus a way to be “at home in the world.” Most of all, it is the Sabbath regulations which cultivate this sense of being “at home,” of creating the space in which human families and communities can just “be,” so as to be able simply to enjoy one other and one’s home without an extrinsic agenda or ulterior motive. Thus to live without the Sabbath is to live without a home, to descend into the sort of frenetic alienation from the world that is the hallmark of our modern super-highway smartphone-addicted society.
According to this logic, then, it is to bring Israel back home again that God exiles them to a foreign land. This purpose does not make the experience any less painful, of course, but it does bring the experience into focus. And it also drives home the particularly with which the Israelites conceived of what it would mean to be saved: to return home, to rebuild Jerusalem, and to build the Lord a house on Zion.
Exiled to a foreign land, they nevertheless do not forget their home, and their ultimate destiny is therefore to be a home to all humanity—a place where the nations may gather to behold the Lord’s glory and so find a way to enter into the Sabbath rest for which the world was made.
For Christians, of course, we find this particularity not so much in a geographic locale as in a person. It is “in Christ Jesus” that our final restoration in grace is to occur. That goes well beyond the metaphor of “being seated with him” as in a royal court or even at a wedding banquet. It is that full, complete presence of the risen Christ that the apostles themselves experienced that we yearn for in our own songs of longing and lament.
In desiring salvation, we in a sense desire the same thing my colleague friend desired: we want him, here and now. And by faith we may see that he is in fact here, in the breaking of the bread and in the least of these—bodily present just as he was on the lakeshore or in the upper room. In desiring and perceiving the real presence of Christ in our midst, we may also in turn preserve the hope, as implausible as it may seem to our natural vision, that what he has promised us is true: that those who believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life.