His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain.
[1 Cor 15:10]
What a beautiful thing to attend the baptism of a child! Today we witnessed the baptism of Pauline Wolters. In her life new life in Christ, her parents and godparents are called to help her as she grows up to distinguish good from evil and to choose the good, and to come to a living faith.
By our baptism and faith we are justified [e.g. 1 Cor 6:11; Rom 4:20-5:1]. We believe there is a reconciliation of the soul with God. This has been described as the “imputation of righteousness” or that we are “counted as righteous”, which means, when the Father looks upon us, he sees the righteousness of His Son, because our souls are united with Christ through the gift of the Spirit. In the case of an infant, the Church has taught that in baptism, the infant receives the gift of faith – a seed that needs to be nurtured.
But in the Christian life, our justification by baptism and faith is just the beginning of our new life in Christ. We also must be sanctified, made holy, as we cooperate with the grace God would pour out on us. And this process of sanctification, of being made holy, is something we are to attend to for the rest of our lives here on earth.
In the Christian life, some theologians [beginning in the 5thcentury with Dionysius the Areopogite] have identified 3 main stages in that process of our sanctification, of our being made holy. Some have seen this figured in passages such as Mark 4:28 or Daniel 10:9-11 [Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, Bk 22, para 46, 47]. The three stages have been called purgation, illumination, and union. These stages are contemporaneous – they are a part of our experience at every stage in our sanctification – but also there can be a greater emphasis of one before the other as we mature in Christ.
When an infant is baptised, she experiences something of each of these: (1) Purgation – a forgiveness of sins and a cleansing (it is why Jesus chose to use water as the sign in our baptism); (2) Illumination – the gift of the Holy Spirit – a gift of light inwardly, to see the truth (in thy light shall we see light, says the Psalmist (36:9)); and (3) Union – an experience of peace with God, a clear conscience, and a readiness for an exchange – to know the thoughts of God – holy wisdom, and to love like God.
These three stages – purgation, illumination and union – are spoken of in the Bible using other language, in the language of metaphor following in the steps of Jesus: death, resurrection and ascension. As Jesus bore our sins (he himself was sinless) and put them to death on the Cross, even so in Christ we are called to crucify sin – this involves a purging of our lives of sin, something painful as we give up what we may have thought to be good but is in fact destructive to ourselves and others. As Christ rose from the dead, even so in Christ we are called to rise up in the new life in Christ as we are illuminated by the Spirit through the reading of God’s Word and inward guidance by the Spirit. As Christ ascended into heaven, even so in Christ we ascend as our thoughts are united with God’s thoughts and our actions become God’s acts of love to the world around us.
In the baptism service we use these metaphors from the Bible in a prayer after baptism:
And humbly we beseech you to grant that she being dead unto sin, and living unto righteousness, and being buried with Christ in his death, may crucify the old man, and utterly abolish the whole body of sin [purgation]; and that, as she is made a partaker of the death of your Son, she may also be a partaker of his resurrection [illumination]; so that finally, with the residue of your holy Church, she may be an inheritor of your everlasting kingdom [ascension – union]; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
These metaphors in the prayer come from St Paul’s description of our sanctification in Romans 6:5-13 (and “utterly abolish” may be from Isaiah 2:18 – see KJV). The dramatic words describe the process of dying, rising and ascending as an ongoing process in our lives as we cooperate with the grace of God.
In the movement to know God, the soul must give up being absorbed by the external world, turn within, and then it can look above to God. (St Augustine states this as one of the most important insights in Scripture in On the Greatness of the Soul, Ch 28 ) In this movement to find God we cannot bypass the state of our own soul.
For us to experience greater illumination and union with God, we must first be purged of sin. This means not a denial or covering over of what is going on in our hearts, but admitting it to ourselves, and then to God. That is what it is to live in the Truth, and only then we can be cleansed.
In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector [St Luke 18:9-14], Jesus compares the prayer life of two men. Jesus concludes that the Pharisee’s prayer does not lead him to being right with God, while the Tax Collector’s prayer does. The Pharisee in his prayer lists all his moral accomplishments, thinks himself better than others, and does not ask for any help from God. But the more we mature in Christ, the more we are aware not of our sanctity (or that whatever signs of sanctity are manifesting themselves in our soul are signs of God’s grace), but of the brokenness of our souls and need of mercy. The Tax Collector by contrast does not list accomplishments but cries out, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And Jesus says that it is the Tax Collector who goes to his home being right with God, not the Pharisee.
Because every human soul is broken in ways that require help from above, to have faith and yet to think that all is well and to not continue to ask for help in prayer, is to deny any problems and so to be bound in them. It is to not live in the Truth, and so to not live in God. The Pharisee is suffering from repression, a denial and a covering over of sin. He is not right with God because he is not honest. He remains stuck in a tragic and futile struggle to uphold outward appearances of sanctity. Jesus says elsewhere, the Pharisees are like white-washed tombs full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness – outwardly they are clean but they have not dealt with the problems within and so are spiritually dead [St Matthew 23:27].
The brokenness within for every one of us is a combination of hurts from injustices done to us in the past, our own creating of unhealthy patterns in response, and the ongoing struggle with our own disordered passions (pride, vainglory, dejection, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, lust). This can be a heavy cocktail. What happens if we don’t deal with it and seek only to appear outwardly moral? A simple example is if we are angry with someone but don’t address it, but bury it, that anger will come out in passive-aggressive ways. Without our thinking about it, we hurt the person we’re angry with, undermining them (or even others unconnected with the offence) in some way with hurtful comments when he or she least expects or by our actions. A better way is to ask for courage to confront the injustice when it happens and to seek to clear the air. If reconciliation is not possible, it is at least important to acknowledge the truth of the injustice, not to pretend it doesn’t matter.
For all of us it is a struggle to look within, but for all of us it is essential if we would grow in Christ and not be held back by ghosts from our past and current disorders. For some, who have experienced traumatic childhoods or situations since, it can be too frightening. In such cases it can be most helpful to have the assistance of another, a wise guide, in that looking within.
Jesus has come to bring relief to our troubled souls, healing and new life, even eternal life. The illumination of the Spirit is to help us to see what is within, to dwell more fully in the truth about ourselves and to have a right assessment of others in our past. That illumination, the lamp of the Spirit revealing the truth within, is not for our condemnation but for our salvation. Let us not receive this grace in vain. [See the example of St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, who knows about death, resurrection and ascension in his own life in powerful ways.]
In this ongoing process of our sanctification, Jesus has gifted us with the Sacrament of Holy Communion and the Church has ordered the Liturgy in such a way to help us. We begin by humbling ourselves and our souls are illuminated by God’s Word read and preached and the working of the Spirit in our hearts in the service; we have opportunity to look within and for the purgation of sin through confession and turning to Jesus in faith; and, with our conscience made right with God, we experience a cleansing and union with God as we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ.
If we recognize these elements in our life in Christ and seek this grace always we will grow into full maturity and, like Jesus, become a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.