Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
“O marvelous exchange!”
As we celebrate All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2), I’d like to reflect on the idea of the “exchange” Jesus completes by His Incarnation, Passion and Death.
St. Paul summarizes it this way: “Jesus Christ became poor although He was rich, so that by His poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). In the Incarnation, Jesus takes all that we have and, in exchange, gives us all that He has. That’s a good trade!
Or so it seems at the conceptual level. At the practical level, however, we resist it! To overcome that resistance, it’s important that we not be mistaken about two things.
First is the traditional theological concept of deification. It seems odd, at first, to think that we could really receive, by grace, the divinity of Jesus. But that’s what the Bible teaches: the Word became flesh “to make us partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). It’s what the Fathers of the Church such as St. Athanasius taught: “For the Son of God became man, so that we might become God.” It’s what St. Thomas Aquinas taught: “The only begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in His divinity, assumed our nature, so that He, made man, might make men gods.”
The promise of Christianity, in the words of Fulton Sheen, is not to turn us into “nice people.” It is that, by God’s grace, we would become what C.S. Lewis once called “creatures you would be strongly tempted to worship.”
But that astonishing promise comes with a requirement, and the requirement makes us hesitate. In 1 John 3:3 it is written: “Everyone who has this hope based on Him makes himself pure, as He (Christ) is pure.” Are we willing to be purified? And that’s not an isolated biblical quote. The line of reasoning stretches back to Leviticus 19 when God tells the Israelites: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” It’s present in the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s one of the final points in the final book of the Bible: “Nothing unclean shall enter it (the Heavenly Jerusalem)” (Revelation 21:27).
St. Paul puts a fine point on the connection when he says: “For if we have grown into union with Him through a death like His, we shall also be united with Him in the resurrection” (Romans 6:5). It’s a big “if”! Our end of the exchange requires that we give all that we have, and that’s the source of our hesitation: we’re not sure we want to. The choice is simple. It just isn’t easy.
That’s the first thing we shouldn’t mistake: the magnitude of the offer and the corresponding depth of the requirement.
Lest we despair, however, thinking it’s all beyond our reach, it’s important that we not be mistaken about another thing: where Jesus is willing to start. Fortunately, that point is amply illustrated in the Gospels: “The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-2).
God bless the Pharisees and scribes for making the point clear: Jesus is willing to start wherever we are! He’s not ashamed to meet us at any starting point. He only asks us to take each step with Him. He’ll provide the direction and the strength.
And the time! The fact of the matter is — and this is a personal observation, not a dogmatic statement — most people haven’t reached perfection by the time they die. That’s where purgatory comes in. It’s an extension of God’s plan for where He wants us to be — perfectly purified — combined with His mercy for where we are — not quite there yet — and His patience for how the plan unfolds — by our cooperation with His grace.
On All Saints Day we celebrate those for whom the marvelous exchange is already complete. On All Souls Day we celebrate those who are still on the way. If we situate ourselves with respect to both groups — those at the goal, and those on the path — our own way forward will become more clear.