“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What’s water?’” This story is how the writer David Foster Wallace began a speech after warning his audience that he is not the wise older fish, he’s just telling the story because you have to start speeches off with something clever. The point of the parable, though, is that the greatest realities are often the hardest to see and talk about.
Back in the 16th century, theologians were busy arguing. Martin Luther, at that time a Catholic Augustinian monk, had managed to get some traction for his idea of salvation by faith alone, and the movement that lined up behind that belief hit Christendom like a bolt of lightning. This wasn’t a dry, abstract question. It had real life consequences and affected government and taxes and set nations against each other. Even more, if we really take our faith seriously, we can see how the question touches on the actual nature of the human soul, so it could have become quite contentious.
St. James is clear that faith without works is dead. From that statement we understand that faith can either be alive or dead, so along with faith it is clear we need something else.. It is not salvation by faith alone. We need our belief to be united with the presence of the living God. In the end, to believe in salvation by faith alone is very cynical, because it means that God never effects a change in you – once a sinner always a sinner. Maybe you’re a sinner who has faith and is on the way to heaven, and that’s nice, but you are still the same old, unhappy, imperfect person. I’m not quite sure what salvation means if that’s all it is. God wants more for us than that.
The reality of salvation is very simple, it’s like the water that fish swim in, and for that reason it is all the more difficult to explain, because how do you explain what it is to be spiritually alive? With Jesus, we go from death to life, and I have no idea how to express it because when I was dead, before the lights went on, everything was simply dark. There is no formula to explain our relationship with God. It’s sort of how, guys, when your wife wants to mess with you and she demands that you explain why you love her. You stammer a few things like her beautiful eyes that light up your life and her laugh that sounds like a babbling brook, I don’t know, some romantic stuff, but in the end love between husband and wife is way more than that. It is a mysterious intermingling of souls.
That is exactly what salvation is. God has given everything at the Cross, and in return he wants all of you. He unites himself to you. He infuses your soul with virtue, what St. Paul identifies as Faith, Hope, and Love. It isn’t faith alone. It is faith, united to hope, and the greatest is love. These three virtues change the shape of your soul to make it receptive to grace. It isn’t a matter of believing the right things, or saying the right stuff, because it is by grace that our hearts are converted to the very core.
The cross must wound your heart. You must be prepared to follow Christ all the way, anything less, any turning aside, is a temptation of Satan. This is exactly what Our Lord says, that he will suffer for us and there is no other way. Why? Because love does not allow for compromises. We’re either in or we’re out.
No one is saved alone. We are saved with each other and for each other. We celebrate with each other and suffer with each other because God’s infusion of love knits us together. We see that clearly in the Precious Body and Blood of Jesus, which is the sacrament of unity. It is so difficult to explain, to understand, or anticipate. The reality is one which must be lived. We must actually receive the body and blood of Christ on our tongues.
We often interpret Our Lord’s command to take up our Cross in a negative sense, as if he’s simply telling us to toughen up and keep going. But that command has a positive interpretation. He is telling us to throw our whole selves into the salvation of the world, to live the reality of the Body of Christ to its fullness. Surround yourselves in this reality daily. Don’t take it for granted, for we are together being drawn ever closer to Heaven, and even if we can’t explain it, we know how to get there through practicing our faith. We hope for it daily. But the reality? The reality is love, and he who is filled with love is filled with God himself.