Monday, August 29, 2011

Atonement and Bodily Oblation

During these past seven days, I’ve been reading from blog to blog several thoughts on Saint Rose of Lima, whose feast day was last Tuesday. From this I gleaned that people have a hard time accepting the penances and mortifications Rose self-inflicted, because of their severity, the very fact of being self-administered, and their leading to greater affliction by weakening her such that she was susceptible to illness and fell ill.

For a person struggling to live with chronic disease by no choosing of her own, it is especially hard to accept that someone would bring this misery upon herself. I know I wouldn’t be able to do it. I knew this even before I got sick, as I distinctly remember at the time of my conversion to the faith, realizing the magnitude of my errors and faults, that I would in no way be able to select appropriate penances for myself, not possessing the constitution of a saint such as Rose for self-affliction. So, I put it in the hands of God, asking that He should choose my penances for me, trusting as well that He would provide the grace by which I might bear them.

The desire to atone for sin is itself, a grace imparted by God. It is upon such grace that a saint like Rose would desire to wear a metal ring with spikes pressing inward upon her skull as Christ bore the crown of thorns, and likewise, that I myself would desire to atone in any manner chosen for me by God. God knows each soul intimately, knowing the purpose for which He has called it to exist, knowing the unique portion of the work of redemption each soul is allotted to complete as a member of the mystical Body of Christ, to complete, as Saint Paul says, “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24) And so, God gives not only the commission but the grace to accomplish the mission.

If anyone clearly demonstrates the relationship between atonement for sin and offering of the body to the cause of atonement and sanctification it is John the Baptist.

Window from St. Joseph, Husband of Mary Roman Catholic Church
Long Island, NY
John is the first Christian penitent, the great model and prototype who portrays for us the heart of one totally devoted to the salvific mission of Christ, one who is set by grace and his own willingness to embrace the task for which he was created for the sake of the salvation of souls. Though not known to have raised a hand against himself or anyone else for any purpose other than blessing and baptizing, we are privy to knowing a couple of John’s bodily mortifications through scriptural accounts, them being the wearing of the camel hair shirt and the diet of locusts. 

John’s martyrdom at the hands of King Herod is his final oblation.  He accepts this as a matter of course, abiding in his mission to “go before the Lord and prepare his way.” (Luke 1:76) John knows, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) In this, he states what is true for all who follow, which is to say that we are all to strive toward the increase of Christ in us. For those of us who have been commissioned to a vocation of illness in some part, we may profit toward accomplishing this end by the manner and disposition in which we embrace our cross.

Although the cases of Rose and John appear to be extraordinary, it is no less true that each of us are called to an extraordinary oblation, for every one of us is given a singular work to fulfill in the project of redemption that no other human being is fashioned to accomplish. For many of you reading this blog, it may be that a portion of your work is to be accomplished in the manner that you accept, embrace, and live the fact of chronic illness. This is not to say that you should strive to maintain a state of disease, but that the portion of affliction you are entrusted by God through His permitting or ordaining will be offered as an oblation for His use in fulfilling the great work He has set about achieving in your soul as well as that of its contribution to the broader work of human salvation.  

On this day in which we honor the martyrdom of John the Baptist, let’s consider where we stand in the project of our own conversion, in light of God’s grace and gifts to us for the sake of our sanctification, and render our willingness to follow where He has led us to achieve this great purpose. Though at times we may find ourselves in a desert alone in the midst of our affliction, take heart that before us John was there, and following him, Christ was there, and truly is there with us.

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