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Salvation is hard work


Thin sentimentality is a greater threat to Christmas than vulgar commercialism.

Elijah Can we interest you in this story?  That question arrives every day.  The stream of e-sludge which courses through my inbox can be prodigious, much of it produced by publicists flogging a book or DVD or ostensibly worthy initiative.  Often they concern some vague spirituality, offered alongside interview possibilities with a subject at the ready to billow forth gaseous clouds of fluffy feel-goodism.  Almost always the proffers go straight to the trash, but one last week, in the proximity to Christmas, caught my eye.

"A Jewish rabbi and a Presbyterian pastor are uniting together in hopes of making the world a better place," it began.  "[They] created the Elijah Moment Campaign to encourage people to put aside their differences and simply help each other anonymously.  In the Old Testament, Elijah is a Biblical prophet who appears through history to spread light in the midst of darkness.  He comes into your life and makes your day!"

Christmas is an awkward time for clergymen to advertise their biblical illiteracy, but it is a good time to correct it.  Elijah may just be the least likely person in all of human history to "put aside" his differences.  His prophetic work was a life-and-death struggle against those with whom he had differences.  The difference at issue was that between the right worship of God and idolatry.

Elijah is one of the dominant figures of the Hebrew scriptures, and a complex one.  Yet whatever might have been said of him lo these many centuries, "he makes your day!" surely is an utter novelty.

Elijah, the rabbi and pastor might discover, was a fearsome figure who lamented that Israel had abandoned her historic faith in favour of idolatry.  He boldly challenged the idolatry of the king and demonstrated, by means of rival sacrifices, that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was real and that the idol Baal was a false god.  Having made the point, he "put aside" all 450 of the prophets of Baal by slaughtering them.

Make your day?  Perhaps, but more in the Dirty Harry sense than the various suggestions offered by the "Elijah Project," which include paying for the coffee of the next person in line, or giving an old car to National Public Radio.  Is it really possible to make the world a better place by donating to NPR?

Four years ago, Pope Benedict confessed that as priests "we spend so much time preaching about making this world better than we forget to preach about the better world."

Therein lies the problem with stripping a culture's scriptural sense.  Christianity, like Judaism before it, is relentlessly realistic.  Biblical religion is gritty, messy, bloody, the chronicle of the great contest between God's purposes and man's rebellion, the mortal combat between holiness and iniquity in history.  To make the world a better place by "random acts of kindness" is to elevate sentiment over the serious work of salvation, about which there is nothing random.  Thin sentimentality is a greater threat to Christmas than vulgar commercialism.

Four years ago, Pope Benedict confessed that as priests "we spend so much time preaching about making this world better than we forget to preach about the better world."  The sentimentalist looks to make this vale of tears slightly more livable, which is not unwelcome but inadequate to the task.  It's often the best we can do.  Which is rather the point, for the work of building an entirely better world is God's alone.

History is called a slaughterhouse because it is more often than not just that.  Then there are cosmic evils that have no human culpability, from the tsunami to the little girl dying of leukemia.  In the face of that, the idea that we can make it all better is an understandable sentiment, but no more a real solution for being that.

Christmas is the news that there is an entirely better world, and from that world to ours God has now come in the flesh.  The baby in Bethlehem comes to do battle, that mortal combat in which the cross and tomb are the path to resurrection and life eternal.  It is a bloody business.  And if we are inclined to blanch from such bloodiness, salvation asks us to begin with that which no one fears, the baby born for us, the son given to us.

Being kind to strangers is better than the alternative, but we need so much more.  Elijah was about so much more.  Christmas is about so much more.

To my readers, who throughout the year perhaps look upon this column and desire so much more, I wish a happy and holy Christmas, confident that all that is lacking here will be provided in the fullness of time, like the infant of Bethlehem, from that better world.



Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Salvation is hard work." National Post, (Canada) December 24, 2014.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

The Author

desouza Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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