January 3, 2016
Is 60:1-6; Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt 2:1-12
The Magi in today’s feast represent God’s universal call. We are not told that they went home Christian. We are not told that they went home Jewish. We can assume that they went home Zoroastrian or whatever it was they were when they came. But, they went home with a profound respect and reverence for this newborn King of the Jews.
In St. John’s Gospel we hear Jesus say, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice” (Jn 10:16). God has infinite care and concern for all of his non-Christian children spread throughout the earth. He would prefer that they were Christian; he would prefer that they were Catholic. As Catholics we believe that the fullness of truth resides in the Catholic Church. It is what Jesus came to reveal in the New Testament. It is the Church Jesus founded on Peter the rock. We can trace unbroken succession through our popes back to St. Peter. But even though God would prefer that these other children were Catholic, he’s willing to work with them where they are. He sees the good in their hearts and desires to fan it into flame.
Is it possible for these non-Christians to be saved? After they die, is it possible for them to go to heaven? Is their only ticket to salvation becoming Catholic before they die? In Mark’s Gospel we hear Jesus saying, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be condemned” (16:16). Christian theologians have struggled with this question for many centuries. The Fathers of the Church in the first four centuries wondered how the many millions of pagans before the time of Christ could attain salvation. Would the loving God we believe in really create them just to writhe in hell for all eternity through no fault of their own?
Even after the time of Christ there were many millions who died without hearing the good news of Christ. Vast areas of China were untouched. With the discovery of America in 1492, two whole continents of pagans opened up. If outside the Christian faith there is no salvation, what had been the fate of the peoples living in the western hemisphere? After the Reformation, the Protestant theologians tended to take a pessimistic view on this question. Luther held that explicit faith in Christ was absolutely necessary for salvation, and that therefore all pagans who had been excluded from the benefit of the Church’s preaching were the object of God’s reprobation and predestined to hell.
Catholic theologians tended toward a more optimistic solution to the problem of salvation outside the Church. In the same way that the concept of “Baptism of desire” could supply for a catechumen who died before receiving the actual sacrament of Baptism, it could also apply in the case of those who had no possibility of Baptism but who had lived all their lives according to the precepts of natural law and died invincibly ignorant of the Church.
The document, Lumen Gentium, of Vatican II, made it very clear that it was possible for non-Christians to be saved, even without the actual sacrament of Baptism. Section 16 begins with the Jews and then moves on to Islam and others. Long quote:
Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways. There is, first, that people to which the covenants and promises were made, and from which Christ was born according to the flesh (cf. Rom. 9:4-5): in view of the divine choice, they are a people most dear for the sake of the fathers, for the gifts of God are without repentance (cf. Rom. 11:29). But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Moslems: these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day. Nor is God remote from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, since he gives to all men life and breath and all things (cf. Acts 17:25-28), and since the Savior wills all men to be saved (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4).
The next sentence is especially important:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.
So, in other words, each person is going to be judged by what he did with what he was given. Christians will be judged on how well they followed the Gospel. Non-Christians will be judged on how well they followed their conscience. They can still be condemned if they were bad people and treated other people shamefully without repentance. But the people who are saved and end up in heaven for all eternity will only be saved through Christ and his Church – some directly, some indirectly.
This is not to say that it doesn’t matter which religion you belong to, and once you’re a Catholic you can switch to something else without consequences. This same document from Vat. II states in section 14: “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it.”
We who are in this church this morning are so blessed to be believers. We must never take it for granted. And we can never thank God enough for this tremendous gift. Let us also pray for our non-Christian brethren, that through the intercession of the Magi, who now see the Mystery in all its completeness, they may be guided by the Divine Wisdom to the fullness of truth.