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Tuesday, January 4th, 2022

‘Non est in alio aliquo’: a Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name

“If we this day are examined concerning the good deed done to the infirm man, by what means he hath been made whole, . . . by the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth . . . this man stands here before you whole. . . . neither is there salvation in any other” (Acts 4).

There is a phrase in contemporary theological discourse; we’ve heard it before and I myself have used it before: the scandal of particularity. I am not certain where it comes from, and I admit I’m not especially certain whether it is the right sort of theological language to use. But I mention it as our starting point this afternoon. It came to mind because of the passage I quoted to you a moment ago from our epistle. Now what I understand this phrase to mean is something like this: that the Catholic faith is difficult to hold because it is is so specific and, therefore, apparently so exclusive. After all, salvation history focuses our attention in many ways on specific peoples, specific places, specific texts, specific historical events, specific doctrines and commands.

This specificity and concreteness about true religion inspires skepticism in some. In a word, they find it unreasonable and improbable that somehow every human being must have some relationship to this religion; to this man, Jesus Christ. And yet that is precisely what we hold and what many cannot hold or refuse to hold. Again, they find it improbable and absurd that God should act so specifically.

But as I was pondering this mystery, something else occurred to me. I would like to invert the question, or see it from its other side: I am scandalized because God has been so particular with me. Beginning with my very existence, I am scandalized by the absurdity and improbability of it. That I should exist at all! What possible reason could there be for it? Why should I be the recipient—the specific recipient—of so many goods? That he should have chosen me for the baptismal font! Chosen me to be his son. As the Exultet sings at Easter time: “To ransom a slave, you gave away your son.” Absurd.

And then there are the people I know and love—that they should exist, that they should be the recipients of the goods of nature and of grace! You see how particular the Providence of God is. That the Father should raise up so many great saints; that he has prepared wonderful, but unimaginable life for those who love him. Should we object to all of these particularities as well? Should we be scandalized by the specificity and, indeed, the exclusivity of the gifts we have each received? Why should God be free to act particularly in some instances but not in others? 

The second article of the Apostles Creed is ‘I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord’—the very declaration made by St Peter in our epistle. Commenting on this article of the Creed, the holy synod of Trent taught:  

That wonderful and superabundant are the blessings which flow to the human race from the belief and profession of this Article we learn from these words of St John: ‘Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God abideth in him, and he in God;’ and also from the words of Christ the Lord, proclaiming the Prince of the Apostles blessed for the confession of this truth: ‘Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.’ For this article is the most firm basis of our salvation and redemption.[1]

Today, dear friends, we adore The One with a Name—because that one Name means universal beneficence. That is the reply we make to those who are scandalized by God’s particularity. Jesus Christ, the one, resolves the question of the salvation of the many. This is, among other reasons, why we call the Church Catholic. He is accessible and oriented toward all: ‘And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself.'[2] So the particularity of the God who reveals his Name is not itself an obstacle.

Naturally that does not dispense with all obstacles; the law of non-contradiction is insurmountable:    

For what participation hath justice with injustice? Or what fellowship hath light with darkness?And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath the faithful with the unbeliever? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?[3]

It is in this sense alone that the Catholic religion is exclusive. 

We hear part of St Peter’s sermon today, the octave day of Christmas, because we must. If it is indeed true that God has appeared in our flesh, then he must be preached with boldness and clarity. We must say the thing directly, because the mystery demands it. To those wounded by sin, the mystery must have a ring of impossibility about it. But an impossibly wounded man was healed by that Name, and if one can be healed, so can the many. To that Name be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.  

 


[1] Part II, article 3.

[2] John 12, 32.

[3] 2 Corinthians 6, 14-16.

{Art Credit: Charles Poërson, St Peter Preaching in Jerusalem (1642); Notre Dame, Paris.}

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