“Christ is the Light of nations.” That statement is the opening sentence of Lumen Gentium (“Light of the Nations”), the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. The council, the document explains, desired to proclaim the Gospel to “all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church” (No. 1). The Church, it continued, “is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race...” These themes of communion with God and the union of mankind by the grace of God are emphasized throughout the document.
In a closely related manner, the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out that the early Christians said, “The world was created for the sake of the Church” (No. 760). That refers to the fact that God created the world out of his love and goodness so mankind can share in his divine life. Since communion with God’s divine life is realized in the Church, this means “the Church is the goal of all things ...” (ibid). This work of unity is alluded to in today’s reading from Isaiah. “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.” Israel was chosen to be a light for the nations, the firstborn son who would draw all peoples to the one, true God. Those Gentiles, Isaiah explained, were “brothers and sisters from all the nations”; they also desired to bring an offering to the Lord and his “holy mountain.” After all, Psalm 117 states, “Praise the Lord, all you nations! Extol him, all you peoples!”
Alas, those exhortations went largely ignored. The fact is, the divine work of unifying fallen humanity has always been a difficult one. As God has pursued a merciful mission of unity and reunion, mankind has pursued a course of disunion and rebellion. Like children intent upon holding fast to toys and games, we seek security in the passing pleasures and distractions of this world. There are even more subtle distractions, as indicated by the question found in today’s Gospel: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
And it seems to be a fair question. Who hasn’t wondered, “Who will make it? Will he? What about her?” But Jesus would have none of it, for the question distracts from the responsibility we each have when it comes to our salvation. Yes, we are saved by grace, but we must actively and constantly cooperate with the gift of grace. “Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus said, “for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (Lk 13: 24). Remaining in communion with God requires effort, fidelity and sacrifice. Being born into the family of God does not exempt us from striving to be a true son and daughter of God.
As Lumen Gentium warns, “He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a ‘bodily’ manner and not ‘in his heart’” (No. 14). Those sobering words compliment the Epistle’s warning that God sometimes has to discipline the wayward child. The journey to authentic unity and life-giving communion is difficult; arriving at the final destination of beatitude is not a given.
“All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ” (ibid).
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.