In the document of agreement between the Catholic Church and the World Federation of Lutheran Churches on justification through faith, presented solemnly in St. Peter's Basilica by John Paul II and the archbishop of Uppsala in 1999, there is a final recommendation that seems of vital importance to me. In essence, it says this: The moment has come to make of this great truth a lived experience on the part of believers, and no longer an object of theological disputes between experts, as happened in the past.
The Pauline Year offers us the propitious occasion to live this experience. It could give a shove to our spiritual life, a breath and a new freedom. Charles Peguy recounted, in the third person, the story of the greatest act of faith of his life. A man, he said (and it is known he was speaking of himself) had three sons. On a bad day all three fell ill at the same time. Then he did something audacious. Thinking about it again admiringly, it must be said that it really was a daring act. Just as three children are sometimes gathered together and hoisted, almost jokingly, into the arms of their mother or nurse, who laughs and says to take them away because they are too many and too heavy, so he, daring man that he was, had taken -- one understands with prayer -- his three sick children and had peacefully put them into the arms of him who has charge of all the sorrows of the world. "Look," he said, "I give them to you, I turn and run away, so that you will not give them back to me. I don't want them any more, you see it well! You must be concerned with them." (Apart from the metaphor, he had gone on foot on a pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres to entrust his three sick children to Our Lady). From that day on, everything went well, naturally, because it was the Holy Virgin who was involved. It is also curious that not all Christians do as much. It is so simple, but no one ever thinks of what is simple.
The story is useful to us at this moment because of the idea of the audacious act; because it relates to what is being discussed. The key to everything, it is said, is faith. But there are different types of faith: there is faith-assent of the intellect, faith-trust, faith-stability, as Isaiah calls it (7:9): of what faith does one refer to when speaking of justification "through faith"? It is a question of an all-together special faith: faith-appropriation!
Let us listen to St. Bernard on this point who says, "What I cannot obtain by myself, I appropriate (usurp!) with trust from the pierced side of the Lord, because he is full of mercy. My merit, therefore, is God's mercy. I am certainly not poor in merits, as long as he is rich in mercy. If the mercies of the Lord are many (Psalm 119:156), I too will abound with merits. And what about my justice? O Lord, I will remember only your justice. In fact, it is also mine, because you are for me justice on the part of God." It is written, in fact, that "Christ Jesus ... became for us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30) -- for us, not for himself!
St. Cyril of Jerusalem expressed, with other words, the same idea of the audacious act of faith: "O extraordinary goodness of God toward men! The righteousness of the Old Testament pleased God in the toil of long years; but what they were able to obtain, through a long and heroic service acceptable to God, Jesus gives to you in the brief space of an hour. In fact, if you believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord and that God has resurrected him from the dead, you will be saved and introduced into paradise by the same one who introduced the good thief."
Imagine, writes Cabasilas, when developing an image of St. John Chrysostom, that an epic fight is taking place in the stadium. A courageous man has confronted the cruel tyrant and, with enormous effort and suffering, has beaten him. You have not fought, you have made no effort or suffered wounds. However, if you admire the courageous man, if you rejoice with him over his victory, if you weave a crown for him, stir and shake the assembly for him, if you bow with joy to the winner, if you kiss his head and shake his right hand; in sum, if you are so delirious for him as to consider his victory yours, I tell you that you will certainly have a part of the winner's prize.
But there is more: Suppose the winner had no need of the prize he won, but desires, more than anything else, to see his supporter honored and considers the prize of his fight the crowning of his friend, in such a case, will that man, perhaps, not obtain the crown if he has not toiled or suffered wounds? Of course he will obtain it! Well, it happens in this way between Christ and us. Although not having yet toiled and fought -- although not having yet any merit -- nevertheless, through faith we extol Christ's struggle, admire his victory, honor his trophy which is the cross and valuable for him, we show vehement and ineffable love; we make our own those wounds and that death. Thus it is that salvation is obtained.
The Christmas liturgy will speak to us of the "holy exchange," of the "sacrum commercium," between us and God realized in Christ. The law of every exchange is expressed in the formula: That which is mine is yours and that which is yours is mine. It derives that, that which is mine, namely sin, weakness, becomes Christ's; that which is Christ's, namely holiness, becomes mine. Because we belong to Christ more than to ourselves (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20), it follows, writes Cabasilas, that, inversely, the holiness of Christ belongs to us more than our own holiness. This is the thrust in the spiritual life. Its discovery is not done, usually, at the beginning, but at the end of one's own spiritual journey, when all the others paths have been experienced and one has seen that they do not go very far.
In the Catholic Church we have a privileged means to have a concrete and daily experience of this sacred exchange and of justification by grace through faith: the sacraments. Every time I approach the sacrament of reconciliation I have a concrete experience of being justified by grace, "ex opere operato," as we say in theology. I go out to the temple and say to God: "O God, have mercy on me a sinner" and, like the publican, I return home "justified" (Luke 18:14), forgiven, with a brilliant soul, as at the moment I came out of the baptismal font.
May St. Paul, in this year dedicated to him, obtain for us the grace of making like him this audacious thrust of faith.
* * *
 St. Thomas Aquinas, S. Th., I-IIae, q. 113, a.4.
 Cf. J.M. Everts, "Conversione e Chiamata di Paolo," in "Dizionario di Paolo e delle sue lettere," San Paolo 1999, pp. 285-298 (summary of the positions and bibliography).
 Cf. Ch. Peguy, "Il portico del mistero della seconda virtý."
 In Cant. 61, 4-5: PL 183, 1072.
 Catechesis 5, 10: PG 33, 517.
 Cf. N. Cabasilas, "Life in Christ," I, 5: PG150, 517.
 N. Cabasilas, "Life in Christ," IV, 6 (PG 150, 613).
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