I ask you, then, in concrete terms, for faith, what does it mean "to save"? What is this "salvation" which, as you say, is at the heart of Christianity?
To save means to liberate from evil. This does not refer only to social evils, such as injustice, coercion, exploitation. Nor does it refer only to disease, catastrophes, natural cataclysms, and everything that has been considered disaster in the history of humanity.
To save means to liberate from radical, ultimate evil. Death itself is no longer that kind of evil, if followed by the Resurrection. And the Resurrection comes about through the work of Christ. Through the work of the Redeemer death ceases to be an ultimate evil; it becomes subject to the power of life.
The world does not have such power. The world, which is capable of perfecting therapeutic techniques in various fields, does not have the power to liberate man from death. And therefore the world cannot be a source of salvation for man. Only God saves, and He saves the whole of humanity in Christ. The very name Jesus, Jeshua ("God who saves"), bespeaks this salvation. In the course of history, many Israelites had this name, but it can be said that this name was waiting for this Son of Israel alone, who was meant to confirm its truth: "Was it not I, the Lord, besides whom there is no other God? There is no just and saving God but me" (cf. Is 45:21).
To save means to liberate from radical evil. This evil is not only man's progressive decline with the passage of time and his final engulfment in the abyss of death. An even more radical evil is God's rejection of man, that is, eternal damnation as the consequence
of man's rejection of God.
Damnation is the opposite of salvation. Both are associated with the destiny of man to live eternally. Both presuppose the immortality of the human being. Temporal death cannot destroy man's destiny of eternal life.
And what is this eternal life? It is happiness that comes from union with God. Christ affirms: "Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ" (Jn 17:3). Union with God is realized in the vision of the Divine Being "face to face" (1 Cor 13:12), a vision called "beatific" because it carries with it the ultimate attainment of man's aspiration to truth. In place of the many partial truths which man arrives at through prescientific and scientific knowledge, the vision of God "face to face" allows enjoyment of the absolute fullness of truth. In this way man's aspiration to truth is ultimately satisfied.
Salvation, however, is not reducible to this. In knowing God "face to face," man encounters the absolute fullness of good. The platonic intuition of the idea of good found in Christianity its ultraphilosophical and ultimate confirmation. What we are speaking of here is not union with the idea of good, but rather union with Good itself. God is this Good. To the young man who asked, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Christ responded: "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" (Mk 10:17-18).
As the fullness of Good, God is the fullness of life. Life is in Him and from Him. This is life that has no limits in time or space. It is "eternal life," participation in the life of God Himself, which comes about
in the eternal communion of the Father, the Son,
and the Holy Spirit. The dogma of the Holy Trinity expresses the truth about the intimate life of God and invites us to receive that life. In Jesus Christ man is called to such a participation and led toward it.
Eternal life is exactly this. The Death of Christ gives life, because it allows believers to share in His Resurrection. The Resurrection is the revelation of life, which is affirmed as present beyond the boundary of death. Before His own Death and Resurrection, Christ raised Lazarus, but before doing so He had a meaningful conversation with Lazarus's sisters. Martha says: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Christ: "Your brother will rise." Martha replies: "I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day." And Jesus answers: "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die" (Jn 11:21, 23-26).
These words spoken on the occasion of the resurrection of Lazarus contain the truth about the resurrection of the body through Christ. His Resurrection, His victory over death, embraces every man. We are called to salvation, we are called to participate in life, which has been revealed through the Resurrection of Christ.
According to Saint Matthew, this resurrection of the body is to be preceded by a judgment passed upon the works of charity, fulfilled or neglected. As a result of this judgment, the just are destined to eternal life. There is a destination to eternal damnation as well, which consists in the ultimate rejection of God, the ultimate break of the communion with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Here, it is not so much God who rejects man, but man who rejects God.
Eternal damnation is certainly proclaimed in the Gospel. To what degree is it realized in life beyond the grave? This is, ultimately, a great mystery. However, we can never forget that God "wills everyone
to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth" (1 Tm 2:4).
Happiness springs from the knowledge of the truth, from the vision of God face to face, from sharing in His life. This happiness is so profoundly a part of man's deepest aspiration that the words just cited above from the First Letter to Timothy seem fully justified: the One who has created man with this fundamental desire cannot behave differently from what the revealed text indicates; He cannot but want "everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth."
Christianity is a religion of salvation. The salvation in question is that of the Cross and the Resurrection. God, who desires that man "may live" (cf. Ez 18:23), draws near to him through the death of His Son in order to reveal that life to which he is called in God Himself. Everyone who looks for salvation, not only the Christian, must stop before the Cross of Christ.
Will he be willing to accept the truth of the Paschal Mystery, or not? Will he have faith? This is yet another issue. This Mystery of salvation is an event which has already taken place. God has embraced all men by the Cross and the Resurrection of His Son. God embraces all men with the life which was revealed in the Cross and in the Resurrection, and which is constantly being born anew from them. As indicated by the allegory of "the vine" and "the branches" in the Gospel of John (cf. Jn 15:1-8), the Paschal Mystery is by now grafted onto the history of humanity, onto the history of every individual.
Christian soteriology is a soteriology of the fullness of life. Not only is it a soteriology of the truth disclosed in Revelation, but at the same time it is also a soteriology of love. In a certain sense it is a soteriology of Divine Love.
Love, above all, possesses a saving power. The saving power of love, according to the words of Saint Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians, is greater than that of mere knowledge of the truth: "So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor 13:13). Salvation through love is, at the same time, a sharing in the fullness of truth, and also in the fullness of beauty. All this is in God. All these "treasures of life and of holiness" (Litanies of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) God has laid open to man in Jesus Christ.
The fact that Christianity is a religion of salvation is expressed in the sacramental life of the Church. Christ, who came "so that they might have life and have it more abundantly" (cf. Jn 10:10), discloses for us the sources of this life. He does so in a particular way through the Paschal Mystery of His Death and Resurrection. Linked to this Mystery are Baptism and the Eucharist, sacraments which create in man the seed of eternal life. In the Paschal Mystery, Christ established the regenerative power of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. After the Resurrection He said to the apostles: "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them" (Jn 20:22-23).
The fact that Christianity is a religion of salvation is also expressed in worship. At the center of the opus laudis (a work or labor of praise) there is the celebration of the Resurrection and of life.
The liturgy of the Eastern Church is fundamentally centered on the Resurrection. The Western Church, while maintaining the primacy of the Resurrection, has gone further in the direction of the Passion. The veneration of Christ's Cross has shaped the history of Christian piety and has inspired the greatest saints emerging over the centuries from the heart of the Church. All of them, beginning with Saint Paul, have been "lovers of the Cross of Christ" (cf. Gal 6:14). A special place among them is occupied by Saint Francis of Assisi, but by many others as well. There is no Christian holiness without devotion to the Passion, just as there is no holiness without the centrality of the Paschal Mystery.
The Eastern Church attributes great importance to the Feast of the Transfiguration. The saints of the Orthodox Church give outstanding expression to this mystery. The saints of the Catholic Church often received the stigmata, beginning with Saint Francis of Assisi. They bore on their own bodies the sign of their similarity to Christ in His Passion. Thus, over the span of two thousand years, there has come about this great synthesis of life and of holiness, of which Christ is always the center.
For all its orientation toward eternal life, toward that happiness which is found in God Himself, Christianity, and especially Western Christianity, never became a religion indifferent to the world. It has always been open to the world, to its questions, to its anxieties, to its hopes. This has found particular expression in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, which sprang from the personal initiative of John XXIII. Before his death, he had enough time to pass it on to the Council, as his personal wish.
Aggiornamento (updating) does not only refer to the renewal of the Church; nor only to the unification of Christians, "that the world may believe" (Jn 17:21). It is also, and above all, God's saving activity on behalf of the world; saving activity centered on this world, a world which is passing away, but which is constantly oriented toward eternity, toward the fullness of life. The Church does not lose sight of this ultimate fullness, toward which Christ leads us. The soteriological nature of the Church is thus confirmed in all aspects of human, temporal life. The Church is the Body of Christ, a living body which gives life to everything.