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Salvation Himself

By Wesley Hill

There’s a wonderful bit in Lancelot Andrewes’ Christmas Day sermon from 1610 where he meditates on the meaning of the angels’ announcement to the shepherds that Christ the Lord, newborn and lying in a manger, is the savior of the world. Perhaps, at the end of 2020, with the worldwide pandemic death toll now over one and a half million, we are especially attuned to a message of salvation, of rescue and resultant security, peace, and wholeness. Andrewes captures our attunement memorably:

Sure there is no joy in the world to the joy of a man saved: no joy so great, no newes so welcome, as to one ready to perish, in case of a lost man, to heare of one, that will save him. In danger of perishing; By sicknesse, to heare of one who will make him well again: By sentence of the law, of one with a pardon to save his life: By enemies, of one that will rescue, and set him in safetie. Tell any of these, assure them but of a Saviour, it is the best newes he ever heard in his life.[1]

One has only to think of the cheers and tears of relief at the announcement of the beginning of coronavirus vaccine distribution to feel some of the force of that last line.

But Andrewes presses deeper into the meaning of the angels’ words (charmingly, he calls their announcement a kind of homily, followed by a choral song — a miniature heavenly Christmas Day church service) by looking ahead to what we now call Candlemas, the time of Jesus’ presentation in the temple when the devout old saint Simeon took the Christ child in his arms and exclaimed,

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)

Part of the pleasure of reading Andrewes comes from following him in his laborious attention to individual words: his wringing them out for every drop of theological and spiritual insight, his lining them up alongside their verbal neighbors to note their distinctiveness and strangeness, his striking them to hear their resonance with their complements. In St. Simeon’s words he spies a subtle but all-important distinction from the angels’ announcement to the shepherds: Where the heavenly messengers had spoken of Christ as savior, Simeon speaks of Christ as salvation. It’s a vital distinction, and even more so since Andrewes made it.

According to Simeon, Andrewes insists, Christ is “not a Saviour onely, but Salus ipsa in abstracto, Salvation it selfe, (as Simeon calleth him), of whose fulnesse we all receive.” The point of dilating on this verbal nuance is to magnify what Christ achieved — better, what Christ is — for us. We might well imagine a heroic human being fulfilling the role of a savior, at least in some temporal sense; the Old Testament teems with such figures, from Joshua to Samson to Elijah to Nehemiah. But to embody and enact salvation itself, to be identical with the salvation he proffers — this must mean that Christ is more than a mere human being and that is salvation is more than a temporal salve:

To save, may agree to man. To be salvation, can agree to none but to Christ the Lord. To begin, and to end: to save soule and bodie, from bodily and ghostly enemies: from sinne the roote, and miserie the branches: for a time, and for ever; to be a Saviour, and to be Salvation it selfe, Christ the Lord is all this, and can do all this.[2]

Christ, in other words, does not come to offer us a deliverance that is somehow separable from who he is and the life that he lived. That’s the misconception many of us operate with, however, whether consciously or not. We tend to think Christ came and offered us some thing — whether a bit of moral insight hitherto unknown, an especially inspiring and galvanizing example that can kick-start our moral self-improvement, or a model for a certain sort of spirituality which it’s now up to us to emulate. But Andrewes’ point is entirely different: The salvation Christ brings isn’t anything external to who he is and what he has done for us. As my colleague David Yeago once put it in a sermon, in a line I’ll never forget, “Jesus underwent what he underwent so that communion with him might be salvation.” Not — note well — that Jesus established communion with us so as to communicate salvation to us; rather, Jesus took us into fellowship with himself through his human life among us, so that that fellowship itself might just be our salvation. The relationship itself is everything.

The difference I’m belaboring is the difference, as the Barthian theologian George Hunsinger has put it, between a so-called “low” Christology, in which Jesus somehow makes possible our self-salvation, and a “high” Christology, in which our salvation is identical with Christ himself and our self-involvement takes the form of hearing, trusting, receiving, and living in obedient gratitude to him:

Jesus Christ is not… the source of a salvation other than himself. He is uniquely and irreplaceably our salvation. His saving significance is not located abstractly in his predicates or in his spirituality, but in the concrete events of his incarnation, death, and resurrection for our sakes. He is inseparable from his saving predicates, because he is finally identical with them. He himself and he alone… is our righteousness and our life [1 Corinthians 1:30]. No one else will ever be God incarnate, nor will anyone else ever die for the sins of the world. Only Jesus Christ is such a person, only he could do such a work, and he in fact has done it. He does not give us his righteousness and life except by giving us himself… We are not saved by reduplicating his spirituality, … but by the miraculous exchange whereby he has died in our places as sinners so that we might be clothed in his righteousness by grace and live through his body and blood in eternal fellowship with God… [T]he substance of our salvation, and not just the source, is Christ himself and Christ alone.[3]

So, on this holy feast day, let us honor Christ our salvation by feeding on his body and blood. If Christ has become salvation itself, then, as Andrewes said, we keep this joyous feast by holding out the empty hands of faith: “Let us honour this day, with our receiving.”[4] Or, if for reason of the virus, we’re prevented from doing so, let us receive him in our hearts and minds: “Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart” (St. Alphonsus Liguori). Let us, in any case, receive him, “who was himselfe the gift, our Saviour, Christ, the Lord.” Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.

[1] Lancelot Andrewes, Sermons, ed. G. M. Story (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), p. 34.

[2] Andrewes, Sermons, pp. 41-2.

[3] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 284-5.

[4] Andrews, Sermons, p. 48.



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