The Paradox of Salvation, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 2 April 1933

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'One of the great tragedies of history is that He Who carpentered the universe was carpentered to a Cross. There is tragic irony in the fact that He Who spent most of His life in handling wood and nails and cross-beams met His end on a deathbed made of those very things. One of our own American priest-poets has described in touching language how the nails of the carpenter shop, became the nails of the Carpenter’s Cross.

“Whenever the bright blue nails would drop
Down on the floor of His carpenter shop,
   Saint Joseph, prince of carpenter men.
   Would stoop to gather them up again;
For he feared for two little sandals sweet;
   And very easy to pierce they were
   As they pattered over the lumber there
And rode on two little sacred feet.

“But alas, on a hill between earth and heaven
One day – two nails in a cross were driven.
   And fastened it Arm to the sacred feet
   Where once rode two little sandals sweet;
And Christ and His mother looked off in death
Afar – to the valley of Nazareth
   Where the carpenter shop was spread with dust
   And the little blue nails, all packed in rust,
Slept in a box on the window-sill.
And Joseph lay sleeping under the hill.”
– Leonard Feeney, S.J.

And what does the Carpenter do now that the carpenters will no longer permit Him to carpenter? He becomes a sower and fulfills the parable which He once told: “And behold, the sower went forth to sow.” He Who had once sowed the blue firmament with stars and the fields with wild-flowers, now continues to sow, but with a seed of a different kind. His feet are nailed, and yet not even steel stills the progress of His sowing. His feet are dug, and yet He casts the seed to the winds, and the seed is His blood, each precious drop of it a grain falling to the ground, each sufficient to spring forth into life everlasting.

It is only the soil which differs. There was no one on Calvary that day who did not carry away in his heart the seed of life or death. There never has been and there never will be a creature who, when the last sheaf is bound and the last load garnered, will not be found to have accepted or refused that seed of life, and in doing so, to have signed the warrant of his own destiny.

But the Sower went on sowing His seed, and as He sowed “some fell by the wayside . . .and other some fell upon stony ground, where they had not much earth . . . and others fell among thorns: and the thorns grew up and choked them.”

It was everywhere the same seed which fell with the same rich redness, the same beautiful promise of life. It was the soil which was dif- ferent. The seed was the redemptive blood of Christ. The wayside soil was the self-wise group, such as the judges who put Christ to death; men who were walking the ways of men, rather than the ways of God; men who followed the public opinion of the streets, rather than the faith of the hidden Christ. The stony ground was the ignorant group, such as the executioners who put Him to death: men with cold, rocky, unplowed, rough and uncouth hearts. The thorny soil was the weak group, such as the timid Apostles and disciples who were off at the border of the crowd, fearful of the thorns of human respect and the shame which is the heritage of the Cross.

But as He sows, nature changes her complexion. Now – a midnight sky at noon , . .flashes of lightning, like daggers of light . . . demoniac laughter . . . the sob of a woman . . . the sound of a ham- riier . . . the sigh of pain . . . blasphemies and curses . . . the silver warbling of a distant bird . . . the lengthening shadow of the Cross . . . audible blood-dripping. He saw them as He sowed. They had eyes- shifting, doubting, with wicked light; eyes through which Hell itself was looking. They had lips – fierce, fastened lips, open lips, craters of hate, volcanoes of blasphemy. They had hands – hands that picked up stones, and now hands that opened the granary of His precious side. They had faces – white faces, mad faces, laughing faces, faces that flashed ferocity, faces that came out of the lairs and dens of festering ignorance and crime, faces jeering and roaring about the Cross. And the words they hurled at the Man on the Cross were words in which their consuming envy expressed their argument and their triumph! “Others He saved: Himself He cannot save.”

They can admit this now, seeing that He is not saving Himself. They can now admit that He saved the son of the widow of Naim; they can now admit that He made the blind to see and the deaf to hear, and even Lazarus to come from his grave; they can now fully avow that He could save others, because now Himself He cannot save. When He should now put forth His power by coming down from the Cross, by changing a crown of thorns into flowers and nails into rosebuds, He does not. It is only because He is weak. His impotence is plain; His feebleness apparent. And as the great flame of love burns Itself out, there echoes out over the rocks of Calvary, out even over the hills of Sion, the cry of their hate, the cry of their apparent triumph, the cry of their flnal victory: “Others He saved: Himself He cannot

Of course He cannot! No man can save himself who saves another. Sacrifice is not weakness, but the obedience to a law, and the law is that if any man will save others, in any salvation whatsoever, the mandate he must obey, the stern condition he must fulfill, the lot he must accept, is that he cannot save himself. Such is the paradox of salvation!

Falling leaves cannot save themselves if they are to enrich the soil; the falling acorn cannot save itself if it is to bud a tree, a caterpillar must forfeit its life if it is to become a butterfly; a plant cannot save itself if it is to nourish an animal; an animal cannot save itself if it is to become food for man; a mother cannot save herself if she wishes to save the life of her child; the soldier cannot save himself if he wishes to save his country; nor can the shepherd save himself, if he would save his sheep. Christ is the Good Shepherd, and hence when Jesus would consummate the great salvation, there was no other way to save humanity than to lose Himself; no other way to save us than to lay down His life for our salvation. For to love is never to think of one’s self, but to give one’s self for the one loved.

But the tragic part of it all was the perversity on the part of human nature which Christ so tenderly loved, and for -which He was baptized with the baptism of blood. I say the perversity of mankind, for He Who brought salvation to all nations was put to death by His own people; He Who taught love for enemies was killed by His friends; He Who offered His life, was put to death; He Who came to save others, was crucified by those whom He saved; He Who called Himself the seed, verified the law of the seed by making death the condition of birth; He Who said He had life in abundance was one day apparently to have none of it; He Who told the parable of the Good Shepherd who did not flee when he saw the wolf coming, now actually lays down His life for His sheep. Others He saved: Himself He cannot!

Could not Christ have saved us without the shedding of His precious blood? Might He not have sat, like the Greek teachers before Him, in some porch or garden, where the enterprise and intelligence of the world might have sought and found the Wisdom that would save it? Might He not, like another Gotama, have sat under a Bodhi tree, and in a moment of illumination have become the Buddha? Might He not, like another Solomon, have installed Himself in a palace of luxury, where refinement, power and ease would have brought all the nations to His feet? If He had been only a teacher of men, a world philosopher. He might have done these things. But He had a deeper work to do. He came not only to teach: He came also to save. He had to force the human conscience to stand face to face’ with the sternest and most un-welcome sides of truth, ere He disclosed His Divine Remedy – and as long as the conditions of life were to remain unchanged. He had to save others by losing Himself. Others He saved: Himself He cannot save!

But the servant is not above the Master. The law of the life of Christ must be the law of the life of Christians. If our soul is to be saved for eternity, it must be lost to time; if it is to be saved to the Father’s Heavenly Mansion, it must be lost to time’s poor, dumb show; if it is to be saved for the treasures that rust does not consume, it must be lost to the riches of the world; if it is to be saved for Heaven, it must be lost to earth, for all this is but the continuation of that law of redemption that no one can save himself if he is saving someone else.

To the early martyrs the world said: “You cannot save your bodies if you hold that the love of God is higher than the love of Caesar.” Of course they could not save their bodies; it was because they were saving their souls. To the cloistered orders of our day the world says: “You cannot save yourself for the pleasures and luxuries of the world if you follow the Christian law of penance and sacrifice.” Of course they cannot; it is because they are saving the world. To all the faithful following the morality of Christ, the world will say: “You cannot save yourself for our social life if you deny divorce.” Of course they cannot; it is because they are saving themselves for eternal life. To the Church the world says: “You cannot save yourself for the good opinion of this age, for its easy morality and its broad-mindedness, if you oppose it in the name of the unchanging principles of Christ.” Of course she cannot save herself for this age: it is because she is saving herself for an age when this age is dead and gone.

The world with its sin, its tempting pleasures, its forbidden fruit, says to me: “You cannot save yourself if you are fastened to that Cross and nailed to that gibbet/’ I know I cannot save myself, but I do not want to save myself. I want to be lost, lost on the Cross, lost in its salvation, lost in its purifying blood, lost as a captive of its redeeming Love.

“I slipped His fingers, I escaped His feet,
I ran and hid, for Him I feared to meet.
One day I passed Him, fettered on a Tree,
He turned His Head, and looked, and beckoned me.

“Neither by speed, nor strength could He prevail.
Each hand and foot was pinioned by a nail.
He could not run or clasp me if He tried,
But with His eye. He bade me reach His side.

“For pity’s sake, thought I, I’ll set you free.
‘Nay – hold this cross,’ He said, ‘and follow Me.
This yoke is easy, this burden light,
Not hard or grievous if you wear it tight.’

“So did I follow Him Who could not move,
An uncaught captive in the hands of Love.”