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Thus saith the Lord: Therefore hear ye the word of the Lord, ye afflicted men, and ye princes of this people that is in Jerusalem. 15 Because ye have said, We have made a covenant with Hades, and agreements with death; if the rushing storm should pass, it shall not come upon us: we have made falsehood our hope, and by falsehood shall we be protected: 16 Therefore thus saith the Lord, even the Lord, Behold, I lay for the foundations of Sion a costly stone, a choice, a corner-stone, a precious stone, for its foundations; and he that believes on him shall by no means be ashamed. 17 And I will cause judgement to be for hope, and my compassion shall be for just measures, and ye that trust vainly in falsehood shall fall: for the storm shall by no means pass by you, 18 except it also take away your covenant of death, and your trust in Hades shall by no means stand: if the rushing storm should come upon you, ye shall be beaten down by it. 19 Whenever it shall pass by, it shall take you; morning by morning it shall pass by in the day, and in the night there shall be an evil hope. Learn to hear, 20 ye that are distressed; we cannot fight, but we are ourselves too weak for you to be gathered. 21 The Lord shall rise up as a mountain of ungodly men, and shall be in the valley of Gabaon; he shall perform his works with wrath, even a work of bitterness, and his wrath shall deal strangely, and his destruction shall be strange. 22 Therefore do not ye rejoice, neither let your bands be made strong; for I have heard of works finished and cut short by the Lord of hosts, which he will execute upon all the earth.
Our Lord Jesus Christ applies the image of the foundation stone to Himself in the Gospel, quoting Psalm 117: “The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner.” St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke all record this saying of the Lord (Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, and Luke 20:17). St. Peter, in his great sermon on the day of Pentecost (see Acts chapter four), also quotes the same psalm verse in order to accuse his fellow Jews of rejecting their Messiah and to call them to repentance, with the result that 3,000 men were baptized that day. Later, in chapter two of his first epistle, St. Peter again quotes this verse of Psalm 117, as well as today’s passage from Esaias, in order not only to assert that Our Lord is the foundation of the Church, but also to expound on the character of the Church built upon this foundation and to call those recently united to Christ in the Church (“newborn babes”) to live according to this character:
Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings,
As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious. To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded. Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed. But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy. – I Peter 2: 1-10.
If then, the Church built upon Christ the Cornerstone is a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, those who belong to the Church are obliged to show forth this election, this royalty, this priestliness, this holiness, and this specialness in their lives. That’s a tall order, a maximalist goal that will take up our whole lives in its pursuit. Where do we start?
St. Ambrose of Milan, with the concision and directness characteristic of the Latin Fathers, makes it simple: Before we can move on to holiness, we start with faith and with justice.
The foundation of justice is faith, for the hearts of the just dwell on faith, and the just man that accuses himself builds justice on faith. For his justice becomes evident when he confesses the truth. So the Lord said through Isaiah: I will lay a stone for a foundation in Zion (Esaias 28:16). This means that Christ is the foundation of the Church. For Christ is the object of faith to all; but the Church is, as it were, the form that justice takes. The justice of all is found in her. For she prays in common for all, she works in common for all, she is tested in the temptations of all. Whoever denies himself is a just man and worthy of Christ. For this reason Paul said that Christ is the foundation so that we might construct the works of justice [see I Corinthians 3: 11 – 14: “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.”] Faith is the foundation. If our works are evil, they are without justice, but if good, they are just. – St. Ambrose of Milan, De Officiis (On the Duties of the Clergy)
“The just man that accuses himself builds justice on faith”: In other words, the Christian acknowledges the reality of the ancestral sin and of his actual sins, accuses himself, gives up all hope of acting justly apart from faith in Christ, and builds a life of justice on the only possible foundation, which is faith in Christ. “His justice becomes evident when he confesses the truth,” that is, we cannot be justified by erecting a defense of our own character and actions, but only by claiming for ourselves the justification offered to us by Christ from the Cross. “…the Church is, as it were, the form that justice takes”: The life of justification through Christ can be lived only in the Church; outside the Church, our lives are not built on the foundation of Christ, even if we claim to be Christians.
The sacred season we now enjoy is the pre-eminent time for reflecting on the vows we made at Holy Baptism, when we rejected Satan and united ourselves unto Christ. By confessing our faith in Christ and accepting Baptism, we proclaimed that we have no justice of our own: all of our justification is through Him. Also, by Holy Baptism, we were united, not merely in symbol or in concept, but ontologically, to the Body of Christ the Church, that structure of justification built on the one Foundation stone, Christ Himself.
Let us use well this season of repentance to accuse ourselves, to acknowledge once again that we have no justice in ourselves but only in Christ, and by the power of His grace to obey His holy commandments in order to live as true children of the Church, with the ultimate goal of our complete sanctification, in order to attain our vocation to be a priestly and holy nation built upon the Rock of Christ.