Someone recently asked me, “What must I do to be saved?” He wasn’t asking because he expected me to know the answer exactly. He was more interested in seeing what I would say. But, as you might expect, the answer to the question "what must I do to be saved" is both a lot shorter and a lot longer than we all probably expect.
The short answer is Christ's: Love God with everything you are and above all else and love your neighbor as yourself. The long answer is elaborating on what this means in day-to-day life.
We know from Romans that even pagan Gentiles can be saved by the natural law written on their hearts (Rom 2:15). They can be saved precisely because "the heavens tell of the glory of God" and all creation is made in, by and for Christ. Thus, nature is a witness, a prophet that speaks of God. Since the natural world witnesses to Christ, even pagans can come to knowledge of Christ (albeit a very dim knowledge) through observation of and response to the natural world and the law written on their hearts.
But nature is hard to decipher. So God sent prophets who gave much more precise descriptions of what we needed to do. Now, prior to the Incarnation, this involved a lot of ritual intended to bring people to understand what Christ was going to do. The ritual was not religion because it didn't heal anything, as Paul testifies. But it prepared the people for healing. Thus, properly speaking, the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes were not engaged in religion, they were just engaged in ritual. But this ritual laid the foundation for the religion Christ lived on the Cross.
And this is the third mode of revelation. First we have nature, then we have prophets, third we have God Himself, come in the flesh to tell us and show us how we are to be saved. God fully reveals Himself to us and asks us to respond in kind.
Defining the Word
But notice how God reveals Himself to us. He does so through the Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension: the four aspects of the Paschal mystery. Now, if you’ve read earlier essays of mine, you might remember something I pointed out about religion.
The word “religion” has two pieces: “re” meaning “again” and “ligare” meaning “to tie or bind together.” The second word in the phrase “tubal ligation” finds its root in the same word “religion” does. Religion means “to bind together again.” What is being bound back together?
In a word, us.
We, and all creation with us, were broken by the Fall. Christ established religion - the binding back together - on the Cross. He was the first and most religious man who ever lived, precisely because the Cross is the first thing that really ties back together what the Fall had broken in us. The Cross is the most concentrated religion there is.
The problem is precisely that we have gotten too used to religion to appreciate it. We tend to confuse it with ritual. But religion isn’t ritual, or rather, ritual is only part of religion.
The rituals of Hebrew worship were all meant to point to Christ and the Cross. All the Levitical sacrifices, all the prohibitions, everything was a way of foreshadowing something in the New Testament. All of that ritual was not, technically speaking, religious, because none of it had the power to bind back together. Like a batter who takes practice swings before he steps into the box, all the ritual of other Faiths are various ways of practicing for the fullness.
This is not to say that ritual is unnecessary. It is very necessary indeed. But it is necessary precisely because of the Cross – the ritual sacrifice which Passover signified.
Christ did not dispense with ritual, rather He began to emphasize how ritual was now fulfilled. The Passover meal became Eucharist, circumcision became the command to baptize. These are ritual activities, but now, because of Christ's religion, because He empowered them through the work of the Cross, they are ritual activities which actually heal, whereas before they were just empty works. Indeed, many of the empty works were no longer necessary because the fulfilled rituals did what the old works merely prophesied.
So, we no longer need circumcision because circumcision pointed to the tearing away of Christ’s flesh on the Cross, it pointed to the revelation the pagan soldier spoke as He saw the broken body, “Truly this is the Son of God!” Now baptism is the necessary thing, because it is burial with Christ and He commanded His apostles to keep and use this religiously-empowered ritual. Paul tells us the same thing regarding Passover-now-Eucharist - the apostles received it from Christ, he received it from the apostles, he passes it on to Corinth and the rest of the communities, and the communities are to pass it on to their children and their children’s children.
God made us body-soul composites, so He gave us a way to worship Him in both body and soul: the soul worships through prayer and praise, the body through physical action which mirrors the soul's internal disposition. That's the point of having ritual - it allows us to worship God body and soul. Everyone understands this. Evangelicals and fundamentalists sway during prayer with their arms raised, or fall down, slain in the Spirit, etc. Everyone understands we need to worship with our bodies as well as our souls.
"Incorporation" means "to make bodily". Liturgy literally incorporates Scripture. It tells us how to bodily respond to the truths we hear in Scripture. All good liturgy is just a compilation of Scripture with appropriate body responses: kneeling, genuflecting, standing, etc.
So what must we do to be saved? We must respond to God with everything we know and everything we are. The more we know, the more nuanced and complex our response will be, because we will try more and more to reflect in our own bodies the infinity that is God, trying to wrap ourselves within Him as completely as we can. As any married couple can tell you, love is both very simple and very complex - both at once and neither first. So it is with loving God through Scripture and liturgy.
Religion finds its origin in Christ the Bridegroom because He is the only one Who can marry together what is broken. Ritual finds its origin in Christ because He demands we worship Him with our whole beings, body and soul. That is why liturgical ritual changes our relationships, as anyone who has been through a marriage ritual can attest: “With my body, I thee worship.”