Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Gracious Act

(13th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 1 July, 2012 at St. Veronica's Chapel in Narragansett, R.I.  See 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 and Mark 5:21-43)

What would it take for you to become a really great golfer, or maybe even a professional?  Perhaps you are not interested in that question at all, but chances are that you at least know someone who is!  There are several important things necessary to be a great golfer.  For instance, you would need to be physically fit; you would have to possess the skills and gifts that allow you the capacity for becoming a great golfer. 

But there is still something else beyond all those things, without which you could never reach your fullest potential on the golf course: you have to have a good, consistent golf swing.

It sounds simple enough, but there are people who make tens of thousands—if not perhaps even hundreds of thousands—of dollars a year, not to play golf but to teach other golfers how to swing the club; professional golfers use them all the time.  Indeed, with the right swing, cleared of many or most of the imperfections, a golfer has the potential to dominate the course.  Whether it is the long drive, fairway irons or the short game, a good consistent swing is necessary to play golf well.

I mention that this morning because St. Paul is speaking about something very similar in our second reading this weekend.  No, St. Paul is not talking about golf (although if they had golf in St. Paul’s day he would probably be as good at it as he was in everything else!).  I am referring to an expression that comes up twice in that very short reading from the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “this gracious act.”

This gracious act?  Which one?  Firstly, St. Paul is referring specifically to the “gracious act” of the Corinthians who had agreed to provide a monetary gift for those who were less fortunate and in need.  They had more than enough to get by, and had made the decision to give some of their wealth away.  St. Paul encourages them to stay the course, knowing that such a “gracious act” will not only enrich those less fortunate, but that such charity will come back to enrich them, as well:

May you excel in this gracious act also…as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their needs, so that their abundance may also supply your needs.
—2 Corinthians 8:7,14

At the Second Vatican Council, in the document on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, the Council Fathers would go on to describe something very similar to St. Paul’s interpretation of the “gracious act.”  Used frequently by Blessed John Paul the Great and referred to often as “The Law of the Gift,” Gaudium et Spes insists that “Man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes, #24).

It has much more to do with one’s will and progress in the path of virtue than with one's wallet (although those first two things will undoubtedly influence the third).  It is when one is generous in forgiveness, in friendship, in time and in the basic attitudes of life with God and others, pouring oneself out generously in love; only then does one truly discover happiness and the fulfillment that remains elusive for so many.

Fittingly, when encouraging “this gracious act” of the Corinthians, St. Paul makes reference to another “gracious act,” performed by Christ:

For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
—2 Corinthians 8:9

 OK…so which act is that?  Perhaps St. Paul is referring to the Incarnation: God, who exists eternally in heaven and is in need of nothing, suddenly enters time and space to be born in a poor stable in Bethlehem.   Through that one gracious act, God became man and made it possible for us to know the living God!  In His poverty He enriched the entire world.

St. Paul, however, would never have limited “the gracious act” of our Lord to the Incarnation alone.  Like a good consistent golf swing, Christ perpetuated His poverty and multiplied our riches by pouring himself out over and over again.    

At the Last Supper, gathering with those closest to Him in this world on the night before He suffered and died, He took bread and offered it to them, saying, “This is my body.”  It was all He had, His very sustenance, and He was giving it to them, to take and to eat.  “This is the chalice of my blood,” He said to them, sharing how His blood would be poured out for the forgiveness of sins and the redemption of the world.  He had nothing more to give.   Christ, completely impoverishing Himself at that sacred meal, enriched those first disciples with the fullness of Divine life. 

The next day he offered Himself up as a sacrifice on the altar of the cross, pouring out His life, His breath, everything He had; in that gracious act we inherited the forgiveness of our sins and the richness of God’s mercy.  The gates of heaven swung wide open to let in the beggars and paupers that we are before His Majesty, the King!

Even still, in the Gospel this morning, Christ continues to pour Himself out in that gracious act that enriches those who come into contact with Him.  That poor woman who had suffered for twelve years, reached out in desperation for healing and hope, and suddenly received abundantly more than she could have possibly imagined.    Christ immediately perceived “that power had gone out from him” (Mark 5:30) just as surely as the woman “felt in her body that she was healed in her affliction” (Mark 5:29).

 So it is with the daughter of Jairus, who is dead.  Christ touches her, raises her up and restores her to health in that gracious act of healing and love.  Over and over again, Christ constantly gave of Himself and enriched the world around Him. 

What about us?

How could we ever hope to consistently perform such gracious acts in our own daily lives?  Don’t we know all too well our weakness and sin, indeed the very reason why He became man to take on our humanity and redeem us?  Of ourselves we could never hope to act so powerfully, so graciously.  

Jesus Christ, however, lives in us.  By virtue of our baptism we have received the very grace of God and a share in His Divine life.  No matter how many times we fail or how far we fall, Christ has the power to renew us and set our hearts on fire once again.  If you find this difficult to believe than read the Acts of the Apostles, or simply ask St. Paul.

Which brings me back to my original question: what does it take to be a great golfer, or perhaps even a professional?  Truth be told, in one hundred years that question will not matter to a single soul reading this today.  But there is a question that should be in the heart of every single one of us, and if not then our spiritual lives are in big trouble.  That question is:

What does it take to be a saint? 

What does it take to grow in holiness in this life, to grow in friendship with God while we are here on this earth, so that we can live with him forever in the eternal bliss of heaven?

The answer to that question is: One gracious act.  Allowing Christ to so live in us that the one gracious act is performed, over and over again in our lives…starting now…and continuing consistently until the moment that we enter eternal life.