Sunday, August 18, 2013

What is Grace?

Flannery O'Connor: 1925-1964

(20th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on 17 & 18 August at St. Eugene in Chepachet, R.I. See Jeremiah 38:1-10 and Luke 12: 49-53)

What is grace?  What do we think of when we hear that word?  People will sometimes say things like, “By the grace of God I got through that difficulty,” or “Time with family is my saving grace,” or “It was nice of him to grace us with his presence.” 

St. Paul will say to the Ephesians, “By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).  If grace is that essential for our very salvation and is something that we encounter on a regular basis, then how vital we understand it and know how to assimilate it in our lives.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains grace as favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call and to become children of God, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” (CCC, #1996).  Grace is an awesome and remarkable reality. 

There are several senses in which the Catechism speaks about grace.  Firstly, there is the grace that is a “participation in the life of God” (CCC #1997).  Think about that for a moment.  It is not merely the case that the grace we receive in Baptism places us in a special relationship with God (it certainly does that).  Nor is it only the case that, by the grace we receive at Baptism, we have access to this remarkable life of faith (although we most assuredly do).  In the grace we receive at Baptism we participate in the very LIFE of God! 

The life and love that created the entire world we live in…from nothing…we participate in that life.  The life that redeemed the entire world through self-emptying love; we share in that very life.  The life that has the power to raise Jesus Christ from the dead, and promises to raise again each and every one of us who believes.  We participate and share in that life!  Grace is an amazing reality indeed!

The Catechism goes on to speak also about actual grace and sacramental grace (CCC, #2003), specific moments in our everyday lives in which the power of God is at work to help us “respond to his call and to become children of God.”  Maybe it will be a moment of temptation in which we know from experience we have failed in the past; God suddenly provides for us a means and a way to be faithful.  Certainly when we receive our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist we are given grace to live fully in Him and to conform ourselves more completely to His plan for our lives.  When we make a good, integral confession and seek the mercy of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we receive the grace of forgiveness and the strength necessary to avoid the sins that cause us sorrow and pain. 

St. Thérèse of Lisieux would go on to say that “All is grace.”  Every hot meal we have on the table, every good relationship that God has brought into our lives, the beauty that we experience on a daily basis; these gifts from God are sent to help us grow closer to Him and to each other.  Our lives are so very filled with grace.

One of the greatest American Catholic authors of all time is a woman named Flannery O’Connor.  Born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, she died far too young at the age of 39 from the devastating disease of lupus.  O'Connor once said that all of her stories were about grace.  Now, if you have never read Flannery O’Connor before, you might be thinking, “How nice.  I should like to buy one of her books and read these nice stories.”  Be forewarned!  All of Flannery O’Connor’s stories deal with difficult themes and challenging characters.  Her stories look unflinchingly at such things as racism, discrimination, hatred and anger.  O’Connor’s characters are often arrogant, self-righteous, narrow minded and even violent. 

You might be asking yourself by now, “What in the world does that have to do with grace?”  To answer that question we must look at the full quote from Flannery herself:

“All of my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.”

Grace, if received well and assimilated into the life of the believer, would have the power to change and transform our lives and make them truly beautiful.  What O’Connor is communicating is that grace, when rejected and refused, makes us—to use her own word—“grotesque.”  We become something God never intended us to be.  When we read one of O’Connor’s stories we watch a character and are horrified to see the way she despises and looks down on others; or we watch a man who is on a collision course for destruction and is doing nothing to avoid it.  We are so moved within at the “grotesque” nature of grace’s rejection that we determine never to put ourselves in the same situation. 

If we look at the Scriptures that we are given for this weekend we can see similar stories from the Old Testament and also in the New.  In the First Reading, the Prophet Jeremiah finds himself stuck in the mud, literally.  He is a man who has received the grace of God, and the message of God for His people; it is not a very positive message.  If you go back just a few verses from the passage we are given this weekend in Jeremiah 38, the message entrusted to the prophet for the people of Israel could be summarized thus:  You have sinned and failed to keep the commandments of God.  Therefore God has determined to give you to the Babylonians.  If you humble yourselves, however, and surrender yourselves to them, although you will be carried away captive He will save you and you will live (see Jeremiah 38:1-3).

Their reaction?  The princes of the people approach the king and say:

“Jeremiah ought to be put to death; he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin.”
—Jeremiah 38:4

The king looks the other way and allows them to throw Jeremiah in the cistern, where he would have starved to death if Ebed-melech the Cushite had not rescued him by the end of that reading.  This is a very ugly scene!  They have rejected the grace and salvation God has offered them.  Instead of embracing Jeremiah with gratitude they brutalize him, to their own detriment.  Historically, it did not end well for the Israelites in that city.  Grace rejected is a grotesque reality indeed.

Similarly, in the Gospel we hear Jesus’ astounding message:

Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.
—Luke 12:51

How are we to understand this, and from the “Prince of Peace”?  What Christ is talking about is the nature of the Gospel message and the grace that God offers to each of us in His self-emptying love. 

At the heart of the Gospel proclamation, God essentially reveals that, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  We are all in desperate need of forgiveness and God’s mercy.  And yet that is precisely what God has come to bring us in the person of Jesus Christ.  He comes to suffer and die on the cross in self-emptying love in order to grant us a forgiveness we do not deserve, to make us God’s own adopted children, and bring us into eternal life with God. 

Some hear that message and are overwhelmed with gratitude and filled with love.  A tremendous sense of joy enters our hearts when we realize, despite all our failings and sins, how we are truly loved and embraced by God.  Our hearts are set on fire with this message of God’s mercy and love.  As Christ proclaims so powerfully in the Gospel this weekend: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Luke 12:49).  We are moved from deep within to go out and spread that message to all we meet: family, friends, strangers, enemies, all.  We want everyone to know about the forgiveness now available to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

But not everyone receives that message.  Some, in fact, are quite offended by it.  Forgiveness?  Me?  For what! I am fine just the way I am!  Like the princes in the reading this weekend in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah or the characters in a Flannery O’Connor story, they reject implicitly that there could be anything at all in their lives in need of correction.  Why should they need to receive “favor, the free underserved help that God gives”? 

Their rejection of the grace God offers becomes, instead, resentment toward those who are trying to share this same message of salvation.  Called by God to become something truly beautiful, they become something God never intends or desires.  We are left, then, with what Christ describes in the Gospel:

From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
—Luke  12:52-53

It is not the way Christ wants it, but simply and sadly the way He finds it; grace that has now been replaced by the “grotesque.”

Here in the Eucharist and throughout this coming week, grace will enter into our lives and draw us into a deeper relationship with God.  Here and everywhere throughout these coming days we encounter “favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call and to become children of God, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life”  (CCC, #1996).  As God makes known to us His unconditional love and mercy, He will also reveal to us places where we need correction, places we need to grow in our love for God and others, areas we need to be less self-righteous, more humble, more forgiving. 

How might we surrender more completely to that work of grace in our lives and in our souls so that we can become truly beautiful, transformed by the merciful love of God, to be the men and women God has always meant us to be?