On Grace – An Advent Reflection

Our Lady of Peace at Mount Saviour Monastery in Elmira, New York
Our Lady of Peace at Mount Saviour Monastery in Elmira, New York

As this Advent season winds down and as we inch closer to Christmas, I have been reflecting on the great mystery of grace amidst the brokenness and darkness of our world today. One of the texts I’ve read during this semester, Elizabeth Dreyer’s Manifestations of Grace (1990) attempts to describe the phenomenon of grace and reveals something of the challenge in trying to pinpoint aspects of this divine phenomenon and the difficulties of cultivating a mature, adult notion of grace. Our notion of grace is often rooted in the faith of our early childhood. For instance, although I utter the phrase “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you” several times each day, the meaning and the radicality of its message are often lost in the drowsy rush of Morning Prayer or the rote recital of the rosary. What does it exactly mean to be full of grace? The ubiquity of this prayer and its early introduction in our faith formation render us susceptible to undeveloped and inadequate conceptions of grace – notions of grace that are transactional, exclusive (as if we are the only ones to receive it), and overly simplistic. This immature understanding of grace paints Mary of Nazareth trapped in a protective bubble or atop an ivory tower, distant and careful, lest she stain her lily-white mantle with the brownness of sin. It makes us incapable of seeing ourselves as full of grace. A more mature understanding of grace demands that we reassess this image.

Like an experience of the Divine itself, grace seemingly refuses to be categorized, more apt to give scents and sensations than a concrete, physical manifestation.  When talking of grace, Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O. described it as “the love between God and an intelligent creature that is always growing all the time, which heals our wounds and forgives our failures, and which communicates itself more profoundly as our whole human nature matures” (Keating, 2011). In many ways, this statement encapsulates the nature of grace as described by Dreyer and is an apt summation of the Incarnation of Christ through the “yes” of Mary of Nazareth. Because “grace can never thrive in isolation or solitariness” (Dreyer, p. 22), I surmise that the fullness of Mary’s grace must have pushed her into direct contact, into loving solicitude, and into intimate engagement with others. Rather than disengaging from a sinful world, her preservation from sin and her fullness of grace necessitated that Mary hurtle headlong into it. It was her loving embrace of the world that became the primary vehicle of salvation, the Incarnation of the Word, which we will be celebrating in the next few days.

This enfleshment of grace, we are told, speaks to the loving generosity of a Divine who seeks to be in relationship with us, who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3: 16). And yet, with all of the problems facing our world today, I can’t help but imagine, are we commemorating the emptying of the Divine-self or are we celebrating and contenting ourselves with the emptying of our own humanity? Coming home to the Philippines has made this reflection a bitter pill to swallow. While I see holiday wishes and celebratory photos on Facebook and Instagram from friends and family on the other side of the world, as well as beautifully staged and sumptuously crafted religious displays in Churches and chapels, I have been confronted with the hungry, dirty faces of children running barefoot through streets littered with garbage and broken glass. How can we possibly anticipate the joyful coming of our Saviour Child, when so many of these brown-faced children grow weary with hunger? When men, women, children, and babies are blown asunder in Aleppo? How can we talk about angels, shepherds, and Magi when the poorest of the poor are exterminated by a state-sanctioned murder campaign masquerading under the guise of a war on drugs in the Philippines (a war on drugs that takes its cues from American policies targeted towards people of color)? How can we talk about the Incarnation when the bodies of the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized are desecrated and discarded by governments, made objectively disordered by the Church, and ignored and demonized by people like myself? Are we celebrating a Divine kenosis or merely “draining the swamp” and filling it up with violence, opportunism, and exploitation? The news and the political climate filled with wannabe despots, à la Trump, Duterte, and Putins of our world, seem to indicate the latter.

A mature conception of grace, embodied by Mary of Nazareth, will reveal a wonderful, painful awareness of the vastness of God’s love and the implications of that love to be in relationship with all of Creation, especially the poor and the outcast. Rather than warm and fuzzy feelings, grace will engender discomfort and uneasiness as one is made conscious of injustice. Far from being white, I like to imagine that the hem of Mary’s tunic is brown and tattered, sullied and worn from walking and working among the poor – after all it was she who uttered the barrier-shattering phrase, “He has cast the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1: 52-53). This statement of radical trust in the immensity of God’s love is a consequence of being full of grace. For the rich and the privileged among us, Mary’s statement is not one of rejection and condemnation (which would repeat violence for violence and is therefore antithesis to the Christian message) but rather is a recognition of the universality of grace in action. The rich and the mighty, whose excess has blinded them to the presence of grace in their lives, will have their eyes opened while the lowly and the poor in their destitution will receive what is necessary for the restoration of their dignity and humanity.

I am also reminded of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul tells us that grace has illuminated for him that “everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than one ought to think, but to think soberly, each according to the measure of faith that God has apportioned. For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another” (Romans 12: 3-5). Thus, grace renders humility, not in the form of a pietistic posture evinced by those who “widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels” (Matthew 23: 5), but rather an attitude of solicitude and sincere concern in which we enter into genuine empathic relationship with those who are most poor and vulnerable. In a lecture at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies, Dr. Marc Gopin talked of radical humility, which transforms the soul into the “the dust of the earth,” as called forth by prophets such as Micah, Francis of Assisi, and Gandhi.  This is a true kenosis that enables us to see the world through the eyes of the poor, from the bottom up, not for a pietistic self-abasement or for self-interested self-enrichment, but in the hopes of a genuine encounter with the other.  It is an encounter that will engender an empathic understanding of their pain, which in turn becomes our pain. What will this grace that leads to radical humility engender? Paul tells us it will be love.

Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality. Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Have the same regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Rather, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good. (Romans 12: 9-21)

My Advent reflection then has revealed grace to be a great paradox. In a time of intense suffering and outrageous injustice, grace acts as an illuminator, “the dawn from on high that breaks upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1: 78-79). It is something totally beyond our comprehension, “entirely dependent on something huge, quiet and unimaginable… The Very God of Very God is already, even as we speak, ‘doing something new’, speaking to us in tones and at a depth which our former belonging could never reach, and in a way which our former groups can find nothing other than inconceivable and scandalous: calling us into peaceful and gratuitous human being” (Alison, 2001, p. 133). It is the germ of interior transformation – that which infuses our being to the core, pouring forth and leaving nothing untouched, naming itself as Love.

References

Alison, J. (2001). Faith beyond resentment: Fragments Catholic and gay. New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company.
Dreyer, E. (1990). Manifestations of grace. Delaware: Michael Glazer, Inc.
Keating, T. (201). Thomas Keating on grace. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fr2pGYRrf3I.


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