The gift of grace

May is a special month for the Church. With all of those First Communions, Confirmations, Baptisms, weddings, we might even say that May is filled with grace. Grace is so tightly bound to our understanding of Sacraments that we might be too stingy with it. Grace is not something one learns in a Religious Education program, and it is not a virtue one develops. Grace is not given out as a reward for good behavior or special acts of piety. Grace is the way in which God communicates with humanity, and is given freely and unconditionally by God for our Salvation.

Theologians have been trying to explain grace for centuries. They have parsed it up, wrapped it up with adjectives, sanctified it, modified it and limited it, but grace abounds despite their best efforts. Most theologians agree that we could never merit grace, but we definitely can get in its way. No matter how much God wants to pour out grace; we must cooperate in order to fully receive its benefits. God communicates this offer of grace directly into the souls of every human being, but gave to humanity absolute freedom to accept the offer. It is very good news that everyone is given an equal measure of grace, but it is not automatic that every person recognizes this gift. Grace is never taken away; it just sits there like an unopened gift left behind the Christmas tree.

Perhaps the easiest thing we can do to be evangelizers is to shine a light on moments of God’s grace whenever they pop up in people’s lives. In describing the aftermath of last year’s Marathon Day bombings, Governor Deval Patrick reflected, “We survived as a community because small acts of grace were handed on from person-to-person. This is what makes a community strong.” The governor did not need to be a theologian to grasp that grace ties humanity together by “indissoluble bonds of charity.” It is no surprise that grace arises from the ashes of even the most devastating of tragedies. No theologian could articulate better what we learned last year in Boston: the recipients of God’s grace on Marathon Monday and in the year that followed did nothing to earn it. They did not need to be church-goers, do-gooders or even believers; they simply were the beneficiaries of what theologians call “unmerited grace.” Those moments of grace that sprung up all over the city of Boston last year gives us a glimpse into God’s plan for our Salvation. God gives grace to all of humanity so that we can make God present in the lives of others. 

Grace, unbound and let loose is everywhere around us. This is what Karl Rahner meant when he described the world as “permeated with grace and God’s self-communication.” Grace as God present everywhere in the world is an appealing concept, but it can also be overwhelming and incomprehensible. It is like trying to grasp the concept of cellular biology without ever seeing a single cell. This is why we need Sacraments, for they are the magnifying glass that helps us to recognize moments of grace. When a gift is given, the usual response is “thank you.” Acts of charity, piety and Sacraments are not requests for grace but are the way that we say “thank you” to God’s gift. Rather than view Sacraments as discount grace stations, they can be understood as opportunities to say thank you to God’s gift of grace that we recognize at special moments in our lives. 

Sacramental preparation programs will look very different if more emphasis is placed on the grace that is already present in our joys and sufferings, rather than on the grace one might get. Baptismal preparation should spend more time helping parents to reflect on the feelings they had when they first looked at the face of their child. This moment of grace, coupled with the stress of sleepless nights and anxiety over nurturing a young life, should be brought to light as times when God is most present. This can all be brought to the baptismal font as they say yes to God’s grace present in their child. Confirmation, rather than viewed as an end to formal catechesis and entrance into an adult faith, could be re-imagined as the lens through which a young person recognizes God’s presence in other people, and God’s radical presence in the world through Jesus Christ. Confirmation can then be the moment when a young person would says yes to living in right relationship with God and humanity.

Sacraments are times for us to talk back to God. Yes, God, we want You to keep us together for life. Yes, God, I will be a servant to Your people. Sorry, God, I forgot to recognize Your gift. Eucharist then takes its rightful place at the center of all Sacraments, drawing all of God’s grace-filled people together to be nourished and sent forth to bring God’s grace into the world all over again. God’s plan is all so simple, and dare I say, graceful.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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