The joy of Christmas is rooted in God’s gift of His Son to mankind. But Christ’s birth is merely the first stage of a redemptive act that culminates in Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father, and His sending of the Holy Spirit, by whom “the love of God is poured forth into our hearts.” (Rom 5:5)
The word “grace” comes from the Latin word gratia, which means “gift.” God’s greatest gift to us is His Son, and that gift is “the gift that keeps on giving.” In the Gospel of John, after Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, He tells them He must “go away,” but this is “for their good.” Because if He does not go away, “the Helper will not come.” But if He goes, He says, “I will send him to you.” (Jn 16:7) Jesus had earlier identified “the Helper” as “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name.” (Jn 14:26)
If Jesus had not “gone away,” we would keep looking to Jesus to do everything for us – “Jesus, heal these sick people;” “Jesus, feed these poor people;” “Jesus, take care of us” – when we need to become members of the Body of Christ. We are Christ’s eyes and ears and hands now. We heal the sick; we feed the poor; we spread the good news of God’s love; we become the instruments of God’s grace.
We become alter Christus, “another Christ,” “adopted sons” of the Father. “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” (Rom 8:14) “And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts.” (Gal 4:6)
On the Christian understanding, the moral life is a participation in the triune life of God – the eternal threefold communion of love that has existed from all eternity. And at the heart of what we call “grace” is the Spirit’s gift of a share in that eternal, triune love.
I fear, however, that we sometimes think of “grace” as though it were something like a magic wand that changes us from a frog into a prince, or like the radioactive spider that turns Peter Parker into Spiderman – as though when God’s grace infuses itself into you, you burst with wisdom, light shines out your eyes and ears, and the impurity of sin no longer touches or tempts you.
Perhaps something like this happens to some people, but what if this isn’t what we should expect? A long tradition of wisdom in the Church says we should not confuse the work of the Holy Spirit with a certain feeling or particular experience. God’s grace often works in ways that are unseen and unnoticed, just as God’s gift of His Son went largely unseen and unnoticed.
So, for example, what if the work of grace in our lives is as unseen and unnoticed as the increase of love in our hearts? Married couples grow in love. But if they check on it from one day to the next, they probably won’t notice much change. If, however, they simply devote themselves to each other’s well-being and happiness, they’ll wake up one day and realize their love has grown – the love that caused them to devote themselves to one another in the first place.
Parents sometimes report that when they looked upon the face of their newborn baby, they fell in love, and it changed their lives. And yet, that subsequent change of life – from self-centered to selfless and caring – usually takes place over weeks and years, and it usually involves much less of that original “warm fuzzy” feeling. But the Holy Spirit is there throughout the struggle, changing that person’s heart, bit by bit, over time.
Another mistake we sometimes make is imagining that God’s grace always works instantly, like a lightning bolt from Zeus. But there are good reasons why many of Jesus’s parables of the Kingdom involve the planting of seeds and seasons of growth.
Years ago, one of my students asked the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre how she could acquire the virtues, considering that she didn’t know anyone who had them. MacIntyre suggested that she could either join the Marines or a New England fishing fleet. The key was to work with others in a situation where your safety and well-being depended on their doing their job well, and their safety and well-being depended on you doing your job well. It’s an interesting answer, if not always practicable.
In Christian theology, however, in addition to the “acquired virtues,” we have a tradition of what are called “infused virtues.” When we recognize that we don’t have the virtues, we can pray for them. I may not have been raised with courage or wisdom or understanding (and I wasn’t), but I can pray for them. This doesn’t mean I should expect to wake up tomorrow bursting with courage, wisdom, and understanding. Nor does it mean I no longer need to do my part to grow in the virtues of courage, wisdom, and understanding.
Grace doesn’t violate nature, but perfects it. God doesn’t work this change in us without us. Grace isn’t magic; it’s love taking root and growing over time to transform those who, like the Virgin Mary, say “yes” to it.
When that grace is doing its work on us, we won’t necessarily feel or even notice it. It might appear, at first, like something very natural, like the birth of a child. But isn’t that one of the lessons of Christmas: that grace can come into the world largely unnoticed, in places and ways we might never expect and bear fruit in ways that exceed our greatest hopes?
If we decide to devote ourselves to each other’s well-being and happiness, God’s grace is already at work in us. If we dedicate ourselves to it, that love will grow. It just takes a little faith.
*Image: Mary’s fiat from The Annunciation by Gerard David, 1506 [The MET, New York]
You may also enjoy:
Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky’s Rediscovering the Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Msgr. Robert J. Batule’s Mary, Motherhood, and World History