grace and acceptance
As we were reminded the other day at table reading, from an essay by Thomas Merton, this 1st Sunday of Lent is actually the beginning of the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday and the days after it were added on to make up the nice, even symbolic number of 40. Of course we also need to put this Sunday in the context of Easter and Baptism, and especially with the renewed Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Now begins the intensive time of catechesis for the catechumens and their catechesis is a lectionary-based catechesis, meaning they are learning all about Catholic Christianity from the readings that they hear at Mass. This is Catholic spirituality at its best: learning about the faith through the scriptures through the liturgy. We are this year, of course, in Cycle A, which has the default readings for the RCIA no matter what year it is, so again especially let’s see these readings in this light. If you had to pick three readings to introduce people to Catholic Christianity, which would you choose? Or we might ask ourselves, why did the Church pick these three? Or maybe even more to the point, how would you explain our faith in the light of these three readings?
The focus does seem to be on sin––Adam and Eve’s Fall (Gen 2:7-9; 3:1-7); Paul’s teaching on sin and the Law from the Letter to the Romans (Rom 5:12-19); and Jesus’ overcoming temptation to sin in the desert (Mt 4:1-11). But I think there is also something subtler at play here, underlying all this. In some way you could see these three readings as an explanation of the human condition, a kind of an anthropology. What I mean by anthropology is this: we are asking three questions: “What is God? Who are we? And what do those three things have to do with each other?”
In the first reading, the compilers of the lectionary could have just told the story of the Fall from Chapter 3 in Genesis without any introduction, but instead they went through some pains to add that last line from the brief second story of creation in Chapter 2 as an introduction to it––The Lord God formed Adam out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and Adam became a living being. It all starts here. Even the Incarnation already begins here. I have spoken so often about the anthropology that I got from Bede Griffiths, of always seeing the human person not simply as body and soul, but as spirit, soul and body. And this is what we see here in this one little sentence: the Breath of God (spirit) gets breathed into matter (body), mud, clay, and because of that indwelling Breath of God that mud creature becomes a nepesh, in Hebrew––a living being (soul). Matter plus Spirit equals soul. And that indwelling Spirit in the human person is, or at least is meant to be, can be, the driving force behind human existence, urging us forward to growth and self-fulfillment and participation in the forward movement of all creation. It’s that same spirit that we access or try to realize every time we sink into meditation, the ground of our being and the ground of our consciousness. It’s grace dwelling within us, God’s self-communication.
The catch is: this grace, God’s self-communication, has to be accepted. Whether we think of it as pouring over us or welling up within us, it has to be accepted, and it has to be accepted in freedom. And so we hear the story of Adam and Eve, in freedom, not accepting it. And because of the disruption of that primal relationship with the grace that is the core of their being this begins the whole series of disruptions of all the relationships: now Adam will have to fight with the earth, Eve will need to suffer in childbirth, they will fight with each other, and, maybe worst of all, they are ashamed of their own beautiful naked bodies––this must be important because we heard earlier that they were naked but unashamed––because they have not chosen to honor that fundamental relationship that ties all the other ones in a bond of unity, the relationship with spirit, the spirit that is the depth of their own being and the Holy Spirit.
And so what’s the lesson about the human condition that we could draw from that? You could say it either way. You could either say, Human nature is good––but it’s wounded. Or you could say it the other way around: human nature is wounded––but it’s still good––created by God who pronounced it so! And since creation is the good work of God’s love, redemption “doesn’t mean scrapping what’s there and starting [all over] again from a clean slate”; grace builds on nature and being redeemed means “liberating what has come to be enslaved.” Evil isn’t in materiality; evil lies in rebellion, and the non-acceptance of this freely given grace. The slavery of sin doesn’t come from the fact that we are embodied human beings; slavery is in the inability to accept God’s grace. We think we are free because we can turn our backs on what we choose to turn our backs; but are we free to turn to it? Are we free to accept God’s grace?
And so Paul presents us with Jesus as the new Adam. But I think it’s important to understand that, yes, with Jesus there is a breakthrough in human history, but not necessarily a total break with human history. Yes, the Word “came down from heaven,” but Jesus was also a part of biological and historical evolution just like we are. From the early days of Christianity there have always been two schools of thought regarding the Incarnation and redemption. The first school of thought concentrates mainly on Jesus coming to redeem us from our sin, and we would be rightly justified thinking that that is what the Church wants us to focus on today in these readings. But as far back as St. Irenaeus, and up to St. Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, and more contemporary theologians such as Karl Rahner, there has been another line of thinking: that the Incarnation was God’s plan all along not just because of the Fall. Following the line of a theologian like Jurgen Moltmann, we could say that the history of the Incarnation doesn’t just begin with the birth of Jesus. It already began with that same ruah/the Holy Spirit that we saw in that 2nd story of creation, the seed which was to come to fruition in Jesus in the fullness of time. In Jesus we find someone who, unlike Adam and Eve, never does not accept the gift of God’s grace; in Jesus we see a human being whose will is totally lined up with the will of God. As Karl Rahner put it, Jesus is one in whom God’s self-communication through grace and human acceptance of that grace become one single movement––fully human and fully divine. And, as we heard in the reading from Romans, the grace of God and the gracious gift of one man overflows for the many. Jesus is able to say “No” to the devil (Mt 4:1-11) but that “No” is predicated on the fact that his whole being was a Yes to God. In Jesus “we have a complete unity between God’s offer of grace and humanity’s acceptance of that offer. … Jesus is both the experience of the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity.” In him, both of those realities converge and unite, in this single person, the divine and human are not-two. Jesus is the new Adam, the summit of the process that began with the first Adam, what the human person was meant to be all along.
And so I would tell the catechumens that Christianity holds out the possibility of this kind of freedom, of this kind of life, through him, with him, and in him. And I would tell them that to be fully human means to be fully flooded with the grace of God, the grace that is already present by the fact that that ruah/Breath of God was breathed into the clay of our own being, though it must be realized and accepted, in freedom. And I would tell them that because of the Christ event, a great new moment in history opened up, when that breach caused by the Fall, the fatal flaw of our ancestors that disrupted all the relationships, has been healed. And that in Jesus heaven and earth are united, in him Spirit, body and soul find their unity and that unity begins its journey to its destiny, the journey and the destiny marked out for every human being, to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity. And that because of this event that was and is the Christ, a whole new portion of Spirit is poured out on all of creation, the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, that Spirit of the Risen Christ that meets the ruah already breathed within us, and through him, with him, and in him; and that Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies too, even now if we live the Baptismal life, if we but walk in the way of his gospel.