When I was in third grade, Sr. Matilda drew an empty milk bottle on the blackboard. She said that when we were good or when we celebrated one of the sacraments, God filled our souls with grace. Then she turned the chalk sideways and filled in the milk bottle. She went on to say that when we were bad or when we sinned, our souls were emptied of grace. She then erased all the white chalk within the bottle.
Snow blowers of grace
That was a pretty accurate, if overly simplified, view of grace in the 1950s and 60s. But in the years leading up to and including Vatican II, there was a shift in the way the church taught about grace. If Sr. Matilda were teaching the same class today, she might place a model of the universe in the center of the room. She would then ask the class to imagine the moment just before the universe was created. Then she would start a countdown to creation. 10, 9, 8, 7…, etc. At zero, giant snow blowers would fill the classroom with snow at the very moment of creation. The snow, Sister would say, represents God’s grace. End of lesson.
Well, there is still sin, of course. But sin, in post-Vatican II language, is not the absence of grace. It is the denial of grace. It is akin to someone buried in an avalanche of snow denying that snow exists.
So what is grace exactly? We cannot know, exactly. Not in this life. But we can make some pretty good guesses. Whenever you have an experience that is completely beyond you, that is an experience of grace. You might be overwhelmed by love, overcome by grief, overawed by an ocean sunset, or overtaken in a moment of prayer. Any kind of experience like this causes us to ask deep questions. What does this mean? What is my purpose here? How can I be happy or joyful? Is there anything beyond this life? What is existence itself?
These kinds of questions are not things we learn from our parents or that we learn in school. These kinds of deep meaning questions are intrinsic to our creation. They are part of the “snow.” These questions are a manifestation of our longing for the infinite. God created us with that very longing so that we would seek him from the first moment of our existence.
Not “what” but “who”
God set up all of creation, then, not just to long for him, but also to reveal to us who God is. In the face of human finiteness, God draws us into relationship with God’s infinite self. Think about this for a minute. Think about how it has been revealed to you in your own life.
The infinite God of Love created finite beings and graciously invites us into intimate relationship with God. And, of course, the ultimate revelation of God’s grace is Jesus Christ. In Jesus, the finite becomes infinite, and the infinite becomes finite; the human becomes divine, and the Word becomes flesh.
For us, in our finite state, grace really cannot be understood abstractly. Grace can only be fully understood in the concrete reality of Jesus Christ. If you want to define grace, your best option is to say “Jesus.”
A life of grace
But we cannot just say “Jesus.” We also have to live “Jesus.” Grace isn’t just about my personal milk bottle getting filled up. Grace is God’s gift of love for the entire universe. And so to be infinitely gracious beings—that is, fully human—we have to live as Jesus did. That means we have a moral imperative to speak against institutions that attempt to mask God’s grace. We have an imperative to challenge those who deny God’s grace exists. And we have an imperative to answer the deep meaning questions all people have with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Where do you find grace?
Tell us your thoughts. How have you experienced grace? How would you tell the catechumens and candidates about your experience?