For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.
(Titus 2: 11-14)
We are told that what "grace" means when we're talking about God is His "unmerited divine assistance and favor." Basically, that we get something that we haven't earned and don't deserve, something very good.
Everyone says they like it when "good luck" happens to them, when unexpected good fortune comes their way. We all like that kind of surprise.
But if we're honest, and basically good people, we also start to get uncomfortable when there's too much of it. Feelings that we don't deserve whatever it is we're getting surface, feelings that we haven't done "the work" to earn the benefit that we receive. And when those feelings start to rise, we get the impulse to back away from the "good stuff." We want to feel that we earned what we've received.
But the point of gifts of Grace is that we have done nothing to "earn" them. We don't get them because we "deserved" them. We get them because the giver wanted to give the gifts.
It is humbling to receive gifts of grace. And if you're anything like me, "doing humble" doesn't come easily. Oh, I can be grateful, deeply so. But it takes practice to receive the unexpected, unearned gifts that people choose to grace me with.
I had to overcome my own resistence, my impulse to shout that I needed to earn these gifts! The recent weeks have been a boot-camp for me on the practice of receiving grace. I have humbled myself in joy that there have been so many people willing to help me in big and small ways (some even giving me the grace of opportunities to "earn"). But it has also made me eager to thank my benefactors, and to extend that grace onward to others. As Paul says in this letter, to be "zealous for good deeds."
Yesterday, I was "graced" by a gift, a service that I am usually quite happy to pay for. But because my circumstances were known, my friend (for she has become such) did this for me without charge. I was deeply touched by her action. And we talked about how we both try to do acts of kindness when we can, giving help when we can. I guess you could call it a moment of "grace abounding." The phrase "pay it forward" has become very popular in recent years. It's the idea of keeping in mind the generousity you receive and extending it to others when you can later. It is like John the Baptist's admonition to the seekers' question, "What are we to do then?" "When you have extra, give to those in need."
Grace. To be the hands of grace. But also to receive grace.
And in Advent, we are reminded that what God gives is so much greater than anything we can possibly do ourselves in this life. We are given Christ Jesus - who redeems us from every misdeed, purifying us -- in a word, saving us. We certainly don't deserve this grace. It would be impossible to earn it - we are, after all, "only human" and we will screw it up at some point.
But the salvation that Jesus brings doesn't have to be earned! That is the wonder of Christmas. It is Grace! All we have to do is humble ourselves and accept it.
Behind all the clutter of the gift exchanges between family and friends, the Secret Santa parties at work, the clutter of commercialism, the quid pro quo of some gift-giving, there shines something much greater. It is something that all those other transfers of objects and thoughts are supposed to be representing and reflecting. It is the gift from God of Himself to us, His love abounding. Can we accept that?
Advent is our time of preparation, of learning to be graceful in accepting grace, to receive with joy and thankfulness.