Padre Paul’s Ponderings: Grace is Amazing, but Requires a Response

Padre Paul’s Ponderings: Grace is Amazing, but Requires a Response

Grace is Amazing, but Requires a Response

On a final exam question in one of my seminary classes, the professor posed us with the question: “what is wrong with the song “Amazing Grace?”

We all know the song, and it is a beautiful hymn. But it was written by John Newton, the former slave ship mariner and eventual Anglican priest, so it does come from a Protestant perspective. And while there’s a lot right with it, sometimes the words can be a little misleading and need further explanation.

Among them is how a quick reading of the lyrics might think that through grace one is born again and, voila, one is saved. Grace though is no magic trick. Yes, grace does save. But it requires us to participate in it as well. Mr. Newton did do just that; he realized he had turned away from God, and turned his life over to him. But he grew in that faith by learning it, and let grace work on him so he became a voice for the ending of slavery in England, something he eventually lived to see.

This week in the Gospel, Jesus has a conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus is a good man, but he’s a man on a journey. Earlier in John, he shows up at night (not wanting to be seen with Jesus during the day) to talk to Jesus about His teachings. Nicodemus is a name we’ll hear on Good Friday too, as after the crucifixion he appears to provide embalming spices and assists in burying Jesus. In our Gospel this week, Jesus has a conversation with him about how faith requires a response. Whoever does wicked things hates the light, but those who live the truth come to the light “so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”

Here’s where the rubber hits the road. God loves us, and nothing will change that. There is also nothing we can do to merit our salvation or get it on our own. But God also challenges us. The salvation offered to us is a gift, but not a guarantee. Think of Jesus not as the answer, but as the question requiring a response. Lent, in particular, gives us the chance to look at how we are answering that question.

The starting point is mercy. Jesus tells Nicodemus that God did not send the Son to condemn, but to save the world. Jesus offers eternal life. This is indeed the amazing part of grace; it is a free gift given to us. But, it requires a response.

We then hear how people at times choose darkness instead of the light. This is where the healthy examination of conscience kicks in, as I noted last week when we sit with the 10 Commandments. We can ask “how do I choose the darkness?” Newton chose grace; but he had to continue to reform his life and work on his commitment. Lent is a time where many celebrate the sacrament of confession prior to Easter (and I’ll be hearing confessions an extra hour next week and Palm Sunday). Sometimes sin can creep up on us, and we can fall into it, or we can become neglectful of things we should do to live out our faith. Doing a daily examination of conscience can help us learn how to apply grace to every aspect of our lives and grow in holiness. This is where we have hope – the light of God’s love shines on these dark parts of our lives, to shine grace on sin and turn it around.

We then look at how do we choose the light. Newton become a Christian but also someone who helped bring about an awakening on the faith and also the dignity of the human person as he worked to abolish slavery; none of this was easy. So how do we manifest the light in our lives and our vocations? Sometimes this requires suffering. Nicodemus, if he’s going to become a disciple, can’t stay in the shadows of night. We can’t be a part-time Christian. So it’s worth asking, are we willing to suffer to grow in our faith? Are we willing to suffer to help others? Living the faith takes commitment. There’s an element of suffering to working hard at school or to provide for the family; to sacrificing time to help people; to avoiding certain behaviors because we know they are wrong. There’s also suffering for proclaiming our faith in the public square. But doing so will not only help ourselves to become better people and grow in faith, it will help others to come to the faith.

Not every aspect of “choosing the light” entails suffering; but more of a daily commitment to strive to be the hands, face, and voice of Jesus in our world. When we stand up for what is right, when we do acts of love and mercy to others, when we turn the other cheek and show forgiveness and patience, when we volunteer; the list is endless of ways we have the power to help others see Jesus in the world and respond to the grace that God gives us.

I’ve said many times one of the things I appreciate most with my Catholic faith is that it takes work. The good news? God journeys with us every step of the way, and His love is infinite. We celebrate that every time we come to Mass. Communion is our food for the journey, but just as the apostles were told not to look at the sky when Jesus ascended but to baptize and proclaim the Gospel, we have the same job. For indeed, God did not come to condemn the world but to love the world – and for all the darkness in our world today, the light of hope and love are so much stronger. May we be a people of hope, not staying in the shadows like Nicodemus, but boldly proclaiming our faith through words and actions and setting the world on fire with the love of God.

God bless,  ~Fr. Paul

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