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Mar 6

A Blazing Grace

A Lenten reflection given at the Church of Saint John the Baptist for the regional cluster gathering of Secular Franciscans on Sunday, March 5.

Good afternoon, my sisters and brothers. Let us pray in the words of Saint Francis of Assisi. Most High, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me true faith, certain hope, and perfect charity, sense and knowledge, Lord, that I may carry out Your holy and true command. Amen.

It is the year 2017, the Year of Grace. Following a year of jubilee like the Year of Mercy, in which reflections and meditations flowered like a forest, is not easy to do. Mercy, after all, is the theme of Pope Francis’ papacy. He says the name of God is Mercy. He has convicted us in the view that mercy is short in supply in the world today. On some days it looks like human civilization is slouching toward suicide. If we the human family are to survive our daily fall into violence—the violence of poverty, the violence of war, the violence against creation itself—it will only be because we have chosen mercy over cruelty.

So Pope Francis does not take it for granted that mercy will arise from the human heart. We have to put mercy in there. This is what the year of jubilee was about.

But now the jubilee is over. It is the year after, the year 2017. The Year of Grace. And I want to talk about grace because unlike mercy, which depends on us to make it real, grace never departs from this world. In fact, as Saint Paul teaches us, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. So, ironically, the worse things seem to get, the less merciful and the more violent we are, the more we fall to ruin on the wreckage of sin, the more grace is present to us. And in these times of uncertainty, these times of instability, as we fear the worst and despair for the good, we need to make space for the grace that is always here with us. We must wake up to the grace around us and is, like the kingdom of heaven, in our midst.

In the short time we have together today, I want to share with you Saint Francis’ consciousness of grace. Francis can teach us what grace is, what grace does, and what grace demands. To learn from Francis, let us go back to his own words.

In the last year of his life, he wrote a letter to all the brothers. It is known nowadays as A Letter to the Entire Order. At the end of the letter is a prayer. This is the prayer:

Almighty, eternal, just and merciful God,

give us miserable ones

the grace to do for You alone

what we know You want us to do

and always to desire what pleases You.

Inwardly cleansed,

interiorly enlightened

and inflamed by the fire of the Holy Spirit,

may we be able to follow

in the footprints of Your beloved Son,

our Lord Jesus Christ,

and, by Your grace alone,

may we make our way to You,

Most High,

Who live and rule

in perfect Trinity and simple Unity,

and are glorified

God almighty,

forever and ever. Amen.

So what is grace? First of all, it is a gift. Francis acknowledges this when he says “give us miserable ones the grace.” It is a gift of almighty God, whose power surpasses our power. It is a gift of the eternal God; grace transcends time, but it breaks into time. It is a gift of the just and merciful God. Grace comes from the source of righteousness and mercy itself. Grace is a real sign of divine power, divine justice, divine mercy breaking into our time and space. It cannot be taken; it can only be received as a gift, and so Francis appeals to God to show up in the gift of grace.

Francis invokes grace twice in his prayer. In between these invocations he also cites the activity of the Holy Spirit, which he calls a fire. I think this is not a coincidence. This is important. I believe that for Francis, naming the Holy Spirit is another way of naming grace in its dynamic mode. Grace is a blazing fire. It is a blazing spirit that sets us ablaze but does not destroy us. Here Francis links the fire of the Holy Spirit to the traditional threefold mystical path to God of purgation, illumination, and union. By the fire of the Holy Spirit our soul, the inner aspect of our personhood, is purified. It burns away our sin. This fire lights our way with wisdom so we can walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. This fire fills us with divine energy, so that when we walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, we walk as Christ, being one with him. Grace is gift, and it is fire of the Spirit.

We are already on our way to describing what grace does. It guides us to God. In the end, it is the only guide to God. And grace does not only show us the way. Grace makes us able to go to God. This is why Francis prays that “by Your grace alone, may we make our way to you.” There is a twofold sense to making here. Grace is about finding direction and then going in that direction when we see it. So let’s look at this a little more.

Go back with me to Francis’ first invocation of grace. He says, “give us miserable ones the grace to do for you alone what we know you want us to do and always to desire what pleases you.” First, grace gives us the power to act: “the grace to do.” We don’t need grace necessarily to know the difference between right and wrong acts. That is why Francis adds “what we know you want us to do.” He may be referring to natural law. He may be referring to the power of reason unaided by revelation. At any rate, we can discern by our own means what is right and wrong, what is good and evil. We Gentiles already get it. But we need grace to act on what we know. We need grace to work centered in God. We need grace to speak and act in God’s name, and for God’s purposes alone. Second, grace makes our desires right: “always to desire what pleases you.” We are human creatures with finite needs and infinite desires. God’s creation can satisfy all our needs because we are finite creatures in a finite world. But only God can grant our desires because our desires, like God, are infinite. If we desire what God desires, then we will be fulfilled infinitely. Without grace, we cannot “know” God’s desire. That is, we cannot be intimate with God’s will. Without grace to stimulate us, we forget God’s pleasure. Without grace to make us wise, we forget God’s ways. And even if we did remember, without grace, we cannot choose for God’s desire.

We do not know if Francis wrote this prayer with the letter. Many friars think it was written separately. But the oldest version of the letter concludes with this prayer. So we must conclude they were meant to be heard together. So we should take a quick look at what Francis said to his brothers in this letter. And this will lead us to the final point I want to sharpen here, and that is what grace demands of us.

What did the dying Francis want from his brothers and which led his followers to append this grace-filled prayer to his letter? After a greeting to all the brothers of the order and its general minister, he calls on them to “obey the voice of the Son of God … observe His commands with your whole heart and fulfill His counsels with a perfect mind” (Verses 5-7). Then comes the command (Verses 12-13) to which Francis has been building up:

Kissing your feet, therefore, and with all that love of which I am capable, I implore all of you brothers to show all possible reverence and honor to the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in Whom that which is in heaven and on earth has been brought to peace and reconciled to almighty God.

Francis is of course speaking about the Eucharist. The Eucharist was on his mind a lot because it was on the mind of the Church during this age. The Fourth Lateran Council, which we believe Francis attended in 1215, established many reforms in the celebration of Eucharist. Among them were the prescription to receive communion at least once a year at Easter and to confess once a year. The council also called for reservation of consecrated bread in tabernacles and proper care of church buildings and sacramental items used in worship. Priests were to celebrate Eucharist regularly, with due reverence and devotion. Likewise, religious were to follow the rule of their community and pray the Divine Office with diligence. The canons of the Fourth Lateran Council were enforced by papal bulls published in the following years.

Francis was aware of these pronouncements. They affected thoroughly his understanding of God’s presence and activity in the world. For instance, Francis believed that Eucharist was the only way to see Christ: as he writes in his Testament, “I see nothing corporally of the most high Son of God except his most holy Body and Blood.” And in A Letter to the Entire Order he is more effusive, saying (Verses 26-29):

Let everyone be struck with fear, let the whole world tremble, and let the heavens exult when Christ, the Son of the living God, is present on the altar in the hands of a priest! O wonderful loftiness and stupendous dignity! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! The Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under an ordinary piece of bread! Brothers, look at the humility of God, and pour out your hearts before Him! Humble yourselves that you may be exalted by Him! Hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves, that He Who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally!                                                                   

Eucharist was clearly a powerful encounter with Christ, powerful because it reminded Francis of God’s humility, which first converted him in the encounter with the leper.

Seeing God in this way, in the poorest and most humble persons and simplest things of the earth, changed Francis’ life. The true nature of God is humility and poverty, and it calls forth from us a holy desire to identify with God’s humility and poverty. If God is known to us by being broken and shared in ordinary bread, then we are to present ourselves likewise to God and “pour out your hearts” and “hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves.”

Faith leads us into practice. Francis’s faith in the Eucharist led him to insist on right practice of worship. Thus he admonishes the friars who were priests to “offer the true Sacrifice of the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ with purity and reverence….let all their will, as much as grace helps, be directed to God, desiring, thereby, to please only the Most High Lord Himself” (Verses 14-15). With an admonition not to profane the Eucharist through neglect of the liturgy or the improper care of sacramental items, especially the consecrated bread and Scripture, Francis warns the brothers, “How much greater and more severe will the punishment be of the one who tramples on the Son of God, and who treats the Blood of the Covenant in which he was sanctified as unclean and who insults the Spirit of grace?” (Verse 18) And here we come back to grace. Faith tells us the poor and humble Christ is present in our celebration of Eucharist. Grace makes us live what we believe. As Francis says, grace helps direct our whole will to God. It is our means. As to the extent that our will is totally given to God, grace is the measure. And more than a measure: grace is the rule. Grace forbids us to live contrary to what we believe. Faith indicates the presence of God among us. Grace shows that God’s presence cannot be taken for granted. We sin against the Spirit of grace at our own peril. As Francis says, the one who insults the Spirit of grace will face retribution.

Let us recap so far. Grace abounds in our time. The Spirit of blazing grace is guiding us to God, found in the poor and humble Christ, really present in the Eucharist. In this grace-filled encounter, we become able to live as God wants us to live. We find salvation. We find peace and reconciliation. But we cannot take it for granted.

Today we have an even deeper understanding of God’s presence among us in the Eucharist. This presence is not confined to the consecrated bread and wine. God in Christ is present in the Word of God proclaimed in the Eucharistic assembly; Christ is present in the person of the priest who offers the sacrifice of the Mass; Christ is present in the congregation at worship. But Francis knew this 750 years before the Second Vatican Council. This is why he prevailed on the brothers to “venerate, as best they can, the divine written words wherever they find them” (Verses 35-37); to respect even unworthy priests, because as he says in his Testament, “I discern the Son of God in them”; and to show mercy to lepers, because they, too, revealed the presence of Christ. This is Francis’ great contribution to theology: to show that God abides in the poor, and thus God requires us to receive them if we are to receive God. Or as Dorothy Day teaches us, “The mystery of the poor is this: That they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him.”

What a fearful grace, that where the sin and suffering of peoples abides, Christ abides all the more! Then what of Jesus’ withering rebuke to the disciples: “The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11)? Our “having” Jesus, which is to say, the life of God, depends on our conduct toward the poor. Our decision for or against mercy, and our choice to cooperate or not with grace, determines whether we will have Jesus or not. Being compassionate to the poor gives us access to Christ really present in the Eucharist. The work of grace in us vouchsafes our faith.

Francis believes the Eucharist is essential to our salvation. No wonder he is burning with fraternal concern in A Letter to the Entire Order. He is ablaze with grace! Let us be no different. Let us never be indifferent when we see our sisters and brothers hungry, or naked, or without shelter, or sick, or imprisoned by fear and persecution, who are victims of prejudice, racism, sexism, poverty, and violence against their bodies, their minds, and their spirits. God wills all people to belong to the Mystical Body of Christ. God wills all people to be one in the Eucharist. Let us look at the humility of God in the broken bread of our wounded neighbors, suffering from homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, and substance abuse. Let us not overlook the transgressions against the holy Body and Blood, desecrated daily in our world wherever people are suffering. The Lamb of God is being looked down upon in our Muslim neighbors who are bullied and harassed or denied entry to our land. The Lamb of God is defiled and trampled upon in our undocumented sisters and brothers who are being detained and deported to places where they face starvation, rape, and murder. Why are these people, each one made in the image of God and made to be an image of Christ, left to be carelessly thrown around, like they did not matter, like they were not holy? Who will gather up all the fragments of our fractured humanity, these living words of God, and put them in becoming places? Even further, what about all the living creatures of the earth, who dwell in the sea, the sky, and the land; what about the air, the earth, and the water itself; what about the elements of life that God made good? That prepared an earthly home for the Son? The wheat and grapevine whose fruits give form to our Eucharist? Without creation, there is no Christ. Desecration of the earth, in whose fruits Christ makes his home, is desecration of the Eucharist.

Fortunately, sin does not rule, and death does not have the last word. For grace abounds, and God’s life is always among us and within us, ready to be given, if we are ready to receive it and share it with others.

With Francis, let us confess we have not observed his Rule and ours, the Gospel, as we have promised. With the blessed assurance of God’s pardon and peace, let us also say with Francis, “I firmly promise to observe these things, as God shall give me the grace, and I pass them on to the brothers [and sisters] who are with me” (Verse 43). Amen.