Before any choice is made, God has accepted us entirely, in our helplessness, even in our non-responsiveness.
Most of the time I feel like God’s grace is wasted on me. I mean, he’s given me his actual body in the Eucharist, but I get distracted so easily that 30 seconds after Communion, I may already be thinking about something else. Confession is the same. I remember to be grateful for a few minutes, but later on in the day, I fall into the same tired, boring sins, for the umpteenth time.
If we’re all called to be saints, then God wants to give us the grace to live that heroic life–but I don’t want to accept that grace, or rise to the challenge, for fear of everything I’d have to give up.
You know that hymn, “Rain down, rain down, rain down Your love on Your people…”? Well I have this image in my head of grace pouring down in torrents from the sky, and I’m the only one standing there with an umbrella.
I do know, of course, that God’s grace is more powerful than my stubbornness, and if you open the door just a crack, that’s enough for him to work with. That’s what mercy is. But none of it seemed very real to me, until I started thinking about my unborn child’s baptism. See, Catholics understand that Baptism isn’t just a symbolic welcoming of a person into the community. It’s a true integration of the child into the Mystical Body of Christ, it’s the real remission of Original Sin, and, as the Catechism says, it’s “the gateway to life in the Spirit. (1213)” It’s a really, really big deal.
And where does all this outpouring of grace go? Right onto the head of an infant who might be so young he can’t even control his limbs yet, an infant who might sleep through the whole thing, if he’s not startled by the cold water.
Before the baby remotely has the capacity to respond to God’s grace in any way, the Church pours out the whole grace of salvation on him. The baby can’t choose to receive the grace or not, and he has no idea what’s happening, but that doesn’t get in the way at all. The infant has nothing to contribute, not faith, not works, not prayer, and to be honest, not even love–after all, love has to involve the will, and the child’s will is so far undeveloped. None of that seems to matter to God, though.
Whenever I’m lucky enough to attend a baptism, I see more clearly that, both literally and symbolically, Baptism is our front line of defense against despair. Yes, God wants us to respond to his grace, and yes, each of us who grows up has to make the choice, again and again, to put good over evil. So I’m right to ask myself whether I’m being responsive to the grace God is trying to give me.
But there’s more to the story of my salvation than just that. Baptism shows us that, before any choice is made, God has accepted us entirely, in our helplessness, even in our non-responsiveness. Despair can’t coexist with an understanding of that utter, unreserved, acceptance.
Christ told us that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 18:3) I think partly it’s because we actually are only children, and the change we have to make is to remember it and start acting like it again. I mean, we don’t actually have anything to offer God that he lacks, we know much less than we think we do, and we’re far more reliant on him than we sometimes like to admit.
So with all of that in mind, whenever I get scared that I’m not holding up my end of the bargain, that I’m not making the most of God’s grace, I’ll still examine my conscience and try to shape up–but first I’ll remind myself that God took me in before I had anything to give, and that his grace is much, much bigger than I’ve been assuming. And all in all, I still don’t have more to give now than when I was an infant, so what’s really changed between his grace then, and his grace today?
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