Tuesday, December 25, 2018

now begin, on Christmas day

But the Bethlehem-star may lead me
To the sight of Him Who freed me
From the self that I have been
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Given that Advent is four short weeks long, hymn-writers have seemed to take that as liberty to short-change the Advent section of the hymnal. It seems that there are always the same four hymns that get trotted out and highlighted each Sunday, and, around the third Sunday, more lenient choirmasters will cave and include a Christmas hymn. But, this final Sunday of Advent we sang the rarely sighted (at least in my liturgical circles) Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, which includes this real showstopper of a final line:

By Thy all-sufficient merit /Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

For the past week, I've been excoriating myself for lack of all moral, spiritual, and personal discipline and pitiful work ethic that disgraces everyone, including myself.

(Literal transcription of my interior monologue.)

My attitude towards grace is like a cancerous augustinian view, which is:
guess grace will have to show up and save me, because this gal's not saving herself anytime soon.
And I am learning the hard way (—my God, is there any other way!) that that really isn't cutting it.

Grace is terrible when it reveals obstacles in your character you knew would have to get uncovered eventually. It's terrible, and you want to chuck out all sense of yourself as good. It's much harder to see yourself as bright and beautiful, great and loved, who still needs to improve. It's somehow a greater act of humility to see yourself as infinitely wonderful, yet still on the way, still becoming than woefully bemoaning yourself as a craven dung heap or deluding yourself into thinking no further facet of your personality is in need of conversion.

Jesus, whose all-sufficient merit will somehow see me through the not-so-difficult trial of learning how to fact-check documents and through trying to be myself in the midst of run-of-the-mill family woes, and through maybe living with the charity and kindness I can envision but not always summon up, is perhaps the entity around whom I ought to be focusing my little personal reformation movement. Maybe all the grace I need is smack dab in front of me, if I only stopped thinking about myself for two seconds (or two lines of a hymn) and focused on Jesus instead. Maybe. Just maybe.

The interesting thing about this whole grace and works thing is that focusing on Jesus does not mean I cannot stop my crusade to perfect my work ethic or trying to actually form myself to become the person that I want to be. Grace perfects nature, but it insolubly demands some effort extended on nature's part. As Guardini points out in his commentary on the Lord's Prayer, God's kingdom does come, but always must be invited by us—God's will is something so fragile, dependent upon each person to come to fruition.

God, unlike an Ultramontanism pope, wants actual collaborators in his project of sanctification, not just mindless executors of his kingly will. Perhaps God is actually synodal.

But it's hard to admit improvement, because once you allow a chink in the armor, once you admit there's space for you to grow, there's really no end in sight. It's daunting to think of all the surfaces within us that have yet to be polished, the myriad corners of your heart that have yet to be refashioned into the image of the one whose merit is the only merit that's ever counted anyway; of the one whose coming frees us from the old, limited images of ourselves, and opens up a path to freedom, to an imitation that bears fruit in joy.

It would be so much easier to be marionettes in the hands of if not a necessarily angry, an all-powerful God, but much less interesting, I suppose.

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