Christmas offers a cornucopia of collects and readings for four different Masses: the Vigil, Midnight, Dawn and During the Day. This year I've chosen to reflect on the second reading of the Mass at Dawn, from Saint Paul's Letter to his disciple Titus.
When the kindness and generous love
of God our savior appeared,
not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy,
He saved us through the bath of rebirth
and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom he richly poured out on us
through Jesus Christ our savior,
so that we might be justified by his grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
I have known people who contracted fatal lung cancer or heart disease who were never overweight, who never smoked, and lived in a clean, responsible manner. "How fair is that?" everyone asks.
I was rather distraught when I met one such friend, and I blurted out, "It's like grace; you didn't earn it; you don't deserve it." That odd expression came to me like a minor revelation. I share it only occasionally with Veterans in the VA hospital.
In this reading from Titus, Saint Paul insists that God has blessed us "not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy. In other words, it's like the fatal illness of my friend -- we have not earned this blessing, nor do we deserve it.
This doctrine of grace at the very heart of our religion continually challenges Christians. It is so astonishing that many people cannot imagine it's so important, or that any religion might promote such an idea.
This Grace is freely given, as in gratuitous. We should ponder this mystery hoping that its truth might discover and transform those dark, rebellious impulses in our hearts that shun the light.
This grace is not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, a small offer or divine suggestion that, received, won't make much difference anyway.
As we consider this mystery, we stand amazed at its dimensions, that God would give his only begotten son for our salvation.
Because it's so unexpected, many people cannot hear it. They expect a god with demands, who says "You can do better!" but offers little help in that direction. In many cases their god is a misrepresented "old testament god" of arbitrary wrath, eager to punish and loathe to show favor.
Beyond its unexpectedness, this teaching seems somewhat too personal. It's like more help, more love, more "juicy, choice wine" than anyone should want.
Perhaps that's why the Lord comes to us as a baby. Which first-time parents, looking at their infant, are not astonished at the gift, and overwhelmed? This grace is unbearably beautiful, but equally terrifying in its vulnerable helplessness. "Is this our child?" they might ask. "Do we deserve such trust, such responsibility?"
The infant, totally helpless, will require all of their devotion and all of their love. There is no room for self between the parent and child, or between the infant's parents. And even as they give their all they will realize they have received more than they can possibly give.
Human life, with its preference for normalcy and predictability, is sometimes shaken by tragedies undeserved and unearned, but it is also immeasurably blessed by the Child who has loved us. This infant, unearned and undeserved, is a bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, richly poured out on us.