Amazing Grace

After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

–Luke 3:21-22–

            Today the Church commemorates Our Lord’s baptism in the Jordan River by Saint John the Baptist.  But why was Jesus baptized?  According to Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 389), Christ submitted to baptism in order “to sanctify the Jordan for our sake and in readiness for us.”[1]  In other words, Our Lord was baptized not because He wished to become holy but, rather, because He wished to make water holy and fit for Christian baptism.  When Jesus was baptized, it was not He who was changed but that water itself was transformed!

            What’s so important about baptism?  In baptism, our soul is cleansed from all sin, both original and personal, and we receive sanctifying grace for the first time.  Thus we become temples of the Holy Spirit.[2]  Here I would like to give you five analogies to make it easier to understand the awesome gift that grace is.

Analogy #1: Grace is like a passport.  In the thirteenth century, Saint Louis IX, King of France (d. 1270), had this to say concerning baptism:

I think more of the place where I was baptized than of the Cathedral of Rheims where I was crowned.  For the dignity of a child of God which was bestowed on me at baptism is greater than that of the ruler of the Kingdom [of France].  The latter I shall lose at death; the other will be my passport to everlasting glory.[3]

According to the saintly medieval monarch, then, grace is like a passport to heaven, a mark of celestial citizenship.[4]  We need, however, to go further.

            Analogy #2: Grace is like equipment which allows us to live in an alien or hostile environment.  Note this little passage from an old catechism:

I cannot live underwater without special equipment (diving suit).  I cannot live in a fiery furnace without special equipment (asbestos suit).  I cannot live in heaven without special equipment (grace).[5]

Yes, Christ has certainly thrown open the gates of heaven, but it’s not just a matter of getting past the gates.  It’s a matter of living in heaven once we get there.[6]  For that, grace is the essential equipment—like an astronaut’s spacesuit for living in extraterrestrial realms.  We must, however, go further.

Analogy #3: Grace is not a mere thing like a passport or a spacesuit.  It is more like a living relationship with Christ.  Years ago, my sister Elizabeth and her husband Rick were on their way to their friend Steve’s wedding some miles from their home.  Unfortunately, they got stuck in traffic and missed the ceremony altogether.  They decided to make the best of it and go straight to the reception.  Rick and Elizabeth arrived well ahead of the bride and groom.  They put their wedding present on the gift table, mingled with the guests, and nibbled on the hors d’ oeuvres.  Although they knew no one at the reception, they thought nothing of it.  They naturally chalked this up to the fact that they had not seen Steve for years and probably knew none of his recent set.  They soon immersed themselves in the friendly post-wedding chit chat.  Finally the bride and groom arrived.  Horror of horrors!  It was the wrong couple.  Elizabeth and Rick had unknowingly crashed the wedding reception of total strangers!  What did they do?  What else could they do?  After discretely retrieving their wedding gift, my sister and brother-in-law made a hasty retreat.  Staying at the reception was out of the question.  They did not have a wedding invitation.  Why?  They did not know the groom.  It’s like that with grace.  Recall that Our Lord often likened heaven to a wedding reception with Himself as the Bridegroom.[7]  Just as Elizabeth and Rick could not remain at the wedding reception because they lacked even a passing acquaintance with the bride or the groom, so we will not be allowed to remain in heaven if we do not have grace, a living relationship with Christ, the heavenly Bridegroom.  We must go even further.

Analogy #4: Grace is a literal sharing in supernatural life.  Most people who own cactus plants are familiar with what is known as a grafted cactus.  Botanists are able to take two very different species of cactus and join them together.  At the point of juncture, the place where the graft occurs, the two species literally share the same cells.  The resulting plant, although it would never occur in nature, is often very beautiful.  That’s how Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (d. 1964) describes our reception of grace.[8]  When we receive grace at baptism, it is as if something of God’s nature is grafted onto us.  We become a new creation.[9]  We literally share God’s nature.[10]  That’s why a person in a state of grace can rightly be called a child of God.[11]  Just as a parent and child share the same nature, so we who are in a state of grace share God’s nature.  Grace is a sharing in God’s nature, but we must go even further.

Analogy #5: Grace is like light.  Imagine, if you will, a light bulb with a dimmer switch.  In baptism, we receive grace for the first time.  The light bulb gets turned on.  Prayer, good works, and the other sacraments increase the light of grace in our souls.  The bulb grows brighter.  Venial sin decreases the light of grace.  The light bulb becomes dim.  Mortal sin extinguishes grace in us.  The bulb gets turned off.   However, the sacraments of confession and the anointing of the sick restore the light of grace in us.  The light bulb is switched on again.  The analogy of grace as light is important.  Just as a light bulb helps people to see, so too our reception of grace is not for the sake of ourselves only.  By living in a state of grace and receiving the sacraments worthily, we become a source of light for others.

To sum up:  (1) Grace is like a passport to heaven.  (2) Grace is like a spacesuit, the necessary equipment which will enable us to live in the alien environment of heaven.  (3) Grace is a living relationship with Christ the Bridegroom.  It bestows on us the privilege of remaining at the wedding feast of heaven.  (4) Grace is like a grafting of God’s nature onto us, making us new creations, children of God and heirs of heaven.[12]  (5) Grace is the light of Christ in us which allows us to become beacons to guide others to heaven.

Amazing grace, amid earthly strife,

In baptism first bestowed—

Passport, space suit, invitation, graft of life,

A light for others on the road!

[1] Quoted in: The Liturgy of the Hours, Volume I (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1975), p. 634.  This extract is part of the Office of Readings for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

[2] 1 Corinthians 6:19.

[3] From an inscription over the baptismal font in a church in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

[4] See Philippians 3:20.

[5] Instructions in the Catholic Faith by Parish Priests, p. 27.

[6] I am pretty certain that these are the words of Frank J. Sheed in Theology for Beginners, Chapter IX.

[7] E.g. Matthew 25:1-13.

[8] The Three Ages of the Interior Life: Prelude of Eternal Life, Chapter 1.

[9] 2 Corinthians 5:17.

[10] 2 Peter 1:4.

[11] Romans 8:16.

[12] Romans 8:17.