By John Hatch, Ph.D.
Column Description: As Christians, we are called to have the mind of Christ. This goes against the grain of our social and cultural conditioning. We seek personal or political advancement; Christ seeks the lost and the least. We grasp for cultural ascendency; Christ descends to the cross of love. This column is dedicated to thinking about culture and communication under the sign of the cross.
December 2021 / October-November 2021
My first column was a reflection on truth. This time, I’d like to ponder grace. My studies of societal reconciliation have revolved around the interplay of four moral goods: truth, grace, justice, and peace. I hope to write about justice in the near future, so it seems fitting to discuss grace here.
Grace has many definitions. “Favor.” “Mercy; pardon.” “Being considerate or thoughtful.” “A virtue coming from God.” “Unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration of sanctification.” Across a rich range of meanings runs a theme of generous giving and caring.
Sadly, grace finds little room in our public discourse at present. Derision, name-calling, scapegoating. Premature conviction by public opinion. Demanding one’s rights, without regard for others. Portraying those on the “other side” in the worst possible light. Confronted with so much partial “truth,” partisan “justice,” and graceless communication, it is easy to respond in kind. Our grace has its limits! Yet St. Paul exhorts us, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone . . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-18, 21, NIV).
If we are to communicate grace in graceless times, we must draw on a limitless source. “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17, NIV). The grace that shines forth in darkness, overcoming evil with good, springs from the eternal Logos. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . Through him all things were made . . . In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1-5, NIV).
God graced the world into existence by speaking. In an overflow of freedom and creativity, the Father spoke into the void: “Light—be!” and light was. By the reverberations of His living Word, the world is populated with lights beyond counting, from stars and planets to myriad living creatures, pulsing with life and beauty. Crowning creation, God calls forth humans, made in His image, graced with language so that we, too, may speak new things into being—and may respond to all of these gifts with voices of thanksgiving.
When our words are animated by something other than the living, eternal Word, they become graceless. God’s grace is not under our control; it is not earned by following the rules, nor owned by our religion or tribe. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45, NIV). Grace is free, like sunshine and rain, like the wind or a surging mountain stream. It flows from the heights and fills us with childlike delight at what comes our way, unbidden and wild. At length it rises back to its source, whence it graces the earth again like dew and rain. If we heed Christ’s challenge to “turn and become like little children” (Matthew 18:3, NIV), we will enter headlong into this dance of grace—a virtuous circle of giving, receiving, thanks-giving, and more giving.
Tellingly, grace and gratefulness spring from the same root. Spanish gracias, meaning “thanks,” comes from Latin gratia, the root of our English words grace and grateful. As grace is freely given—gratis—it naturally elicits gratitude. When we “say grace” over a meal, we are both giving thanks to God and gracing physical food with God’s blessing. And blessing itself is grace—a pronouncement of affirmation and favor and capability whereas yet there is only hidden potential and a capacity to receive.
Jesus’ mother models the way of the grace-full/grateful. The Roman Catholic tradition combines the annunciation of the angel Gabriel and the exclamation of cousin Elizabeth in a single acclamation: “Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” In bearing the Word-Made-Flesh, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NIV), Mary was indeed grace-filled. Yet the gospel account speaks of her as the recipient and conduit of divine grace: “‘Greetings, you who are highly favored . . . . Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God . . . . The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:28, 30, 35, NIV). God favors a peasant girl to bear His Son, not because she is full but because she is fully open to receive, and she gives herself both to the Giver and the Gift: “I am the Lord’s servant . . . May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38, NIV). Her humble, guileless faith draws upon divine grace without hindrance. Mary is an open vessel.
What about us? How do we become vessels of grace in a Twitterverse filled with derision, a Metaverse rife with incivility, a culture given to contempt and cancellation? May I suggest that we take a cue from the season’s progression of holidays: Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas.
Thanksgiving. Grace-fullness begins in gratefulness; for we have nothing to give unless we truly receive. And “of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace” (John 1:16, NASB). It’s hard to posture and argue while truly savoring good food and drink; it’s much easier to give thanks and compliment the cook. Gratitude is the posture in which we join the dance, allowing the Grace-giver to take the lead. We do not work up grace by our own willpower; we let ourselves be swept up into it and carry forward its momentum. Be grateful.
Advent. Like Mary, let us receive the promise in faith, abide in the hope of its fulfillment, and nurture God’s hidden presence with love. We cannot count on our knowledge of truth to enlighten the blind or our passion for justice to dispel the darkness. We will not be able to right all wrongs. Let us hold fast to truth, hunger for justice, and carry grace in our hearts, allowing it to do its hidden work. The Light is coming. Be faithful.
Christmas. “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16, NIV). In the fullness of time, the Light of the world shines forth, “full of grace and truth.” He redeems us from our partial truth, our partisan justice, our graceless communication. As God proclaims through the prophet:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. (Isaiah 42:1-3, NIV)
We have been graced with the same Spirit. St. Paul challenges us to dance and sing to the same tune: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25, NIV). “Let your conversation be always full of grace” (Colossian 4:6). Be grace-full.
In the grace of God, the Light has come. The Light still is coming—from beyond us, in and through us. Like the wind, the Spirit of grace runs circles around our anxious efforts to combat falsehood and injustice. May we feel His pull, lean into to His movement, and fall in step with His grace—until the Light blazes forth in glory.