Scripture is a grace, in a sense the first grace. And Scripture is necessary for us to keep alive our awareness of grace.
The monastic tradition chants Psalms “antiphonally.” That means that one half of the group sings a verse while the other half listens, and then the second half sings and the first half listens, back and forth. It’s a splendid metaphor, and more than a metaphor, for grace. When we listen, we see that God’s Word – and God’s grace – comes to us from the outside. Scripture is something we receive, something we did not make. But when we sing, we show that God’s Word – and God’s grace – becomes part of us. It becomes my word. The Psalms are not supposed to remain outside of me, but to become my own prayer.
Grace begins outside of us: it is God’s work, not ours. But grace means that we are transformed. It becomes our work. It becomes us. God’s Word speaks to us from the outside, but it is meant to become our own word, our own understanding.
Scripture is a metaphor, and more than a metaphor, for grace.
But so too, Scripture is a guardian of grace.
Because grace does not begin with us, because grace is God’s initiative, and a totally free initiative, it is unexpected. Grace doesn’t fit into our plans. It certainly doesn’t fit into our natural way of thinking. We can craft whole theologies of how we would expect our relationship with God to work – and it will almost always leave out grace, because grace, by definition, is not part of our plan, not part of our view of things.
Scripture is the inspired Word of God. It is not just inerrant; it’s not just that everything that it says happens to be okay. It’s that God himself – God’s Holy Spirit – moves the human authors to see and say things they would not say on their own. They say it in their way – it is, again, they who say it; God’s Word becomes their own word; our “reading from the letter from James,” for example, is how we receive “the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God” – and yet it is a word that does not begin with them.
Indeed, the Word is Christ: he is the Word they speak. And he is grace; grace is conformity with him, becoming as he is, through his Father giving us new birth into his divine sonship. And the Word is inspired by the Holy Spirit, he who is grace, he whose presence transforms us, and we call it grace. Grace and Scripture go hand in hand.
Here’s my punchline: when we forget Scripture, we forget grace. I shouldn’t complain about homilies. But here are the two things I most notice about homilies. (I’ll get to complaining about lay people in a moment.) First, very few homilies are Biblical. Sometimes there’s one verse here or there taken out of context, but rarely does the homily dig into what the Bible is saying. Second, even fewer homilies are about grace. To listen to most Catholic homilies, you would think that we were deists, who believe that God made the world and then left it behind. (Deists can say many nice things about how we ought to behave – they can even say we ought to worship God – and so too do many of our deist homilies.)
Now, these two problems, forgetting the Bible and forgetting grace, go hand in hand. Or put it the other way: because grace is unexpected, of course we’re going to forget about grace if we don’t listen to the inspired authors. Of course we’re going to make up some alternate theology, in which there is no grace.
Again, many of these grace-less theologies are very nice; in many ways you might call them “orthodox.” I heard a homily the other day from a very nice priest. His starting point was a line in the Gospel: “no one who lights a lamp conceals it.” He came up with this whole nice thing about how we ought to let our little light shine for all to see. Nothing heterodox about that.
But he barely scratched the surface of Scripture, ignored all of the readings except one convenient line, which he wasn’t even interpreting very directly, and he had nothing whatsoever to say about what God does in us. His little light was a light without grace – a light, it appeared, that we create ourselves.
And of course it was! Because without listening to God’s word we never expect the amazing things God does. Deists can tell other people about their deist God, light their little lights and witness to their absent God. But Catholics ought to be talking about the vastly better plan, the plan of grace, which is revealed to us in Scripture.
Well, of course this isn’t only true of homilies, it’s true of all of our lives. If we don’t read Scripture, if we don’t meditate on Scripture and let Scripture shape our thinking, we’re bound to craft our own little alternate pseudo-Catholic theology, in which God does nothing.
Let Scripture surprise you with grace.
How has Scripture surprised you?