Monday, February 3, 2014

Refining Grace

Homily for the Feast of the Presentation, Sunday Feb. 2nd, 2014

Spotless, immaculate, unblemished, impeccable, untarnished, unsullied, pure.
These words seem old fashioned today, don’t they?  Or at least in reference to a person.  They are words we might use to describe the state of a house, or of a thing.  An antique car might be untarnished or unsullied.  Water is pure.  A painting is unblemished or impeccable.  And a kitchen is spotless or immaculate.

But a person, a soul?   The only person who I think most Catholics would comfortably speak of in these terms is the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Immaculate Mary.  She’s not a person, she’s a saint, right?

But even attributed to her the language sounds archaic today – remote, almost like a fairy tale, some far off distant place.  Can you imagine saying to someone “Christ is at work purifying me so that he can present me as an offering to God, holy and blameless in his sight.”
“He’s doing what!?”  “Are you sure that you don’t have psychological problems?”

Instead, we so often speak and hear about God’s activity in the world in reference to evil and sin.  Either he is condemning and punishing, or he is forgiving and healing.  He’s the good cop or the bad cop.  But he’s the cop.

But today he is not the cop.  He is not the law.  He is not turning over tables and driving out sin and evil from the temple.  Instead he is presenting to God the reward of diligent and persistent effort, he is nourishing and building up, he is giving strength and vitality, he is bringing to fulfillment hopes and promises.  Today Christ enters the temple as a builder, as an artist.

In our first reading, the prophet Malachi speaks of Christ in these terms, in the terms of a craftsman: he is the goldsmith who through fire refines ore into a precious metal, he is the fuller who with lye cleanses wool to prepare it to be dyed and spun into cloth.  In other places in the scripture I’m sure you recall the descriptions of God’s activity in similar terms: the potter who shapes and molds clay into a vessel; the gardener who plants and tends his vines so that they produce good fruit.

But how often we think of God as a janitor, not an artist.  Instead of someone who takes what is good and refines it and purifies it and makes it beautiful, we think of him as someone who goes around mopping up spills and fixing broken windows and cleaning toilets.

We lose the sense of a long term and committed and covenantal relationship, of patient and dedicated effort on his part.  Instead, God is portrayed as one who comes in at the last moment and condemns or cleans.  As if all of his activity and involvement were concentrated at the moment of conception and the moment of death.

But that is not the way of an artist.  An artist is persistent – through trial and error, over years of different experiments and interactions, working in harmony with natural tools and materials, an artist creatively weaves them together, purifying and strengthening, sifting and intensifying: honing to a sharpened edge, burnishing to a bright luster, pruning to a bountiful harvest.  Over years, over decades, with sweat and tears and blood.  Through joys and struggles, setbacks and victories, working diligently to prepare, to build, to create beauty, to reveal truth, to nourish goodness.

Who were Simeon and Anna if not the fruits of these labors?  The Gospel tells us that the Spirit was upon them.  They were temples who had been purified within the temple.  Year after year the Lord had worked with and in them, diligently perfecting and strengthening them, helping them through trial and error, preparing them for the day when they would be present and Christ’s presentation, as members of his body, the Church.

What did Simeon say:  “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word.”  Now your work in me is complete.  This is the final brush stroke, the pinnacle.

Simeon and Anna are the image and the sign of what we are all meant to be in Christ: offerings to God who have been purified and refined and built up in the Spirit.  The presence of Simeon and Anna in the temple today prefigures the final day when Christ will enter into the heavenly Jerusalem and present all of us, the work of his hands, to our heavenly Father.

As we come together let us ask Christ to help us cooperate with and be open to the work of his creative and purifying Spirit.  May we not shy from our divine sculptor’s chisel, or the Master gardener’s pruners.  May we be docile in the hands of the potter and submit to the honing file.  We are being purified.  We are being molded and shaped and transformed in Christ, an artist who is gentle yet firm.  As Hebrews tells us in our second reading, “Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

We are being prepared by the mysterious workings of God’s grace alive in us.  The grace we receive here at Mass and in the sacraments is fundamentally a constructive and refining grace, a grace that is at work to build us up, purify us, and make us fully human.  May we trust in the skillful hands of Christ, in the steadfast and never-failing efforts of the Divine Artist, who is at work to make of us, his Church, a pure and holy masterpiece revealed in all her splendor in the final presentation.

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