The Word Among Us

Advent 2010 Issue

Hail, Full of Grace!

Mary shows us how to develop our spiritual instincts.

In 1913, George Bernard Shaw published a play called "Pygmalion". The play tells the story of a young cockney woman named Eliza Doolittle and a well-bred professor named Henry Higgins.

Professor Higgins claims that he can transform this low-class woman with a dreadful accent into a charming lady of society simply by teaching her proper etiquette and pronunciation. Pygmalion was a great success and was eventually turned into a popular musical called My Fair Lady. Part of the story’s success lies in the way it illustrates everyone’s hope for a better life—their hope for some kind of miraculous transformation that sets them free from their limitations and lets them become a new person.

And yet, as popular as Pygmalion and My Fair Lady are, their story is a mere shadow of the way God wants to transform our lives. God wants to take each of us, with all of our good behavior and all of our dreadful “accents,” and fill us with his grace. He wants to make us spiritually “charming.”

In this article, we want to look again at Luke’s story of Christmas to learn about God’s power to change us. There are times when we may feel like Eliza Doolittle—acutely aware of our flaws and problems. But Jesus wants us to know that he is capable of transforming us far more deeply than Professor Higgins did with Eliza. In fact, Jesus wants to tell us that he is ready to pour divine grace into our hearts, grace that can make us into a new creation.

A Gracious God. How can we ever describe God fully? Mere words can’t suffice. Our minds are too small, and our hearts are too clouded by sin to grasp his nature or to contain all the love he has for us.

While this is true, it is still important that we try to understand God as best we can. And for that, one of the best tools we have are words—limited though they may be. For example, we say that God is perfect, all-powerful, all-present, all-knowing, eternal, faithful, merciful, just, and loving. And we say that God is gracious (Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:1-2; Psalm 103:8).

But not only is he gracious toward us, God is also very generous in pouring his grace upon us. For instance, St. Paul says that our conversion is a result of God’s grace (Galatians 1:6-9). He says that God’s grace is sufficient for us (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), and he urges us not to receive the grace of God “in vain” (6:1).

Scripture says that we are saved by God’s grace, that our hearts are strengthened by grace, and that we are justified by grace (Ephesians 2:5,8; Hebrews 13:9; Titus 3:7). Grace encourages us and gives us hope (2 Thessalonians 2:16). It transforms us and helps us in our times of need (1 Corinthians 15:9-10; Hebrews 4:16).

Mary’s Spiritual Instincts. According to St. Luke, the angel Gabriel greeted Mary with these words: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Later, he repeats himself, saying: “You have found favor with God” (Luke 1:28-30). The Greek word for “favor” here is charis. It is a very rich word that can also mean “charm” or “loveliness.” And how perfectly this word describes Mary! She found favor with God. She was full of his grace. And as a result of God’s grace, Mary was gracious, charming, and very attractive. In other words, Mary was gracious because she was open to God’s grace. She never let anything keep her from receiving his grace.

Did you know that you can be full of grace as well? It’s true. Scripture says that baptism has made us into a “new creation”—one open to his grace (2 Corinthians 5:17). St. Peter goes so far as to say that by God’s grace we can even “share in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). When God poured his grace into us at baptism, he awakened our spiritual instincts. He raised up our human nature and pointed us toward heaven. But like the muscles in our bodies, these instincts will not grow and become strong unless we nourish them and exercise them.

Mary had a number of opportunities to doubt God or be frustrated. The Annunciation is one example. On another occasion, she tried to have some time with her very busy son, but he made her wait outside the house (Matthew 12:47). Again, at a wedding feast in the town of Cana, Jesus replied to her charitable request for more wine for the party by saying: “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:3-4).

These stories might surprise and even irritate us because they involve Jesus asking Mary to take on a role of superhuman humility and modesty. We also sense that if we were in Mary’s position, we might respond out of frustration or even anger. But Mary did not do that. Because she was full of grace, she sensed that something special was going on at the Annunciation. She could sense that Jesus was making an important point when he kept her waiting. She seemed to know, almost instinctively, that Jesus would rescue the wedding, even though he had just issued what appeared to be a sharp rebuke to her.

Developing Our Instincts. Of course, because of her immaculate conception Mary was a special case. But the Christmas story shows us many other people who were open to grace and whose spiritual instincts were strong. Think about Simeon, Anna, Joseph, Elizabeth, and even the baby John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb. How did they sense that Jesus was special? How did they know he was the Messiah? Because like Mary, they cooperated with God’s grace.

Grace moved Joseph to change his mind and take Mary as his wife. It moved Elizabeth to cry out: “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). It was grace that inspired the baby John to leap for joy in his mother’s womb (1:44). It was grace that drew the shepherds to the manger and the Magi to the Holy Family (2:8-18; Matthew 2:1-12). Grace gave Simeon and Anna the ability to recognize Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:22-38). How did this happen? These people were full of the Holy Spirit, and they allowed God’s grace to shape their lives (1:41; 1:67; 2:25).

St. Paul once told Timothy: “Stir into flame the gift of God that you have” (2 Timothy 1:6). He also told the Colossians to “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). And he told the Corinthians to “strive eagerly” for the Spirit and his gifts (1 Corinthians 14:1).

What Paul said long ago applies to us today. We all have spiritual instincts. We just need to stir them up. And to help us, God has given us many wonderful gifts. First, and most important, he has given us his Holy Spirit. He has also given us his own body and blood in the Eucharist. He has forgiven our sins and given us the church, which is his body on earth. Through all these gifts and so many more, he has made it possible for us to be full of grace and to sense his presence, his will, and his love.

It’s a Process. Faith is both a gift from God and our response to God’s grace at work in us. Our spiritual instincts are heightened as we let this gift of faith stir in us and as we act in faith. As our instincts develop, then, we become more alert to God’s presence and to his work in the world. Like everything else we learn in life, this spiritual transformation is a process.

So this Advent, try to see how often you are acting according to your spiritual instincts. Spend some time examining your prayer life or your attitude toward Mass. Ask yourself: “What did I sense God saying to me in my prayer or just after communion?” “Am I able to hear God’s still, small voice inside of me as I look at the beauty of this sunset?” “What is the Spirit trying to say to me in this situation?”

You may want to look at one or two of your relationships as well. “How would Mary or Joseph or Elizabeth have responded to this person? What were my spiritual instincts telling me while I was talking to him or her? Were they prompting me to be more loving and a bit less self-righteous? Were they moving me to forgive? Were they urging me to be more patient, generous, or compassionate?” As you ask questions like these, try to write down your answers in a journal and keep track of what you see God doing.

St. Paul once wrote: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). What happened to Paul can happen to us. God wants to help us as we work to develop our spiritual instincts. And it all begins when we pray: “Lord, pour your grace on me. I want to yield to your grace and allow its power to make me a new creation.”