Monday, June 22, 2020

Encounters With Grace

In my last post, I wrote about how I believe that we encountered the Body of Christ in a new way this year. Instead of the Eucharistic Processions that we are maybe used to seeing on the feast of Corpus Christi- with the Body of Christ in a monstrance paraded through the streets- we saw the part of the Body of Christ that is crying out for justice taking to the streets demanding to be considered an equal part of the whole Body.

Both of these types of processions are encounters. When you see Christ in a monstrance being carried through the streets, you cannot help but look at Him. It is the same when we see the people who make up the Body of Christ shouting and chanting that they are not being treated equally. You cannot help but see and hear and think about their message.

In this time of quarantine and the increased visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, we are encountering things in a way in which we haven't before. Some of these encounters are painful because they are forcing us to look at ourselves and our country and maybe see things that we would rather not see. Or maybe this time is painful because we aren't able to truly encounter friends, family, and our environments as we once did because of the virus.

I really think a lot of what we are seeing going on in our country right now- and even in the Church- is a result of something that happened way before quarantine, however. We had stopped encountering one another in a sense. Even before quarantine, we would so often encounter one another online instead of in person. It is so much easier to choose the opposite of an opportunity for grace when leaving a comment on someone's Facebook page than we speaking with them face to face. Even working at a Catholic School where our students are given opportunities to experience Christ in the sacraments and in prayer, even there, opportunities for grace can go unused.  Whether it be a misunderstanding with a parent, or teachers not communicating as we should when we encounter one another, opportunities and encounters for grace can pass us by. These are just two very simple examples from my every day life before we as a country started to look at much larger pandemics- both scientific and social.

Grace is what the Church teaches is the free gift that we are given to help us with sin. When we as Catholics receive the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, we believe that we are receiving Christ Himself. And with His presence, He gives us grace- which is a type of strength to help us live our lives in a more holy way. We believe in "actual grace", too, which is a free gift for everyone. Grace helps us to draw closer to God and what is good and true.

I think one of our issues just as humans in general is that we constantly want to focus on that encounter with sin, and not so much leave room for the encounter of grace. We do this with ourselves by maybe just focusing on the things that we do wrong, and not being gentle with ourselves and forgiving ourselves when we make a mistake. I know as a perfectionist, I struggled with this for years, personally. I had to start giving myself space to mess up, accept it, and not focus so much on the negative that I thought I had done.

We also do this with people we don't agree with- we focus on the sin, rather than the opportunity for change. I again see this online and in my school, and now we see it on a much larger stage with the conversations that we are having surrounding the issues in our country. These conversations CAN and should be opportunities of grace- freedom from our sin. Protests are calling attention to a gravely wrong sin that we have accepted for so long- racism. But in order for grace to come from this moment, we have to do as Christ did. We have to encounter. We have to engage.

One of my favorite Church documents is Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us which was a document that bishops came out with over twenty years ago to help adults encounter their faith more. It takes the Scripture story of the Road to Emmaus from Luke's Gospel and essentially breaks down what happened in that story and applies it to how we are to encounter our faith. Namely, that we encounter Christ in the following things: conversation and in breaking bread as the two in that story did (If you aren't familiar with the Road to Emmaus story, here it is. Scroll down to verse 13).

Image: Gang nacn Emmaus by Robert Zund, 1877

The men in that story have a conversation about the events that happened to Jesus. They are physically talking to Jesus, so they are praying in a sense. They then gather for a meal and receive the sacramental grace of breaking bread with Jesus. It is for us too, then, that our faith will grow if we are talking to God in prayer, conversing with one another, and sitting down together in community and in sacraments.

In this time of quarantine, some of these things are hard. We can't all sit together right now. Some of us still can't go to Mass and receive the sacraments. But we can pray and then let that prayer spark conversations with others. And if we are in a phase of quarantine that allows us to go out and have a conversation with someone- whether that be an elected official, a protest, or someone that maybe we disagree with or need to reconcile with- then we should. These are how moments of grace can happen. We need to encounter people and engage, but then allow them room for change. Grace is a free gift, but it requires openness. Grace has to be given freely and freely received.

It may seem to some that Black Lives Matters protesters are being forceful with their message right now and not leaving an opportunity for grace or change, but I don't think that is true. Because of the force that was and is used on African Americans for centuries, they are being forceful with their message, but what I see is a call to engage and encounter. Protesters are not forcing us to do something- we still have the freedom to choose to engage with their message or not (and this is part of privilege). African Americans have not had the freedom to choose in the past and because of this, our systems are still set up so that they do not have the same privileges and freedoms as others.

If I think about what Christ would do and where He would be if still physically walking the earth today, I believe that He would absolutely be down in the crowds speaking with others, trying to bring healing to those who are hurting, trying to bring about understanding and change. Wasn't He always doing that in the Scriptures? He is always depicted preaching in crowds, walking among the people and engaging with them, whether that person be a leper, a tax collector, a woman, a foreigner...anyone considered an outcast. Christ is still present among us...but through US. We need to be His hands and feet. We need to encounter and engage.

Juneteenth- a holiday that has long been celebrated by African Americans, but just recently started to get the recognition it deserved- happened to be the Feast of the Sacred Heart this year. The date of this feast varies depending on when Easter and Pentecost happen, but I think it is fitting that on a day when we finally are talking about Civil Rights and significant African American history, we also celebrate Christ's burning love for us. This feast day reminds us that we are all called to encounter Christ's Sacred Heart. By engaging with one another, we can encounter grace- a help for our sin. And this will ultimately draw us closer to His Sacred Heart and one another.

The stage has been set. The conversations are happening. The question remains:

How will we encounter that grace today?


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