We began our Mass today with the prayer: “Keep Your family safe, O Lord, with unfailing care, that, relying solely on the hope of heavenly grace, they may be defended always by your protection.”
“Relying solely on the hope of heavenly grace.” That sounds like a good idea—certainly better than relying solely on myself, or pretending that God and I are equal partners in this enterprise. To put it bluntly, that hasn’t worked out so well.
“Relying solely on the hope of heavenly grace.” What exactly does this mean? When we ask God for help or forgiveness or nearness, we often cast about for a reason why He should hear and answer our prayers. That’s all fine and good, but most often we suggest anything but what will actually work. “Grant her eternal rest, O God, because she was a good person.” “Pardon me this sin, O Lord; I’ve done so well in the past.” “Help him with his family, O God; he’s trying so hard.”
This is not the way of prayer we find in the Scriptures. Read the prayer of Azariah in the book of Daniel, for instance, or the prayer of Queen Esther, and you find two basic elements. First—“Lord, we have sinned and transgressed. We’re in dire straights and can’t see our way out.” Second—“Lord, You alone can rescue us; You alone can vanquish our enemies. Do so for Your Name’s sake, for Your glory. You promised our fathers in faith to be our salvation, and now is the time for fulfillment.” And really, the first of these, seeing our own emptiness and want, is just a warm-up for the second, asking God to act according to His promises and goodness for the sake of His glory.
Even philosophically, there is no other motive for God to act. Everything He does finds perfection and rest in His own goodness. He isn’t moved by our goodness—heck, we’re hardly moved by that—but by our need for Him. He has repeatedly promised to do so, and now He is constrained to pay because of the blood of Jesus Christ.
Fine. But what does this look like, when we hope less and less in ourselves until we pass a vote of no-confidence in our own brilliance and strength, and in the meantime learn to trust more and more in God until He is our uncontested champion? When I hear preachers say we should get closer to Christ, I generally think, “That’s a great idea, but how? Leave it vague, leave it undone.”
Your mother irritates—no, infuriates you. Hope begins when we stop trying to argue her into submission or scream our frustration at her, and stop trying to control something we obviously can’t control, but instead—nonetheless angry—ask Jesus both to give us the grace to be patient and to bring His peace to the situation.
Life frightens you. Children being brought into an evil world, and the powers of darkness look so unstoppable. Raging lunatics enacting diabolical laws, publicly protesting perversity, and generally endangering the morals of the young. Hope starts when we acknowledge not only our fear but our inability to save the world or our children. That’s already been done, so we ask Christ both to give us His courage to do what we can and to guard our loved ones with His strength.
The more we do this, the more we are able to recognize that the external turmoil which causes our internal turmoil is something deeper than just another challenge, another instance of responding well to temptation. We hear St. Paul say today, “I resolved to know nothing…except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” We can see our worries and trials as crosses calling us to open our arms. Our initial reaction to the horror of this prospect will be to double-check, just to make sure we don’t have the moral reserves to do this on our own. But more and more, we will find that unnecessary. The answer is always the same: No. And then our mentality shifts from seeing our looming failure and so uniting ourselves to Christ crucified, to ignoring ourselves—skipping the useless step—and looking only to Christ crucified, finding in our own crucifixion tranquility, if not joy. Why? Because every time we have, though events turned out otherwise than we would have planned, we obtained His peace and a deeper insight into the eternal providence of an all-loving God. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings,” says the Apostle to the Colossians. And to the Galatians: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
But where does the cross lead us? What is the sign that our hope has been purged of all self-reliance, cleansed of every tainted motive? And Job said, “Although He should kill me, I will trust in Him.” We have a God Who takes what was buried in weakness and raises it in power, Who rewards with everlasting splendor a short life of struggle, Who never loses His hold on us even as we lose our tenuous hold on existence as we know it.
But to get from here to there, from handing over to Christ today’s vexation or terror—mom, brother, confrere, self—to finding joy in our crosses, to finally abandoning ourselves to divine providence in the face of death, we need an anchor whose rope we can pull on continually to draw us ever closer to our goal.
On the morning of Good Friday while it’s still dark, we sing one of the most dramatic chants of the year. (Don’t worry, I won’t sing it for you. Given the trashed state of my voice, it would end up being a tragicomedy à la Florence Foster Jenkins rather than having the somber dignity demanded of the Roman liturgy.) But in this responsory we sing, Circa horam nonam exclamavit Jesus voce magna: “At about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice.” Ironically, we sing this more and more softly, leading up a long, pregnant pause before crying out, Pater, in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum: “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit.”
Although Jesus did not have the hope we do, since He was already saw God face to face, yet that very vision gave Him the confidence to place His spirit in the hands of our heavenly Father at the exact moment of His death, will full knowledge that the Father would raise Him from the dead. Which He did. We don’t have that vision now, but neither do we need it. We have the witness of Christ. If we object that the Father loves Christ Jesus more than us, we miss what it means to be members of the Mystical Body. He sees us in Christ; He loves us in Christ. He has proved Himself trustworthy in Christ, and so whether we’re grinding our teeth into powder rather than scream at our children or confreres or self, or whether we’re sighing at another cross crushing splinters into our shoulder, or whether we’re surrendering our very lives to His will, our constant refrain is, “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit.” Then will we always be defended by His protection, always guarded by His strength, always sheltered by His care Who so leads us infallibly as to be always one with Him in the kingdom of heaven.