catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 8 :: 2009.04.10 — 2009.04.24


Grace is like a box of chocolates

Tune my heart to sing thy grace…
Robert Robinson, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” (1758)

Grace is a slippery word, a word that won’t be contained within our theologies, a word best expressed in images and defined by experiences.   You might say: we know it when we see it.  And that’s a good thing.

I saw it this weekend in the presence of a transgendered woman at a music festival populated mostly by Christians; she showed grace indeed by not prejudging people against the standard of those who have hurt her so deeply.  And those who opened themselves up to the bigness of her love, her voice, her pain were transformed by the meeting of eyes, the complexity of isolation, the relief of bawdy laughter.

And speaking of bawdiness, in the introduction to his book Fingerprints of God: Tracking the Divine Suspect through a History of Images, Robert Farrar Capon imagines a formative dispute before the beginning of the world.  As Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit sit around drinking single-malt scotch and smoking cigars, they debate the efficacy of various symbols for grace.  Jesus and the Father are fairly settled on the dying love of Christ on the cross, but the Holy Spirit just doesn’t think we’ll get it, having a human penchant for rules rather than free grace.  In a last ditch effort, the Spirit argues,

Human beings aren’t afraid of accountability; they’re crazy about it.  If they can’t get credit for themselves or dish out blame to others, the cry, “Unfair!”  That’s why I pleaded with you to let me include something less subtle in the revelation.  Remember?  I suggested an image of the Son hiding in a box of chocolates in every person’s house: the gift would be there whether they know it or not, like it or not, believe it or not.  Maybe then they’d see that their faith doesn’t do anything to get them the chocolates of forgiveness; it simply enables them to enjoy what they already have.

Now, as much as I would enjoy an eternally replenished box of divine chocolates, I’m grateful (and I think Capon would agree) that the Spirit’s idea came in second.  The death and resurrection of Christ is a powerful grace symbol most of us can’t fully sort out in a lifetime - a marker of a good image, to be sure.

Thankfully, grace defies all of our attempts to pin it down, like a carpenter come back to life who can walk through walls, like déjà vu that disappears the moment we try to hold onto it.  In a small poem, number IX in the collection called Given, Wendell Berry writes,

The incarnate Word is with us,
is still speaking, is present
always, yet leaves no sign
but everything that is.

One might wonder if Berry’s been reading Capon:

The Word speaks all things into being at the beginning.  But then, when his creatures deface the world by contradicting his speaking…the Word just keeps on talking….  In him, creation and redemption are one act; both have always been going on full force in everything.  True enough, it took time for Scripture to reveal that gracious gift.  But when it’s all set down in black and white, grace is its ultimate point.

Much as we wordy, accountable creatures might like, grasping grace as an ultimate point is quite unlike grasping the thesis statement of a research paper or the answer to a puzzle.  Grace asks us to listen with our whole selves, and yet even in the absence of that vulnerability, it pursues us, like Jacob in the desert, like Jonah on the sea.

Sometimes it ravishes us with the force of an undertow. Sometimes it picks us up as gently as a shepherd rescuing a lamb.

Sometimes it’s as small as the skin popping perfectly off a clove of garlic, like a little paper jacket.  Sometimes it’s as big as blood on the doorframe.

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