10 January 2010

Grace trains. . .

Baptism of the Lord: Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

When hearing confessions or giving spiritual direction to university students—especially men—I frequently draw an analogy between developing spiritually and developing physically. Most of us have no illusions about what it takes to lose weight, build muscle, increase stamina, and get ourselves to the point where we are as fit as we can be. The whole unpleasant process begins with radical changes to the diet. Slowly increasing exercise. Maybe even a little weight-lifting. If you've ever started down this road, you know that you will not drop 25lbs in a week, nor will you be able to show off a six-pack by the weekend. Getting a flabby, overweight, diet-stressed body into some kind of shape requires determination, focus, commitment, and lots and lots of time. It wouldn't hurt if you had someone with experience to help. A professional trainer. A coach. Even a friend who knows how to keep you motivated. All of this applies to our spiritual growth as well. Being Catholics, we understand the sacramental nature of creation: the physical world is a sign of the spiritual, an imperfect revelation of God that both points to God's presence and makes Him present to us. We cannot, therefore, rightly divide the human body from the human soul and expect our spiritual lives to be fruitful. Just as the body needs proper diet, exercise, and a little hard-lifting, the soul needs its strength-training too.

We start our life-long regime at The Jesus Gym on the day we are baptized. From that moment on, “the grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age. . .” As Catholics, we don't have any trouble understanding grace as divine help, a gift from God to assist us when we need it. What we do have trouble understanding sometimes is that the help we get isn't always the help we want. Like the skinny 18 year old freshman who wants ripped abs in a week to impress his girlfriend, we sometimes approach the throne in prayer and ask not for assistance to accomplish some goal, but rather we ask God to accomplish the goal for us, instead of us. The freshman is very disappointed to hear that his six-pack will take a semester or two with lots of hard work. And we are no less disappointed to learn that grace does not prevent us from traveling the ways of the godless nor desiring what the world would have us desire. Instead, grace trains us how to be godly men and women. The hard work of chiseling out a ripped spiritual six-pack is all ours. But we do not work alone.

And not only do we not work alone, we cannot work alone. Christianity is a team sport. We play as a team, so we train as a team and the perfect model for teamwork is the Holy Trinity: three divine persons, one God. The more perfectly we imitate this model of Love in action, we closer we get to that Jesus Gym spirit we've been wanting. As noted above, the first step on this new regime is baptism. I did not baptize myself. Nor did any of you. The Church baptized us all with parents, godparents, friends, fans, by-standers, accidental tourists, all the angels and saints—every one in attendance. And because we were baptized by the Church, we might think that the only thing we got for our trouble is a life-long membership to the Jesus Gym. As wonderful as that is, it's not even close to the full baptismal package. Paul writes to Titus, “[God] saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.” First, notice: God saved. . .He poured out. We did nothing (nor could we do anything) to initiate the renewal of our relationship with God. It was His move and His alone. Second, notice: through Christ, by the Holy Spirit, through our Savior, by his grace. Christ Jesus is the only mediator, the only mechanism; he is the only way. Third, notice: us, us, our, we, heirs. Not “Me & Jesus.” Not “Jesus, MY Personal Lord & Savior.” His grace is poured out on US. . .WE are saved by the bath of rebirth and the renewal of the Holy Spirit. . .Christ is OUR Savior. . .And WE are made HEIRS in hope of eternal life. This is what baptism does for us and to us: we are made just (righteous), so that we might work with God's abundant graces to get our spiritual bodies into the best shape possible.

But even before we can be baptized in water and the Spirit; even before we can be offered the chance at a right-relationship with the Father through Christ; even before it is possible for us to be heirs to hope in eternal life. . .The Jesus Gym must have a grand opening. It only makes sense. Plans were laid long ago with the prophets. They rounded up the initial investors. After a few false teachers and at least one wash-out (ahem), momentum starting building. Finally, the Plan was conceived and announced. And before it was fully born, there was one enthusiastic booster. Then, with some astronomical fanfare and a couple of sheep, the Plan was born, drawing its first foreign investors twelve days later. With this starting capital and two excellent CEO's, the Plan matured for a while and opened for business for the first time at a wedding in Cana. . .but the Grand Opening, the opening that makes The Jesus Gym not just another gym but The Gym for all peoples, tribes, nations, and tongues, this opening takes place at the River Jordan where Jesus' first booster baptizes him with water and then the Father baptizes him with His Spirit, saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Now, The Jesus Gym is open for business.

If, after all the bad analogizing, you are still reading, let me quickly tell you why Jesus was baptized. Here's a nice summary from the CCC: “The baptism of Jesus is on his part the acceptance and inauguration of his mission as God's suffering Servant. He allows himself to be numbered among sinners;. . .Already he is anticipating the 'baptism' of his bloody death. Already he is coming to 'fulfill all righteousness,' that is, he is submitting himself entirely to his Father's will: out of love he consents to this baptism of death for the remission of our sins. . .”(n. 536). Remember, earlier we said that the Holy Trinity is the perfect model of teamwork. By imitating the work of the Trinity we come closer to the spiritual perfection for which we were made. By submitting to baptism, Christ demonstrated his acceptance of his Father's plan for our salvation. This shouldn't sound all that unusual: three divine persons, one God—perfect Love in action. The Son submits in love to take on human flesh in order to bring the Father's offer of renewal to us. And not only does he deliver the invitation, he becomes our sin; dies for us; rises again to the Father; and sends the Holy Spirit as our guide. The whole of his public ministry, inaugurated by the River Jordan, was to proclaim the Father's invitation and to leave us a body of teaching that serves to reveal what grace in action look likes. The Gospels answer the question: what does the perfected follower of Christ look like? Out of love, she dies for her friends.

Grace trains us for the godly life. What is the godly life? It is not scrupulous moral behavior. It is not meticulous orthodoxy. It is not righteous anger at injustice. It is not any one of these alone. The godly life is the life Christ left for us to follow. The godly life begins with baptism, grows with the Church, and ends with “Out of love, he ____for his friends.” How you fill in that blank will depend on how well you used your time and strength at The Jesus Gym. Most of us will spend our lives trying to decide if we have the courage to put “died” or “suffered” in that blank. Grace trains. But you have to do the work.


  1. There is also that saying: "No pain, no gain," which I think applies nicely to the analogy of the spiritual life as a kind of athletic endeavor.

  2. Good one, Fr. P -- thank you. Thanks for the reminder that though the Grace is ours for the taking, the work is still to be done by us. "YOU give them something to eat" [Mt 14:16b] often rings in my ear when I descend into whiny withdrawal "make-them-all-go-away" mode (which has become perpetual lately).

    Whenever you are in the throes of homiletic block, please remember us poor slogs out there who rely on your homilies as reminders of why we're all doing this in the first place ...

  3. Anonymous3:21 PM

    I like it, a lot. I am still quite the freshman, hoping that all spiritual problems will be solved instantly, mostly as I haven't had the patience to work on my physical body before!

    Great homily. I really liked how you pulled through the analogy of the gym and the need for perseverance. The fourth and fifth paragraphs were a little too above my head, but I really liked the conclusion and the first three paragraphs.

  4. Superb, Father. St. Dominic would be proud.

  5. whoa....

    guess tying your feet to the desk helped....