Friday, August 7, 2015

Nature and Grace by Ralph Birdsall

Unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. — Ephesians 4: 7

One is impressed by the bravery of the little company of men who fought the first battles of Christianity in apostolic days, with all the odds of the world against thorn. Among them there was a man who was originally a coward.

When yon speak of S. Mark, you remember that his symbol is a Lion, and that his name stands high upon the roll of mighty Christian heroes. But he was not always a hero. He was not of the stuff of which heroes are usually made. Nothing but the grace of God made him a Lion. In the glimpses given of his early life both tradition and Bible history unite in representing S. Mark as on the run from some post of danger. He will make no high ventures. He will face no great peril. He will stake no great issue upon faith in a friend. When our Lord, in the discourse at Capernaum, declared that His followers should eat His flesh and drink His blood, many of His disciples stumbled at the mystery of the saying, and would not wait for the explanation. They went back and walked no more with Him. Of these, tradition says, was S. Mark.

On the night of the betrayal of Christ there was a young man, not with the disciples, who witnessed the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, and who, when the Jewish servants of the High Priest laid hold upon him, left his garment in their hands, and fled away naked through the darkness. This, there is good reason to conjecture, was S. Mark. Some years afterward, when his cousin Barnabas, with S. Paul, took him upon a missionary journey, S. Mark became terror stricken at the dangers of the enterprise, and turning his back upon perils of floods and robbers in the wilds of Pamphylia, fled to his home in Jerusalem.

The mother of S. Mark was a woman of wealth in Jerusalem. She had a house large enough to be used for the gatherings of the Christian disciples, whose cause she had espoused. It is not unlikely that her house was the one, having the large, upper room, in which Christ ate the Last Supper with His friends, and instituted the Holy Communion.

In the house of Mark's mother, at any rate, S. Peter was often a guest of honor, and when the storm of persecution burst upon the Christians of Jerusalem, always they found refuge in this home.

S. Mark's mother, therefore, was a distinctly courageous woman. By making her house a center of resort for Christians she put her very life in constant jeopardy. Certainly S. Mark did not inherit his timidity from this valiant mother. But, since temperament is often hereditary, it is not unlikely that he derived from his father a some what shrinking and timorous disposition. If the father were living at the time, it is significant that no mention of him is made in the sacred narrative. The mother is the bold and aggressive spirit of the household.

There is early evidence of the fact that S. Mark suffered from some physical deformity. It was remembered in Rome that he used to be called, "Mark, the stump-fingered," or "Mark, the cripple." So we have the picture of this young man, not naturally strong either in body or spirit, brought up amid luxury at the home of his mother in Jerusalem, pampered by her, perhaps, as to the sons of heroic women not seldom happens, shielded from danger by her, while she conspired with Peter, the Rock-Man, and James and John, the Sons of Thunder, at secret meetings in the upper room, for the conquest of the world in the strange new name of Jesus!

It is here that Mark falls under the spell of S. Peter, and roused from his luxury and inactivity by the prince of Apostles, determines to give his life to the Christian calling. It seems no great gain to the new faith that this young man becomes a Christian. He is not inured to hardships, like S. Peter, by the storms of Galilee. He is not the man, like S. Stephen, to spread the faith of Christ by submitting to the cruel death of martyrdom. He is not the man, like S. John, to brave mobs in the city streets. In the first great test of his faith he miserably fails, and returns in defeat from the rigors and perils of the missionary field to the comforts of his mother's home.

His cousin Barnabas mourns his loss, and S. Paul, who has no patience with timidity, gives him up as a hopeless craven. But watch this man, as he groans beneath the shame of his defeat, and you will see the great, eternal miracle of Christianity ! There comes slowly into his life a power that changes and renews his character. He acquires a new force that counteracts his hereditary fear. He gains a grip that flings back the deadly coil of circumstance. He who dared not accompany S. Paul amid the dangers of Pamphylia proves worthy of a second trial, and the time arrives when throughout Asia Minor he becomes famous as a leader of missionary expeditions of his own.
There comes a day when S. Paul, who had rejected Mark as a poltroon, writes from his prison at Rome to Timothy begging him to bring Mark with him. "For he," says S. Paul, "is profitable to me for the ministry."

It is S. Mark who becomes the favorite companion of the fiery S. Peter, accompanies him in Rome, undaunted by the persecutions of Nero, stands by him during his martrydom, and when Nero's sword has fallen, continues in Rome amid the storm, to write, from his memory of S. Peter's reminiscences, the Gospel which bears the name of Mark. It is S. Mark who courageously meets his death, at last, dragged by a mob over the stones of the streets of Alexandria. Not without cause has the Lion been emblazoned as the symbol of S. Mark!

We are by nature the victims of heredity and circumstance. That is the modern phrasing of a truth that Christianity has recognized during many hundreds of years. Theological doctrine has it that we struggle against original sin, and the world, and the flesh, and the devil. The tendency of modern thought is to repudiate the theological doctrine, and to say that we struggle against heredity and environment. In effect this is precisely the same thing.

 It gives a more sophisticated expression to a truth that the Church has all along maintained. No truth is better established by the actual experience of human life and the consciousness of the individual soul.

You are the product of forces that galvanize through a long chain of ancestral lineage. You are in the grip of circumstances that have been in the making through all eternity. When Babylon was at the zenith of its glory, some direct ancestor of yours was living and playing his part upon the stage of the world, and helping to determine what you should be. While Christ was dying on the Cross, some ancestor of yours was plying his trade in the life of some ancient city, or shouting for the battle in some distant jungle. When Charles the Great built his empire, an ancestor of yours was somewhere building you. Self evident truth, but how strange to think on! And the circumstance of life! How little you had in the making of it. It was ready for you here when you arrived, like the mould prepared for the fresh molten metal.

 The great adventure of life, as Chesterton says, is being born. That determined everything. Where? When? In what circumstance? Under what influence? Heredity. Environment. A force pushes you here from beyond. Other forces encircle you and shape you from around. What else can you be but what you are?

It is a great delight to fathers and mothers to see in the faces of their children the miniature likenesses of their own. But it is a terrible awakening when you begin to discover in your child not only the likeness of your feature, but the reproduction of your fault, the image of your sins, the germ of your own evil tendencies. There is unutterable woe in the thought that you have brought this pure being into the world to develop into a replica of your unworthy self, to be bound through life to toil in the treadmill which you, by the failings of your life, have inevitably prepared. "Poor child," the father cries, "you are beating against the bars of an iron necessity, and I, who would set you free, have built your prison in days that are beyond recall!" How many a parent thus groans within himself, while he storms at the viciousness of his son, or scolds at the waywardness of his daughter!

Now the Christian faith, alone of all the religions by which man has sought to approach God, holds the answer to this problem of heredity, and the problem of circumstance. Other religions have upheld high standards, but none other has professed to give power to move toward them. "The law was given by Moses," says S. John, and he might have added the names of other great religious leaders, "but grace," he says, "came by Jesus Christ."

The Church which Christ founded differs from all other institutions in the world in its claim to be the dispenser of grace, the giver of a power which helps men to advance toward the ideals which it up holds. The Church admits, nay, she asserts it to be true, that man by nature is altogether fixed in the grip of heredity and in the clutch of circumstance. Christ claims to give a new force of heredity, a new birth. "Ye must be born again." He claims authority to bestow upon human nature a new strength, greater than the power of circumstance. "Abide in Me, " " Without Me ye can do nothing. ‘The Christian faith does not deny the strength of the forces which seem to drive us toward evil. But it asserts the actual existence of grace, a force through Jesus Christ, greater than all the powers of evil. "Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”

S. Paul seems to have been keenly conscious of the evil in his nature, of his own helplessness to combat it, and yet alive to the sense of a new power of grace through Christ which gave him victory.
"The good that I would, I do not," he says, "but the evil which I would not, that I do… I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. wretched man that I am," he cries, "who shall deliver me from this body of death!" And then he learns to say in deep humility, when he has conquered himself, "By the grace of God, I am what I am," and "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me."

This is the real miracle of Christianity. With all the sins laid to its charge, with all the failures and shocking hypocrisies of individuals, it has continually renewed life and transformed character. One must be deeply prejudiced against the Middle Ages that connect the apostolic days with our own who does not recognize in them a brilliant stream of genuine Christian life that shines forth through the darkness. And the amazing thing is that, in those ages, the growth of Christian living persisted, when the whole force of what we call heredity was set against it. The best minds, the best morals, the finest flower of Christianity, during that period, were cloistered within the walls of friaries and nunneries, and commanded never to re produce their kind. But the law of grace defied the law of heredity from age to age, and out of the common clay kept on producing ever new flowers of Christian living.

The law of grace abounds here in the Church today. It is inconsistent to accept the supreme mystery of the Incarnation, to believe that God became Man, to believe that the God-Man died upon the Cross for us, and to repudiate the consequent mystery of actual grace flowing from His Cross, through the Church which He established.

Yes, it is true! Grace is given in answer to prayer and in the doing of good works in the name of Christ. Grace is actually given in the Sacraments of the Church. Grace is given in Holy Baptism, a new birth to conquer the force of heredity. Grace is given in Confirmation, the seven-fold gift of the Holy Ghost, to arm men against the evil circumstance of life. Grace is given in Holy Matrimony, to hold men and women true to solemn vows. Grace is given in Holy Communion, by which through many failures, men are strengthened for the battle of the world. Only let us be humble, and earnest, and sincere, in receiving these great gifts, and the coward becomes brave, the angry becomes meek, the lecher conquers his passion, the miser becomes generous, the sot becomes sober, the sloth becomes diligent, and we press on toward the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

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