"Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing."
This sentence was in the Readings for the Office of Readings for Tuesday, November 2, 2010, All Souls Day. It's from a book by St. Ambrose on the death of his brother Satyrus.
I don't want to paraphrase what St. Ambrose wrote about. Instead, I want to share some thoughts I had as I've been meditating on that one sentence. For some reason, it's been sticking with me since I read it a few days ago, triggering associations and thoughts about just how necessary grace is.
Let's begin by defining grace. According to Merriam-Webster.com, grace is "unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification." That's a good definition for me, so we'll go with that.
Unmerited it is. We can't do anything within our own power to earn that assistance. That's Christianity 101. Sanctification is not a self-improvement program. It's beyond our power to effect it; it's beyond our power to demand it. It's a gift, from One Who is capable of making it happen.
Divine it is. The Lord, the Lord is His name. The Lord is God. This, too, is Christianity 101, Basics of the Faith.
Assistance it is. See the paragraph two up. We are incapable of doing what grace does, on our own. We need help.
All the rest of this is easy to unpack once you understand Who it's from, and for whom it's intended.
For whom it's intended... Well, yes, it's for fallen humanity. Refer back to the first few chapters of Genesis for the story of the Fall.
So - why am I making such a big deal of this? It's because, too often, we think that the need for grace ends when we breathe our last.
Grace is certainly necessary during our mortal lives. If we didn't get that divine assistance, we'd have absolutely no hope. Death would truly be the end of things, death and condemnation. We fell, through the agency of the first Adam. We inherited his legacy; it was willed to us, the unwilling, by the willful.
Grace is what breaks that inheritance. Grace sweeps the shards of that manacle away, rips the rags from our cringing shoulders, and cleanses us so we can put on new, bright garments for the Feast of the Lamb. Grace allows us to be reworked by the Spirit into the person we were made to be. Grace fixes things up. Grace equips us further to be instruments of grace ourselves in a damaged universe. It's the only "pyramid scheme" that actually does make everyone wealthier, the only one that's not a fraud from the word "Go!" Grace expended equals more grace abounding.
Grace is necessary in this mortal world. But it's even more necessary in the world after.
If you believe in life after death, how would it sound to spend eternity - eternity! - in a by-the-rules, toe-the-line "paradise," a realm where you would be expected to be perfect every second of every eternal day. I'm talking about an existence where you have to think about being perfect, where you have to be on your game the whole time.
I'm pretty sure that's what a graceless eternity would be like. Yeah, you'd be immortal, but wouldn't it be fun?
But now look at a grace-filled eternity. You don't have to think about being perfect - you are perfect. You are complete. You have been reborn into an existence where you can't help but be forgiving, gracious, humble, holy, righteous, self-effacing, giving, generous. You were formed into this person by the effect of grace lived during your mortal life. Now you, the living product of that purification, that regeneration, are living for all time in the presence of the One who made it all possible. There's no anxiety about being perfect - it's been done.
So - there you have it. The result of grace lived here and now is grace in the sweet beyond, grace refined, perfected, integrated completely with the new person, the work of the Spirit in the flesh.
It wouldn't be a burden. It would be a blessing, the blessing of blessings.
The Reading that started me thinking about all this ends with these words:
"Above all else, holy David prayed that he might see and gaze on this: One thing I have asked of the Lord, this I shall pray for: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, and to see how gracious is the Lord."
Amen. Grace and shalom to us all.