Ash Wednesday: grace is not in vain

What a curious thing for Paul to write to the Corinthians: “We urge you … not to accept the grace of God in vain.”

How could God’s grace ever become vain, or be wasted in vanity?

God’s grace cannot be diminished, nor wasted, nor diverted because it is in all and sustains all of creation and the entirety of eternity.

But our response to God’s grace – well, that’s another matter. We are all too capable of wasting and diverting and diminishing and completely missing the point of God’s love for us and all whom God has made. We are barely capable of appreciating the magnitude of Christ’s love – its height and breadth and depth. And isn’t that the point of a season like Lent, to remind us and restore us and reconcile us to the remembrance of God’s grace, God’s love, God’s steadfast mercy towards us mortals?

Last summer, we put out the lawn chairs in front of the church so that we could sit out and meet some of our neighbours going by. On the very first day a strange encounter occurred.

Someone else got to the church parking lot before me that morning. As they were getting out of their car, a stranger approached, looking for the priest and some prayer. “The priest isn’t here yet,” our member said, “but I can pray with you.” Perfect.

They went to the chairs, and that’s how I found them when I arrived, heads bent together in prayer.

Before he left, the stranger asked if we could spare some bus fare, which we found that we could. He left with a blessing and blessed us in return. We turned back towards the church.

While we had been talking, it seems, a police car had arrived and pulled into the lot. The officer was watching us. He wanted to know what the stranger wanted, and how we had responded. He was not wild about the way our encounter ended, but we pointed out that this is a church, and sometimes people come here looking for help of one sort or another, and sometimes they find it, in one kind or another.

There were a few things about that morning that stuck with me, and that stuck in me. Our member behaved beautifully toward our passing visitor, but I noticed that when I was confronted by the police officer, I became a little defensive. I think that it was quite right to point out that sometimes, when people are looking for it, they find help here, of one sort or another, and I do not want anyone hindered or deterred who is looking here for the grace of God.

But while I was making that point, I forgot to add to the officer that he, too, was welcome to find help here, should he need it: prayers for peace, and for protection; the grace and healing of confession, the mercy of reconciliation.

Even while we were doing some good, I failed to do all the good that I could with the grace of God that I had to hand.

That does not mean that the grace of God to me, to him, to them, to anyone in the story is in vain. It might mean that my ego, my defensiveness, my vanity interrupted my full acceptance and recognition of all the grace that was available in that moment.

This is why Lent is a good discipline for me. The soul-searching, the self-denial, the study of God’s grace is something that I need constantly if I am to recognize the enormity, the ridiculous span and spread of God’s mercy.

But constantly is hard to do. Setting aside a time, a season, a time of day to pray, a day of the week to fast, a pattern in which to remember that God who made us from the dust of the earth loves us, and redeems us helps me to remember that God who made us in God’s image will restore us one day so that we may look upon the true image, the face of the Divine.

In the meantime, in this mortal life, in which one thing comes after another and there are barely enough moments in the day to remember how to breathe, let alone how God breathed life into the human creature made out of dust and earth; in this mortal life, to set a moment apart to remember God’s grace seems essential, if we are not to accept it in vain, and squander our opportunities to live as those in love with God and loved by Christ, that we might learn to love one another.

But there is help for us here, wretched as we may be. There is the grace of confession and the mercy of reconciliation. There is the bread of life and the cup of salvation. There is the remembrance, once more, that Jesus loved us enough to become mortal with us, to enter the tomb and the realm of the dead, so that we need not fear our mortality, but recognize God’s mercy in returning us, at last, to the hands of our Creator.

As I pray for each of us a holy Lent, and a season of penitence and grace such that our fast shall not be in vain, I ask that you would in turn pray for me, a sinner. Amen.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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