The readings for the third Sunday of Advent put me in mind of one of the most significant themes in Catholic theology, namely, the play between nature and grace. St. Luke tells us that people came to John the Baptist, asking what they should do to reform their lives. John responds with good and very pointed moral advice. To the tax collectors he says, “Don’t take more money than you ought” and to the soldiers he urges, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone; be content with your pay.” In so saying, he was addressing very common practices of that time and place. Tax collectors regularly demanded more money than was just and skimmed the surplus for themselves—which helps to explain why they were so unpopular. And soldiers—young men with weapons and too much time on their hands—predictably acted as bully-boys, extorting money through threats of violence.
John the Baptist is, quite sensibly, calling such people to decency and justice. As such, he stands with great philosophers, poets, social reformers, and religious figures. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. all summoned people to be just, “to render to each his due,” in Plato’s pithy formula. In point of fact, John, often called the last of the prophets, echoes his prophetic forebears—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, etc.—all of whom urged Israel to walk the path of justice and care for the marginalized and poor.
So far, so natural. But then John adds something, which should take our breath away: “One mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals,” that is to say, perform a task that was considered too demeaning even for a slave. We just couldn’t imagine Isaiah saying such a thing about Jeremiah, or Amos about Hosea, or Plato about Aristotle. What John the Baptist is signaling is the qualitative difference between himself (and the entire prophetic tradition that he represents) and the coming Christ Jesus. John was baptizing with water, but the one he announces will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit.
Notice how the emphasis has shifted from the active to the passive. John told his audience that there were certain very definite things that they could do. But the one who is coming will not so much call for action on our part; rather, he will accomplish something that we, even in principle, could never accomplish for ourselves. He will dip us (baptizein) in the Holy Spirit, which is precisely the love that obtains between the Father and the Son, the love that God is. It is with this very love that he will set us on fire.
This passivity is signaled as well in the second great image that John employs, one that might be opaque to us but that was eminently clear to the Baptist’s first century audience: “His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor.” When farmers in the ancient world wanted to separate wheat from chaff, they would place stalks of wheat on a flat surface and then, using a kind of rake or pitchfork (the winnowing fan), toss the grain in the air and allow the wind to blow the light and insubstantial chaff away. The one whom John heralds will in a similar way separate out what is life-enhancing in us from what is life-denying. Again, he will not so much expect us to accomplish this work; he will do it in us and for us.
None of this, of course, is to gainsay the significance of John’s own teaching; but it is indeed to say that that teaching is inadequate. To put this in terms of the Church’s classical theology, nature is not negated by grace but is rather completed and perfected by grace. Grace (gratia in Latin; charis in Greek) is, quite simply, gift, something offered and freely accepted. At the end of all our striving, we surrender to a power that, as Paul said, “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” After many years of tying our own belts and going where we want to go, someone else (the Holy Spirit) will tie us up and take us where we could never go on our own.
Now what does this look like on the ground? What, to use William James’s language, is its “cash value?” If, as we saw, this new life is an immersion in the very essence of God, it will look like love in the truly radical sense. Since God has no need whatsoever, he can never operate in a self-interested way. Hence, authentic love, the love that is the nature of God, is not indirect egotism: I will be kind to you that you might be kind to me. Rather, it is willing the good of the other as other, acting for the benefit of another, even when such action is in no way beneficial to us. Now think of Mother Teresa caring for the poorest of the poor in the worst slum in the world; now think of Junipero Serra going to the ends of the world to share the Gospel; now think of Rose Hawthorne taking cancer patients into her own apartment to care for them when no-one else would.
Such love is a consequence of grace, of the Adventus of Christ, of being dipped into the fire of the Holy Spirit. To welcome this grace that transfigures nature, to pray for it with all our heart, is what the season of Advent is finally about.