Fifth Thursday of Paschaltide
Psalm 95: 1-2a, 2b-3, 10
O God whose grace makes just men out of wicked ones,
and blessed men out of wretched ones,
be present to your works,
be present by your gifts,
so that those made just by faith,
may not lack the strength of perseverance.
The First Council
In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles we find ourselves present at the very first Council of the Church, the Council of Jerusalem. Saint Luke tells us that “there was much debate” (Ac 15:7). “And after there had been much debate, Peter rose” (Ac 15:7) and spoke. “Peter rose,” says the text; he emerges from the body of “the church and the apostles and the elders” (Ac 15:4), invested with a unique grace. He speaks in the midst of the Church even as he spoke on the day of his confession of faith, saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). The core of Peter’s teaching is this: that the grace of Christ is all-sufficient for the Gentiles as for the Jews. The voice of Peter announces the faith of the Church: “We believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Ac 15:11).
The Grace of Christ
The little word” grace,” so rich in meaning, links the first reading to today’s marvelous Collect. Translated literally, the Collect has us pray: “O God whose grace makes just men out of wicked ones, and blessed men out of wretched ones, be present to your works, be present by your gifts, so that those made just by faith, may not lack the strength of perseverance.”
Adjusted by Grace
Amazing grace indeed, the grace that takes a wicked individual, one profoundly maladjusted to the designs of God, to adjust him to the glorious will of God for his wholeness, for his holiness! The just man is one rightly fitted to the plan of God. The just one stands in correspondence to “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).
The second phrase takes this even further. The grace of God, it says, “makes blessed men out of wretched ones.” The Latin word for wretch is miser, giving us our English miser, the original meaning of which was a profoundly unhappy person. The grace of God takes miserable, unhappy wretches and makes them blessedly happy. This is no mere fluctuation on the emotional thermometer. This is not about going from “I feel wretched” to “I feel happy.” The change wrought by grace is inward and real. It is what Saint Paul calls “being qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col 1:12). “I have told you this,” says Jesus in today’s gospel, “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn 15:11).
The Collect goes on to ask God not once, but twice, to be present to his works, to be present by his gifts. Adesto operibus tuis, adesto muneribus. The rhythmic repetition of adesto — be present — gives the Collect a tone of urgency. “Be present to your works, be present by your gifts.” I know of no other Collect where this particular, insistent pattern is found. Why is the petition so urgent? The Collect gives the answer: “so that those made just by faith may not lack the strength of perseverance.” The grace that falls upon one rotten to the core to make him just, the grace that surprises a miserable wretch with a joy that is nothing less than divine, is a humble grace. It does not impose itself; it waits always to be received. “The strength of perseverance” is an abiding openness, an expectant readiness, it is the position of one who, at every moment, raises empty hands to God.
There are moments in life when “the strength of perseverance” can be expressed only in silence. Today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles alludes twice to the silence of the Church. “And all the multitude kept silence” (Ac 15:12); and again the text says, “And after they kept silent, James spoke” (Ac 15:13). In some mysterious way perseverance in grace is linked to perseverance in silence, perseverance in the silence that is openness to the Word, perseverance in the silence that promises the joy of Christ and allows us to taste it even now.