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THE PRIMACY OF GRACE: JOY, GIFT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT (THE THEOLOGICAL VIRTUES)

“We must learn to dwell in our weakness, but armed with deep faith, accept that we are exposed to our weakness and at the same time surrendered to God’s mercy. Only in our weakness are we vulnerable to God’s love and power” (A. Louf)


So, if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for, you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal[e] there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all” (Col 3: 1-5, 9-11)


“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:4-7)


1. Living in Christ

“If therefore you have risen with Christ, seek the things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God; think of the things above, not of those on earth.” This is how the Apostle introduces himself in his letter to the Colossians, reminding us of our radical vocation given to us through baptism, namely that of being “buried with Christ in order to rise with him (...) stripped of the old man and clothed with the new, which is being renewed, to a full knowledge in the image of its creator.”


We are called to rediscover the power of baptism which is expressed in the primacy of Grace; Most Holy Trinity has taken possession of our existence and dwells in us. The apostle himself expresses this very well in I Cor. 6:19-20: “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you do not belong to yourselves? For you have been bought dearly; glorify therefore God in your body and in your spirit, which belong to God.


Spiritual life is Christ living in us through the Holy Spirit. That Christ lives in us through His Spirit is not a pious sentiment, but the only way we can be joyful. It is then understood that it is not enough to live ‘for’ Christ, but we must move on to live ‘with’ Christ in order to arrive at living ‘in’ Christ. For this to be accomplished, it is essential to backtrack. Jesus states that it is necessary to lose one’s life for Him and for the gospel (Cf. Mk 8:34ff). But how? And backtrack from what? A passage from First Corinthians lifts the veil: “Because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom through God’s work, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, for as it is written, whoever boasts, let him boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:30-31). Wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, redemption - One must reflect on these points. When I give up being for myself, my wisdom, my righteousness, my sanctification, my redemption, then Christ moves from being ‘with me’ to living ‘in me.’


When man understands that Christ is all his wealth, he does not pretend to be good or disguise himself as a master of himself. Either I am in Christ or I am one of the many mortals invited - unwillingly - to the carnival of a passing world. If we choose to follow him but do not allow the Spirit to sanctify us, we remain in the middle of the ford, lost between a drab faith and a world watched from afar with nostalgia. Absurdly, it would be better for us not to have known Christ.

Joy lies in the warmth of his presence ‘in’ us, not in just for or with. Thus wrote Isaac of Nineveh: “This knowledge, my beloved: wherever there is joy from God, it comes from fervor, and, everywhere, the cause of joy is fervor; for where there is no fervor, there is no joy either.”


2. A life of faith, hope and charity

The spiritual man, that is, one who lived in the primacy of grace, who lets Christ dwell in him, has a pure heart and because of this, sees God, becomes a sharer in his wisdom and able to interpret the most difficult situations with supernatural insight, pointing the right way. We can think, for example, of Blessed Eusebia Palomino, a very simple nun who worked in the kitchen, to whom priests, seminarians and young girls went to seek advice for their journey of faith. The depth of her union with God was the secret of a wisdom that is learned only by drawing it from the source of loving intimacy with the Lord.

Therefore, when St. Paul states, “we have the thought of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:6), he makes a very strong statement.


Faith and spiritual experience become the principle of a new knowledge which broadens the horizons of reason and opens them to participate in the month of the Risen Crucified. Having the thought of Christ does not mean just having new ‘ideas’, but a way of thinking that is connected with a way of acting, of feeling, of being. To realise this, we need only to think of the very harsh words Jesus addressed to Peter in Mk. 8:33: “Get behind me, Satan! For you do not think according to God, but according to men”. Peter, even after having confessed his messianic faith in Christ, shows that he still does not think according to Christ. Rather he reasons according to a logic that is an obstacle to the way of Jesus.


The virtue of Faith leads us to have, instead, the ‘thought of Christ’ and then I know (and experience) that God loves us and that Christ died for us, out of love. Pope Francis offers us an extraordinary focus on this issue in his first encyclical, ‘Lumen Fidei’, an early draft which bears the signature of Benedict XVI. In particular, at number 18 of this text, we can read the following enlightening expressions.


In faith, Christ is not only the One in whom we believe, the ultimate manifestation of God’s love, but also the One to whom we unite ourselves in order to believe. Faith not only looks at Jesus, but looks from Jesus’ point of view, with His eyes: it is a participation in His way of seeing. In so many areas of life, we rely on other people who know better than we do. We trust the architect who builds our house, the pharmacist who offers us the medicine for healing, the lawyer who defends us in court. We also need someone who is trustworthy and is an expert in the things of God. Jesus, His Son, presents Himself as the One who explains God to us (cf. Jn 1:18). The life of Christ - His way of knowing the Father, of living totally in relationship with Him - opens up a new space for human experience and we can enter it.


Hope, consequently, is believing that at the bottom of everything that exists is hidden something good. Hope itself, indissolubly linked to faith, as the letter to the Hebrews states: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Christian hope is summed up well in this statement: “In the end, the beginning”. Hope is grounded precisely in Christ’s end, in His death that was His true beginning, in the resurrection. It lifts us out of what we have always experienced as ‘the end’. The God of hope always creates a new beginning in life, while in death He awakens us to new life in the world to come. Hope is ‘faith cast forward’. A great French man of letters and convert, Charles Peguy, in his book ‘The Porch of the Mystery of the Second Virtue’, imagines hope as a little girl giving her hand to her two big sisters, faith and charity, and

the little hope. It advances. And in the midst of her big sisters, she has the air of letting herself be pulled like a little girl who does not have the strength to walk. And that she pulls herself along that road in spite of herself. And in reality, it is she who makes the others walk and who pulls them, and who makes everyone walk and who pulls them. Because one never works but for the children. And the two big ones only walk for the little one (...) Hope does not go by itself. To hope, one must be very happy, one must have obtained, received a great grace.


Once again, we see how the intimate bond between the theological virtues is joy! For this hope to be possible, one must be very happy and have the experience of feeling loved. The life of grace is at bottom simply this: letting oneself be loved and loved.


In love, in agape, all the virtues are summed up, as St Paul’s hymn to charity beautifully states: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13). Do you know why? Because the only thing that God the Father and the Son desire for us is to bring us His love, that is, the Holy Spirit, His grace! Otherwise, everything is empty, everything is sterile, everything is grey; it brings us no fullness, no happiness.


When we need to renew ourselves personally and communally, the starting point must always be this: our families, our communities, our relationships, our own life is either founded on love or it is not. The starting point is to let God do this, which is why He created us, why He redeemed us through His Son, why He remains with us, in the Church with His Spirit.


Hidden in his love are three things we all desire: belonging, meaning and destination.


Belonging: only love makes us answer the fundamental question that runs through our lives: who am I for? One can only enjoy life when one feels one belongs to someone.


Meaning: only love fills our lives with meaning. Most of the spiritual and psychological pathologies experienced by many people, especially young people, are due to the fact that we do not feel loved.


Destiny: this is the third characteristic. Love gives us a destiny. What is the destination for each of us? To come home, to Him. To know that you are loved is to know that you have a home where you are going. To have a reason to wake up. To feel that everything you do has a direction.

Love attracts us. This is the primacy of grace. It also requires the commitment of our freedom which chooses to grow in those virtues without which love would not find the possibility of realisation and would remain at the level of sentiment or, worse, emotion.


3. Joy as its fruit

The fruit of a life lived in faith, hope and charity is joy, which thus becomes the hallmark of a Christian. Pope Francis expresses this well at the beginning of his programmatic text ‘Evangelii Gaudium’.

The joy of the Gospel fills the heart and the whole life of those who encounter Jesus. Those who allow themselves to be saved by Him are liberated from sin, from sadness, from inner emptiness, from isolation. With Jesus Christ, joy is always born and reborn (...).

The great danger of today’s world, with its manifold and oppressive offer of consumption, is an individualistic sadness that springs from a comfortable and stingy heart, from the sick pursuit of superficial pleasures, from an isolated conscience. When the inner life closes in on one’s own interests, there is no longer any room for others: The poor no longer enter, God’s voice is no longer heard, the sweet joy of his love is no longer enjoyed, the enthusiasm to do good no longer palpitates. Believers also run this risk, certain and permanent. Many fall into it and turn into resentful, discontented, lifeless people. This is not the choice of a worthy and full life; this is not God’s desire for us, this is not life in the Spirit flowing from the heart of the risen Christ. I invite every Christian, in whatever place and situation they find themselves, to renew their personal encounter with Jesus Christ today, or, at the very least, to make the decision to allow themselves to be encountered by Him, to seek Him daily without ceasing. There is no reason for anyone to think that this invitation is not for him/her, because “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord” (n.1-3).


The link between a life informed by the theological virtues and joy is beautifully expressed in the Divine Comedy when Dante is near the summit of Paradise (Canto XXIV). At the end of his extraordinary journey, he is questioned by three apostles about the three theological virtues. On faith he is examined by St. Peter, who, after asking him what faith is and whether he is endowed with it, asks Dante where he received it from. The prince of the apostles formulates the question in this way: “This dear joy, upon which all virtue is founded, whence did it come to you?”. It is clear that the ‘dear joy’ spoken of here is the precious pearl – joy, of which the Gospel speaks. It is the gem to obtain for which it is worth sacrificing everything else.


Another passage from the Comedy cannot fail to come to mind. Right at the beginning of the journey, in the first canto of the Inferno, Dante is lost in the dark forest, sees a person and asks him for help. It is Virgil, who asks him why he does not decide to climb ‘the delightful mountain which is the beginning and cause of all joy’. He cannot because there are three beasts that impede his passage and therefore the Florentine poet will have to be accompanied on ‘another journey’. The one, precisely, that will take him before reaching St Peter. A journey whose destination is joy or, better, the happiness that only those who have found the pearl - joy of faith - can enter.

Faith is truly the ‘dear joy’, a happiness that is dear to us, ‘above which every other virtue is founded’. For, if faith were not true, we could not fully have hope since the world would be doomed to death, and neither could we have full love, capable of the total forgiveness that only Christ bestowed from His Cross. Every other virtue is founded on the joy of faith, every desire to grow in our humanity, and every walk of life.


But today more than ever it is fundamental, as Christians living the spirit of Don Bosco, that the most beautiful fruit of our life of grace is the joy of giving joy! This is the road to Christian happiness. Today it is more necessary to give evidence with our lives to this truth: only those who are committed to making others happy can be happy. Only he who strives to create the conditions for others to live in joy, can taste joy. Only those who strive to make contentment circulate in the lives of others can have an authentic experience of contentment.

We can end our reflection with a note of realism offered by St. Francis de Sales: “Go forth with joy and an open heart as much as you can; and if you do not always go with joy, always go with courage and confidence”.

Questions for personal reflection

  1. To live by faith, hope and charity: What does it mean concretely in your life?

  2. What has helped you most in your life to grow in these virtues, which are first of all a gift from heaven, but which require the contribution of your freedom?

  3. What, in this period of your life, is holding you back from faith, hope and charity?

  4. Do you experience deep joy or do you live on the wave of your emotions?

Monthly commitment

Every evening, in prayer, let us give thanks for a beautiful thing received, by training ourselves to smile even in moments of difficulties.

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