Grace of the Spirit

Question: I was asked the other day how people who lived in Old Testament times were really any different from New Testament Christians. We seem just as sinful and foolish, but also as virtuous as they were. I did not know how to answer this. What is the basic difference?

Stewart Johnson, via email

Answer: The essential difference is grace. The Prophet Ezekiel records God’s promise to ancient Israel: “I will sprinkle clean water over you to make you clean; from all your impurities and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. ... I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes, observe my ordinances, and keep them” (Ez 36:25-27).

This power that “causes” us to keep God’s law is a gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. This is, after our salvation from sin, the chief difference between those who lived before and after Jesus.

Your observation that many people seem largely unchanged is a reminder however that grace is not a magic spell or something that forces our will. It makes possible great sanctity, but it does not force this upon us. We must be willing to cooperate with the indwelling Holy Spirit. The lives of the saints show what grace can do in us when we do not impede or refuse the Spirit’s graces.

It is a sad truth that many do not expect a great deal from their faith and their relationship with Jesus Christ. The normal Christian life is to be in a life-changing, transformative relationship with the Lord. It is to see sins put to death and virtues come alive, sorrow give way to joy, fears give way to confidence and so forth. But most people do not expect much; they do not seek much, and they thus experience very little, because they do not seek it. The Book of James says, “You do not possess because you do not ask” (4:2).

But as St. Paul reminds us, “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Cor 5:17-18). And this describes the normal Christian life.

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Yet, sadly, many do not seek it or even know to ask for it. The blame for this is manifold, but it must surely lie first with those who have the task of preaching and teaching. It is for us to paint this picture and teach the souls under our care to desire it and ask for it.

If we seem no different than the people of the old covenant, that is on us, not God. The saints also call such a premise to mind and show what God can do with grace.

Hand-washing

Question: Is it wrong for the priest to omit washing his hands at the offertory? He said he had no server to help him.

Name withheld, New York

Answer: It is still wrong to omit this even without servers. He should set up a dish nearby if servers are not to be found. It may have been a last-minute problem, but otherwise, the priest is obliged to follow the liturgical norm here.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org.