Sometimes, you notice the oddest things when you read scripture aloud.
On Wednesdays, it’s my happy task to do just that—to lector—at our parish’s 6:30 a.m. Mass. So today I found myself reading exhortations from the letter of James, and I came across this little beauty: ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.’ (Emphasis mine)
Whoa, I thought to myself: That’s about 180 degrees from what Paul says in his letter to the Romans. ‘For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want…Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?’
Indeed, I’ve come to understand—like Paul—that keeping oneself unstained is a pretty tall order. My heart’s usually in the right place…but my sinful self doesn’t always follow. Which is not to say that I am without hope…that we are without hope…because as Paul goes on to observe, ‘there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’
But that begs the question, doesn’t it? How do you get to be ‘in Christ Jesus’? Is it enough to tend to the needs of orphans and widows…or to flex your willpower, fighting off the world’s temptations in order to remain ‘unstained’?
Not that there’s anything wrong with the good works that St. James enjoins upon us, but the more I reflected on the text of his letter today, the more I realized how much his words emphasized our own actions…over the action of grace (that is to say, Christ)…in our lives. I actually looked it up: James mentions Jesus a total of two times in the six chapters of his letter. Compare that to Paul, who invokes Christ about 36 times in Romans (not to mention, about 25 times in 1 Corinthians, and 17 times in Galatians).
So now I’m starting to wonder: If we begin with works – if we rely on our own devices (or skills or talents or willpower) – are we really being open to what Christ wants to do in our lives?
Or doesn’t such an inwardly-focused instinct make us something like the man blind from birth – begging for alms, and willing to settle for the little bits of happiness that are tossed our way?
Jesus, it turned out, had quite a bit more than alms in mind for the blind man. His desire was that ‘the works of God might be made visible through him.’
It kinda makes you wonder if we’re missing the point when we turn most of our spiritual energy toward keeping ourselves ‘unstained.’
Perhaps we should resolve to cling to the strength of Christ instead…and allow ourselves to be used for a purpose far greater than we ever imagined.
Let us pause now…to remember that we are in the presence of the Holy One.