Ink & Penwipers

Scribbles, screeds, speculations, and the occasional reference to Schrodinger's cat.

20 February 2005

Well, isn't that prevenient!

"But how can someone be born when he is old?" asked Nicodemus. "Can he enter his mother's womb a second time and be born?" Jesus answered, "In very truth I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born from water and spirit. Flesh can give birth only to flesh;it is spirit that gives birth to spirit. You ought not to be astonished when I say, 'You must all be born again.' The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." "How is this possible?" asked Nicodemus. "You a teacher of Israel and ignorant of such things!" said Jesus. --John 3:4-10

This was part of today's Gospel reading. Father Miller's sermon on it touched on the concept of prevenient grace -- a part of Christian theology that denies that all you have to do is strain and then you will create yourself some faith. No; faith is a gift, just as life itself is a gift. It cannot be calculated, engineered, or narrated into existence. God's grace goes before and makes the way, like those people in the game of curling with their brushes, arranging for faith to arrive.

I have noticed from this narrative that Nicodemus's "ignorance" is not that he doesn't know that Jesus is somehow special, but that he is unaware of the living metaphor that a life of faith embodies. Nicodemus, as one of the preeminent teachers of his generation, ought to know already about the second birth. After all, as the Romans reading points out, Abraham's specialness comes from exactly this: "Abraham trusted God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Abraham was born from above, because he met God with faith. Abraham received three gifts, the gift of faith, the gift of righteousness, and the gift of his promise that he would be the father of nations. Dorothy Sayers would find a "trinity" in this, I am sure: a conception of faith, a being born into something good, and a fruitfulness to pass on further -- like the God who gives birth to us, the Son who justifies us, and the Spirit who makes us fruitful in our turn. Notice that this prevenient grace really is prevenient -- it exists fully before the Christian era, or Jesus would not have been able to hold Nicodemus accountable for his ignorance of it. So it is not true to say that being "born again" is only the act of confessing Christ as Lord; people were confessing their gift of faith long before Jesus was born, and Jesus expects people of faith to understand what he means when he talks about it. Being "born again," or "born from above" is just the beginning, incomprehensible till it happens and then later marking a beginning lost in the mists of memory as the autobiographical memory of the spirit takes over.

When I was six, my parents took me and my sister on a ski trip to Keystone. My sister was very small and stayed in the nursery, but I was big enough to join the first-grade beginning ski group. They marked the number of our group on blue balloons and pinned them to our pompom hats, so everyone would know what class we were in. The teacher of my class was named Elvira -- nothing like the Mistress of the Night but rather plump and cheerful, with flyaway dark hair. We went up the slope making "big 11s and little 11s," then learned to shuss down. Elvira was teaching me: "Now, put your weight on one foot, and then on the other." I lifted one heavy ski and tried to put it on top of the other, though that didn't seem right. "No, no, it's more like you put your weight on your hip." I blinked at her. "You lean over, like." I leaned over and she had to stop me from toppling onto my side in the snow.

We went down the slope a couple of times, but I never did get the concept of shifting my weight to shuss down. About six months later I was playing on the kitchen floor, and the light dawned. "Ohhhh!" I knew what she meant, though of course it was too late to use my knowledge to ski with.

In matters of faith, I imagine myself to be a lot like Nicodemus and like my six-year-old self, struggling with bodily metaphor in order to learn to do something graceful and thrilling. It is here that I am grateful for prevenient grace, grace that goes before me and makes those "Aha!" moments possible.

Just pin a blue balloon to my hat, and show me the bunny slope.


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