December 25th --Midnight Mass
"The grace of God has appeared, offering salvation to all" (2nd reading)

What is the meaning of the word "grace"? When we read that word in the Bible, or in a book of spirituality, we immediately understand it as meaning a "gift" received from God -- either a transient help to enable us to do something, or a permanent quality, as when we speak of the state of grace. And that "state of grace" is often understood in a strange negative way as the absence of any mortal sin: to be in the state of grace, means to be o.k. in my relationship with God.

But when saint Luke in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, or Paul in his letters use the word grace (or charis in Greek), what was the meaning of the word for them? The first meaning of the word in Greek -- a meaning it still has in our modern languages, was "beauty", as when we speak of the "grace" of a beautiful person, the grace of a ballet dancer for example. (In this weather it might be more fitting to speak of an ice-skater). The second meaning was that of kindness, goodwill, as when we say of a person who is very kind to us that she/he is very gracious, graceful. And, of course there is a third, somewhat derivative meaning, as when we speak of the gift, or grace received from such a gracious or kind person.

So, when Saint Paul writes to Titus that "The grace of God has appeared" and that "the glory of our great God and of our Savior Jesus Christ" has appeared, he means first of all that the Beauty of God -- his grace, his graciousness, his splendor -- has appeared in Jesus, in the little child whose birth we celebrate tonight. Elsewhere he says that the plenitude of God's glory has been manifested in Jesus physically.

With this in mind, I think it might be revealing for us to look at a few other texts of the New Testament where the same word is used. For example when the angel Gabriel greets Mary and tells her: "Hail Mary, full of grace", the meaning is not that Mary has received many graces, many gifts. The meaning is that she has been made gracious, graceful, beautiful by God. And that "grace", that beauty affects her whole being.

After the Presentation in the Temple, when Jesus, Mary and Joseph return to Nazareth, Luke says that the grace, that is, the beauty or the glory of God was with him. And when, after the trip to Jerusalem when he was twelve years old, he returns to Nazareth again with Mary and Joseph, Luke says again that Jesus was growing in age, in wisdom and in grace. That surely does not mean that he was receiving more and more graces from God, as we mean when we say that we have received various graces from God. It means that the beauty of God was more and more manifest, visible, in him.

Then, the first time Jesus speaks in the Synagogue of Nazareth, after his Baptism by John, Luke says that the crowds marvelled at the grace of what he said.

Now, if we come back to the Letter to Titus, in what context does Paul mention that grace of God? Titus has just been given the charge of the Church of Crete, and Paul is telling him what he has to teach to various categories of people, women and men, young and old; and he concludes that exhortation by inviting everyone to reject godless ways and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly, as we have been taught by God himself, whose grace has been manifested to us. In other words Paul is inviting us to express visibly in our own lives, as individuals and as a community, nothing less than the beauty of God.

That this is the meaning of the text can be confirmed by various texts of the Acts of the Apostles, describing the life of the early Church.

After the first persecution in Jerusalem some of the deacons left Jerusalem and went to Antioch where they established another community of Christians. When the Apostles in Jerusalem heard about it they sent Barnabas to see what was happening there. He came and saw the grace of God (the beauty of God) in the community, and was filled with joy. Later on Barnabas returned to Antioch with Paul, and when they departed they urged the faithful of Antioch to hold fast to, or to remain in the grace of God.

Brothers and Sisters, there are many ways in which we can express in our limited human language, the absolute perfection of God; and one of them consists in saying that God is Beauty par excellence, that he is perfect "grace". There are many images we can use to express the mystery of salvation brought to us by Jesus; and one of them consists in saying that He incarnated, or embodied, the grace and the graciousness of God. And therefore we can say, as a consequence of this, as Paul does in his pastoral recommendation to Titus, that we are called as Christians to bring some beauty to the world, by expressing, through the quality of our life, the graciousness and the beauty of God, manifested in Jesus of Nazareth.