Thursday, October 26, 2006

God summons us to a feast of Bread and Wine

In his classic novel, Bread and Wine, Italian writer Ignazio Silone does a masterful job of capturing the popular Christianity of the Abruzzi region of central Italy, with its echoes of ancient paganism. In one episode, Pietro Spina, a Socialist recently returned to fascist Italy from a forced exile, who, disguised as a priest named Paolo Spada, is asked by a pregnant mother in the poor mountain town of Pietrasecca, who thinks he is a priest, to bless the child in her womb because she has dreamt and fervently believes the child will otherwise be born blind. Pietro refuses because he knows "that if he pretended to say prayers or carry out exorcism in one case the inn would immediately be besieged by other applicants whom it would be impossible to refuse." All of this would end with him "behaving like a fraud and a clown, he would end by attracting the attention of the authorities," the very authorities he is eluding in his sacerdotal disguise.

Nonetheless, after the woman, Teresa Scaraffa, threatens to take her own life, which would also result in the death of her unborn child, Pietro agrees and blesses the in utero child where he best thinks his head is. Believing the danger of her son being born blind is now averted due to the priest's blessing, a thankful Teresa later brings Pietro a dead chicken as an offering for his taking the curse of being born blind away. He refuses her offering, as a real priest might, by saying "I can't accept it. Priests cannot accept gifts." Teresa replies to his refusal by saying, referring to the efficacy of his blessing, "In that case it's no use." For she believes if her offering is refused "the grace won't work and the child will be born blind." Pietro replies, "Grace is free." "There is no such thing as free grace," Teresa, ending the exchange, says. Incidentally, the two names of Silone's main character are significant and mean Peter Thorn and Paul Sword respectively.

Of course Pietro is correct, grace is free by definition. One cannot, however, blame the humble faith-filled Teresa who, in her life as a peasant in a very poor mountain village, has experienced a life filled with hardship, pain, suffering, and loss for thinking one cannot get something for nothing. One does not have to be a poor peasant living in a mountain village in 1920s Italy to experience and, hence, believe the words of economist Milton Friedman that there is no free lunch. In Christ, we get everything for nothing, including a free meal, the Eucharist! So, as Friday begins, liturgically, at 6:31 p.m. MDT this evening and ends at 6:30 p.m. MDT tomorrow, it is good to reflect not only on what you are going to do (fast, abstain, serve, etc.), but why you do it.

We do not bring our offerings, like Teresa brings the dead chicken, to God as repayment for what He has already done, or payment for what we want God to do. We can neither repay God for his goodness nor manipulate the God of Israel like an ancient pagan god. We do it as penance, knowing forgiveness is already ours, we do it to draw closer to God, who is always already with us, we do it to mortify our flesh and reign in our appetites, to focus on Jesus' words that we do not live by bread alone (Matt 4,4; Lk 4,4).

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