In the late 1980s there was a very silly television program called “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” It was intended for children, but it was also entertaining to my friends in college and seminary. One aspect of the show that found its way into popular culture was Pee Wee’s “secret word.” At the beginning of each show, the live audience and the viewer would be shown a “secret word.” Then, Pee Wee would try to get various residents of the wacky playhouse and neighborhood to say the secret word. When a person said the word, all madness would break out: lights would go off and on, people would scream and laugh, furniture would move around, and the house itself would shake.
Our liturgy for Christmas Day doesn’t have a “secret word” as such, but if it did, that would might be the simple-yet-complicated word, “Grace.” In an opinion piece for the New York Times on Sunday, Peter Wehner wrote about grace. He recalled the story in which a number of religious authorities were gathered and were discussing what, if anything, made Christianity different from other religions. The story goes that C.S. Lewis was asked for his opinion and said, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”
I don’t mean the kind of grace that has to do with fluidity and ease, with flow or even kindness. I mean the other kind of grace— the pure free gift that comes when we least deserve it. Someone forgives us when they have no real reason to do so: that’s grace. We’re freed from a burden that’s weighed us down too long, and we aren’t even sure of how that freedom came—that’s grace. God comes to Mary with Grace. God comes into our world as grace. And through the mystery of the cross—the death and resurrection of Jesus—it is grace that frees us from the power of sin, the trap of evil, and even from death itself.
In the back of our Book of Common Prayer there is a catechism. One of the questions asks simply, “What is grace?” And the answer is that “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” That’s some power little word.
In Peter Wehner’s article, he points out the counter-intuitiveness of grace. He quotes Bono of U2, who says, “Grace defies reason and logic,” as Bono, the lead singer of U2, put it. “Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions.”
If grace were a secret word like on Pee Wee Herman’s show, lights would go off and on, the room would shake, all creation would be animated, and we be shouting for joy. If we remembered that grace IS God’s word, and God’s action, and God’s movement, and God’s love in the world and in our lives—perhaps we’d accept that grace a little more, and perhaps even we’d become better at extending a little grace to others.
The writer Frederick Buechner puts it this way:
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
There’s only one catch. [Buechner adds]. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only i8f you’ll reach out and take it. (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 34).
Thanks be to God for the gift of himself through Jesus Christ—who shows us how to live, but also who dies to sin and death in such a way that gives us eternal life, eternal love, and eternal grace. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.