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March 6, 2002


Lent: A time to rediscover God's `gratuitousness'

Everything has its origin in the gratuitous initiative of God

The popular saying "nothing is for free" seems more true in today's culture than ever. More and more our choices and acts are dominated by the logic of the markets, of buying and selling, and by the law of greatest profit. If you receive a letter in the mail offering something for free, beware! Read the fine print first and find out where the trap is, because nobody gives anything away for free.

Hence the words of our Lord that Pope John Paul II has chosen as the theme for this year's Lenten message are surprisingly countercultural: "You received without paying, give without pay" (Mt 10:8). The question may cross your mind as to what have we received without paying. Actually, as the pope beautifully points out, we have received a lot.

On the natural order many things have been given to us: for example, our birth, our parents, our family, the place, time and historical moment of our existence, our race, nation and gender. Our body (which is not something I "have" but rather something "I am") with its distinctive characteristics, genetic makeup and physical constitution (strong or weak, healthy or sick), is all "given" freely.

Many cultural aspects also are "given": the language with which I learned to speak and think, my education, certain sentiments and the many ways that I have of expressing myself. The natural desire for happiness is something that has been ingrained into our being. In other words, the stage on which the drama of our life depends is all given.

The pope writes, "Human life is a gift that remains precious even when marked by suffering and limitations" (Message for Lent, n.2). This gift, like every authentic gift, is the fruit of love. If God had not loved me first I would never be here. This "first love" is never lost. In Ephesians we read "He chose us in him before the foundation of the world" (1:3). Precisely because it is a gift, each person's life is important, unique and precious, and must never be regarded as a possession but rather be welcomed and loved in itself, regardless of its qualities and defects.

It is, however, on the supernatural level that the gratuitousness of God's initiative in our lives is perceived in all its splendor. We were weak, separated from communion with God by sin. Yet God did not permit himself to be "blocked" and chose freely, out of love, to draw mankind back to himself. This is the "measureless gift of grace which is redemption," which culminated in the "free and total gift to us of the only begotten Son"(Message for Lent, n.1). As the "Exsultet" sings, "O happy fault . . . which gained for us so great a Redeemer!" (St. Thomas Aquinas, S Th II, 1,3, ad 3: cf. Rom 5:20).

The apostle Paul expresses the gratuitousness of the grace of God who has reconciled us with himself out of love: "Only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us" (Rom 5:7-8). The gift of Christ is a "privilege" we can never deserve, a "sublime gift," which the Church and every Christian cannot cease to proclaim with joy. It is through the gift of baptism that supernatural life is passed on to us and it is nourished by the gift of the other sacraments — in particular the Eucharist, which we receive freely, without having to pay. The question then is not what have we received, but rather, as St. Paul says, "What do you possess that you have not received?" (1 Cor 4:7)

Our entire life, natural and supernatural, is marked by God's kindness. Everything has its origin in the gratuitous initiative of God. The Holy Father invites us to rediscover in our Lenten journey God's "gratuitousness" and to offer — inspired by authentic love — the same generous, free and conscious response: giving ourselves unreservedly to God and neighbor.


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