The First Comes Last
“The first in the order of intention is the last in the order of execution.” This philosophical principle, drilled into the minds of all aspiring Aristotelians, can seem at first to be quite discouraging. Simply put, it means that goals can only be achieved once intermediary steps have been completed. For example, if someone intends to run and finish a race, the finish line is the final step executed after many along the way. This is true for all goals, including the Christian life. For Christians, this end goal is eternal happiness with God. Yet, we can often feel overwhelmed by the daunting prospect that lies before us. While we may understand what our goal is, the steps along the way can discourage us. However, as yesterday’s Solemnity of Pentecost reminds us, perfection only comes through first being faithful. In being faithful, we are led by God to happiness with him.
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he commanded his disciples to wait in the city for the coming of the Holy Spirit. It was not their role to simply go out and start preaching. They needed the grace given by the Holy Spirit to do so. What they may have desired to do, announce the resurrection of Christ, required that they first obey his command to wait and pray. They may have even still had fears lingering in their minds. After all, they had abandoned him only 52 days prior when he was arrested and crucified. It took time for them to be conformed to Christ. They did not just wake up one day and find themselves perfectly holy. Their ultimate desire had to be transformed by God’s grace.
The Christian life can often feel the same for us today. We may have desires to be holy, but we frequently trip up along the way. Discouragement can set in when we see the great gap that exists between us and the saints. However, the example of the apostles can be a source of consolation. It was not by sheer force of will that they became saints, but by the grace of God. The Christian life calls one to continually be faithful, rather than necessarily heroic at each and every instant. In this, we come closer to God.
“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” This quote from Catholic writer and critic extraordinaire G. K. Chesterton might be the perfect introduction to living the Christian life. If something is valuable, it is still valuable even when done imperfectly. While we may desire to be holier than we currently are, following God imperfectly is still valuable. It is in this following that we open ourselves to be transformed by his grace. The apostles themselves are witnesses to this. By being faithful, God prepares us to better receive him and follow him. While our final goal may seem infinitely far away, God himself elevates us to participate in his own life. While the thing we desire may be beyond our grasp, with God’s help it will be the last thing we achieve.
Image: Edgar Degas, Before the Race