When I was younger, I would walk down my driveway, inspecting the milkweed that grew in the field next to
my house. I would scour them, searching for half eaten leaves which indicated the presence of caterpillars. I would take the critters home in a class jar, jammed full with more leaves and a couple sticks. I watched the caterpillars grow larger until they made a little chrysalis on a stick in the jar. Monarch caterpillars grow a think, green chrysalis, but if you wait patiently, the chrysalis thins and clears, and the orange-black wings of a butterfly appear. Inside this that plain green shell, a beautiful work of art was being formed.
That’s exactly what St. Paul is talking about in the first reading when he says, “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels.” Our fallen human nature is like an earthen vessel: plain, drab, and fragile. Underneath this exterior covering is a growing treasure of grace. Grace is God’s help and a share in God’s very own life. Beneath our sinful selves, Jesus Christ is coming more and more alive. A young monarch is coming to life under the chrysalis of our sin.
Grace changes us at the very core of our being. It’s makes us children of God and able to love just as He taught us. Without grace we are nothing. We’re not able to live in the way that Jesus taught us. Grace is a “surpassing power” from God and not from us which transforms us so that “we are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” Grace transforms us so that even when death is at work on our earthen vessels, Jesus Christ is coming alive in our hearts.
Let’s quickly switch to St. James, whose feast day we celebrate today. In the Gospel, Jesus asks James, “Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” Keep in mind, this is the same cup that Jesus, on the eve of His passion will ask the Father to take away from Him. This is a cup of suffering and death. Jesus is bold enough to ask James to drink from it.
When we approach the chalice of the Eucharist, Jesus asks us that same question. “Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” What’s our answer going to be? Are we going to despair because we’re an earthen vessel? Or are we going to man up because we know that God has placed an inestimable treasure of grace in us? God has given us the power to love Him unto the end. This power will grow in us until we're willing to become martyrs for Jesus. The question we have to ask ourselves is: are we going to choose to cooperate?