Knowing a good many people in my life right now who are struggling with a lot of things, I was struck to the core by the second reading this Gaudete Sunday, when St. Paul tells us:
“In all circumstances, give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
That sounds wonderfully reasonable when your circumstances are good. But when they aren’t? This. This circumstance. All circumstances. Are the will of God. This terrible, hard, painful circumstance you are in front of right now: this is the will of God for you? If you stop there, it sounds terribly harsh and cruel. But the fact that Paul can proclaim this line, singing out how thankful we should be for this, must make us pause, and ask, and seek to understand further what he means. At least, hearing it this time, that was my response. I needed to understand how he could say this so confidently: Paul who, himself, was no stranger to terrible “circumstances”.
So I asked the question, and I realized immediately, that everywhere else in the Scriptures, when we are told what the Will of God is, it is our fulfillment, our happiness, our completion. “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare, not for woe”. The will of God for us is the love of God for us. Therefore, St. Paul is saying that somehow, mysteriously, within this terribly difficult thing I am facing, is the love of God for me. This is Paul’s claim. Sometimes, in the face of our circumstances, this claim seems to make no sense. But Paul is saying it’s still true. And what Paul is professing when he says this is that God is bigger, He is greater than every circumstance: there is nothing within which He cannot enter, and transform it into a grace for us. Nothing. Because He is Creator, and He is also Savior. Only if we believe this can we truly “give thanks”. Give thanks that the Father Who loves us, is with us, even in this circumstance.
But more specifically than giving thanks, in the face of the mystery of the most difficult circumstances, I’m beginning to realize that the response which creates the space for thanksgiving is one of adoration. Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity has an amazing line that continues to strike me to the bone:
“God has plans that we do not always understand, but that we must adore.”
The plan of God, the will of God for us is revealed in our circumstances inspite of our understanding. He comes to us there, and it is there that we can recognize and adore Him. Even the circumstances we do not understand. And it is particularly in the ones that we do not understand that I feel God has more room to show Himself to us: because we have to look harder. Because we have to ask the question, “Lord, where are you?” Because it requires more of an effort for us to pay attention. In the face of difficult, painful things. We wake up.
This finding God, this coming of God in the most difficult, unclear, and painful ways is nothing new. Look at Christmas. We always have glorified images of the Christmas story. But if you stop to think, for a moment, of what it was actually like, it is quite surprising.
The shepherds, after receiving a glorious vision of angels and the pronouncement that the Savior had come, were told to go find him in a manger. I wonder if they all went. I wonder if some of them, at this first choice, decided not to go. In a manger? What kind of Messiah comes in a manger? And they begin to doubt and question the supernatural vision they have just had.
But others, in the initial act of faith, and trust in the grace they just received, go anyway. And what do they find? In a cold, dark, damp, smelly hole in the rock, a man and woman, and a red, wriggling tiny bundle of flesh tucked in the smelly grassy hay of the animals’ feeding trough, surrounded by dung and dirt and straw and the breath of beasts. And this was the Messiah? This is what that glorious vision was pointing to? Somehow, in this scene, the Savior was here?
Perhaps at this point, others turned away incredulously. In the face of such a circumstance that they could not understand, that had no external evidence of the glory of the Divine about it, of the way they were accustomed to recognizing the Lord of Israel. And the memory of the angels growing dim, they do not know how to believe that this is really what they have been waiting for these hundreds of years.
And yet we know, because the Scriptures tell us, that some of them at least, left “glorifying God” and telling everyone in the city about him. Some of the shepherds responded, in the face of the plan of God that they did not understand, with adoration: they knelt in that dirt, and that straw, and the smell of the animals, in front of a helpless, tiny infant, and they adored in awe and reverence the Mystery of God’s plan unfolding in front of them. And because of this act, because of their reverence and adoration in front of the Mystery they did not understand, they gave God the time to convert their hearts to be able to recognize Him where they did not think to find Him. Perhaps not that night, perhaps not that year. Perhaps not until He came back years later, to heal and teach and preach, did they begin to understand. But they could only understand in the unfolding of time, because they chose to adore without understanding. Because in that first initial moment, the one thing they did understand was the one thing they needed to: the God of Israel is faithful, in all things, and He is Almighty. And the “One Who is faithful will also accomplish it.” Because with Him, nothing is impossible.
What allowed them to adore without understanding? What gave a foundation to this faith? They were able to enter into this journey of unfolding, because they had a history with this God. They had a people, a culture, a life with Him. They had the context in which to understand that He could give the Messiah in a manger, because they had a memory of him calling the scrawny shepherd boy to be king, and the youthful Gideon to defeat thousands with a handful of men, and the aged Abraham to be the father of the nations; they had a memory of his leading them through the red sea on dry land, and his using the pagan king Cyrus to send His people back to their home and temple. Only because they knew this God could they kneel there, themselves, in the face of a new Red Sea, and trust He would open it; of a new desert, and trust He was sending Manna; look at this new, tiny son of David, and trust he could be a Savior.
In the face of the readings this Sunday, I found my heart challenged: challenged to be brave enough, to be little enough, humble and trusting enough, to look for that wriggling Infant in the dirtiest, darkest places in my heart, in my loved ones’ lives: to make an act of adoring him there, even when I cannot see Him, out of the unshakable belief that He is hidden precisely in those places.
And as I prayed and lived through the rest of that Liturgy, I knew that the only way this act of adoration is possible for me, is because I am accompanied in it: that as long as I let myself be taken up, with the shepherds, into the history, the memory, the story of our journey with this God, of Israel’s journey, grown into the Church’s journey; only as long as I belong within this life, this history, do I find the strength to adore Him.
We all need a Paul to remind us: because thanksgiving and adoration do not belong to us in isolation; they are activities lived by the whole life of the Church, that we participate in, through the concreteness of our individual lives. And all of us need the reminder that what began in the dark and cold of the barren stable, or before that, in the secret of Mary’s womb, ended in the glorified wounds of the Resurrected Christ. And this is the ultimate will of God for us. And for this, we must give thanks.