The God of Surprise

Douglas P. McManaman
Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2018
Reproduced with Permission

Podcast version for 4th Sunday of Advent:

What I'd like to do for the next few minutes is to draw out a number of points that are implicit in this gospel (Luke chapter 1, 39-45). The first point that stands out in this gospel is that Mary set out for a town in the region of Judah immediately upon hearing the news that her cousin Elizabeth has been with child for six months. The purpose of her visit was to care for Elizabeth for the next three months.

What is particularly noteworthy here is Mary's thoughtfulness; she is habitually turned towards the needs of those who are in need. She could just as well have focused on what has just happened to her in her own life, the fact that she has conceived, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Son of the Most high, the Messiah. She does not zero in on that, but has Elizabeth in the forefront of her mind.

That's what divine grace does; that's what the Holy Spirit does; it gives us a different orientation, away from the self, and towards the needs of those who are in need. It inspires in us a desire to be of service to those in need.

The next point is that as soon as Mary entered the house of Zechariah and greeted her cousin, the infant, John the Baptist, leaped in her womb. Mary's greeting also had the effect of filling Elizabeth with the Holy Spirit. What this points to is the influence that holiness has on others around us. Mary is full of grace, she is a walking tabernacle, the Son of God has been conceived in her womb, and all she does is offer a greeting, and that greeting has an influence that goes beyond what we are able to track. Her influence reaches into the depths of her cousin's womb.

This is important to note, because very often people try too hard to influence others, and their efforts are often counterproductive. They can become preachy, self-righteous, dogmatic, and audacious. When this happens, we forget that it is God who is in control, not us; it is God's grace that moves people towards Him, not the things we say: As the Psalm says: "Unless the Lord builds the house, in vain to the builders labor".

The final point I want to focus on is Elizabeth's reaction to Mary's visit. She is surprised. She says: And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? Now she is surprised because she is humble--it's as if she said: "Who am I or what have I done to deserve this visitation?" Humility is the disposition that allows us to be surprised.

This is such an important point, for the entire coming of Christ was a surprise, and only the humble are willing to be surprised. Only through humility are we open to God, and God is a surprise. We can't anticipate what God is going to do; our intellect is far too limited; but God is not limited.

Some people, however, do not like surprises, and this is a big problem, because everything about our faith is a surprise. Although the Messiah was expected, it was not expected that God would join a human nature to himself and dwell among us. That the Messiah was to be a warrior like David was expected, but the surprise is that the Messiah was not like that, the surprise is that Christ came to defeat not the Roman Empire, but sin and death through his death. That Jesus would work miracles, even raise two people from the dead, was not expected. That Jesus would die on a cross was entirely unexpected, even after the disciples were told three times that it will happen, such that they were plunged into despair. That Jesus rose from the dead was the final surprise. The beginning, middle, and end of his life was one monumental surprise. And of course, the spiritual life is really a life of surrender to the providence of God, and when we do that, our life becomes a series of perpetual surprises.

But those who do not like surprises typically have control issues. They don't like surprises because they are momentarily caught off guard; with surprises they are unable to prepare for what is coming. And that's why many people find the spiritual life difficult. What it boils down to is an inability to trust divine providence, an inability to trust that God is in control of every aspect of human existence.

But every aspect of existence is a series of surprises; existence is a series of evolutions: the evolution of the cosmos, the evolution of new species, the history and evolution of science is one big series of surprises, and it is very interesting to see how often new discoveries were met with resistance even within the world of science itself; the economy is also an evolution of surprises--who would have expected GPS or the iPhone--and who knows what's on the horizon. We just don't know what this world is going to look like 20 years from now.

But it is dogmatism, that refusal to allow anything in that would alter one's worldview, that is the enemy of surprises, and of course the world of religion was and still is dotted with dogmatists who do not like surprises. And this is not about left wing and right wing, not a conservative vs liberal point. You find this resistance to surprises on both sides. What it boils down to is an inability to trust divine providence, an inability to trust that God is in control of the evolutionary processes in the cosmos, in society, and in the Church.

The large and small battles of this world seem to boil down to one thing; some people simply do not trust in the providence of God and will take it upon themselves to impose order on a world much larger than them.

And we see this especially on the political level, in those who believe that if we don't impose our way of life on the entire peoples of the world, chaos will reign, the world will become a jungle, and so we need to accept the reality of perpetual war. That is still the thinking of many foreign policy advisors today. One in particular, in a recent book, goes so far as to assert that we need a "willingness to apply military power, with all the pain and the suffering, the uncertainties and errors, the failures and follies, the immorality and brutality, the lost lives and the lost treasure, otherwise the chaos of the jungle will grow back at our peril" (Robert Kagan, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World).

In such minds, God is not in control, so we have to be, and our efforts will include "immorality and brutality".

But what if God is in control, and what if there is a genuine surprise just around the corner that will be ours if we just make the decision to trust Him first and be faithful to His commandments, allowing God to lead, to show us the way, and we to follow? Only when that happens will there be genuine peace in the world. We will never have peace on our terms, only on the terms of him who is the Prince of Peace and whose coming we celebrate in the coming days.