On this last Sunday of Advent, we are reminded that God keeps his promises in the most unlikely of ways. At the same time, our scriptures remind us of the method that God uses to enter into our lives and to bring about the fulfillment of his promises. At Christmas, we celebrate the Mystery that in Jesus, God is Emmanuel, i.e., “God with Us”. But what good is his presence with us, if he doesn’t enter into our lives? God is here. God is everywhere. But how do we let him in? How does his grace come into our hearts? How do we come to experience the glory of the Resurrection? In the middle of the opening prayer for this Mass, which is the same as the prayer that concludes the Angelus, we hear the answer: “Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his Passion and Cross, be brought to the glory of his Resurrection.” There it is. We almost miss it, if we say it quickly or without thinking. It is “by his Passion and Cross” that his grace enters and we are brought to the glory of the Resurrection. He saves us and fulfills his promises through his Passion and Cross. We are not talking about something that is merely historical – that happened 2000 years ago, but we experience God’s transformative grace and walk the path to our salvation by embracing the cross and suffering we encounter in the events of our lives today. It is in the freely given “yes” to these events that the grace of the Christ’s victory is received and we experience a freedom in our circumstances. The cross presents itself as an impossibility, a contradiction, or a broken promise – a hope that has been crushed. Sometimes as Christians, when faced with the cross, we simply resign ourselves to suffering. “I guess I’ll have to suck it up. This is my lot in life.” We toughen ourselves, harden our wills, grit our teeth, and put our nose to the grindstone or hold our breath waiting for the trial to be over. But being stoical, suppressing our emotions and being indifferent to what happens, is not a Christian virtue. The Gospel does not call us to be stoics. With stoicism, we become powerless and life becomes tragic and sterile; we become bystanders to reality – disengaged with life. We might be able to “grin and bear it” for some time, but if that is our approach, sooner or later we will feel despair, violence, resentment, and bitterness welling up within us. The attitude we need in the face of the unexpected event, in the face of suffering, is one of consent. Consent is possible when we humbly maintain a position of awe and wonder before the mystery of life. Consent is saying “yes” to reality. I’m not trying to figure things out; rather, I’m eager to see how the Lord will bring about my fulfillment through what seems impossible or contradictory to my eyes and understanding. Consent involves an openness to a measure greater than my own. Consent involves a death to self, i.e., a sacrifice of my own measure, and a letting go of a reliance on my own ability. This death to self is what gives God room to act and what opens space for God’s grace to enter. Consenting to what is happening, even to what might be objectively unjust and contrary to our wishes, is not passivity or suffering something grudgingly, but rather, consent is welcoming and embracing the situation. To consent is to “choose” even the things where we feel that we have no choice – the things that are in a sense “imposed” on us. This could be losing a job, losing a loved one, or getting a sickness, injury, or disease.
This is what happened at the Annunciation. Mary is not presented with a “choice” per se; she is not given a set of options to choose from; rather, the angel tells her what will happen to her. “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.” She is not asked, “Hey, Mary, would you like to be the mother of God?” This is really the hardest thing – saying “yes” to something we didn’t choose or wouldn’t choose – something contrary to our own plan. You don’t choose to get cancer. You don’t choose to lose a job. But we can still say “yes” to it or not; embrace reality or not. And saying “yes” to what we don’t choose is how the Lord enters the situation. Mary shows us the way: in the face of the impossible, what is totally contradictory from a human perspective, she consents. To consent is to say, “May it be done to me according to your word.” Consenting to reality is an expression of faith that “nothing will be impossible for God.” God will bring about the fulfillment of his promise in this way, even if I don’t understand how it is possible. There is greater pain in rejecting suffering than in embracing it, because in addition to the pain that can’t be avoided, rebellion, resentment, and being upset rises up within us. The tension within us from fighting reality just increases our pain, but when we consent to the situation, the situation becomes at once much less painful. The temptation we always have in the face of the Mystery of the Cross is to run, rebel, or to take matters into our own hands to try to conform reality to our understanding. When we try to control a mystery, we are reducing God and salvation to our measure and our capacity. We rely on our initiative instead of God’s action.
David had to be reminded of this by the prophet Nathan. It didn’t seem right to David, that he, the King, was living in a palace of cedar while the Lord was dwelling in a tent. David’s solution is to build a house for the Lord – a good and noble gesture. But through the prophet Nathan, God reminds David that it has always been the Lord that has brought about the victory and fulfilled his promises using insignificant means. “It was I who took you from the pasture and from the care of the flock to be commander of my people.” You won’t build a house for me; I will establish a house for you…. Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever…” And the fulfillment of this promise comes 1,000 years later – 600 hundred years after the Davidic line fell apart under the Babylonian conquest. And it comes through the consent of an insignificant young woman betrothed to a man named Joseph of the house of David who lives in the insignificant backwater town of Nazareth. It comes through a woman who believes that God keeps his word. God’s promise is fulfilled in a most unexpected way.
The message to us today is the same as that to Mary. “Do not be afraid… The Lord is with you. For you have found favor with God.” What really hurts is not so much suffering itself but the fear of suffering. Fear of suffering hardens us in self-protective, defensive attitudes, and often leads us to make choices with disastrous consequences. We get caught up in scenarios and stress out over all the possible “worse cases”. All that simply takes us out of reality, increases our emotional and psychological pain, and, worst of all, blinds us to the presence of God with us. It is fear of suffering that moves us to lie – thinking that by telling a lie, “I’ll get out of trouble.” But we all know that we are just putting off the trouble and compounding the trouble – getting ourselves into deeper trouble. The trouble always comes back – the truth always comes out. Reality always has the last word. But often when we consent to reality – embrace the cross – it is not only not as bad as we feared, but it becomes a moment of grace – an opportunity to learn and to grow. Through the trouble, consenting to the trouble, even if we are “greatly troubled” like Mary was, a blessing is found.
Salvation comes through consenting to what is mysterious, to what is outside of our control, to what is beyond our understanding. That is how the Word became Flesh 2000 years ago, and it is how Christ comes into our life today. How do we give our consent? How do we form an attitude of openness to reality? I like to start every day praying the Angelus. It is a way to ask God to have a heart open to the mystery – open to God’s grace – the way Mary was open to God’s grace. In front of every difficulty and challenge and confusing situation, we can pray Mary’s prayer of consent: “May it be done to me according to your word.” Giving our consent makes the difference between being crushed by our circumstances or experiencing freedom in the midst of a situation we did not choose. When we are facing a very different holiday celebration this Christmas because of the pandemic, let’s not just say, “I’ll make the best of it” and put up with the inconveniences but say, “Let it be done to me according to your word, Lord” and be open to the glorious way God will reveal himself to us this Christmas.