This past Sunday, December 13, Gaudete Sunday, I was honored to have the opportunity to talk with the women at the St. Pius X Parish in Bowie (pronounced BOO-ee), MD at their Advent Women’s Dinner. Folks, this was a lovely event. For the past 17 years, the ladies of St. Pius have put together an evening of music and prayer and teaching for 200-ish women, followed by a catered dinner served by the men of their parish. Great idea, huh?
This year, I was asked to visit for their teaching time, and so we talked about Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55). Because their clergy has been preaching on this whole canticle one section at a time all Advent, I felt led to focus specifically on the last four words: HIS CHILDREN FOR EVER. In effect, I made us flip to the end before their last homily in the series. Is that a bad habit, flipping to the end? Getting spoilers?
The day after the talk and dinner, an attendee emailed me (Hi, you-know-who-you-are!) and asked if I could make the talk available for folks who couldn’t be there. Here’s my attempt at solidifying my talk notes. I hope that those who read (and those who listened) receive this as another tool in the toolbox of making sense of suffering.
When the dinner coordinator contacted me about choosing a topic for this talk, she mentioned that their parish was focusing on the Magnificat this Advent.
“Well, that’s interesting,” I replied, “because I have the Magnificat up on my computer right now.”
Kinda hard to deny the Holy Spirit when He’s literally staring you in the face.
Anyway, as the coordinator ran down the four titles their clergy would be using–Blessed, Strengthened, Filled, and Promised–my eyes were drawn to the very last words of this canticle: HIS CHILDREN FOR EVER. As she described for me the audience of 200-some women of a wide variety ages, that solidified for me what the talk needed to be about. Some of us are mothers, some of us are wives, some of us are grandparents… but not all of us. However, we’re all children. His children. His children for ever.
I’ll admit I worried, however, about leapfrogging over the pastor’s planned messages, jumping to the end, throwing all those spoilers out there. Would that upset anyone? Was God asking me to flip to the end, or was this impatience, arrogance on my part, like I do whenever I pick up a new book to read?
Wait a sec–who said those words, “his children for ever”? Mary Immaculate, Mother of God. If God picked someone who flips to the end to be the mother of His perfect Son, then in this context, flipping to the end can’t be bad.
But why would our perfect Mother need to look ahead to the end? Well, what were Mary’s plans before Gabriel showed up? No matter what kind of Christian you profess to be, you’re probably pretty confident Mary’s initial plans did not include unwed motherhood. And then along comes this angel telling her not to be afraid–of the accusing looks, the gossip, the stones that would careen toward her and destroy her body until she breathed no more.
Nope, that was not her initial plan. How about you? Have you ever had plans that got frustrated by God’s plan? How did you react?
How did Mary react? Mary trusted in God’s goodness. She acted as if THE BATTLE IS ALREADY WON! The end is already decided. She knew the end before it began; that’s how she was able to walk into the danger of single motherhood.
So let’s do that. Let’s get spoiled for the eternal story. Let’s flip to the end of God’s plan for us. Let’s look at each word in turn and find those spoilers Mary is leaving for us.
“His” is a possessive pronoun. If we are His, then we belong to Him. He possesses us. Now there are two ways to belong to someone: you can be needed or you can be chosen. I remember, very early in my walk as an intentional Catholic, visiting my Granny in the hospital. It was Easter Sunday, and it didn’t look like she was going to make it. In fact, she didn’t seem all that invested in making it.
“God don’t need me,” she said, not bitterly, just peacefully, with confidence.
I was appalled. “Of course God needs you!”
“Nah, He don’t need me.”
It wasn’t until later, after she did come home from the hospital, that I realized what she was saying: God doesn’t need us, but He wants us. He could have done anything, but He, the creator of the universe, chose to make us and call us His own. God then generously gives us images of what it means to be chosen: by a spouse, by a parent, by the captain of the playground basketball team, by… a pet…
Anyway, we are His. We are chosen. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. However, belonging to someone else isn’t a guaranteed easy path. I have a friend who lost her middle child when that child was only 10. I remember her saying, “God, I’ve seen your plan. It sucks.”
It’s hard to argue with that take on suffering, because, at heart, we’re all still…
What are some words used to describe children?
- Stuck in an eternal now, now, NOW!!!!!
- Have a lot to learn
- Still developing
- Compare to each other badly: There is a six year difference between First Shift and Second Shift of Kid in our family; imagine the comparing they do with each other and you’ll see what I mean.
- Don’t come out knowing how to serve others
- Too small to see the end goal
- Can’t see others perspectives
- Don’t do the planning
- Don’t get to make all the choices: if you doubt this, give a five year-old the job of planning and executing your next big holiday dinner. Then let me know how long into it you needed to call the fire company.
- Sometimes there are things a child must learn without the parent doing it for her (ever feel like God abandoned you)?
- Can choose to fight back against the parent
- Seeking purpose: everything they do is for some reason
So we can see that some aspects of being children–the childlike ones, like innocence and vulnerability–help us in our striving for God. Others–the childish ones, like the comparing and the now now NOW!–hinder us. Either way, we do ourselves no favors when we deny the fact that we are, compared to God the Eternal Father who made us, just little children.
That’s not all on the word “CHILDREN,” however. Our fallen world has complicated things further yet. Sure, for some of us, childhood was this delightful romp; for some of us, less so. Thus the idea of being anybody’s child for ever is terrifying. Especially when the Father’s goodness is colored by lenses forged in a fallen world, a world damaged by death and sin. What does that even mean?
Well, remember that friend who’d lost a child? “God, I’ve seen your plan. It sucks.”
Hard to argue with the perspective of a mother who’s lost her son. What was the point of that, God? What’s the great plan with that kind of suffering? What’s it all for, anyway?
Which brings us to our next word…
“For” is a tiny word, but it says a lot. It indicates purpose. God has a reason for each one of us to exist. Do kids always know the reason that things happen to them? No, and that’s usually because they’re just too small to see the endpoint (check our “CHILD” list above if you need a refresher on that). “For” also indicates a plan. Humans were created for relationship with God and each other–for whole relationship. We were designed to delight in reality, not suffer from it.
Again I say, our world is fallen. The prince of this world doesn’t want us to be any of those good things that children are; he’s going to do everything possible to convince us that we aren’t even children, that we don’t belong to God, and that we weren’t chosen to be exactly who we are–that we need to be something else… that God’s plan is wrong.
But is it? It sure feels wrong sometimes. It’s easy to understand the friend who says God’s plan sucks, because we’ve all been there. So what would it take to convince us that God’s plan is right and good and worthy of trust? Why should we trust God to turn our suffering around?
Because of the evidence:
- Abraham: Through decades of infertility, God planned for us to be the faith descendants of Abraham before time began so that we could be adopted as His children.
- Joseph (Jacob’s son): If his brother’s hadn’t left him for dead and sold him into slavery, he wouldn’t have been around to save not just those brothers and their families but the entire nation of Egypt and all who came to that land in that time of famine.
- Esther: If she had not been orphaned in a foreign land where her people were in danger, she would not have been in a position to save them from the deadly dangers of calumny.
- How many saints do we have again? Read the story of just one and you’ll see how God turns suffering around.
- Examples from our own lives, like how God used infertility to change my agnostic husband’s heart, or like how I was bullied as a kid but through that experience learned to love and forgive and wrote a novel illustrating the power of forgiveness.
So we see all these examples… but let’s face it: sometimes even millenia of examples of God’s plan at work is still not enough to convince us in the here and now of our suffering. It is always hard to argue with the friend who lost a child when he was 10 and her phrase,“God, I’ve seen your plan. It sucks.”
It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. After all, what is the one thing that phrase forgets? It forgets the last word of the Magnificat, the easiest word to forget:
The Creation account tells us that we weren’t designed for death. We were designed for eternity. God chose us to be His forever. God made us to be children so He can be active in our lives and so we can still choose Him back. Best of all, God’s plan pretty much revolves around us.
That image we have of God as Father falls a little short if you forget God is outside of the Fall. God is perfect love, unending relationship. You don’t have to look hard to find reminders of the Trinity everywhere. God is so much relationship that He’s three whole people in just one God.
Mary, the perfect woman, trusted all of these things, all that is involved in being God’s child for ever, but being a child is HARD. It’s hard not knowing the plan. It’s hard to be powerless. It’s hard not knowing the end of your story…
BUT YOU DO! MARY KNEW THE END OF HER STORY, AND SO DO YOU! YOU CAN FLIP TO THE END ANY TIME YOU LIKE!
How do we know our current plot point as suffering children is a good one? Because God himself chose it for himself as well. He did not exempt himself from our pain–in fact, He chose it all, accepted the worst of it, to show us that this world is not the end of the story. He became a child born of woman. He became the child of a woman who would lose her Son. In response, she would not declare that God’s plan sucks. She would forever be captured in God’s word, stating plainly:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and
Mary proclaimed the end of the story to Elizabeth. She proclaims it to us today. We as Church proclaim it every day at every Mass, in every Vespers. In the Great Commission, God asks us to go tell the whole world the Good News, that this world is not the end of the story.
We all face the cross. We all look like we’re gonna die and not come back. But that’s not the end. The beginning looks like a disaster. The middle is veiled from us. But the future? The future is right there waiting for us–complete union with the Body of Christ FOR EVER.
When in doubt, be like Mary: Flip to the end. Just as knowing what that last page of a book says motivates me to keep reading, let a flip to the end motivate you forward to Christ’s forever with you.
Four questions for you to consider as you head into Christmas or whatever the next part of your story is:
- Where have you been in your story?
- What are some things you can do to proclaim the end of the story to yourself?
- Who is one person in your life who needs to hear the end of the story? How will you help that person flip to the end?