St Barnabas’, Havana—Romans 16:25-27, II Samuel 7:4, 8-16; Luke 1:26-28
For the last twenty years, I’ve always lived fairly close to the office from which I work, so I long ago fell into a weekday lunch hour routine wherein I tend to eat lunch at home, most of the time with micro-waved leftovers—and, I have to say, usually in front of the television. Several years ago, before I discovered TV on demand, and relied on old-fashioned channel surfing, I ran across the last forty minutes or so of a great old western from the ‘60s called The Command.
The main character is a physician who is the medical officer in an army cavalry unit sometime during the great westward migration in the nineteenth century. After an unfortunate skirmish with hostile natives, this doctor is the sole surviving officer, and, according to the rules, he very reluctantly assumes command. A crusty old sergeant, who knows a great deal more about military strategy than the doctor, grudgingly defers to him, and manages to keep the enlisted men, who are even more skeptical than he is about the whole arrangement—he manages to keep the enlisted men in line as well. But there is unrest and uneasiness all around, from the commanding doctor down to the horses, it seems. They’re a long way from anywhere, and they have a wagon train full of civilians to protect as they travel through Indian country.
Many times, it feels to us, as we make our way through the hazards and hostilities of life in this world, like we are with that cavalry unit and that wagon train. We feel cosmically vulnerable to a host of dangers that we don’t even know about and can’t identify. It seems like God is AWOL, if he was ever around to begin with. After all, just look back over the Second Millennium. If God were on the job and in command, would the bubonic plague have been allowed to decimate the population of Europe several times during the first half of the millennium? If God were on the job and in command, would the attempts to exterminate Armenians and Jews and various African nationalities—all within the century that most of us here can well remember—would these attempted genocides have been allowed to happen? If God were on the job and in command, would the manifest evil of slavery in America, and the racism that follows in its wake, have been allowed to occur? If God were on the job and in command, would child labor laws and the Federal Trade Commission and the whole judicial system, for that matter, even need to exist? Would there be any need for campaign finance reform or laws against bribery or sexual misconduct policy statements? Would we worry about shady moral standards on the worldwide web or the White House or wherever?
It’s no wonder that, a couple of hundred years ago, many of the leading intellectual lights in England and America professed belief in a God who is far removed from his creation, and is no longer actually involved in human lives. There was even a school of philosophy in ancient Greece—the Epicureans—who had a similar theology: divinity and humanity simply do not mix. This perception of an absentee landlord God who leaves us to our own devices heightens the general level of anxiety and escalates our capacity for inflicting all sorts of mayhem upon one another. Of the ten centuries in the Second Millennium, by far the most violent and destructive and deadly was the one that most of us were born in, the one that we are now not quite fifteen years away from.
Meanwhile, “back at the ranch,” or, back with the wagon train and its cavalry escort commanded by a doctor only a few days away from his discharge date, there are some surprise developments. Our doctor-turned-military-commander reads a few pages in a cavalry strategy manual, and picks the brain of his experienced sergeant, and applies a combination of his own imagination and common sense, and comes up with a plan. He doesn’t sit everybody down and explain his plan and ask for feedback and try to work for a consensus. This is the army, after all! Rather, the doctor simply starts giving orders like he knows what he’s doing. Some of them sound a little strange, because they’re not “by the book,” they’re not the way the men are used to doing things. Some of the men grumble and complain and even threaten disobedience, but these voices of dissent are quickly silenced by the sergeant. Most of them simply follow their orders without hesitation. They don’t necessarily understand the significance of the job they have been given, they don’t know how it fits into the larger scheme of things, but they know what their orders are and they carry them out. They’re clear about who they are—that is, field cavalry troops—and who they’re not—officers with command authority.
Realizing who we are is a tremendous gift! When you I and realize that, in the grand battle between good and evil in the cosmos, we are all mere ground troops, and not even line officers, let alone members of the general staff, we can be more comfortable about carrying out our assigned duties with fidelity and diligence. We can rest in the knowledge that God has a proactive plan to redeem human experience from all the evils—past, present, and future—that we are all too familiar with. God’s plan, in the words of St Paul in the final paragraph of his letter to the Romans, is “the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations.” One of these prophetic writings that Paul talks about is the Old Testament book of II Samuel, which records the prophet Nathan’s words to King David:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.
This is certainly a rather cryptic oracle, but with the advantage of Christian hindsight, we can see it as perfectly fulfilled in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the offspring of David’s body who has built a “house” for God’s name—that is, the Church—and whose throne and kingdom have been established forever, and who is, indeed, the Son of God. The coming of Christ is the fulfillment, the execution, the implementation, of God’s proactive plan for dealing with the anguish of the human condition. His coming in obscure weakness the first time, to be our Savior, was, in the words of Churchill, the “end of the beginning.” His coming in glorious power the second time, to be our Judge—that will be the beginning of the end. But the proverbial cat is out of the proverbial bag. The Spirit of the Lord is on the loose in the world. The cry of a universe doomed to death by an ancient curse—“How long, O Lord? Save us, O God!” —the unspeakable desire of every human heart, is being heard and recognized and answered by Almighty God—the God of justice, the God of love, and the God of peace.
By the way, the cavalry doctor turned out to be quite the bright fellow. He outsmarted their enemies but good, and against all odds, the wagon train made it to safety intact. Once the soldiers began to grasp the method in his madness, the cooperation which began as only a dutiful following of orders became enthusiastic and heartfelt. They put every ounce of their will and energy into the effort.
I have often wondered just what it is that makes the difference between lukewarm, nominal Christians, whose hearts are basically aimed in the right direction, but for some reason hold themselves back from full immersion into the mystery of spiritual life and growth and service—why do some Christians remain in a state of arrested development, and others wonderfully “get it,” and are able to devote themselves soul and body to, as the old catechism used to put it, “working and praying and giving for the spread of God’s kingdom?” This is a deep question, and I don’t profess to know the answer for sure, but I have a suspicion that the “turned on” kind of Christian has somehow had an intuitive glimpse of the wonderful master plan of God’s redemption that is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ. He or she has seen a vision of the glorious destiny of the universe according to mystery kept secret for long ages, now revealed in Jesus.
The Blessed Virgin Mary herself, on the occasion of her angelic visit from the heavenly messenger, Gabriel, surely enjoyed the same sort of glimpse. Perhaps it was on the basis of such a moment of profound sight that she was able to utter the most far-reaching Yes that has ever been spoken: “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” May the Lord whose advent we both celebrate and await grant us even today such a vision, and the will to make Our Lady’s word’s our own: Let it be to me according to your word.
Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.