Galatians 4: 4-7
God’s dealings with his creation contain a perfect mixture of continuity and novelty; not in the sense of ‘something to suit every taste’ as if it were all done entirely for man’s benefit, but rather in order that every situation can receive the fullest measure of grace. In other words, God acts in the right way at the right time to effect his purposes for his creatures.
With that in mind it is possible to approach the perennial question that is asked about God’s relationship with the world, especially in the context of the problem of evil and suffering, ‘Why doesn’t God just sort it out?’ Sometimes the questioner is suggesting the possibility of a ‘quick fix’ akin to the magic of the Hollywood blockbuster in which the hero solves all the problems in the allotted hour and fifty minutes. More sensibly, a questioner may see that God is someone who ‘does things’ – for after all it says so in the Bible and God is undoubtedly all-powerful and to be relied upon – but fails to see the trajectory of God’s actions from the very beginning to the present. In other words this questioner has faith in God, knows the story, but has failed to apply it in an effective way. This being the case the question, ‘Why doesn’t God just sort it out?’ seems to make sense and be necessary.
The feast of the Assumption allows the possibility of revisiting the wonderful works of God in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary and seeing afresh how God has brought about salvation – and just how we human beings are involved in it. This is true whether we prefer the Western approach of the Assumption or the Eastern approach of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin.
In bringing about our salvation God uses a wonderful mixture of continuity and novelty. The continuity is seen in the use of the essentials of our existence: our physical and spiritual attributes as human beings, what we are made of; our human relationships, particularly the family; and our human frailty, what we have made of ourselves. Through Mary, God chose to be made man – something completely new and yet brought about using our human nature. The Word made flesh is exactly that, not an angelic or heavenly being, nor a demi-God, but true man and true God born of the Blessed Virgin. Jesus has a family tree through his adoptive father and is brought up in a typical, provincial Jewish family doing the things which survival and Law demanded. There is no magic in this and there are no shortcuts: before Jesus arrives in Galilee proclaiming the Kingdom of God he has to go through thirty years of growing, learning and working. Everything is done through the gritty realities of human lives lived in a particular place and time. No doubt God could have rubbed us out and started again, but he didn’t!
We cannot escape the task of finding salvation in our own place and time and recognising that as Jesus lived in the flesh and did not try to escape it, nor can we – and nor should we. Mary had her own lineage and as a young girl growing up in Nazareth she would have had her own hopes and dreams for the future. After the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel she willingly left all that behind and followed the path which God had mapped out for and had indeed been preparing for her, as the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches. Pregnancy, childbirth, child-rearing and eventually the letting go of the mature child show that despite the novelty of Jesus’ conception, there was to be continuity with the experience that human beings have always had. There was no opportunity to jump a stage in order to get to the point of salvation more quickly. In the same way Jesus would later endure his Passion from the agony in the garden to the death upon the cross. So returning to our original question, ‘Why doesn’t God just sort it out?’ - he is doing, but not as quickly or as dramatically as we might wish.
If there is no escaping continuity in God’s work, neither is it possible to ignore novelty. The resurrection of Jesus, follows the virginal conception and the result is new life for those who accept it. The word ‘novelty’ perhaps does not do justice to what is happening here and the word ‘miracle’ is too easily misunderstood. The incarnation and the resurrection are new works of God, of the order of Creation. They are something new and unheard of. The new life of faith is of the same order.
Mary provides an example of this new life. She is there in the cenacle as the disciples wait for the descent of the Paraclete and is amongst the first recipients. The experience is one of joy and of the continual presence of God amongst his people. It is known to us through the continued gift of the Spirit and the partaking of the Blessed Sacrament. For Mary this is a triumph, but it is one which comes in the midst of her human life and is best seen in the context of her human trials and sufferings. Joy may now be hers and she may be part of the redeemed, but she has not been transported to another planet where everything is light and peace. She is still the Mary of Nazareth, still the Mary struggling to give birth in Bethlehem, still the frightened Mary heading to Egypt, still the broken Mary in agony at the cross. She will be all those things for all time. But she is also the Mary who knows the joy of the Kingdom. All her experiences blend together to form the Mary beloved of the faithful. In her, God shows the perfect blend of continuity and novelty, not least because in Mary the human is chosen to make perfect the human.
That is not all. The Church sees Mary as the first beneficiary of the heavenly graces which she is now pleased to bestow upon her children. Two things are happening here. First, Mary now has many more children to look after. As she cared for Jesus, now she cares for us with a mother’s love and generosity. Secondly, in her our destiny is prefigured, because we can see where we are going. We no longer stumble blindly into an unknown future. Our place in heaven is assured, not because we will be beamed up as if we were in a science fiction movie and that is the way God fixes things, but because our humanity, our joys and sorrows are all taken together and made into something new by the God, who made us in the first place and then completes us according to the template presented by Jesus, the one who lives, out of his love, the perfect life of obedience and sacrifice.
And that is how God works. Through a perfect blending of continuity and novelty we are made whole and fitted for his company with all the saints and the hosts of heaven. For some that is not quick enough or is too demanding, but there is no alternative. God takes the clay and takes time and care to mould us into the image of Jesus. He accepts us as we are and then transforms what we are into what we shall be – and the result is rather glorious.
Father Andrew Burton SSC
Feast of the Assumption 2020
Image by Ruth Gledhill on Unsplash