Lorenzo Monaco Nativity - God's Ways
The Nativity, by Lorenzo Monaco (Piero di Giovanni), 1406-1410

 God’s Ways 

God’s ways are not our ways.  We hear a lot of Isaiah through the seasons of Advent and Christmas, but the passage below expresses with particular clarity one of the most striking and curious things about Christmas:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
     neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
     so are my ways higher than your ways
     and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Yes, God’s ways are not our ways.  It’s easy enough to say, but it can sometimes be difficult for us to accept.  Why does God not answer our prayers the way we would like? Why does He allow bad things to happen?  Why, when it comes down to it, does he not do what we would do, if we were God? Why does God always surprise us?

 Pope Benedict 

Pope Benedict - God's Ways
Pope Benedict XVI

I’ve been thinking about this problem (our problem, my problem, not God’s) this past weekend.  We have just learned that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has passed away.  I’m sure I’ve cited and discussed Pope Benedict/Joseph Ratzinger more than any other non-Biblical source over my years of blogging. He provides the main focus of one of my most popular posts, “A Smaller, Purer Church?”  His Insights as theologian, Prefect of the CDF, and later as Pope are a vast treasure.  His combination of deep insight and doctrinal rigor, which he delivered with unfailing charity, has been a constant inspiration to me.  He has helped form me as a writer but also, more importantly, as a Christian.

He was the natural choice to succeed St. Pope John Paul II when the latter passed away in 2005.  And yet, he was a surprise.  The popular image of Joseph Ratzinger was “God’s Rottweiler,” the fire-breathing inquisitor who headed JP II’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Most of us had no idea what a kind, charitable, and gentle man he was until after he ascended the Throne of Peter as Pope Benedict XVI. That was a happy surprise.

Pope Benedict presented us with a somewhat less happy surprise eight years later.  None of us, I’m sure, were expecting the first papal resignation in more than 500 years.  And with all due respect to the reigning pontiff, many of us remain perplexed by the aftermath. Is the current uncertainty and division the Will of God?  Is so, his ways are not our ways indeed.

 “Get Behind Me, Satan!” 

     But should we really be surprised? Don’t we see the same thing over and over again during the Christmas Season?  After all, who would expect the Infinite, Almighty Deity to manifest himself as a tiny baby, born in a cattle stall with the beasts? Who would have thought that wise and exalted visitors would come to this baby from strange lands many miles away with their rich gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, as we will commemorate in the coming liturgical celebration of Epiphany?

Ours is a God indeed whose thoughts are not our thoughts, whose ways are not our ways: he constantly confounds our expectations. This is not the Grand Entrance any of us would have devised for God Made Manifest.

  Nor did the child grow up to be the sort of Messiah that people expected, not even his own disciples: he rebukes Peter, his chief Apostle, with “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23) because the man who will become the first Pope can’t accept that the Christ must suffer and die in order to save humanity.  And nobody at all was really expecting what happened on Easter Sunday.

Get behind me - God's Ways
“Get Thee Behind Me, Satan!” by James Tissot, 1886-1896

Of course, none of the above should have been a surprise: it was all foretold by the Prophets, as we saw over and over again in the Advent readings and prayers.  In other words, he’s a God of the unexpected mostly because we insist on setting ourselves up to be surprised. But that’s the way we imperfect, broken human beings are: we think we can simply force reality to be what we want it to be . . . but God usually has other plans.

St. Gregory Nazianzus

St. Gregory Nazianzus - God's Ways
Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, by Francesco Bartolozzi after Domenichino, 19th century

  We can glimpse something of this stubbornness in the story of one of today’s, saints, St. Gregory Nazianzus, Doctor of the Church.  Gregory led an interesting life.  He was born in the year 325.  His father was a bishop who had a habit of drifting into heresy.  Gregory’s mother brought him back to Catholic orthodoxy the first time, Gregory himself did so many years later.  The future saint learned about the faith largely from his pious mother.  When he went away to school he formed a deep and lasting friendship with another future Saint and Doctor, Basil. By the way, today is also Basil’s feast day.

Gregory was determined to live a life devoted to God.  In addition to taking care of his aged parents, he spent his time engaged in scriptural and doctrinal studies.  He worked closely with St. Basil, and spent some time in Basil’s hermitage.  Nonetheless, he had a strong aversion to receiving Holy Orders.  Then, after his restoration of his father to catholicity,

[T]he aged bishop [Gregory’s father], desiring his son’s presence and support, overruled his scrupulous shrinking from the priesthood, and forced him to accept ordination (probably at Christmas, 361). Wounded and grieved at the pressure put upon him, Gregory fled back to his solitude, and to the company of St. Basil; but after some weeks’ reflection returned to Nazianzus, where he preached his first sermon on Easter Sunday . . . (Catholic.org, “St. Gregory Nazianzus”)

 God‘s Ways Are Not Ours

God’s plan, it seems, was not Gregory’s.  Gregory did not want to be a priest. Once the matter was no longer in his hands, however, he gave himself fully to his calling.  He composed the learned and influential writings that would later earn him the title Doctor of the Church.  He served as bishop, and fought strenuously to preserve the integrity of the Catholic Faith.  God’s way, it turns out, was the better way.

We have a lot to think about as we begin the second week of the Christmas Season.  We think that we ourselves should be in charge, that we know better.  And yet, we see over and over again that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)  

Yes, God’s ways are not our ways.  All we really need to do is to surrender our lives and our wills to the Child lying in the manger.

Music for the Christmas Season: Silent Night

The Clip of this much-loved Christmas song features the vocal group Chanticleer. There are any number of dramatic (and more or less fictionalized) accounts the composition of “Silent Night.” Here’s an unadorned historical account of how a young priest named Joseph Mohr and organist Franz Xaver Gruber together created this classic carol at Christmastime, 1818.

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