Happy New Year! Yes, we’re still living in annus horribilis MMXX, but yesterday we began a new liturgical year, another cycle of feast and fasts, commemorations and celebrations, designed to help us remember that life in the world is not – as seems to have settled in on the secular level – just “one damned thing after another.”
I wrote here earlier in the year that, in Christian perspective, God permits scourges like plagues, widespread rioting, political upheavals in order to bring some good out of them, usually as a sharp reminder that we ought to change our lives. He isn’t vindictive; he’s just administering a kind of slap in the face to our hysteria, intended to bring us to our senses. That’s almost the whole of the Old Testament in a nutshell.
We ought to have spent these past, severely trying, months figuring out what we, individually and in common, were supposed to get out of this non-ordinary time, and to live accordingly. If we didn’t, that’s on us.
When you are faced with the truth that you are not in control of your life, that the usual institutions and authorities aren’t either, that you need to look elsewhere than you have been for the way forward, at the very least it should bring you to a bedrock humility and recognition of reality.
So in the same way, though not in the same spirit, with which we take stock of the past year on January 1, and formulate resolutions for the future, herewith some reflections as we go through Advent and anticipate the birth of the One Person that we really can count on, even in the most unsettling times.
The first, last, and most important of all resolutions is to resolve not to expect too much from our own efforts. In the secular dispensation, people resolve on January 1 to lose weight, or change jobs, or mend some relationship. We know how those wishes usually turn out before long.
And that’s a good thing, rightly understood, because even though we have to have right intentions and to work at making them real, such things rarely lie in our immediate power. To fail and to know, without giving up or whining, that we fail for good reason – relying on a fallible human being, namely ourselves – and need to ask for help from Elsewhere, is already a great step forward.
A priest I’ve known for a long time wrote to say this weekend that, as he prayed the Advent prayers “Come Lord Jesus,” he was surprised at how fervently this year, after decades of ministry, he found himself saying those words. The good get better by trials, and if 2020 did nothing else than increase the intensity with which we make that prayer, it can count as a good year.
Which brings us to another resolution: whether the old translation in the Our Father “lead us not into temptation” is correct (it looks that way in Greek, though maybe “put us to the test” captures the meaning better – the pope’s preferred “let us not fall into temptation” is far afield) even Jesus went through trials. And much as all living things dislike suffering – and for us as rational beings suffering isn’t only physical but connected with disorder, isolation, lack of meaning – suffering seems to be part of the divine economy. Pray for a tranquil life, if you want, and seek to live one. But do not expect your life, any life, to spare you from multiple tests.
As Americans, we naturally believe in the pursuit of happiness, which typically means prosperity. No foul there, properly understood. Yet we have the witness of Scripture in the other direction too: “People who have wealth but lack understanding are like the beasts that perish.” (Ps. 49:20) Some of us seem quite content to be beasts. A Christian should know better; even the gentiles and lesser breeds without the law knew “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
And another thing: when you ask, don’t do so as if God needed your advice about what would be good – or bad – for you. The Lord’s Prayer says a lot about wanting what God wants followed by a few petitions about daily bread, forgiveness, perseverance.
Most of what we think we want would only sink us further in vanity, self-absorption, and neglect of the most needful things. You have to be really dense to think you know better than the Creator what should and should not happen in His world.
Just now he seems to think that world should not continue along the ways it had been going earlier. There’s a lot of talk at present about a “Great Reset” once the virus is tamed. Unfortunately, that “reset” looks a lot like the old authoritarian settings on an international scale, an even more radical attempt to control the climate, control population, control economic activity, control religious worship, above all control others who resist the controls envisioned by the Great Reset.
It’s as if they have learned nothing from 2020 about the foolishness of thinking human beings can master the world. Let’s be grateful for the scientists and entrepreneurs who produced vaccines in record time, but realistic as well. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that worse things could happen that no amount of human control can avoid.
We need public order, to be sure, but an order that understands human liberty and the reason why it exists. The people who are most certain that they know what the rest of us should be doing are the ones least to be trusted with our future. Some would like us to build a new Tower of Babel, which they believe will reach to a kind of earthly paradise. We’ve seen for the past century and more what happens when these utopian schemes get going. It’s inevitable. Drive for mastery insults the Master.
So have a Blessed Advent. Make good resolutions and stay with them.
And Come Lord Jesus.
*Image: The Advent and Triumph of Christ [a.k.a. The Seven Joys of Mary] by Hans Memling, 1480 [Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany]. The painting shows 25 episodes from the Life of Christ in a single narrative composition, including: the Annunciation; the Annunciation to the shepherds; the Nativity; the Massacre of the Innocents; the Adoration of the Magi; the Passion; the Resurrection; the Ascension; Pentecost; the Dormition and Assumption of Mary.