We have all heard the expression: “Nothing lasts forever.” The expression is not entirely true, but it is true about many of the things we humans try to build ourselves and think are lasting.
We see this truth at work in the world all the time. We build houses and other buildings—even out of the best materials—and over the years decay, weather, and wear reduces them to rubble. We drive cars that run well for a while but then need repairs, and eventually they deteriorate to the point that they are beyond repair.
Even the companies that build those cars—companies that once seemed mighty and unchanging—can grow weaker with the passage of time and in the face of various challenges are forced to change dramatically. Here in Detroit, where I live, we have seen a great deal of this with regard to what we used to call the Big Three automakers.
To look at the bigger picture of history, we can see that merely every human society has fallen, eventually. Empires, kingdoms, and governments once thought invincible are now present only in memory and in their influence on later societies. Even here in the United States, a country that seems to be so powerful and so stable, we have already known one Civil War. And today our country is torn by so many divisions that it often seems strained to the breaking point.
To take this back down to the personal level, think about how many projects we have started, how many dreams have we had and how many plans have we made for ourselves and for others, only to see them fall away because of the various misfortunes we face in this life.
We often experience failure in what we have considered to be important, so what are we to make of our apparent defeats?
For that matter, consider how we deal with our apparent successes. Do we tend to think we have done it all on our own? Do we slip into thinking that our successes will last forever? How do we understand all of this in the right way?
The answer, to put it simply, is that we need to turn to God. We shouldn’t be too impressed with our successes, but we also shouldn’t be depressed at our failures. What we need to do is to look to God in all things and at all times, good and bad, and to focus on His action rather than our own.
Indeed, it should be clear to us that only God has the power to build or establish something that can last forever. Because we lack this power, we need to respect God’s power and His plan for us and for the world.
We need to know our place—to know where we stand with God and what kind of relationship we have with Him—and to cooperate in His work.
Many of us understand this easily, but some people do not quite get it. King David, as we see him in 2 Samuel 7, is somebody who did not seem to get it. You might say that David didn’t know his place. He wanted to do something good for God—or so he thought. It seems that he had good intentions. He was experiencing a time of peace and rest from his enemies, at a time when Israel seemed to be establishing itself as a stable kingdom.
David wanted to do for God what God had done for him, to give God a worthy and stable place to live. “Here I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent,” David exclaimed. But it wasn’t his place to build God a house. So what answer does God give to David? That He will do the house building. And not only will the Lord build David a house, but He will establish such a house that it will last forever.
Of course, the house God had in mind was no house of cedar such as David lived in. The house was, rather, the place from which a new and eternal King would come forth, the King born of David’s line but Who, more importantly, would be the Son of God.
God’s words to David through Nathan the Prophet make this clear: “The LORD also reveals to you that he will establish a house for you…I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.”
God goes far beyond the kind of house David had imagined, declaring that He would create not only a dwelling place, but the starting point from which the Kingdom of God would be established on the earth.
We see the house that the Lord promises to establish in the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel greets the Virgin Mary and proclaims the fulfillment of the prophecy to David. Gabriel greets Mary with the words, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28).
This greeting, astounding for many reasons, is especially important to us today because of Gabriel’s declaration that the Lord Himself is with Mary—and therefore with His people—in a new way. Saint Augustine, reflecting on the angel’s words to Mary at the Annunciation, “The Lord is with you,” places some additional words of his own on the lips of Gabriel: “He is more with you than he is with me: he is in your heart, he takes shape within you, he fills your soul, he is in your womb.”
Here we see God building to last, sending His own Son into the womb of the Virgin Mary, and there—the quietness and hiddenness of the moment of conception—establishing His everlasting Kingdom on earth.
These two scriptural events raise the question: “What did Mary do right that David did not?”
The answer is that Mary cooperated with God’s action in her life. She did not try to act on her own, but rather waited for the Lord, remaining ready for Him to act in His good time. It is clear in the words of Gabriel that the conception of Jesus was indeed first and foremost God’s action: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
The promise of God the Father, the action and power of the Holy Spirit, and the mission of the Son all bring about, through Mary’s cooperation, the establishment of a new Kingdom that will last forever.
God establishes the Kingdom, not us. But thanks be to God, He invites us to a place in His Kingdom. But in order to fulfill God’s plan for us, we have to come to know our place in the Kingdom, and cooperate with Him.
How can we cooperate with God the way Mary did, and come to know our place in the Kingdom? There are three steps we need to follow:
- The first step is to be ready, as Mary was ready to accept Gabriel’s message despite her initial fear.
- Secondly, we need to listen to God when He speaks to us and to accept what we hear from Him. We should pray over Mary’s fiat. Mary said to the angel, “May it be done unto me according to your word.” We need to listen to God’s word and heed it in this way, to turn our whole lives over to the word and the will of God.
- Thirdly, we need to respond when the Lord comes into our lives—at Christmas, and at all the other times the Lord comes to us, as He does in the Holy Eucharist. We need to respond by believing in Him, by rejoicing at His coming, and by following Him wherever He leads us. In my own life, God has acted by calling me to serve Him as a priest. I could have never become a priest on my own, and I cannot imagine going on without Him. God is acting in the lives of all of His people. Mothers and fathers, single people, people working at professions and people who work in the home, people who are young and active and people who are older and whose lives are more quiet and reflective—God wants to act in all of our lives. We all need to wait patiently—but also with a ready spirit—for the Lord to reveal His plan for us, to lead us step by step deeper into the mystery of His kingdom. God calls us to that “obedience of faith” to which St. Paul refers, that obedience which is the purpose of His revealing in Jesus Christ “the mystery kept secret for long ages” (Romans 16:25).
These are difficult days, in the Church and in the world, and often in our own lives or among our family members and friends. These are days in which we have seen many things we hold dear change or seem to fall away altogether. But God Who dwells in His Church, among His People, has established His kingdom forever in sending Jesus Christ.
We may be “greatly troubled” at first at the way in which God comes to us—as Mary was—but we need to trust in the Lord and believe that He has acted in an eternal and a definitive way to bring about our salvation.
For this last week of Advent, and during the Christmas season, we are all called to consider carefully the Blessed Virgin Mary, how she understood her relationship with God, and her need to allow God to work in, with, and through her.
This is the kind of cooperation God asks of all his sons and daughters, the humble and complete cooperation of the Virgin Mary, through whom the Source of our salvation came into the world and established His everlasting Kingdom. Finding our place in the Kingdom depends upon our imitation of Mary.
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