When I consider the malaise that has spread across our nation, I ponder where it has come from. Is it a matter of a historical discomfort, so that it has always been present and is simply more noticeable now, or is it a more recent phenomenon? Part of me wants to simply assert that in the past, we were too busy worrying about survival to really bother with such concerns, and that nowadays we have so much luxury time that we can actually sit back a think about things are.
I’m talking, of course, about a widespread anxiety in our nation that manifests in hundreds of different ways: depression, drug use, promiscuity, internet addiction, video games and the endless saturation of society with so much entertainment that people don’t know what to do if they don’t get their daily fix of CSI: Miami, or their weekly dosage of Heroes or Monday Night Football. We are gluttons for distraction, so much so that we’d willing fill our lives with Jerry Springer, Judge Judy, South Park, and other terrible shows than actually confront the discomfort head on.
Part of the problem is that we seem to think that everything has to turn out all right here in this life. We’ve become so sensitive to tragedy that we cannot simply accept that on occasion tragic things happen. Instead, we have to work to ensure that tragedy never happens, ever again, to anyone, and if it does, someone has to bear the blame. If we’re suffering, there has to be a reason that we’re suffering, a reason that we can fix so that we don’t have to suffer any longer.
This has manifested itself in a number of ways that many of us find detestable. We’re so afraid of discomfort that keeping our kids comfortable has interfered with their need to learn and grow. Schools are increasingly tolerant of poor performances (even under No Child Left Behind). Because of self-esteem issues, we can’t fail kids, or hold them back a grade to ensure they learn what they need before moving on. We can’t even discipline them, because that might cause too much discomfort. And the result is blatantly clear: we have a whole new generation of adults that are barely able to care for themselves because they’ve been coddled to the point of irreversible dependency.
And then we have the litigation-happy section of society, filled with ambulance-chasing lawyers and opportunists. It doesn’t matter how trivial the case may seem, or how absurd. It doesn’t matter if we have other venues at hand; if that one venue simply doesn’t work for us or give us exactly what we want, we’ll sue. We’ll settle this in courts and walk away with our pockets stuffed with cash. (More exactly, our lawyers will walk away with cash, and we’ll have a pittance, because in truth those lawsuits on average don’t pay out as much as we might hope.) But better yet, we simply threaten a lawsuit for some perceived slight—ostensibly against minority or disability or sexual preference, even if the company never intended a slight, but could not possibly foresee and pay for every possibility—and hope for a settlement out of court.
And then we have the big governmental fixes. Whenever we’re in trouble, the government will be there for us! That’s not a problem when we’re speaking of things the government should help us with, those cases of dire need, but anymore we expect the government to fix everything. Or, if we don’t actually expect the government to come through, we can always blame the government.
The point, though, is this. We’ve come to expect that everything should turn out the way we expect. We buy into this notion that our lives have to proceed a certain way. For some of us, we expect life to follow a certain course. We graduate from high school and go to college. We earn a degree, and then we get a job. We get married, raise a family, send our kids through school, and eventually retire to play with our grandchildren. For others, we might go along with the flow, but our lives will be meaningless unless we’re able to devote ourselves to our artistic talents—being it music or painting or writing or acting or…
But it is more than just expectation. It has grown well beyond “expect”, and now it lurks in the realm of “deserve”. We deserve the life we want. It isn’t something for us to work for any longer; it is ours by right, and if we can’t get it ourselves, then someone had best hand it to us. It isn’t right for us to fail, regardless of our efforts or abilities or even the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It isn’t right for even our hopes to fail, even if those hopes involve something we individually have very little say in, such as the outcome of a football game or the results of a nationwide election.
It is very easy to point to our increasingly secular society, that it is our drifting away from God that has opened us to this permeating anxiety, this wafting malaise. Yet I wonder if that isn’t putting the cart before the horse. Maybe our drift away from God has come from the fact that God won’t immediately, instantly fix all our problems, even though He has the ability to do so. It seems any more that any time something terrible happens—mass murders, rapes, wars—instead of blaming the people involved, we blame God for not directly interceding. Or we write God off because He didn’t intercede. Obviously, if He existed, He wouldn’t have let all these tragedies occur, right?
Yet if there is one thing to keep in mind when dealing with God is that our plans are dust before Him. His ways are not our ways. His thoughts are as far beyond ours as Heaven from Earth. What we want, what we expect, may not—and probably rarely are—what He plans for us.
In our society of instant gratification and endless government bailouts, this doesn’t sit very well.
There’s a story, though, that we should all take to heart whenever we start railing against the world or even against God when things do not occur the way we expect. That story is of increasing importance as we prepare to enter Advent, and while it will receive due attention for the splendor and the glory that came into the world because of it, there’s as aspect to it that has been the focus of my reflections of late.
It is the story of the Annunciation.
Typically, when we think of the Annunciation—the Angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she has been chosen to bear the Messiah, the Son of God, the promised one—we consider Mary’s purity, her devotion to God, the goodness that was permitted to come into the world through her fiat. What we don’t consider is how Mary’s situation resonates with the anxiety we feel today about our plans and ambitions.
Let us, for the sake of argument, accept the traditional view that Mary had consecrated herself to virginity, was marrying Joseph for the sake of protection in her vows, not to start a family. So here we have a young woman who is virtuous, upstanding, following the law flawlessly, and dedicating herself to a chaste, holy life. She is betrothed to Joseph, and soon the marriage will be officially recognized.
Then along comes Gabriel, and a monkey wrench is thrown into her life’s plans. She is asked to bear the Messiah. While this is no doubt an honor, to be specially chosen by God to be His mother, we have to step back and consider just what was at stake for Mary.
She would become pregnant. While she knows and God knows that she never surrendered her virginity to conceive the child Jesus in her womb, it is unlikely that the people around her would accept her “story” of God causing a miracle to occur without at least the assistance of a human male. While Scripture is rife with stories of miraculous pregnancies, nevertheless each one involved both a man and woman, and God just helping out a little.
So first, there is the potential of suffering shame. She would be perceived as violating her pledge of virginity, and while that might be forgivable to some degree, it would still have followed her around. Second, as we noticed in Matthew, there was the problem of dealing with Joseph. He would certainly know the child was not biologically his. The logical conclusion is that she must have slept with another man, which is a blow to Joseph personally. But there is also the potential that Joseph could be accused of forcing himself on Mary, violating the charge of protecting her chastity. Third on the list was the very real possibility that Mary would be accused of adultery, especially if Joseph chose to reveal that the child was not his. And the penalty for adultery was being stoned to death.
Talk about having one’s life plans upset! Talk about how Mary, sinless as she was, certainly deserved, more than any of us, the “good” life, and not a life of strife and hardship. And yet, Mary consented. “Let it be done to me,” she said.
How many of us could make that choice? How many of us would risk the very real possibility that, if we submitted to God’s demands, we would suffer societal stigma, lose our spouses, and even face imprisonment or death? How many of us would simply allow our plans to suffer a near-terminal setback of this magnitude? How many of us would have that unswerving trust in God, the utter faith that He would ensure that following His commands would be well rewarded?
It would be hoped that every devout Christian would be able to place their full trust and faith in God. I certainly hope that whenever God calls to me, that I will have the courage to say, “Here I am, Lord. Let it be done to me as you will.”
But whenever I think of Mary, and her submission to God, I am deeply humbled.