The Ways of God
“All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness”
God is getting awfully close. And the closer He gets the more He takes the controls out of our hands. It’s hard to miss that in these concluding days of Advent, as we review the events leading up to our Lord’s birth. Our Lady and St Joseph, Saints Elizabeth and Zechariah, are each called to abandon their plans and expectations and to accept a mystery. And the mystery is God-with-us, God so close to us that it startles us, even terrifies us by how close He is, as we hear today from Malachi’s prophecy: “And suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek. But who will endure the day of his coming?”
We have also heard a series of questions leading up to the birth of God-with-us: “How can this be?” “How shall I know?” “And who am I?” “What then will this child be?” These are the questions of people overwhelmed by God’s closeness in their lives.
At the end of Advent this is the message that is also directed to us. In the midst of a busy season of preparation, it seems like the most surprising thing of all is the idea that God would actually show up and interrupt our personal agendas, even redirect the course of our lives. And yet He does this not only during Advent and Christmas, but nearly every day: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20).
Advent, from beginning to end, is all about making us ready to say a big Yes to God whenever He calls, whenever He comes. This is why at the outset of the season Jesus warns us not to get drunk or let our hearts become drowsy or to drift along without purpose. Why? He says: You must always be ready for me. Where? When? In the person of your neighbor, in the voice of your conscience, in the circumstances that I choose for you.
After the Advent messengers have come and gone, after the prophecies have been proclaimed, God comes to us unescorted, emerging from the prophecies and messages, and He meets us face to face. We have been told, “He will come. He will not delay.” And so He does. Has Advent prepared us to meet Him? Are we ready to say Yes to God however He comes?
Here is where we have to confront ourselves and face an uncomfortable possibility: There may be a part of us that is unreconciled to God, unreconciled to the ways of God. The providence that governs our lives can seem unfair at times, or random, or frustrating—and so our willingness to say Yes to the Lord may be compromised. We look at our plans and expectations and they don’t seem to match with what God has in fact handed to us. This helps us to understand why two days before Christmas God tells us: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.”
The Lord’s birth is supposed to bring about a reconciliation. The hearts of fathers and children turn toward one another because human reconciliation, human trust, prepares us to be reconciled to God. Saint Paul tells us that this is a special grace of the Incarnation: “He is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility… that he might reconcile us both to God.”
The journey to Bethlehem is a path of reconciliation, reconciling us to the ways of God. In the coming days, we should pay special attention to all that God asks of those called to Bethlehem: Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the Magi. Each one of them has to be at peace with where God is guiding them. Our Lord chooses to be born in a very inconvenient, out-of-the-way place—in a city packed with travelers, none of whom know or care that around the back end of a crowded inn the most important event in the history of the world is taking place.
These are the ways of God: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Our Lady and St Joseph arrive in Bethlehem and have nowhere to go. They might reasonably expect that God would provide a certain kind of place for them, a proper house or inn. But they get there, and no vacancy. The stable seems like an afterthought. But in God’s providence nothing is an afterthought. Nothing is unprovided for.
And so for us who are getting closer to Bethlehem again, are we reconciled to the ways of God? Reconciled with the past so that we can say Yes in the present moment? God has made choices for each of us that may be confusing, painful, or hard to bear. Is He not speaking through these things? Is He not guiding us? Are our lives that much different from any of the holy people whom we follow in these days, as they follow a Providence who, as He reveals the present step, hides the next?
We too are asked to trust in a Providence bigger than the universe and as small as an infant. God asks our hearts to reconcile the mystery of His will with the concrete events of our lives, not by understanding, but by trust. It is by daily confidence in Him that we begin to see how near God is to us. And we stop questioning each turn of our path, but go with haste to meet Him wherever He calls us.
Good and upright is the LORD.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.
Who is the man that fears the LORD?
Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose.
 Liturgy of December 23: First Reading, Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24; Responsorial Psalm, PS 25:4-5AB, 8-9, 10 & 14; Gospel, Lk 1:57-66
Originally published in 2016
Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community’s seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms (Scepter Publishers 2019). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.