Faith is handing over our hearts to God’s loving plan

Father John A. Kiley

One standard of the Christmas season for both the secular and the believing worlds is an annual performance of George Frederick Handel’s oratorio, “The Messiah.” The Boston Symphony will cheer a packed house and The Providence Civic Choral will enthrall a full audience. The oratorio is introduced by Isaiah’s promise to an exiled Israel that God would restore their nation: “Comfort ye, my people… (40:1).” Then-Old Testament prophecies and New Testament fulfillments follow right up to the Second Coming. It is indeed a musical epic. A curious but certainly suitable tradition attached to the Messiah is the audience’s standing for the celebrated Hallelujah chorus. The practice dates back to 1743 when King George III during a London performance suddenly stood up at the joyous acclamation and the respectful, if bewildered, audience followed the royal lead. Some muse that His Highness had dozed during the lengthy performance and, at the sudden outburst of “Hallelujah,” thinking he was in church and that a Gospel passage was about to be read, stood up.
Although the Hallelujah chorus celebrates Christ’s resurrection, Handel applies his talent equally to the virginal arrival of Christ. The birth of Jesus through his virgin mother Mary is announced from St. Luke’s account this coming Sunday: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus (1:36).” Isaiah had famously predicted a virgin birth five centuries before. Handel happily included this prophecy in his work: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel (7:14).” St. Matthew in his Gospel account faithfully repeats the angel’s exact words to Joseph confirming the unique event: “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel,’ which being interpreted is, God with us (1:23).”
Jesus’ entry into history was certainly as unique as his victory over death. Well might the faithful jubilantly celebrate God the Father’s initiative in sending his own beloved Son into this world – not thanks to any human initiative but solely through God’s own Divine largesse. The virginal birth of Christ strikingly emphasizes that salvation is entirely a heavenly gift from God and not at all a product of human enterprise.
No one knew the distinctiveness of God’s gift of salvation better than Mary of Nazareth. Mary clearly knew that nothing she had done had helped to bring about the arrival of Christ into history. “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man (Lk.1:34)?” Yet she heeded the challenge and accepted God’s plan: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word (Lk.1:38).” Mary’s determined faith in the seemingly impossible plan of God is the standard of faith for all believers. Mary’s challenged yet steadfast faith is the paradigm for all believing Christians.
Again at Mass this Sunday, St. Paul concludes his letter to the Romans (16:26) insisting that all the traditions of the Old Testament and all the teachings of the New Testament were meant to bring about “the obedience of faith,” that is, the docile acceptance of God’s plan for mankind based not on human reasoning or on earthly schemes but solely on a mature appreciation of Divine Revelation. St. Paul’s “obedience of faith” envisions a believer who is fully compliant with Christian beliefs as announced in Scripture and as proclaimed through Tradition, the enduring groundwork of Church life.
The many trappings of the Christmas event, like those found in Handel’s “Messiah” and Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” and certainly in parish tableaux and home manger scenes are helpful reminders of basic Christian teachings about religious history and virtuous living. But facts, no matter how augustly presented, cannot substitute for faith which is an interior personal commitment to God the Father through his Son and their Spirit. Christianity is a deeply personal commitment. Religion is not merely an intellectual or artistic fascination with noble ideas and kindly causes. Faith rather is obedience, the dutiful handing over of one’s mind and heart to the plan of God recognized and accepted as a benign and loving Father, especially when one is faced with what appears to be evidence to the contrary.