Exploring the Mystery
The Christmas story can teach us much about faith versus doubt.
Accountants go over balance sheets millions of times. Lawyers study depositions into the night. Doctors are always keeping up with the latest research so that they can diagnose their patients accurately.
All these professionals know that the solution they’re looking for is right in front of them—but they just can’t see it. So they continue to sift the data available to them in the hopes that the solution will appear.
During this season of Advent, we have the chance to do something very similar—and enjoy it a lot more! Every Advent, God invites us to “prepare the way of the Lord” by recalling and reliving the miraculous events that led up to the birth of Christ (Matthew 3:3). It’s an opportunity to sift through those events so that we might find a key or two that further unlocks the mystery of God’s love and his plan. As we meditate on these stories, we give the Holy Spirit the chance to open our eyes a bit wider—and to set his presence in us a bit deeper.
This can be a challenging task. After all, the Christmas story has become so familiar to us that we risk missing out on blessings God wants to give us—especially the joy of drawing closer to Jesus. So let’s fix our hearts on Jesus as we pray through these stories. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to open them up to us so that we can see Jesus in a new way and embrace the blessings that he has for us during this joy-filled season.
A Tale of Doubt. In this first article, we want to look at the difference between doubt and trust. Let’s begin by looking at two conversations that were both very similar and very different. One was between the angel Gabriel and an elderly Jewish priest named Zechariah. The other was between Gabriel and a young Jewish woman of Nazareth named Mary.
Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were both very good and upright people who faithfully followed all God’s ways. They seem to have been happy together, except for one thing: They had no children. For years, they prayed for a child, but none came.
But everything changed one day while Zechariah was performing his duties in the Temple. Out of nowhere the angel Gabriel appeared to him! Gabriel could tell that Zechariah was startled—who wouldn’t be?—and so he told him that he had good news: “Do not be afraid,” he said. “Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth” (Luke 1:11-14).
This should have been exciting news, but Zechariah was filled with deep doubt. He just couldn’t believe that he and his wife would conceive after so long. “How shall I know this?” he asked. “For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18).
Disappointed by his response, the angel reminded Zechariah of who he was and tried to open his eyes: “I am Gabriel,” he said, “who stand before God. . . . But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words” (Luke 1:19-20).
A Tale of Trust. The second conversation, between Gabriel and Mary, was more complex. Like Zechariah, Mary was surprised and even “troubled.” And again, who wouldn’t be? So as he did with Zechariah, Gabriel urged Mary, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 1:30).
When Gabriel explained the central role that Mary was to play in God’s plan of salvation, Mary responded with what appear to be similar words to those of Zechariah. “How can this be,” she asked, “since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34). Gabriel explained further, and Mary replied: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (1:38). Somehow, Mary was able to accept Gabriel’s message far easier than Zechariah could.
A Costly “Yes.” It may not be fair to expect Zechariah to grasp Gabriel’s message, but the angel perceived that there was something more than misunderstanding in his response. As a priest, Zechariah surely knew about the history of his people. Surely he knew about the elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah, and how God had promised this couple—who were also childless—that they would have a son. Surely Zechariah knew that Sarah doubted this promise and she even laughed at it. Why didn’t Zechariah say: “If it happened to Abraham and Sarah, why can’t it happen to Elizabeth and me?”
Now contrast Zechariah with Mary. Like Zechariah, Mary was told what God intended to do. And like Zechariah, she was confused. But Gabriel saw that Mary asked from a humble desire to understand and not from unbelief. Even though Mary was not completely clear about everything, Gabriel saw how she had put her trust in the Lord.
Mary’s “yes” was also far more difficult and risky than Zechariah’s. The angel’s message to Zechariah involved the birth of a son into a marriage, but for Mary it had to do with a child conceived outside of a marriage. For Zechariah, the cost centered on the time, energy, and money it would take for an elderly couple to raise a child. But for Mary the cost centered on her whole life.
Mary was confronted with the choice of giving up her own plans and dreams. She probably sensed that her “yes” had the chance of ending her marriage to Joseph, straining her relationship with her parents, and opening the door to condemnation from her neighbors. Who was going to believe that her child was “of the Spirit?” Who could possibly believe that Mary had remained pure? The ramifications of this decision cost Mary everything that she held dear. Yet she still said, “yes.”
Believe in the Facts. The whole season of Advent is a season of faith. Mary, Joseph, and the others had to put their faith in the facts of what God had said to them, not in their emotionals. If she had relied only on her emotions, Mary might have ended up saying: “This can’t be right. God wouldn’t ask me to do something as hard as this.” Joseph might have said: “I have the right to marry a virgin. God couldn’t be telling me to take Mary as my wife. How can I possibly base my future on a dream?”
Mary’s mind tugged at her. She was confused. Yet when it came time for a decision, Mary said “yes.” She put her trust in Gabriel’s words, even though she didn’t know all the details. Joseph’s mind tugged at him as well. Imagine him tossing and turning all night long as he wrestled with his dream. Yet in the end, he too put his trust in God.
The mind is a tricky thing. It can rationalize anything. It can roam all over the place and find ways to justify whatever emotions are in control of us at the time. This is why we have to rely on the truths of our faith, not our feelings, which come and go.
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). By the power of God’s grace, we can come to sense God’s presence. But that grace doesn’t force us to believe what has been revealed to us. This is why our will—our decision to place our faith in the facts—is so critical to our foundation. Our will sees the good that God is revealing to us by grace, and it urges our intellects to accept God to be both true and good.
St. Thomas Aquinas confirms this when he says that faith shows us what happens if we choose for God: “Our faith allows us to see God’s infinite goodness, it purifies our hearts, and it tells us that separation from God is the greatest evil we can suffer.”
A Season of Faith. The season of Advent is a time when we can ask God to increase our faith. It’s a time to put aside our doubts and proclaim to ourselves that Jesus came into the world to rescue us from sin. It’s a time to remind ourselves that he rose from the dead and that he will come again to take us to be with him forever. It’s a time to trust that God loves us very much. It’s a time to say: “Lord, I believe in you and I marvel at your love. Help my unbelief.”
So let’s all promise the Lord that we will take a little extra time to pray over the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel. Let’s sift through the clues there and try to find some keys to ever-increasing faith. Let’s not just glance over this epic story but let’s dive into it and see what we can discover. Let’s also ask God for the grace to draw every person and every family closer to his heart as we celebrate the birth of our Savior this Christmas.