This was originally posted as a column on the Grandin Media website.
A few weeks ago, we celebrated the feast of the Epiphany. The Gospel proclaimed for Epiphany came from Matthew 2, and we often (rightly) spend a great deal of time contemplating the beautiful mystery of these three Magi, their journey, and the gifts they shared with our Lord.
On their journey, these three wise men encountered King Herod. While meeting with the Magi, he asked them to report back to him on the Messiah’s location – telling them that he, too, wished to come and pay Him homage. Herod had no intention of worshipping the newborn king, but instead wanted to do whatever was necessary to stop the Messiah before he ever got started, as it would somehow infringe on Herod’s regime. When the Magi didn’t return to him, he ordered the massacre of the Holy Innocents in an attempt to not only protect his power but also to exercise his own authority over the will of God.
You’d think that Herod would have known better.
Israel’s history tells a litany of tales of other leaders who similarly tried to undermine or stifle God’s will and action in the world… it never went well for them. One of the most obvious is Exodus 14 where, in spite of all the signs and warnings God had given, Pharaoh attempted to prevent the Israelites departure from Egypt (which he had previously assented to.) He sent his army after them, but God was not to be stymied. When the Lord led the Israelites through the Red Sea, Pharaoh’s stubbornness cost his military dearly. King Saul had a similar experience in 1 Samuel 13, when didn’t want to wait for the prophet Samuel to arrive, took matters into his own hands, and offered sacrifice in place of Samuel (in spite of God’s clear directives against this). This led to Saul’s downfall as king and, a few chapters later, the anointing of David to rule after him.
And so, on the feast of the Epiphany, we find Herod repeating the mistakes of the past. Like Pharaoh and Saul, Herod tried to exercise his earthly authority to overrule whatever God was trying to do at that time. This is a fruitless exercise, because the Lord has a plan to bring His family home (see John 1:12) – a plan He’s been unfolding since we broke relationship with Him and were forced to leave the Garden. There is no earthly authority – not a king, a president, nor any popular opinion that will ever be capable of thwarting that plan. What Pharaoh and Saul learned (and we can presume Herod eventually figured out) is that only God is God and we are not.
What we can do, however, is to choose for ourselves whether or not we will allow God’s plan to take fruition in our own lives. It’s true that God wants each of us in His family, but He isn’t about to drag any of us kicking and screaming into Heaven. This is why we believe that one of the greatest gifts that God has given to us is the gift of our free will. We have the same freedom as our first parents to choose to cooperate with the will of God or, as they chose, to reject not only God’s commandments but also to reject any relationship with Him. According to the YouCat: “Freedom is the God-given power to be able to act of one’s own accord” (#286).
C.S. Lewis puts it simply: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says in the end ‘thy will be done.’” In this way, we talk about our own particular judgement as being the result of free choices. This is why St. John Paul II spoke of Hell as a self-imposed punishment. when we die, God gives us what we loved the most: Himself… or ourselves. This temptation to control our own destiny is found from the accounts of our first parents in the book of Genesis, to the sins we need to bring to confession, we often find ourselves tempted to frustrate the plans of God for our own lives.
All of that being said, we ought to take great consolation in two simple facts. The first is that God has been working in human history and in our own hearts to mend our relationship with Him. He has given us the ultimate sign of His love for us (the Cross) and he’s given us the Sacrament of Reconciliation as an avenue to come back to Him again and again. The second is that although free will is a great gift, there is a choice we can make or fail to make that can undo what God is trying to do in our lives. St. Paul writes as much when he says that neither “death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).