BEFORE THE CROSS | God’s plan is fulfilled in His time, not ours

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

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We begin a cycle of Old Testament readings this week that takes us through the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. In Monday's reading, God gives a promise to Abraham. This promise is reiterated several times throughout the week. But the key phrase is probably this: "Then Abram journeyed on by stages to the Negeb."

Stages. That's key. The promise was given to Abraham right from the start: descendants as numerous as the stars, a land of their own, a blessing to all nations. But do you know what portion of the promise Abraham saw fulfilled in his own lifetime? Upon his death he had one son as a result of the promise, and one small plot of land as a burial site.

Abraham trusted that the promise would be fulfilled. And, looking back, we know that it was. But it was fulfilled one step at a time across a span of almost 2,000 years: first in the multiplication of descendants, then in taking possession of the promised land, then in the Davidic kingdom, and finally in Jesus. God was patient with the stages of Israel's journey (which included significant setbacks). He fulfilled the promise gradually, respecting both our free will and the gradual nature of human growth.

The history of Catholic theology teaches a similar lesson. There are great moments such as St. Thomas Aquinas' "Summa Theologiae" — a masterful synthesis of faith and reason, systematically covering virtually every aspect of the faith. But there was a history behind that monumental achievement. St. Thomas' Summa — written between 1265 and 1274 – built on a project that went back to Peter Abelard's "Sic et Non," written in the 1120's, and Peter Lombard's "Four Books of Sentences," written in the 1150's. Sometimes we're tempted to think that St. Thomas' masterful synthesis stands alone. The truth is that there was a gradual history behind its making.

It raises important questions for us: Are we impatient with God's timing? Are we impatient with the stages of history as they unfold in our own day, insisting that our vision has to be accomplished right now? Are we impatient with the stages of other people's growth in faith, insisting that they arrive where we want them to be right now? Just remember: The measure of patience or impatience with which we measure others will be measured back to us.

When God promises a son to Abraham, Sarah laughs. By human measures it's too late to redeem the situation. But it's not too late for God. Apparently, God's sense of timing is different than ours. When we learn that lesson — which both the history of salvation and the history of theology teach us — we gain the foundation for a new trust and a new patience. 

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