Amy Olsen holds her 1-year-old daughter, Piper, as she lights a candle on the Advent wreath at St. Raphael the Archangel Church in St. Louis Oct. 29. The wreath, with a candle marking each week of the season, is a traditional symbol of the liturgical period. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston)
Terrorists attack iconic Paris, leaving the Western world mourning for the victims, their families, and our collective safety and security. The news hits hard amidst a daily life of relative peace and joy, bringing to the forefront the horror and evil present in this world, leading us to ask, “Why?” Governments, think-tanks, pyschologists, and friends may answer this “why,” but their answers don’t suffice. It isn’t really to them that we ask our question. Instead, our question is addressed, consciously or not, to the source of all meaning. The stark encounter with wickedness stirs up questions for God: Why does our loving, all-powerful God allow suffering to happen? What does it mean that we are living in a time after Christ, after God became man, when the world has remained a place of strife, stamped with malice and selfishness?
For many Christians, it is tempting to answer these questions with platitudes or by turning away from the depth of evil that exists, rather than living with their difficulty. Pope Benedict XVI, writing as Joseph Ratzinger, urges us not to look away from evil, but to be able to look at it head on. In his Advent homilies collected as What it Means to be a Christian, he writes, “True believing means looking the whole of reality in the face, unafraid and with an open heart, even if it goes against the picture of faith that, for whatever reason, we make for ourselves. This is why daring to talk to God out of the trial of our darkness, as Job did, is a part of Christian life.”
Ratzinger, like the Bible itself, holds up the Old Testament person of Job as an example of a faithful follower of God. Job, who yelled at God in the darkness, is held up as our model, rather than Job’s friends who explained why God acted as He did. Job’s example urges us to journey with God, to ask the questions born of our suffering, to the One who created everything.
Journeying with God, Ratzinger says, is central to Advent: we wait for the One who redeems the world. “Observing Advent simply means talking with God the way Job did. It means just seeing the whole reality and burden of our Christian life without fear and bringing it before the face of God, as judge and savior, even if, like Job, we have no answer to give about it all, and the only thing left is to leave it to God himself to answer and to tell him how we are standing here in our darkness with no answers.”
For Ratzinger, Advent is a time to see all of existence, including the evil that exists, and bring to God our questions. Lorenzo Albacete, in his book God at the Ritz, notes that questioning implies an answer. “To suffer is to be convinced that somewhere a source of sense exists, even though it always lies beyond our capacity to appreciate and grasp it,” he writes. “Suffering, then, is a sign of hope.”
The paradoxical hope inherent in suffering points us to the Christmas mystery, where God himself provides an answer to these questions. His answer is not a theological explanation, as Job’s friends provided, or well-meaning maxims. Instead, he answers through the Incarnation: by entering our humanity and suffering with us.
Why does our loving, all-powerful God allow suffering to happen? What does it mean that we are living in a time after Christ, after God became man, when the world has remained a place of strife, stamped with malice and selfishness?