By Kenneth E. Buckle, Psy.D.
February 14, 2012
There is something in us, something fundamental to our humanity that causes us to pay attention to the unexpected, to surprises. Most of us really enjoy them in the rare occasion when they come along. Young children especially love the element of surprise in a birthday or at Christmas. The best present may be the one that is the most unexpected. That’s why we wrap them up, to draw out the tension and emotion. This attention to the unexpected is actually due to the way our brains work.
Our senses are bombarded with incoming information. It is impossible for us to process everything in our environment, and so our brain has developed a system to work efficiently so that we are not overwhelmed from the moment we awake each morning. Our brains quickly organize data into categories and then logic enables us to say, “yes, that new object I see with four legs and a seat is a chair” even though chairs come in any number of shapes and sizes. When it comes to sizing up people, this brain efficiency can quickly get us into trouble. This is called stereotyping.
So our brains search for anomalies and differences. Whatever is unexpected then stands out and catches our attention. The surprise gives us a jolt of adrenalin. Our Heavenly Father must appreciate this because He makes pretty good use of it, particularly during the earthly life of Jesus.
The first surprise of the New Testament is the Incarnation. Who would ever have dreamed that God would stoop down and become a lowly human being? What was God thinking, the Almighty to be born in a stable among animals. Born of a virgin? Amazing.
The parents of young Jesus lose track of him during their annual adventure to Jerusalem for Passover. Then they find him, preaching in the temple. A young person teaching his elders? We just don’t see that every day. As you read the gospel description (Luke 2:41-50) of this event, it is easy to picture the astonished look on his parents’ faces. Jesus in fact asks them why they are so surprised.
The unexpected happens again and again when it comes to Christ’s miracles. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the lepers are cleansed. Water is turned into wine, but not just any wine…the finest wine. The worst sinners are forgiven.
Perhaps the best sermon Jesus gave was on the Mount as described in Matthew 5:3-12 and in Luke 6:20-22. Look at the beatitudes: blessed are the poor, the hungry, the mourning, those who are hated. This doesn’t make any sense. In Jewish thought of that time, a person with good health and wealth was blessed. It was a sign that the person was living correctly and thus was enjoying God’s reward for it. To hear this sermon must have been shocking to them. Nicodemus was quite puzzled when Jesus told him that he needed to be born again. His response to Christ was “How can this be?” (John 3:9).
And then the Son of God is put to death. At the age of 33. A good and faithful Jew who harmed no one. After a triumphant entrance into Jerusalem just the week prior. But wait, the surprise does not stop there: Jesus rises from the dead. The Passion, Death, and Resurrection are as unexpected and shocking as the Incarnation.
Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we could be surprised. Simple water and bread become God present to us and in us. The same is true in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We confess terrible sins and walk away with a clean slate. God’s mercy is not deserved and not expected. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we heard each person shout “What?” in surprise in the confessional before leaving, giving the priest a high five and a “Yes!” after the absolution was given? Lord forgive us for going through the motions.
There are certainly plenty of other examples of surprise in the Scriptures, in both the Old and the New Testament. God knows us. He knows what catches our attention. It is important for us to continue to be surprised on an ongoing basis, especially as followers of Christ.
In the world today, it seems more and more difficult for us to be surprised about anything. The things that used to be shocking are now common place. We see the horrors of war on our living room TV. We hear about every unspeakable crime of man against man every night on the local news. Only Lady Gaga gets noticed, and she will be in the spotlight for just a short time before her novelty too fades away. It’s really too bad. It’s a sign of something gone terribly wrong.
Could it be possible that God created in us an appreciation for the unexpected because God likes surprises? Perhaps God is pleasantly surprised when we sacrifice for one another, when we forgive, when we love another imperfect human being who is likely to hurt us every so often. After all, we are made in the image of God. We need to find our way back to this simple gift. This may be one aspect of what Jesus meant when He suggested that we become like little children (Matthew 18:3). The saints perhaps are saints because they do the unexpected.
When abortion became legal those many years ago, we should have been surprised…but we were not at the time. When the President of the United States recently proposed that everyone should be using artificial contraception (or at least paying for it), we need to be shocked…but some are saying that nearly all women use it already anyway so what’s the big deal. Perhaps one the best aspects of the response of our US Bishops to this event was that they expressed their surprise and disbelief. If euthanasia laws are passed under the guise of being merciful to those who are dying, we must treat it as something unexpected, but we may barely blink an eye.
It is helpful for us to be surprised. There is something sacred about it. Each
Lenten season can be our first. Every Advent is new. Each Mass is the Last Supper. To be able to appreciate the gift of sacred surprises is to be close to God’s heart.