Our Most Surprising God

When was the last time God surprised you? Maybe that strikes you as a strange question, but I think we believe in a most surprising God. Perhaps too often we go unsurprised, and if we allow ourselves the honesty, maybe we’ll even admit that we’re too often bored with Him. I think, however, that if we are not surprised by God, very often there’s only one reason: we’re not paying close enough attention or hardly any attention at all.

From the very first moments of creation until this very present moment in our lives, God has continually been surprising His people in His effort to gain our attention with surprisingly loving acts. In the Orthodox Church, we are about to set aside one week to pay attention to some of the most important of His saving acts. The word “holy” means “set apart” and so we make it a “Holy Week” if we set it apart to pay attention to Him. I’m convinced that if we do that we will be nearly constantly surprised by Him. Let’s take a glance at Holy Week, to see just some of the ways our God will surprise us.

Holy Week begins this Saturday, Lazarus Saturday, named after the friend whom Jesus raises from the dead. Yet despite the power to work such an awesome miracle, we are surprised by Jesus’ human vulnerability, demonstrated by his weeping at the thought of His fallen friend.

After this miracle, Jesus goes to enter the city of Jerusalem, only to find that the news of the miracle has already spread there. We see the crowds coming out to welcome him as a conquering hero but are surprised by his humility, choosing a common donkey upon which to enter the city instead of a white horse or other symbol of strength and victory.

As we celebrate the Bridegroom Matins on the evenings of Palm Sunday, Holy Monday, and Holy Tuesday, we hear of the final, powerful and loving words and deeds of our Lord in the days just before His passion and death. We contemplate His coming to us as a groom approaches his bride at their wedding, but we are surprised that in place of the finest clothing for his wedding day, our Lord comes vested in clothing put on Him by those who only mockingly treat him as the King He really is. Unlike our wedding crowns of bejeweled gold, His is a crown of thorns. In his hand is the rod that had been used to beat him, now humiliatingly thrust into His hand as a scepter.

In the Epistles, Gospels, and prayers from the Holy Unction service on Holy Wednesday, we hear about the God who healed so many over the centuries and are then surprised when His healing touch includes us in that number as well, as we feel the warmth of healing oil anointing us.

On Holy Thursday morning we are not only surprised but shocked by Jesus’ humility in washing His disciples’ feet and again later at the supper when He breaks bread and pours wine as symbols of His coming saving sacrifice. We are united to Him as He offers us His broken Body and shed Blood in the Mystery of Holy Communion, which we receive once more, as we have each of the preceding mornings in the Presanctified Liturgy. In the service of the 12 Passion Gospels that night and in all the services of Holy Friday, we learn the stark reality of what that sacrifice really meant for Him, and are surprised that there is no limit to the pain, humiliation, and suffering that Jesus endured for us and for our salvation. We are surprised at how much of what Jesus does is “for us and for our salvation.” We are surprised that everything He does is for us and for our salvation.

Having been surprised by Him all week, if we take notice with great care, we begin to see something else. After being surprised by Him so often, we now begin to surprise ourselves. Having spent this one week of the year in a way so different from the rest, we begin to be different. Our faith in Him grows to the point of becoming easy, seemingly effortless. Seeing His love for us inspires our love for Him. A new perspective begins to take shape, and the fear of death–our greatest fear–begins to fade, along with the fear of all of our other lesser enemies as well.  And then, surprised to see these changes, we are surprised by one more.

We see growing in us the presence of something we thought was just a feeling but come to realize is so much more, and something we usually find to be so elusive: joy. Simple, deep, but powerful joy. Welling up from deep within us, we know this is deeper and more grand than the even the happiness that itself too often escapes us.

On Holy Saturday morning, the darkness of Lent and the sorrowful remembrance of Christ’s death is overtaken by the brightness of His Resurrection. We are surprised that the joy we feel at His Resurrection–which we hear and sing about–begins to resonate and reverberate within us, and we begin to see ourselves resurrecting as well.

As we sit in the darkness of the Church on Holy Saturday night, we are surprised by the anticipation that seems so rare in our self-satisfied lives. This anticipation is fulfilled when a single lit candle emerges from the Altar and we are invited—each one of us—to come receive that light–His Light–for ourselves. Surprised once more, the light we see with our eyes is mirrored by the light we come to see burning brightly deep within.

Our God will surprise us if we allow ourselves to be surprised. It takes only setting the time aside in order to make it “holy” and being open to seeing Him differently than we have before. Whether this is our first Holy Week or our 91st, let’s take a new look at the God we think we know. We just might be surprised.