Win, Place, Show

Win, Place, Show

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

It is unseemly to entitle a reflection piece, written around Christmas time, with a title such as appears above. For it calls to mind the racing establishment, and the often unsavory atmosphere that permeates this past-time. For many a career has been sent crashing to the ground because of those consumed by the racetrack fever.

Gambling, of course, is nothing new. It is one of the past-times that has captured the fancy of earlier generations, so much so that it seems endemic to the human situation. It is a game of chance and supposedly skill or ability has little to do with it. For that reason, it is lightly regarded, and does not rate encomiums of praise and admiration usually reserved for activities that call forth the best in human capacity. The Chinese engaged in it in 2300 BC. In the western world the Kings of Sweden and Norway relied on card gambling, to determine which of them should control the district of Hising, though this game of chance occurred at a much later date in history, around 100 AD.

Nonetheless, certain gambling practices can be subjected to intense, almost scientific, analysis, which outmaneuvers the happenstance of many gambling past-times, and relies on human skills to determine the outcome of some gambling procedures. To make this point is to diminish the seeming foolishness of gambling, and to note a role for human skill and ingenuity in the gambling past-time. This removes the notion of foolishness and absurdity (and thereby the indefensibility) from gambling, and elevates it to a past-time that enjoys a bit of quality and even dignity. Once this is recognized, the absurdity of reflecting on gambling at this particular time of the year is avoided, and the groundwork is laid for considering whether God has taken a chance in dealing with us over the ages, a chance that is indefensible, given the proven track-record of our unreliability in dealing with Him.

So we ask: was God taking a chance in sending His Son among us at Christmas time, given the sordid history of this relationship as it developed throughout history? And, of course, we know on what side lies the source of this fiasco: the human side.

St. Bernard comes to our aid in answering this question. He does so by noting that God reduces the irrationality or the chance-taking of His dealings with us by increasing the number of times in which He reaches out to us. For He does so, not just one time, but three times, thereby increasing His chances of success in dealing with us. God is not acting foolishly by making an irrational move in dealing with us. Rather, He diminishes the irrational factor in reaching out to us in several ways, thereby increasing the possibility of success in doing so.

St. Bernard identifies three instances of God’s outreach to us. The first was what we have come to identify as the Incarnation, the memorial of which is close at hand: Christmas. That commemorates His historical birth among us, His nativity, in which He became a human being like ourselves and lived among us for over thirty years. And even though many may count it as a failure on God’s part, since some of us rejected His outreach by nailing His Son to the Cross, killing Him. But many among us count it as a success for God, since it brought about the redemption of the world, which otherwise would have continued its downward trend toward failure.

Equally well known is the third and last instance of God’s rendevouz with us: the last judgment, when God confronts each of us and asks for an accounting of how we have lived our lives. This acknowledges that God keeps close tabs on us, and is extremely interested in how we have run the race of life. Having endowed each of with talents and assets, in varying degrees, He has placed us in various situations, each full of opportunities to give Him glory and honor. In doing this He has wagered on and invested in us, counting on us to win the race of life, and witness to His own investment in us, who are the products of His creating hand. And many of us will glorify Him by doing well, justifying the chance He has taken with us.

St. Bernard then notes a third occasion God has taken in our regard, that further witnesses to how carefully He has calculated the wager He has taken with us, showing the reasonableness rather than the foolishness, of His counting on us to do well, to succeed and not to fail. And this is a way we often overlook, given our focus on His Incarnation, and on the Last Judgment, as better known examples of His taking a chance on us. St. Bernard describes this way as “a hidden one”, because He operates by “coming (to us) in spirit and power”. He considers this way as a connecting link or a road between the Incarnation and the Last Judgment. It is apparent in Jesus’remark: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we WILL COME TO HIM.”

So God deals with us at three levels, in three different ways. Thereby He hedges His bets on us to diminish His failure risk and to enhance the likelihood of His success. God does bet, but knows how to cut His losses, and enhance His prospects of winning. He is hardly unreasonable. Rather, He is a seasoned veteran in this regard.

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