Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese empire had been at war with China for several years, and in the process murdered many civilians and committed various other atrocities. Japan’s invasion of the Chinese mainland also endangered many Westerners living there, including a Christian missionary couple, Dick and Margaret Hillis, and their two very young children. The Hillises were in a small, inland village named Shenkiu, which was in the path of the invaders; every day brought terrifying reports of how the Japanese soldiers were drawing ever closer, killing everyone and destroying everything in their path. In the middle of January 1941, Dick came down with appendicitis, and had to be evacuated by rickshaw to the nearest hospital. Margaret was left alone with the children, one-year-old Johnny and two-month-old Margaret Anne. The Chinese colonel in charge of the defenders strongly urged her to evacuate with the rest of the villagers, but she doubted her little children would survive as refugees, so she chose to stay put.
The next morning, as always, Margaret tore off the top page from the wall calendar. Each page had a Scripture passage, and that day’s verse from Psalm 56 read “O Most High, when I begin to fear, in You will I trust” (56:3). All the villagers left that day, and the next morning Margaret felt abandoned. However, she took heart when she read that day’s Scripture verse from Psalm 9: “You do not forsake those who seek You, O Lord” (9:11). The following day Margaret heard gunfire in the distance; she also worried about having enough food for her little ones. Looking at the calendar, she read a verse from the Book of Genesis: “Have no fear; I will provide for you and your children” (50:21). As it happened, an old woman stopped by with a pail of goat’s milk, and another straggler showed up with a basket of eggs. The sounds of fighting increased, and throughout that day and the night Margaret prayed for deliverance. Looking at the calendar on the fourth morning, Margaret saw another verse from Psalm 56: “My enemies turn back when I call upon You” (56:10). The sounds of fighting grew more intense, and Margaret stayed awake all day and night, holding her children close—but on the fifth morning there was complete silence, followed a short while later by the sounds of the villagers returning to their homes. The Chinese colonel stopped by and informed Margaret that, for some unknown reason, the Japanese invaders had suddenly retreated, and the danger was past. Margaret smiled to herself and thought, “I know the reason. Each day the Lord told me what He was going to do—and each day He kept His promises” (Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, & Quotes, pp. 646-647). The Word of the Lord is utterly reliable, and those who trust in His promises will never be disappointed or forsaken.
God’s plan is often mysterious; this is a way for Him to respect our free will, while also blinding the eyes of evildoers. However, He makes many promises to His people, so as to reward them for their faithful service and provide them with hope and encouragement in difficult times. In fact, someone calculated that the Bible contains 7,487 promises made to us by God (op. cit., p. 645). One such promise is given in the 1st Reading (Mal 3:1-4) through the prophet Malachi: “suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord Whom you seek.” The Gospel of Luke (2:22-40) describes how this prophecy was fulfilled when Mary and Joseph presented the infant Jesus to the Lord in the temple in Jerusalem forty days after His birth. Simeon, a former high priest and a righteous man, had been promised by the Holy Spirit that before he died, he would see the long-awaited Messiah—and when this promise was fulfilled, he praised God for keeping His word, while himself also promising that this holy Child was destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and that Our Lady would have much to suffer. Jesus as our Redeemer, and Mary as His Mother, both gave completely of themselves for our salvation—and because Our Lord knows firsthand what it is to suffer, the 2nd Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews (2:14-18) assures that He is “a merciful and faithful high priest before God,” eager to save us and free us from our sins.
We as Americans have gotten used to our presidents lying to us, or breaking their promises—for instance, “I am no crook”; “Read my lips—no new taxes”; “I did not have sex with that woman”; “If you like your current health insurance plan, you can keep it”; and so on. Even when presidents and other people speak honestly, and sincerely intend to keep their word, it often doesn’t happen—whether through personal weakness, unexpected events, or circumstances beyond their control. However, that is never the case with God; He is utterly and perfectly truthful, and when He tells us He is going to do something, it does come about—for the Lord is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving.
How does this great truth affect us? Very simply, we are invited to shape and direct our lives around the promises of God. For instance, the Lord tells us that we are “fearfully, wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14)—which means each one of us is infinitely valuable; thus, we must always live in a manner that respects our own human dignity, and that of others. Almighty God assures us, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you were born I dedicated you” (Jer. 1:5)—which means the Lord knows us personally and uniquely, and has assigned a mission in life to each of us that no one else can fulfill. Jesus promises us, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Mt. 7:7)—which means God hears and answers every single prayer, caring for us with a Father’s love. Our Lord teaches us, “Where two or three are gathered in My Name, there I am in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20)—which means our unity as members of the Church is very important and very powerful. Finally, our Savior assures us, “In My Father’s house there are many dwelling places,” [and] “I am going to prepare a place for you” (Jn. 14:2)—which means that Heaven exists, and that we will inherit a glorious and joyful place of honor there if we try to be faithful disciples.
It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to live without hope and without the promise of something better to come—and sadly, many people around the world find themselves in this tragic situation. This does not have to be our experience, however. The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord reminds us that God’s word is wonderfully and perfectly reliable, and completely deserving of our absolute trust—and all who live with this hope will one day rejoice as Our Lord’s promise of everlasting life and eternal joy is fulfilled.