Dec. 19, 2010:
By Fr. Tom Washburn, OFM
kindergarten teacher told her class the story of Christmas complete with the angels glorious announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds and the Three Wise Men recognizing the star in the sky and travelling to see the new born King. At the end of the story she asked, “Now tell me, who was the first to know about the birth of Jesus?” A little girl raised her hand and answered simply, “Mary.” How many of us missed that? Sometimes we, as adults, miss the obvious because we’re expecting more complicated answers, all the while the real answer is simple and obvious.
We do this with God too. We have a tendency to associate God with the phenomenal and the spectacular, like the host of angels or the guiding star, so much so that we can fail to notice God’s presence and action in the ordinary and normal things of life, such as pregnancy and birth. The child’s simple answer reminds us to take a moment to look at the ordinary things that we take for granted every day and see God’s hand in them, and this is a good message for us as we are less than a week away from celebrating Christmas. Especially at this time of year, we can get so caught up in the complexities of gifts and travel and dinners (and new pastors!), that we just might miss the simple and profound reality of the day – that God loves us and that God is with us.
Our gospel today begins with a seemingly casual statement: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about…” But for the average person of Jesus’ time this statement would be a shock because popular belief in those days did not expect the Messiah to be born of a woman, in a normal way, as an average baby. Though the scribes and scholars were aware of the prophecy that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, the average person held to the popular belief that the Messiah would arrive unexpectedly and in an extraordinary way. The Messiah was expected to drop suddenly from the skies, full-grown in all His divine power. He would arrive, of course, on the Temple mount – at the very heart of Jewish worship – in thunder, in glory, in majesty and in awe!
People found it hard to reconcile these expectations with the reality of Jesus who they knew was born normally and raised in their midst. As we hear in John’s Gospel, “We know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.” They found the ordinary way of God’s arrival, the ordinary experience of God’s presence and God’s every day action among His people to be too simple, to obvious, to underwhelming to possibly be true.
And much like the people of Jesus time, we are also waiting for the coming of God among us, for our Emmanuel. Maybe we should take a moment and ask ourselves, how do we expect God to come among us? How does God work among us? This is important because sometimes when we feel that God is not with us, the reality is that He is standing right by our side, but we don’t recognize His presence and action among us because we’re looking for something else. Can we accept God the way He is, the way He desires to be present among us, the way He hopes to speak His word; or do we wait insisting that He conform His presence to our desires?
Just think of how often we treat the Mass as commonplace, as ordinary, as nothing special, even as something boring. And yet, God is with us – right here, right now. God is with us as we gather in His holy name today – “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” God is here as His word, not ours, is proclaimed in the readings from Sacred Scripture. And, so profoundly, God is here among us as simple bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus – not a symbol, not a reminder, but the Real Jesus, right here on this altar and right here in our hearts as we receive Him. St. Francis said of the Eucharist, “O sublime humility! That the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under the simple form of bread! Look at the humility of God and pour out your hearts before him.”
The coming of the long awaited Messiah, the light of the world, the King of kings and the desire of nations, not through clouds and lightning but through the nine-month pregnancy of a simple young woman, through 30 years of the normal human process of infancy, adolescence and adulthood, reminds us that God comes in the ordinary, normal, daily circumstances of life. God comes to us in the people we see around us being born, growing up, growing old and dying – and in His Real Presence in the form of bread and wine become Body and Blood.
It is often hardest to see God in the people, places and situations that are familiar to us, not to mention how hard it is sometimes to see God in ourselves. But if we see the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, as a bridge between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human, between the order of grace and the order of nature, between the sacred and the ordinary, maybe we will begin to see the presence and action of God more and more in our daily lives. Remember, when God did the most spectacular thing ever in the history of the world – becoming one of us – He did it in the most ordinary way. So, why should we expect Him to act any differently with us?
There is a proverb that says, “Listen closely, and you can hear even the footsteps of ants.” Today, in these final days of Advent, as we prepare for the great event of Emmanuel, God-is-with-us, we are challenged to listen closely and hear even the footsteps of God who comes into our lives in ordinary ways, through the person on our left and on our right and at the everyday, normal, ordinary moments of our lives.
My brothers and sisters, God is with us. Do you see what I see?
May God give you peace.