25 December 2018
One of mankind’s biggest challenges in relationship to God is making the time to consider God, to consider His ways, His teachings, to consider Him real, and real enough that He actually has a claim on my life. We are busy and we focus on so many other things instead of God such that we train ourselves to give Him little focus. This is a challenge even for self-professed religious people like you and me. That puts us on a trajectory of having a tangential acquaintanceship with God or, at worst, keeping Him at a distance. Whatever the case, we aren’t building a friendship with God when we don’t consider Him and work against the tendency to give Him little attention in the real time of our daily living. If you want proof of the risk of this tendency, then look no further than the screen time report on your smart phone. Compare the amount of screen time with your amount of prayer time. Yes, it is a real tendency of ours to place greater focus on things that are not God.
So many other things about our life seem so much more pressing as compared to God. That’s not a unique challenge. It seems it was present surrounding the birth of Jesus in his time. People were traveling, they were busy, they were figuring out what they had to do to comply with the requirements of the census called for by Caesar, and they were taking care of their real worldly and bodily needs. And God was right there, hidden just beyond sight in Mary’s womb. In the midst of this busyness and the focus on so many other things, the gospel tells us of this common human tendency to fail to make space for God by reporting: “There was no room for them in the inn.” An outlying cave and a place for animals was all the room God could find. The focus, the attention, the minds and hearts of God’s people were not focused on Him.
Recently after Mass talking to people in the narthex I was holding an infant. The baby was calm and happy to be cradled in my arms. I looked down at the baby and he looked up at me. We locked eyes on one another for quite a while actually as I was standing there with his parents. When you hold a baby don’t you also just naturally look at the baby? You gaze at the infant and, if awake and calm, the infant gazes back at you. As I was looking into this baby’s eyes I found myself wondering: What is he thinking? What is he seeing? What is on his mind? What is his mind able to perceive and process as he looks up at me? What’s going on inside him, in his mind and heart, as he gazes at me? He had my attention and my pondering, as I marveled at new life.
Reflecting later on about this experience the idea came to me that perhaps this is how we understand God’s method of breaking through our common tendency to be focused on other things and distant from Him. Does this perhaps explain some of the divine logic in God’s choice and plan to enter as an Infant the creation He desired to save? Perhaps to draw us naturally to Him? Maybe we understand the birth of Almighty God in the smallness of human flesh as the means by which God could break through our distraction and self-centered thoughts such that in reference to God we too might wonder about Him: What is He thinking? What does He think about me? What is going on with Him? What does He perceive in me? What does He see when He looks at me? Mary and Joseph had the very distinct privilege of holding the Infant God in their very arms. Maybe they thought the same things I described in holding an infant. Even though we live centuries after his birth and even though we don’t get to hold him physically in the form of an infant, we can however dwell on that common experience of the pondering that arises in us as we hold a child and find renewed focus to train ourselves to consider God and His ways. That can be our response to the truth of faith we celebrate today, that God took human flesh and was born an infant in Bethlehem. We can find in this day and this season renewed reason to train ourselves to act against that common tendency to keep ourselves so busy and full that in us too there is no room for them in the inn. We can imagine what arises in us so easily while holding an infant and find in that a good lesson for needing to gaze upon and ponder God in such a way that He and His commands actually have a claim on our life. This can be our response to the invitation that is deep in the mysterious infant eyes that Mary and Joseph gazed upon.
Our cynical world might want to accuse me of taking a human experience and simply placing it upon God as if the human explains the divine, as if the limited explains the infinite. Fundamental error in philosophy, Father! Don’t they teach you that in that seminary you went to? But Sacred Scripture reveals to us authoritatively what God is like and I think we find there some reason to trust human experience as a lesson about God. When you read throughout all the Scriptures, especially in the Old Testament, God’s lamenting of the distance and infidelity of His people you find strikingly emotional language and language that borrows from human relationships. Listen to just a small selection of examples that I found that describe God’s lament at our distance and His desire to get our attention.
From the Book of the Prophet Michah: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me” (Micah 6:3)!
From the 81st Psalm: “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would have none of me… O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways” (Ps. 81:11, 13)!
From the Prophet Hosea: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing… and burning incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms… I led them with cords of compassion, with bands of love” (Hosea 11:1-4).
The Prophet Isaiah reports God telling His people not to fear because He has redeemed them, called them by name, and loves them… God says, “Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you” (Is. 43:4). Isaiah goes on to report the Lord saying: “ ‘Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?’ Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Is. 49:15).
How in the midst of the crush of the demands of daily living (whether around 3 BC or 2018) does God effect the fulfillment of His plan and get His people to consider Him? To think of Him? To ponder Him and His ways? Today we observe that God desires to provoke a focus on Him by being an Infant who can be held. Mary ponders Him and all the things about Him in her heart. She becomes the model for how His incarnation calls us to ponder Him.
Psalm 131, in a verse I chose for the window of our baptistry, expresses the calm and peace of a soul attentive to God: “Like a child quieted at its mother’s breast is my soul” (v.2). God desires us to enter relationship with Him in regular worship, rather than giving our sacrifices to idols. He calls us to rest in Him in regular time each day for prayer, by which we turn our attention and our gaze upon Him, so as to train ourselves to combat that tendency to focus on other, lesser things. To highlight one type of prayer, Adoration is such a good training ground to combat the tendency to not consider God. In adoration in our chapel we kneel and spend time before the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. He’s really there, God-with-us! We look upon Him and we train our gaze to rest in His presence. In so doing, we live lives of deeper friendship with Him now and we are prepared to gaze upon Him in the eternity of His blessing in Heaven. God comes in our flesh, born as a baby, that our natural tendency to look upon, to ponder, and to wonder about a baby might draw us to consider Him and His ways as having a claim on our living. As St. Paul wrote: “The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires.” And so with the Gospel, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Come, let us gaze upon Him! Come, let us ponder Him! Come, let us adore Him!