Wednesday, December 14, 2016

EMMANUEL -- GOD WITH US


Dec. 18th, 2016: Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year A - Mt. 1:18-24.
AIM: To help the hearers recognize God=s presence in their lives today.
 
A Sunday school teacher told a class of young children the Christmas story of the shepherds and the Wise Men. At the end she asked them: AWho do you think was the first to know about the birth of Jesus?@
A girl=s hand shot up: AMary,@ she answered.    
Well, sure. How could anyone miss that? That=s just the kind of thing, however, that we adults often do miss. We=re looking for more complicated answers. Lacking the simplicity of young children, we associate God with things that are dramatic and spectacular, like the choir of angels appearing to the shepherds, and the star which guided the Wise Men to Bethlehem. It=s easy for us to miss God=s presence and action in something as ordinary as pregnancy and birth. 
That explains why so many of Jesus= own people failed to recognize him as their long awaited Messiah. The popular expectation was that the Messiah would come dramatically, and unexpectedly. Jesus= people had a saying: AThree things come wholly unexpected: the Messiah, a godsend, and a scorpion.@ No one expected God=s anointed servant to come as a normal nursing baby born to a young girl in a small village. People expected him to drop unexpected from the sky, full-grown in his royal regalia and power. What more fitting landing place for the Messiah than the Temple mount in the holy city of Jerusalem, venerated by Jesus= people as the earthly dwelling place of God? This helps us understand why one way the devil tempted Jesus during his forty days= fast in the wilderness was by suggesting that he jump down from a pinnacle of the Temple.          
How could people raised on such expectations reconcile them with this man Jesus who been born and raised in their midst? AWe know where this man is from,@ they say in John=s gospel. ABut when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.@ (Jn 7:27) Matthew reports a similar reaction to Jesus. When Jesus returned to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and taught in the synagogue there, the people asked: AIsn=t this the carpenter=s son? ... Where did he get all this? They found him altogether too much for them.@  (Mt 13:55f)   
It is easy to criticize Jesus= contemporaries for failing to recognize him. But are we really more clear sighted than they were? When God first came to us in human form he did so not dramatically on the clouds of heaven, but through the nine months= pregnancy of a simple country girl, and through thirty years of the normal human process of growth, infancy, adolescence, and adulthood. That tells us something C or at least it should. It tells us that God comes to us today as he did then: in ways we would never expect. More C God comes to us, and is with us, when we think he=s not there at all. 
In the days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York twelve years ago, one of the television networks showed a group of people in New Jersey who had lost loved ones talking about that terrible day. AWhere was God?@ one man complained. AGod wasn=t there.@ Many people said the same. The complaint is understandable. But it is wrong. It assumes that God is there to protect us from pain and suffering, or at least from disaster and tragedy. Often God does protect us. But not always. Our Christian and Catholic faith promises us something different. It gives us the promise, and the assurance, not that God will always protect us, but that God is with us in pain and suffering, and especially amid disaster and tragedy. 
AWhere was God on September eleventh, 2001?@ people ask. God was there in the countless acts of heroism, large and small, which were so widely reported in the days and weeks after the attack, and which still remain reason for gratitude, admiration, and wonder.  
God comes to us in more ordinary ways too C not only when tragedy strikes. He comes to us, again and again, in the normal events of everyday life, in people we know and love C but also in those we dislike and find difficult, sometimes impossible. 
God came to me almost sixty ago through a child=s voice on the other side of the confessional screen saying: AI stamp my foot at my mother and say No.@ That hit me hard. That little one is so sorry for that small sin, I thought. My own sins are worse B and I=m not that sorry. I believe that the Lord sent that child into my confessional to teach me a lesson. I never knew that child’s name. He or she is probably a grandparent now. But I=ve never forgotten what that little one taught me.
The Lord came to me more recently, and spoke to me, in words of a woman, a daily communicant, who said to me after many years of married life: AFather, when you walk up to the altar on your wedding day, you don=t see the Stations of the Cross.@ Preaching recently to a group of men preparing for ordination as permanent deacons, and to their wives, I quoted those words. As I did so I could see heads nodding all over the chapel.   
An African proverb says: AListen, and you will hear the footsteps of the ants.@ God=s coming to us is often as insignificant as the footsteps of ants. God is coming to each one of us, right now. He is knocking on the door of our hearts. He leaves it to us whether we open the door. How often we have refused to do so, trying to keep God at a distance because we fear the demands he will make on us.  Yet God continues to come to us, and to knock. He never breaks in. He waits for us to open the door. As long as life on this earth lasts, God will never take No as our final answer.
Refusing to open the door means shutting out of our lives the One who alone can give our lives meaning; who offers us the strength to surmount suffering; the One who alone can give us fulfillment, happiness, and peace.  Keeping the door of our hearts shut to God means missing out on the greatest chance we shall ever be offered; failing to appear for our personal rendezvous with destiny.
Opening the door to God, letting him into our lives, means embarking on life=s greatest adventure. This is the most worthwhile thing we can do with our lives C at bottom the only thing worth doing. When we open the door to God, when we say our Yes to him, we place ourselves on the side of the simple Jewish girl whom we encounter in today=s gospel. When she opened the door to God and said her Yes to him, she was able to speak words that would be the height of arrogant conceit were it not for one thing: they were true:

AAll generations shall call me blessed.@ (Lk 1:48)