God Is With Us
Advent Teaches Us to Receive What We Already Have
We are all familiar with what is called the practice of the presence of God: To live with the habitual awareness that the Lord is near to us, that “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). It is to be especially aware, as St John of the Cross says, that God is the “deepest center of the soul.” Haven’t we all “experimented” with various ways to remind ourselves that God is near at hand and that we share in “the fullness of Him who fills all things in every way”? (Eph 1:23) Our efforts to do this can only be pleasing to Him. Even if we fail, we at least show where our heart, mind, and affections want to find their solace. Holy images help us, the example of others helps, our interior dialogue of prayer helps most of all.
Advent is a most opportune time to think about how and why we seek to live in the Lord’s presence, because at the end of Advent we will celebrate how and why God came to live in our presence. In fact the problem posed by the Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent (Mt 24:37-44) is a sober warning about forgetfulness of God’s presence.
Among people who are otherwise indistinguishable, there is a hidden lack of awareness that decides their salvation. Outwardly, each pair looks the same—the men laboring in the field, the women grinding at the mill, the two in one bed—but inside something is missing. And that missing piece is so crucial that it has the power to separate wheat from chaff, sheep from goats, the wise from the foolish, the saved from the lost.
There is a culpable blindness to God that separates those who are taken from those who are left. Christians can be blind to God through their own fault, if they forget the purpose for cultivating a living awareness of Him: To desire to live in God’s presence, to want to see God in daily life, is not a matter of curiosity, but of receiving a summons to love. It is a loving call from the Lord who expects a loving response from us. Recognizing God in daily life places demands on us that go beyond a mere spiritual “practice.” The presence of God is a way of life that makes us vulnerable, breaking us open to spend ourselves ceaselessly for the Lord, because in seeing God by faith we become accountable in love.
In Matthew 25, those who are sent away from the throne of the Son of Man and into eternal fire, claim that they never saw Jesus in the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and so excuse themselves for having neglected to love. On another occasion (cf. Lk 13), the Lord gives a similar message to those who say “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets”: “I tell you, I do not know where you are from. Depart from me….” However insistently they excuse themselves or plead innocence, the Lord indicates that they are all culpable.
Advent alerts us to the possibility that we might be missing something in our daily lives—something that the Incarnation alone can help us to see. And so to renew our vigilance, we do not need to change the venue of our work or of our social life, but to look more contemplatively at them. Maybe the last place we think to look for God is always closest to home: within ourselves, in our neighbors, and in our occupations. In a way, they are too close to home. And perhaps it is easier to lose our vigilance in the most familiar things.
But in the Gospel, our Lord indicates that when He comes again all will be business as usual for most people—everyone doing the same things in more or less the same way: “For as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” He does not say that this is wrong. To eat and drink, to marry and give in marriage, to plant or to build is not wrong. Quite the contrary: This is as it ought to be until the end of the world, since it was the first command at the beginning of the world to our first parents: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28a).
But it is wrong if Christians go about these things “blindly,” as if Jesus were not in their midst, as though God were not the Emmanuel, with us and for us. The Book of Wisdom tells us: “All men were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God, and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing him who is” (13:1). Hidden like a treasure in the “good things” we see is a Presence that can only be perceived by a contemplative gaze of love—coupled with the conviction that God is always near.
What ultimately separates sheep from goats, those whom Christ “recognizes” from outcasts, is paradoxically something quite hidden and personal, yet public and social. It is love—but love that springs from a personal awareness of God that changes how we act, work, rest, and love. If we are oblivious to Him, harsh to Him in our neighbor, if we claim that we can’t see Him anywhere, we really have to stop and ask ourselves what we are looking for and living for. Is it only eating and drinking, planting and building, buying and selling, marrying and giving in marriage?
The Lord does not want us to spend our short lives, much less the brief period of Advent, simply going through the motions of daily life without cultivating a deep interior awareness of Him. To do otherwise would make Christianity into a religion that can’t fit into this world, that can’t handle this world, that has nothing to offer this world. No, our Faith was tailor-made for this world only, and to meet head-on the demands of our lives; this is the one and only place where Christ asks us to meet Him.
Those who are saved are the ones who have put love into the ordinary business of daily life, resisting the temptation to look down on the people and work of each day. Those who are saved are looking in an ongoing way to receive Jesus the Emmanuel into their lives, conscious of the truth expressed by St Josemaria: “One begins to love Jesus, in a more effective way, with the sweet and gentle surprise of his encounter” (Friends of God 296). To desire this encounter all that it implies is the best way for us to spend our Advent, so as to meet Jesus in a special way at Christmas—as One who recognizes us for having recognized Him.