Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christmas is all about presences

IT all began with a fascination. I was simply struck one day by the story of two men sharing the same experience with God’s Presence (the ‘Shekinah’). No ordinary men these two, with names enough to send anyone yawning—Abraham and Moses.

Their experience may, at first, ring familiar. But I wouldn’t suggest that we take it lightly. A story is told of their encounter with God and the Bible presents it as an encounter with his living presence. For instance, even as he reaches the age of ninety-nine, Abraham is visited by a peculiar phenomenon. The Lord appears to him saying: “I am God the Almighty. Walk in my presence and be blameless…” (Gen 17:1). On his part, when Moses expresses self-doubt regarding his worthiness to represent Yahweh before Israel and pharaoh, the Lord replies: “I will be with you; and this shall be your proof (the sign) that it is I who have sent you: when you bring my people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (Ex 3:12).

There is a dispute among scholars as to the meaning of the sign being spoken of here. Some say that the sign follows the fact of the liberation of Israel from Egypt and, therefore, it is the worship to be rendered to God on the mountain (Horeb). But other scholars also say that the “I will be with you” assurance of God’s presence with Moses is itself the sign that God had really sent Moses (cf. Richard J. Clifford, S.J.). No matter what the angle anyone adopts, the experience of both patriarchs is that when this God calls, he brings his total presence to those he calls and he expects that they reciprocate. When Yahweh calls Abraham and Moses, he makes clear that he is with them and demands that they be with him too.

So far, are you with me in this?

It is because of the presence of God with them that Abraham and Moses are able not only to enjoy bountiful blessings but also to endure challenges, trials and even, especially in the case of Moses, perform wondrous deeds. Think of the blessings of property, wealth and especially of progeny, i.e., being a “father of many nations” through Isaac that went to Abraham because of Yahweh’s presence in his life. But also consider how Moses engineered the ten plagues in Egypt together with the final liberation of Israel from slavery because of Yahweh’s presence with him too. Besides all these, think of how Abraham passed the greatest trial of his life, i.e., God’s command that Isaac be sacrificed, or how Moses weathered the hard-headedness of Israel, the fierceness of their enemies as well as the envy even of his brother Aaron and sister Miriam because of Yahweh’s presence with them.

I often hear engaged and married couples say to one another that because of the presence of the other person in their lives, their lives have never been the same. I know of a sickly woman whose boy friend has been a constant source of strength for her in dealing with her dreaded health problems. I know of a man who has left his entire past of drugs and debauchery ever since a woman he loves has been with him as his wife for the past twenty-five years. I know of formerly ill dressed, unkempt and dirty children who suddenly bloomed in grooming and behavior when their mother arrived from abroad and is devoting plenty of time and attention to them. If the presence of certain persons in our lives can make so much difference, how much more if it is the presence of the personal God?

In the seminary we were constantly told to cultivate a sense of the presence of God in our lives. We were amply encouraged to heighten our awareness of his presence through prayer, especially through the Eucharist and our visits to the Blessed Sacrament, through the apostolate and compassionate participation in the struggle of the poor for justice and peace. But there are things we can learn from Abraham and Moses in their cultivation of God’s presence. In both of them we see faith as expressed in terms of obedience to the word of the Lord. But we also see them being asked to give and keep an external, palpable sign of their cultivation of the presence of Yahweh. For Abraham and his descendants it is the practice of the circumcision in order that the bond born of the covenant might not be forgotten (Gen 17:10-14). For Moses and the people of Israel it is the keeping of the charter, the Ten Commandments, as further delineated and exposed in the succeeding laws decreed by Moses.

From this we gather that the cultivation of the presence of God involves not only the internal realities of faith expressed in terms of obedience to God’s will but also external realities such as written rules and regulations by which that will is expressed in the many circumstances of daily life. In a word, the cultivation of the presence of God in us and with us involves our total life and our total being, not just our souls or spirits nor only of our material or bodily selves. God makes a total gift of himself to us. The only right response is also our total gift of ourselves to him. He is totally present to us. We must be totally present to him.

And don’t we see the real good news? Yes, and it’s been staring us full in the face. Christmas is nothing but the physical actualization of ‘Shekinah’ (God-With-us): Jesus makes God permanently present to us by becoming one like us, a human being.

Or let me put it this way. Most of us love music. And most of the music we love are love songs. Who among us hadn’t noticed, as I have, the fairly numerous songs that have the clause “I’ll Be There”? Last 1995 there was a survey that singled out one song that was constantly being played in public places, elevators, restaurants, airports etc. It was the overwhelming choice of so many people, especially the young. The title of the song? “I’ll Be There for You (You’re All I Need to Get By)”. Then an Italian song captured the hearts of many people in 1998 when it was sung by a blind singer named Andrea Boccelli. It was entitled “Con Te Partiró” (With You I Shall Leave) and tells of how the presence of a loved one gives one light and the possibility of realizing dreams.

I have a theory that the reason behind this is that there is a deep longing in each human being for someone who is always there for us. Lovers think it is their loved one. Children think it is their parents. Couples think it is their spouses. A barkada thinks it is friends. The only problem with these is that, however we feel strongly about it, the need for someone who is always there for us cannot be filled in by another human being. Somehow or other our loved ones or friends have to leave our side.

In the middle of all this we hear a prophecy in the OT from Isaiah. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Is 7:14). The gospel of Mt explains the word “Immanuel” saying that it is “a name which means ‘God is with us’” (Mt 1:23). This is part the address of the angel to Joseph reassuring him that the baby in the womb of Mary his wife comes from the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:20). Lk specifies the name of the child to be born of Mary through the angel’s words to her: “You shall conceive and bear a son and give him the name Jesus” (Lk 1: 31). In a word, Jesus himself is the Immanuel, the God-with-us .

We don’t have simply the testimony of Mt and Lk. We also have that of Jn. At the very start of his gospel he declares solemnly: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory: the glory of an only Son coming from the Father, filled with enduring love” (Jn 1:1, 14).

I remember a young man I know who met someone through the social media. He thought he found the woman of his dreams, someone he would love to be with and who would love to be with him the rest of his life. They agreed to meet in a restaurant. But, alas, when he saw her, he felt like running away. Her e-photo and his idea of her somehow didn’t quite match the real person in front of him. She felt the same way about him. They had to part ways in a huff. The wisdom that we learn from experience, and which had been articulated by St. Augustine, is that we will never be able to find any special someone who is always there for us among our fellow creatures, no matter their beautiful or caring ways, no matter the advances of social communications.

Only God in Jesus Christ fills up this need.

He is the Word who is God who “pitched his tent” among us in order to be our permanent companion. Exactly the whole point of Christmas. The evidence? How about the Scriptures where the Word, Jesus Christ, permanently addresses and transforms countless human beings who care to hear and do what he says. Or take the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ’s permanent presence where his Body and Blood bring us his whole person daily wherever we are. Or how about the Blessed Sacrament where Jesus always awaits us and makes good his words in Mt’s gospel: “Behold, I am with you all days till the end of the world” (Mt 28:20). And how about you and me who always find him even after sin sometimes snatches us away, only to drop us into pits of agony.

Are you with me still? Oh, thank you very much, but what really matters for you and for me is that he always is. And it does matter tremendously for him that we be with him too. From this Christmas on.

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