Three times in the liturgy of the Word on this fourth Sunday of Advent a simple, vital phrase is mentioned – “God is with us!” And that is the central message of this time, the central message of the whole season of Christmas. A reminder to each of us, lest we forget or even when we do forget that “God is with us.”
It is part of a prophecy given to Isaiah some 700 years before the birth of Christ and is repeated to Joseph in the gospel when the angel appears to him in a dream. Joseph would have been aware of the phrase from Isaiah but it must have been astonishing for him to realize that he would have a central part to play in the fulfilment of the prophecy, that he would be the father guardian of this truth, the protector of the reality of “God with us” in the person of Jesus.
Recently I was up in Shangannagh cemetery, a place where the silence speaks eloquently of sorrow and loss. And passing through a group of people who had gathered near a few graves that belonged to the one family and I overheard a man saying, “you’d wonder if there’s a God up there at all.”
You hear these comments and you wonder. I don’t have any doubt about God but when you hear a question like that you wonder how can it be answered.
I was down home the other day and went to the hospital to visit a neighbour who had fallen and fractured her hip. As I was entering the front door of the hospital I came upon Angela, an old friend. We are the same age, grew up for a number of years in the same street. I did her wedding. My visit to the hospital had nothing to do with her but she cried when she saw me, we embraced and she told me that her mother was a patient there. Very ill and would not be going home.
So, I went to see her mother and prayed with her, a woman of great faith and there was no doubt but that God was present in the prayer. His presence was palpable, a presence that made a difference. It’s not going to make her better in the long term but it lifted her and enlivened her to the degree that she got out of bed sometime later and sat on her chair reading the newspaper. “How precious your kind are” she had said to me. “We need more of your kind.”
It wasn’t about me. But what all of us felt and knew, what her family knew was that my arrival was providential, an act of God. This was evidence that God is with us. And how precise God can be! If I had been five minutes later entering the hospital I would probably have missed Angela and this particular expression of God’s presence would have been missed too.
What God is saying to us in advent and Christmas is that Jesus is the evidence that God is with us and it is necessary for us to be looking for the evidence of His presence. It’s easy to look for the evidence of absence but it’s a much more refined thing to look for the evidence of God’s presence among us. And while God does live above in heaven, the point of the birth of Jesus is that God is here, that God is at home among you, that He is present in the events that are happening in your life. And most importantly He is present in the people you are living with.
I celebrated Mass today in St. John of God Carmona services with adults who have various disabilities both physical and mental, together with family members and staff. They do not possess the obvious beauty and strength that is praised in the world. According to the developing philosophy of our time they would not even be allowed to be born and so this variety of expressions so God’s presence might not exist if the world has its way.
You might say at first glance that in them God has no beauty to attract us but when you look properly you see clearly that God is in fact in the face of each one of them, that He is present in the sound that each one utters, sounds that are incomprehensible to me but clearly understood by the love that listens – the love of parents and carers. Understood most clearly by God, the most loving of all loves.
And so, God is there. That is the true, objective fact. What is needed is for us to open our eyes and to recognize clearly what is actually there.
That is my prayer – that we will open our eyes and see “God with us”, that we don’t need to go any further than home. God is with you in your mother, in your brother and sister, in your father, in your child. He is with you in the troublesome one that you find hard to cope with and that is when our vision is called to go deeper, to go beyond the superficial and recognize with divine eyes what seems not to be there.
And then maybe we need to look where we find it hardest of all to see God – to see Him in ourselves because this is where we reject God most often. So, take aa look at yourself in the mirror and see there that God is present in you. We don’t have to wait until Christmas day for that message to get through. It is now, it is you, it is at home.