God-with-us is Coming
Fourth Sunday of Advent (C) | Fr Peter Hunter invites us to see the extraordinary works of God in our ordinary lives.
Have you ever had a religious experience? I wonder what that question even makes you think of. Do you think of something extraordinary, angels in the sky, a voice from the clouds? If so, maybe you have never had an experience like that. Perhaps it makes you sad or even frustrated that you never have.
I think that many people think about religious experience like this is also partly why they look for the presence of God elsewhere. My life is, most of the time, far from extraordinary. Why would I expect something so out-of-the-ordinary in the midst of dullness and normality? People start to think that the fruitful place to look is somewhere else. It must be that eastern wisdom, mysticism from another culture, is where we will find that amazing, enlightening truth.
Part of what I love about the Christmas story is that it breaks this idea of God-elsewhere in pieces. God is not God-elsewhere. He is God-with-us.
The story from today’s Gospel prepares us for this life-changing story of God-with-us, God in the everyday. On one level, the story is as ordinary as we might like. Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. One pregnant woman visits another. Of course, part of the reason for Mary’s visit is presumably to tell the extraordinary news she has received from the angel Gabriel, but presumably part of the reason is also simply to support her cousin and to receive support.
You may say the story is very much a story of the extraordinary: Elizabeth’s son, even in the womb, begins his role as the prophet of God, announcing the coming of God into our world. Yes, certainly. But it is not because Mary goes somewhere far away, or does something unusual. Pregnant, she visits a pregnant relative. But God acts in that ordinary visit, and something remarkable happens.
We may feel that nothing remarkable ever happens in our lives, but that is not true. Every situation we are in, good or bad, God is there ahead of us, ready to do there his marvellous deeds. For one thing, every situation we find ourselves in is an opportunity for us to act with love, and real love is always from God, our cooperation with God acting in our lives. However quiet and small an act of real love may seem, it is always something extraordinary, in its way even more extraordinary than a sky full of angels.
And the world we live in is a holy place. It’s not just that God is everywhere, though he is, but that the holy, all-powerful God has made our world his home. That is what we celebrate at Christmas. God isn’t God-elsewhere. He is God-with-us. Every part of our world, however dull or ordinary it may seem, has been sanctified, made holy, because God chose to walk this Earth.
Perhaps we feel sometimes not only that our lives are dull and ordinary, but that they are filled with difficulty and sorrow. That can be especially hard at Christmas, when we miss those we’ve loved and lost, when we feel that everyone else is having such a happy time, and we too should be joyful. If you feel that way, please get in touch: the Church is there for you and we are not too busy to love and support you in your loss. But when God became one of us he promised that even those who mourned would find comfort. Even sorrow and loss can be a time when we meet God, times of the extraordinary.
We can lose the importance of Christmas in two ways. It’s easy to get caught up in the ordinary. I think its part of what makes even an explicitly Christian Christmas acceptable in our society: everyone can delight in the birth of a child, love the baby Jesus. But equally, we can marvel at the extraordinary and forget that it all came about because God acted in and through many ordinary moments of care, in the midst of the difficult and dangerous political situation of first century Palestine, and he can do the same in your life and in mine. We can forget the divine dimension of Christmas, but it’s equally easy to forget that the events we celebrate are the best kind of good news in whatever dull or even distressing circumstance we may find ourselves.
So maybe we don’t find ourselves filled with Christmas joy. Maybe we don’t feel we have used our time in Advent well and prepared ourselves. But Christ is coming anyway, not a long time ago in a place far, far away, but right here, right where we find ourselves. Whether we are ready or not, God-with-us is coming, and if we welcome him, our lives will be extraordinary.
Readings: Micah 5:1-4 | Heb 10:5-10 | Luke 1:39-45
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of ‘The Visitation’ by Luca della Robbia.