God Is With Us: Advent Teaches Us to Receive What We Already Have
It’s necessary to be convinced that God is always near us.
Too often we live as though our Lord were somewhere far off, in the heavens high above.
We fail to realize that he is also by our side–always.
The Way, no. 267
God’s nearness is one of the most startling realizations for those who have begun living the spiritual life in earnest. That God sees and hears me, that He is both working through and loving me in all circumstances is a revelation that immediately inspires wonder. But it also normally gets people trying to figure out what every event and detail of their lives means. Eventually you find out that God doesn’t want you to know, doesn’t want you to assemble all the jigsaw pieces. Many facets of His providence will remain mysterious until the day we die. What He wants is a closeness to you that inspires, not curiosity, but trust.
Once God has become real to you, taking that awareness to a deeper level and making it a permanent thing, is commonly called the practice of the presence of God. Often it takes the form of “experimenting” with ways to remind yourself that God is near at hand, that you share in “the fullness of Him who fills all things in every way” (Eph 1:23). But more than a technique it is full immersion in the reality that God is the “deepest center of the soul,” as St John of the Cross says. It is to live with the habitual awareness that “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), while creating a sensitivity that renders one responsive to the Lord’s every inspiration—however slight or delicate.
Our efforts to do this can only be pleasing to Him. Even if we sometimes tune-out and forget, or are simply overloaded with cares and responsibilities, at least we show where our heart, mind, and affections want to find their solace. In fact, if God dwells at the soul’s core, then this profound and hidden attentiveness to Him is what the “practice” should lead to. It’s easy enough to feel God’s presence in a church building, but to be as carefully attuned to it at the grocery store is a sign of a living, real, and deepening relationship.
Advent makes us 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.
The problem posed by the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent makes us ponder this question, as we are left to wonder what went wrong for these individuals left behind (Mt 24:37-44). Featuring pairs of indistinguishable people—field hands laboring, women milling grain, two lying in one bed—the gospel shows that they are yet separated by something secret. Among people otherwise indistinct—and the Lord describes them so on purpose—there’s a hidden lack of attention that decides their salvation. Inside, something is missing. And that crucial missing piece 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 divides 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, means nothing less than receiving a summons to love. It is a loving call from the Lord who expects a loving response from us. The presence of God is a way of seeing and being 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.
Matthew 25 records the claims of those sent away from the throne of the Son of Man and into eternal fire: 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 hands down a similar verdict to those who say “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.” “I tell you,” He says, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me….” However insistent they are, the Lord counts them all guilty.
Advent alerts us to the possibility that we might be missing something in daily life—something that the Incarnation alone can help us to see. 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.
Our Lord assures us 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 indifferently or 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. The saved are looking in an ongoing way to receive Jesus the Emmanuel into their lives, mindful that “One begins to love Jesus, in a more effective way, with the sweet and gentle surprise of his encounter,” as St Josemaria says (Friends of God, no. 296). To desire this encounter and 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.