God is with us. God is greater.
With these two simple statements, I invite each of us to be open and receptive to the good news of salvation that Jesus brings, and will keep bringing in ever greater measure. It’s a simple invitation, yet not an easy one!
That is because there is tension in those statements – a tension familiar to Joseph and Mary, and to true believers in every age. God was with them. He showed up in their lives, multiple times – usually in unexpected ways, even though they were looking for him. To announce the coming of Emmanuel, God sends his angel. Each of them welcomes the good news with trust and joyful obedience. But God leaves far more questions unanswered! Mary ponders all these things in her heart. She seeks to understand, without (like Zechariah) insisting on grasping it all. Joseph promptly obeys the message of each dream. He believes God is with him, and recognizes that God is infinitely greater. He obeys with trust, not having any sense of the how or the when of the fulfillment of those good promises. God was with them. God was greater. They allowed that tension to linger and play itself out. They received and kept receiving, in a way that kept expanding with each new unveiling of the mystery.
God has shown up many times in my own life – often in surprising and unexpected ways. Again and again, he reminds me that he is truly with me. When I welcome his presence, I am aware – sometimes painfully – that he is so much greater. I am consumed with a longing that is both joyful and sad – joyful because I am truly drinking in his comforting presence, sad because I sense his grandeur and my own limited capacity to receive. The gap feels insurmountable, even when he reassures me of his goodness.
I can see, over the years, how much he has stretched me, increasing my desire and so increasing my capacity to receive and give. Sometimes I joyfully cooperate and welcome the expansion and growth. Other times, I resist.
I notice two frequent temptations. One is to “arrive” – to have it all together and all figured out. In response to this temptation, there is the cliché telling us that it’s more about the journey than the destination. That’s not entirely true. The destination matters. It’s just that the journey is so darn long – and has to be – because God is infinitely greater! In his longing to share his fullness with each and all of us, he will offer every opportunity to stretch our hearts and increase our capacity for union with him. My ache to arrive is not bad in and of itself. The Magi felt it in their search for Emmanuel. Joseph and Mary felt it in their search for shelter.
There are moments that indeed feel like “arrival” – Emmanuel moments in which God definitively shows up with a further unveiling. These moments bring immense and intense joy – as we see in the story of the Magi and the renewed movement of the star (Matthew 2:10). Many of us are then tempted, like Peter, to build our tents and stay there at the moment, as though we’ve now arrived. If we are wise like the Magi or Joseph or Mary, we will humbly recognize that there is still far more to be unveiled, all in due time.
My second temptation is to sabotage the expansive growth God is offering. I sometimes (even often) prefer to stay small and return to my familiar little cell – even when I see signs that those surroundings are increasingly rotting and toxic. Jesus has broken open the bars of that cell and shattered my chains. I am free to step out into expansive Hope. Yet, like so many survivors of a prison camp, the bigness and freedom now available feels unfamiliar and scary. Following the star to an unknown destination includes leaving familiar contexts behind – and I resist. In those moments, I am not so much avoiding pain as avoiding the immensity of the desire and of the increasing goodness that I am entering.
Thanks be to God, my fumbling and stumbling has not for a moment stopped Jesus from remaining Emmanuel – fully present and active. He keeps surprising me and keeps alluring me to grow into the fullness of his Kingdom.
There is a third way, one that invites a holy remembrance of past blessings and an eager anticipation of unknown blessings yet to come. This is the way exemplified by Mary and Joseph. It is the way ultimately embraced every true mystic or saint. It is also what we enter into communally in liturgical seasons and observances, indeed in every Mass. We connect with each other and with God. We confess our unfaithfulness and seek reconciliation. We remember the ways God has been with us. We profess our Hope and pray eagerly for his coming. Healed and nourished, we are sent out eagerly on mission into the world with renewed Faith, Hope, and Love.
I have also learned the importance of having my own personal ways of remembering and anticipating. In my meeting spaces, my workplaces, or my places of prayer, I allow myself to have outward reminders of the ways God has truly showed up on my journey. My friends at the John Paul II Healing Center would call these the “Emmanuel Moments” in my life. My friends at the Allender Center would call my outward reminders “Ebenezers.” Emmanuel is Hebrew for “God is with us.” Ebenezer is Hebrew for “a stone of help” – as in the memorial stones sometimes erected in Old Testament stories to remind people of the ways God has showed up. I can return to these moments – not to cling to them or to stay there, but to be reminded of the twofold truth: God is with us, and God is greater.
Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) led thousands of believers through his Spiritual Exercises – indeed, many millions if you count five centuries of retreatants. One of his greatest points of emphasis is “repetition” – returning to experiences of divine consolation in order to soak in more of the blessing and grow into fruitfulness. Here we see a strong conviction in the truth of both statements: God is with us; God is always greater.
“Consolation” is ultimately from the Greek New Testament word that means “paracleting” – that is to say, the undeniable presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. When we know that the Spirit of God has shown up and begun working in us, there is an invitation to keep returning, keep discerning, and keep receiving. In times of desolation, remembering God’s goodness offers us endurance and Hope – resisting the temptation to become discouraged and get small. In times of consolation, returning to those moments allows us to receive even more, resisting the temptation to settle or “arrive” without further growth.
These days, this invitation is especially crucial. So many are feeling afraid or discouraged by the seeming strength of evil. And the toxic currents of our smart phone / social media culture are tirelessly stealing away our rest and sweeping us along, enticing us to keep moving and keep distracting ourselves. Now, more than ever, there is the invitation to allow God to be with us. We can remember the ways he has already shown up, be open to the surprising ways that he is showing up even now, and expect him to increase and expand his blessings upon us in the days ahead. May we all be open to the good news and the salvation that Jesus brings, and will keep bringing, until he becomes all in all.