This concludes a four-part Advent preaching series entitled “Practicing Patience,” as we wait, watch, listen, and, this evening, look for the coming of Christ. What about looking? Where, at what, why, when should be looking? There is a difference, after all, between our experience and those who were waiting, watching, listening, and looking for the Messiah 2,000 years ago. We are not in the position of Mary and Joseph or Elizabeth and Zechariah, nor are we in the position of the shepherds in the hills, nor the magi in the east, nor nasty King Herod on the throne who were waiting for the first coming of the Messiah. As Christians we recognize Jesus born in Bethlehem as the Messiah, and that was 2,000 years ago. What we now celebrate on Christmas Day is a remembrance. It’s not a reenactment, nor is it a re-visitation – Christmas is not “the second coming” of the Messiah – but a remembrance, a living reminder, that Jesus the Messiah was already born among us, and is really present to us now, which invites a whole different way to look at life every day. That’s a promise, and that’s also a problem.
In our Gospel lesson from Matthew, we hear Jesus warn that it’s possible to look but not to perceive, to not get it, as we say in slang. The Greek verb translated here as “perceive” – εἴδω – literally means not just to glance, but rather to observe, to behold, to discern, to discover, to ascertain the meaning of what you are seeing with your eyes.1 This same verb is used in our first lesson from the Letter to the Ephesians, “that the eyes of your heart be enlightened [so that] you may know….”2 So where do you look, or how do you look, or at what do you look to know Jesus’ presence, and power, and provision? You look at now. Now is the most important time. Where Jesus’ real presence will be most real is in the present, now.
The great 18th century spiritual director, Jean Pierre de Caussade, called this “the sacrament of the present moment.”3 Remember that a sacrament is “an outward sign of an inner grace.” Life – our outward life – is sacramental, every moment of it teeming with God’s presence. How we can know the real presence of Jesus is by being really present to life. That’s not virtually present in multiple platforms, but by “being there,” now: the practice of the presence. It’s to live our lives with a kind of attentiveness like when someone grabs your arm and then, pointing at something says, “Look!” And you’re all eyes to take it all in. That’s real living: being really present to Jesus’ real presence, now.
In the ancient vocabulary of the church, a word for this practice is panentheism. Not pantheism. Pantheism, from the Greek pan = everything, and theos = god, i.e., god is everything: god is rock; god is sun; god is water; god is thunder, your choice. That’s pantheism; that’s not our word. Our word is panentheism: God is in everything. God’s wonder and God’s ways are being revealed in everything. God is in it all. So the whole of life is like an icon, a window through which to see God and be seen by God. Life is like an icon; life is iconic. Don’t miss a moment of it. This is the way to look and live: in the sacredness of now.
Presume that your life is surrounded and informed by God’s daily visitation. Start with yourself. You are ingodded. In your baptism, Jesus the Messiah came to live within you, and so you must treat yourself with great respect, great kindness, great dignity, great love. You may not “diss” yourself, ever.4 You may never denigrate yourself, ever. Ever! You are one in whom God has chosen to dwell, and it is also so with your neighbor. There is no such thing as a mere mortal; everyone has been created in the image of God. We’re all immortals.5 I’m not in any way implying therefore that there’s no such thing as right or wrong, nor that anything goes. But I am saying that underneath the most amazing or appalling behavior of another person is a child of God, with whom God plans to spend eternity. That’s especially important to remember for those whom we could easily judge as among the least or last or lost. God has plans for them, and we’re to co-operate with those plans.
Where do you look, at what, how? Look now; begin with yourself, and pray that the eyes of your heart be enlightened to look upon yourself as God does, with a heart of love, mercy, and hope, and then extend your gaze to behold others in the same way. People are walking miracles. You certainly are, and you will see other living beings the same. Life is so full of God’s wonder and splendor. That’s a Christmas promise. But there’s also a problem here, actually two problems.
For one, we can see so little. Life unfolds in stages. When we look at life, at the now, we should practice a posture of humility: we’re probably not seeing everything there is to see and understand. There’s always more. It’s certainly true in our relationships with other people. We only see them in part, and sometimes in a bad way. If we knew their whole story, we would probably genuflect rather than judge. There is always more going on than meets the eye. In the fullness of time, God’s time, we will see and understand more. As we look forward, we should practice a posture of humility.
As we look backward on our life, when we remember our life, we will glean wisdom. When you’re on good speaking terms with your life, when you remember your life, you will bring your perspective into high definition. We miss so much if we only live life looking straight ahead. Remembering, looking back, gives shape to life, a 3-dimensional form, and allows us to see the shadows, which makes the perspective so much more interesting and revealing. Looking backwards, remembering your life, will give you wisdom. Things which you had missed or discounted you can now see, in remembering, and they may have made all the difference. Wisdom comes from looking deeply. We tap God’s gift of wisdom by looking backward, remembering, which will give a whole new perspective on life. Life then is no longer just stray threads but rather a tapestry that wants to be woven together into the most amazing shapes and colors and forms. For every tapestry, there is a front side and a back side; they complement one another. Remembering your life, looking backward, will give you wisdom. Projecting your memory into the future will give you hope.6 One problem looking at life, living in the now, is that we see so little. An elixir to this is a posture of humility as we look forward, and a gleaning of wisdom as we look backward.
The other problem living in the now is suffering. The English word patience comes from the Latin, patientem, to suffer or endure. For most people, most of the time, patience is imposed on life’s terms, and often times at a great cost of suffering and requiring endurance simply because there is no alternative, no quick fix. When we are suffering, it is very difficult to look beyond the pain. It is very difficult to see clearly through tears. What I know about suffering – what I have personally experienced and what I have witnessed in others – it’s oftentimes only when we come into a clearing, when at least a measure of healing has come, that we can begin to make sense of the experience, to glean the treasure that has come out of the crucible. For some people, it will take eternity for things to come round right. In the meantime, when we suffer – when patience is imposed upon us – sometimes the only comfort we can claim is Jesus’ promise that he will never abandon us, that he is with us always, even to the end. This does not spare us of suffering – Jesus certainly knew suffering in this life, and not just at the cross – but it does gain for us companionship: Jesus being really present in the present… which is sometimes a very bad present. St. Catherine of Sienna, the great 14th century mystic, endured a terrible time of suffering in her soul, made all-the-worse by her sense that she had been abandoned by Jesus.7 She cried out to Jesus, “Where were you when my heart was so tormented?” She heard Jesus respond, “I was in your heart.”
Open your eyes and look for wonder. Pray that the eyes of your heart be enlightened, and look for wisdom. Presume you see only in part, and what you cannot see or understand – because of your soul’s myopia or because of your pain – God sees and understands.8 In the fullness of time, you will. Life is an amazing experience, and it will take an eternity for us to see it all. In the meantime, live the eternal now.9
2 Ephesians 1:18-19 “…With the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know [εἴδω] what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”
5 C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), the Oxford don and Anglican spiritual writer, said: “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
8 Draws on St. Paul’s insight, writing “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” – 1 Corinthians 13:9-12.