Letting God Be Found

Our Faith is rich in examples of God’s presence: in Scripture, in the lives of the Saints, in Creation itself – and most concretely in the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), which are tangible encounters with the living God. Regardless of such riches, we want more. We want proof, whatever that means. Many, many years ago I made my very first retreat, and I was in the midst of a conversion of heart in which my faith was being renewed. Woman after woman at the retreat testified to powerful moments in which the Lord “spoke” to them, (sometimes “leading” them to a particular Scripture verse) and I was amazed, and intimidated. During discussion time, I shared with my small group that I’d never heard from God. Ever. The women smiled and assured me God speaks to me, even as I insisted He doesn’t. Their looks of motherly concern didn’t inspire confidence as one of them said, “I’m sure He will. Someday.” I’m convinced this is a common concern – and complaint – even among the most faithful. We “want God,” and we want Him here and now! The trouble is, we want Him on our terms, and most times we’re not really sure what those terms should look like.

On January 6, Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Christians celebrate the Theophany of Our Lord, a wonderful companion to the West’s feast of Epiphany. Through these feasts the Church reminds us that the Child born in Bethlehem became the Man from Nazareth, and was revealed to be the Son of God. He is Emmanuel, God with us, living – and suffering – with us and for us. The Word made flesh not only dwells among us, but is one of us. He is close to us, yet often we don’t recognize Him, don’t acknowledge Him, or don’t look for Him. That’s why these feasts of “revelation” are so important for us.

God reveals Himself in the ordinary: in the midst of family life and all of its attendant joys and worries; in our daily work and its satisfaction and hardships; and in any number of unexpected ways that surprise us in their subtlety. The problem is that we keep looking for God in the booming voice, the Burning Bush and the miraculous appearance. The truth is, He does reveal Himself in those ways, but more often He shows Himself to us in quietly, and in the ordinary. That is what’s so extraordinary about the Incarnation, and why so many people 2,000 years ago (and many today) find it hard to believe that God would enter into His own Creation as a man.  Maybe that’s why the “proofs” we look for of God’s existence in our lives aren’t there – or don’t appear to be there. We’re looking in the wrong places, and we let other voices drown out His. This is what I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, especially during Advent and the Nativity, and this current feast of Theophany: where is God, and am I looking and listening for Him?

I love the icon of the Nativity of Jesus Christ in my parish of St. Ann’s Byzantine Catholic Church. In Eastern iconography the Nativity is portrayed differently from the serene, “Christmas carol” scenes in Western art (for more on the icon’s symbolism, read what I wrote in 2014). There is one aspect of the icon I found myself drawn to during this Christmas season, and it’s the two characters at the lower left (closeup left.) The icon portrays a pensive, perhaps anxious Joseph being visited by a strange looking fellow in a cloak that appears to be made of leaves. He holds a walking staff and seems to be speaking to the new father about serious matters. According to the iconographic “language,” the man is actually the Devil come to the cave after Christ’s birth to instill doubt in Joseph’s heart. Of course this part of the scene isn’t Scriptural, but it’s a symbolic way to show how determined the Devil is to introduce doubt in our thoughts: doubts about ourselves, and doubts about God’s love for us. The Devil wants us to believe that God is really far removed from us, and not as close as the Baby in the manger who allowed Himself to become small enough to be held; small enough to be contained in a particle of bread and a cup of wine. It really doesn’t matter what the Old Man is telling Joseph in the icon, because we hear the arguments against God that he presents to each of us. We all have our own anxiety upon which the Devil plays and which he uses try to lead us into sin. As I sat in my pew each week, I thought a lot about that Old Man in the icon, and how often I allow him to highjack my thoughts; how many times I believe his arguments against God’s real presence in my life. It’s that nagging feeling I experienced on retreat many years ago: God doesn’t speak to me.

The icon of the Theophany of Our Lord (right) in my parish covers a portion of the wall immediately to the left of the Nativity as you face it, and I found myself drawn to it many times over these last weeks, as if the Lord were purposely diverting my attention away from the Old Man. This icon is one of my favorites, as is the feast. Theophany is a Greek word that means manifestation of God, and this feast commemorates the revelation of God as a Communion of Persons – the Trinity – and that this Jesus (born in a cave, raised in a family, and now presenting Himself for baptism) is the Son of God. The last thing anyone who was gathered at the Jordan that day expected was for God to enter into their midst. No one expected to hear His voice or witness His Spirit. No one would have believed a small town boy, the carpenter’s son, was the Messiah, let alone God Himself. As He would many times during the life and ministry of Jesus, God offered the people the “proof” they desired with His proclamation, “This is my beloved Son….” Yet such wondrous “proofs” are not greater than the reality: that God is among us, that He loves us more than we can imagine, and that He desires to be close to us.

It turns out the women on my first retreat were right: God would speak to me. In fact, He speaks to me all the time, but sometimes I’m too busy or distracted, or too unimaginative to hear Him. The icons of the Nativity and Theophany remind me again of how important it is to look for God and His word for me in the everyday aspects of my life. He’s there in my family, in my work, and in the simple things. He speaks in Creation, in music and books – and in the words friends and enemies alike. God is with us everyday and in everything. It’s up to us to be still, be humble, and be aware of the unexpected ways He manifests Himself in our lives.

…[T]oday the Uncreated One willingly permits the hands of his creatures to be laid upon him; today the Prophet and Forerunner approaches the Lord and, standing before him in awe,  witnesses the condescension of God towards us; today through the presence of the Lord, the waters of the river Jordan are changed into remedies; today the whole universe is refreshed with mystical streams; today the sins of the human race are blotted out by the waters of the river Jordan; today paradise has been opened to all, and the Sun of Righteousness has shone upon us; today, at the hands of Moses, the bitter water is changed into sweetness by the presence of the Lord!

~ The Great Blessing of Water, Feast of Theophany

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Rights, duties, and freedom

Carol Reed’s classic film The Third Man, based on a story by Graham Greene, takes place in post-war Vienna where Harry Lime is operating a criminal scheme involving tainted medicine. Lime kills sick people for money.

Money. We all need it, some of us have enough of it, and many don’t. Franklin Roosevelt wanted America to recognize that, beyond the basics enumerated in the Bill of Rights, human beings also have the right to a decent home, security in old age and sickness, and the right to health care and an education. In other words, one’s civil rights need to be augmented by economic rights. Roosevelt’s New Deal was influenced by Father John Ryan, whose tireless efforts for working men and women stands today as an important milestone in the American Catholic social justice tradition. Pope Pius XI recognized his contribution by making him a domestic prelate (a sort of honorary bishop).

But where there are rights, there must also be duties. Your right is my obligation to respect and, according to my situation, provide for that right, and vice versa. My taxes, for example, help pay for Medicaid. Politicians devoted to the individualist philosophy of Ayn Rand disagree and want to reduce the scope of rights, in the famous phrase of Thomas Hobbes, simply to freedom from force and fraud. As for economic security, you’re on your own.

The Christian social justice tradition, however, holds that without a minimum of financial resources, one is inevitably the victim of force. Those who view social justice merely as the freedom of the individual from constraints, with no duty to support the common good, are not that different from Harry Lime, who cheated sick patients out of wholesome medicine to enrich himself. Harry Lime took the direct and illegal route to riches by diluting medicine; today, it is more common to find corporate plunder occurring through legal channels (see, for example, the BBC report, “Pharmaceutical industry gets high on fat profits”.

We are still trying to figure out how society can fairly distribute its wealth so that everyone’s freedom will be enhanced. Movie producers put up an investment so that the artists and laborers can be paid for the work they do. Alexander Korda was the producer for The Third Man and the great showman Orson Welles played the villain Harry Lime. The tension between the artists and laborers who make the film, and the producers who supply the funds is, of course, legendary. Producers want their investment to make money for them while the artists want the financial freedom to create. On the set of Reed’s film, this tension evoked a bon mot from Welles, who told Korda, “I wish the Pope had made you a Cardinal.” “Why is that?” Korda asked. “Because then we would only have to kiss your ring,” Welles answered.

There is a sense in which every human being is a creative artist, intended by God to make something of himself or herself, according to the gifts and circumstances of life. Everyone, therefore, needs the financial basics to achieve the creation that is one’s authentic self, free not only from force and fraud, but from poverty, homelessness and preventable illness. Our kiss should be that of genuinely free men and women.

David Hammond teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.