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.

Why Attending Mass is the Most Important Thing You Can Ever Do

Dr. Scott Hahn is a well-known Catholic speaker and author, and he’s a professor of Biblical Theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  But Scott Hahn was very anti-Catholic in school and in his seminary days.  He even gave out anti-Catholic literature, ripped apart a rosary and tore up a Catholic prayer book.  After his seminary training, he became the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia.  He also became a part-time instructor at a local Presbyterian seminary.

The first course that Scott was assigned to teach was the Gospel According to John.  While he was preparing his class for chapter six, something happened to him.  He began to question what he had been taught – and was now teaching others – about the Eucharist: that it was only a symbol of Christ’s body and not the real Body of Christ.  This questioning was the start of a journey that led him into the Catholic Church.

The first big step on that journey came when he persuaded his wife to go with him to study at Marquette University in the 1980s.  He wanted to learn firsthand about the Catholic Theology of the Eucharist.  The more he learned, the more he became convinced that Christ is really present in the Eucharist – body, blood, soul and divinity.  Then, one weekday, Scott decided to something that he never dreamed he would do.  He decided to attend a Mass in the weekday chapel on the campus.

He got there early and sat in the back pew as an observer.  He didn’t want anyone to notice him, and he made sure that there was an easily accessible escape route in case of an emergency.  As he observed, he was amazed at the number of people arriving and with their sincere devotion.  Then the Mass began….and, as he listened to the readings, he was struck by how they took on a special meaning in the context of what was about to take place: the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Scott wrote in his book, called Rome Sweet Home, that all of a sudden he realized that this was the setting in which the bible was meant to be read.  …….Then came the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Scott said that when the priest held up the Host, after the words of consecration, all his doubt about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist vanished completely and forever.  Later he wrote, “With all my heart, I whispered, ‘My Lord and my God.’”  He concluded by saying, “I left the chapel not telling a soul where I had been and what I had done.  But the next day I was back, and the next, and the next…I don’t know how to say it, but I had fallen in love with Our Lord in the Eucharist.

Justin the Martyr is one of the very early Church Fathers.  He lived at a time when the Roman Senate was very suspicious of the Christians.  At that time, the Romans saw the Christians as a sect that grew out of Judaism, and the Jews had revolted against Rome in the year 70A.D.  The Roman Emperor wanted to make sure that the Christians were not conspiring against the Roman government.  He asked Saint Justin to submit a list step-by-step of exactly what Christians did when they meet on Sunday mornings.  Here’s the list:

  • Christians gather on Sunday
  • Writings of the Apostles and prophets are read.
  • The presider challenges the hearers to imitate these things.
  • All then offer prayers of intercession.
  • They exchange the kiss of peace.
  • What is gathered is given to the presider to assist those in need.
  • The gifts of bread and wine (mixed with water) are brought forth.
  • The presider prays for a considerable time as he gives thanks. (Eucharist)
  • At the end all say “Amen”.
  • The deacons give the “Eucharistized”  bread, wine and water to all present and take some to those absent.

Sounds like the Mass, doesn’t it?  But the year was 145 A.D.!!!

But there’s more……. The Roman Senate was satisfied that the Christians were not conspiring against the government.  But they wrote back to Justin and said, “We don’t understand how you are using this word Eucharistia.”  This Greek word normally meant to give thanks, but he was using it in another way.  Here’s what he wrote:

“We call this food Eucharist.  And no one is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined.”

This one paragraph could sum up our Eucharist today.  And the year is 145 A.D.!!!  The Church has believed that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity from the very beginning, from the lips of the apostles themselves!  And don’t ever let anybody tell you anything different!

Scott Hahn calls Holy Communion Covenant Union.  It is union because in it we are intimately united to Christ and to one another.  It is a covenant because Jesus declared that what we are doing at Mass is the “New Covenant in his blood.”  

This is the covenant that all of the previous covenants of salvation history were leading up to, beginning with Adam, Noah and Abraham, continuing through Moses and King David, and finally fulfilled in Christ.  It’s the ultimate covenant; it’s an intimate and sacred family bond between God and us, and each of us with one another.  “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

So when someone holds the Sacred Host out in front of you and declares that “this is the Body of Christ” and you say “Amen,” don’t take it lightly, because it is at that very moment that you are renewing your part of the covenant.  You are pledging your commitment  to live in loving union with God and with your neighbors.

When we receive Holy Communion and renew our commitment  to Covenant Union with Christ and with one another, when we hear what he says and do what he does, when we walk out of Mass as a sacrament, as a visible sign of God’s invisible grace, when we are what we are called to be as Catholic Christians, that is when we are what we are called to be.  If every Catholic knew what you know now, we could change the world.

Deacon Greg Ollick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online. He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and runs The Epiphany Initiative website.