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