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Homilies from St Etheldreda's

Secret epiphanies

Posted December 12, 2020

3rd Sunday of Advent, Yr B   

St John’s Gospel is all about God becoming visible.  That is why the theme of light is so prominent, from the Prologue onwards.  And that is why the Prologue reaches its climax with the statement that the Word, who is with God, who is God, became flesh.  ‘No one has ever seen God: the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has revealed him.’  Later in St John’s Gospel Philip will plead with Jesus: ‘Show us the Father and we’ll be satisfied’; and Jesus will tell him:  ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father.’ 

Now that being the case, it is puzzling to hear John the Baptist say, almost immediately after the Prologue: ‘There is one standing in the midst of you whom you do not know (that is, whom you do not recognize).’  Notice that he is not rebuking anyone when he says ‘He is in your midst but you do not know him’, for he himself says later on: ‘I did not know him.’  (He says it twice, in case we didn’t hear him the first time.)  He must mean: This Jesus, in whom God reveals himself completely, is an ordinary chap, whom you wouldn’t particularly notice.  The one who makes God visible is himself incognito, unless God himself opens our eyes to his identity.  Christ’s identity hides itself in ordinariness.  It is the most secret of all divine epiphanies. 

St Luke, in his Gospel, makes a similar point.  Like St John, St Luke believes that Jesus is ‘a light for revelation to the nations’.  Yet he introduces him not in terms of some sensational divine revelation but in the homely narrative of his birth in a back yard in Bethlehem, just one more head to be counted in the Roman census.  God reveals himself in the crib.  Serene, simple, unadorned and threadbare: a woman, a baby, dad in the background: the gentle silence of God.  God reveals himself to us in disguise, as one among us whom we might not have noticed.

Like John the Baptist in St John’s Gospel and the shepherds in St Luke’s Gospel, we need a very particular personal revelation from God to enable us to recognize the Revealer disguised as one of us.  May God, this Christmas, give to each of us a very particular personal revelation, to enable us to see, with the eyes of our soul, the radiance of God in the lowliness of the crib.  By ‘the crib’ I mean, now, not the statues of the Virgin and child and St Joseph in the cattle shed, but the simple, threadbare ordinariness of our daily lives.  That’s where we need to see God’s radiance; and it is there above all that God’s radiance is to be seen.  May God create in us the mindset of the crib: the grace to see God in our daily routine, in the people we rub shoulders with, in the one standing in our midst whom we do not recognize.  Pray for the grace to recognize the Christ that is hidden in every person, at every turn, and in every circumstance: in your nearest and dearest, and in the stranger who comes alongside you. 

That person who is preparing the family’s meal is not just a person who is preparing the family’s meal.  He or she has a mission in life.  Their mission is secretly to make God visible to you.  Understand that, and your domestic routine will never be routine ever again. 

That person sitting next to you, or that other one standing in your midst: are there not, to the eye of faith, radiant traces of Jesus’ via dolorosa in that person’s history, in the pain that no doubt mingles with their memories, and scars their soul?  Stand in awe at the image of Christ that emerges from his anonymity.  That smile or act of courtesy, that gesture of welcome, whether made by you or to you, is it not a revelation of Christ who brightens our ordinariness with a glimpse of himself? 

Think of the needy at Christmas, for there too you will get a glimpse of God.  Christ is in our streets, disguised.  That sad man sitting in squalor is not just a sad man sitting in squalor.  Yes, he might be having you on.  Yes, they do say don’t give to beggars.  Yes, there are social services that should be looking after him.  Yes, it might be his own fault that he’s there.  Yes, he might be looking for money for drink or drugs.  Still, he might be a revelation of the incarnate Word in disguise; he might be the living crib that God has made especially for you, for you to contemplate and act upon, more meaningful than mere statues, more challenging, and less susceptible to sentimentality or spiritual self-indulgence.  Recognize Christ in him, and act on it.  If you fear that money will feed his addictions, then remember also that a word from you may feed his spirit, and a sandwich will feed his belly.

Let us ask God also for the grace to notice his presence in our own inward experience, in our feelings, even in our hurt.  Christ is never more hidden than when we look for him in our troubled minds, and fail to find him there.  So much pain, sometimes, so much inner turbulence!  Can Christ really be there?  Can he co-exist, as it were, with our restless conscience and our troubled history – with our disappointments and our despair?  One day we shall see all too clearly that Christ was indeed there, sharing it all with us.  In the meantime, if we find it difficult to see him and to feel him in our distress, perhaps we should try turning our gaze away from ourselves and look outwards instead.  Look to comfort someone in similar distress.  This is what St Paul was doing when he told the Philippians to rejoice: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again I say, Rejoice!  The Lord is near.’  For St Paul wrote those words from the squalor of a prison dungeon.  He was chained to a wall when he invented Gaudete Sunday.

In these coming weeks let us ask God to open our eyes, to enable us to see him where we have never noticed him before.  May Christ be so magnified in our consciousness and in our feelings that we recognize him everywhere, and see him where we least expected to find him.   

Fr Tom Deidun

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