In our community oratory on a recent evening I lit three candles, signifying the third week of our Advent journey, an inner journey of discovery that I am thrilled to share annually with my community. Together we deepen our understanding and widen our embrace for what Jesus means for us.
During Advent we pray “Maranatha!”, an Aramaic expression that can be translated, “Come, Lord Jesus!” I look forward to Advent in part because this prayer helps me more deeply understand that in Jesus, God comes as human so that we can come to God. And, Christian mystics urge me to embrace the mystery that God transforms us into God’s Self and that our lives are, in St. Paul’s words, “hidden with Christ in God.”
But my goodness, the inner journey the mystics invite us into takes a lifetime of Advents! Thankfully, the profundity of this annual journey is, at heart, simple. Consider the story of a four-year-old child who awoke one night frightened, convinced that in the darkness around her there were all kinds of spooks and monsters. Alone, she ran to her parents’ bedroom. Her mother calmed her down and, taking her by the hand, led her back to her own room, where she put on a light and reassured the child with these words: “You needn’t be afraid, you are not alone here. God is in the room with you.” The child replied: “I know that God is here, but I need someone in this room who has some skin!”
There you go, if a four-year-old can follow Advent’s liturgical logic of mystery and awe, we can too. It turns out Advent and Christmas isn’t just about Jesus. It isn’t just Jesus who is incarnated, Jesus who is the human face of God. It’s you, it’s me. We are made in God’s image, all of us bear the image of God in our skin. We are the presence of God, incarnated and in human skin, for others. Especially, as educators, for young people who are so hungry for assurance.
The coronavirus pandemic is a daily reminder of the fragility of life. It impels us to look out for one another and care for one another. God has entrusted the world to us, and we co-create its future. This partnership implies that God is not at a distance watching and considers interceding when we shout for help in prayer. No, God is present, and this Presence is in my presence.
This is, of course, the mystical vision of John Baptist de La Salle we carry forward in our prayer, “Live Jesus in our hearts.” But it is what we carry forward in our relating. The Presence is within us, living in us. Maybe the reason we add “Forever!” to this prayer is to remind us how audacious this is and to give us the courage to embrace the high-impact nature of this reality.
It would be an understatement to say that youth are growing up in an anxious age. Lots and lots of things cannot be easily fixed or made better. So they especially need people in their lives who see God present in the skin of people who care as God cares. Kids—young adults too—need credible people. Telling them about God isn’t enough, advising them to trust God isn’t enough . . . they need to see God incarnate.
Louisa May Alcott (d. 1888) tells a story from her childhood that illustrates how we give skin to Advent hope.
One snowy Saturday night, when our wood was very low, a poor child came to beg a little, as the baby was sick and the father on a spree with all his wages. My mother hesitated at first, as we also had a baby. Very cold weather was upon us, and a Sunday to be got through before more wood could be had. My father said, “Give half our stock, and trust in Providence; the weather will moderate, or wood will come.” Mother laughed, and answered in her cheery way, “Well, their need is greater than ours, and if our half gives out we can go to bed and tell stories.” So a generous half went to the poor neighbor, and a little later in the eve, while the storm still raged and we were about to cover our fire to keep it a knock came, and a farmer who usually supplied us appeared, saying anxiously, “I started for Boston with a load of wood, but it drifts so I want to go home. Wouldn’t you like to have me drop the wood here; it would accommodate me, and you needn’t hurry about paying for it.” “Yes,” said Father; and as the man went off he turned to Mother with a look that much impressed us children with his gifts as a seer, “Didn’t I tell you wood would come if the weather did not moderate?”
Mother’s motto was “Hope, and keep busy,” and one of her sayings was, “Cast your bread upon the waters, and after many days it will come back buttered.”
By Brother Timothy Coldwell, FSC