God among us

In the Mass readings for today, I am struck by how, on the one hand, St Paul speaks of loving the communities in which he has been a part “with the affection of Jesus Christ” (Phillipians 1:6) and, on the other hand, John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus (Luke 3:5-6). When John later speaks of Jesus, he’ll describe Jesus as someone whose sandals he is not worthy even to untie, let alone baptize (though he will do that, too). John is not the Messiah, and none of us are. And yet, our participation in the divine story is more than just being onlookers, but those participate in the action of God’s love whenever we love.

These two voices speak to a kind of fruitful tension that exists in the Christian tradition. None of us is God. As human beings who are sinful and often also powerless, we are in need of God. To imagine another person as God is to put our trust in something that will not bear all of our hopes at best, and idolatry at worst. We are also deeply aware of our own shortcomings, if we are honest with ourselves.

At the same time, our own loving really is the work of God in and through us. Our love and care for others is intimately tied up with God’s love. Aquinas speaks of caritas (that is, agapic love) as a participation in divine friendship, as a kind of sharing in the divine life. Augustine likewise says, “When I love my brother, I know God even more intimately than I know my brother,” because that action of love is a direct experience of God–even closer to us than the object of our love. God is neither far away nor hidden when we love, but right there, in the loving itself, since God is love (1 John 4:8). God is really that close.

This sort of paradoxical quality of the human being is already found in Genesis, where human beings are described as a mixture of earth and divine breath. We’re like dust, sand, nothing without God. However, because God does unite God’s self to us, we are also participants in God’s work. Thus St Paul can say to the Phillipians that he loves them with Christ’s affectionate care. He is also happy to witness and be confident of their own spiritual growth as “partners” in the Gospel (Phillipians 1:4). For St Paul, as for John the Baptist, the future of the Christian community was not all about himself, and yet his care for them is an instance of God’s love at work.

As a mother, I often look at my own teen and young adult children with delight that, although they are moving away from us parents in many ways, God is at work in their lives in ways that I cannot even yet imagine, but in which I have confidence. When they were newborn babies, I thought they were perfectly angelic (and still do!), but even more exciting as they move into adulthood is to see their flourishing as unique and unrepeatable persons, with gifts and challenges, growth and more places to grow. As a teacher, I also enjoy seeing students exploring the meaning of faith, service, and discovering their vocations, and I have confidence that they will go on to do many good things, long after our lives have ceased to intersect.

What does this all have to do with Advent? For me, it is the idea that we wait together. We are all are like John the Baptist in some ways– looking for and praying for how others whose lives we share, or whose lives we once touched, are also moving ever closer to God. We wait for God to enter our own lives, but we do not do it alone. Our watching and waiting is done together, in community, and that we watch and wait in love is already a sign of God’s presence among us.