Nearness Of God
By Mary Jo Loebig, O.C.D.
I have yet to meet someone whose face does not come alive when the word, “Emmanuel,” is mentioned. There is something about this word that immediately engages the human spirit. Emmanuel, of course, means “God-With-Us.” During this pre-Christmas season, I have been reflecting on the deeper understanding of what the words, “to-be-with,” might mean. For one thing, God was always there, ready to be God-With-Us, even before we arrived on the scene. This means that we began life with a deep longing for the closeness of that love. In a sense, Christmas has been in our hearts from the beginning.
My own reflections on God-With-Us have been coupled with another set of three words: “Be not afraid.” Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx intimates that the whole of the New Testament can be summed up in these three small words. In our current domestic and world situation, what a consolation and encouragement it is to hear this.
Incredibly Close To Us
We mostly long for God-With-Us when times are rough. In view of this, it would seem that the basic message of Christmas is this: God is incredibly close to us, no matter what happens, any time, anywhere. In 1963, Jessica Powers wrote a poem describing how she sought, but did not find, the Child upon the straw. Only the ox and the donkey were there. With inner emptiness, she went out and found the Child in the wide and warm world of everywhere, wherever a heart was beating. She returned, glad with the gain of everywhere, and found the Child.1
Emmanuel means that God is there to sustain us and to uphold us whenever we feel that we cannot go on. Emmanuel means that God takes up our cause and concerns and that, when we have done all we can, God-With-Us will do the rest. Sometimes, we need to increase our trust that such a thing can happen. Furthermore, it is good not to forget that God labors even at night. We all yearn for union with God. Paradoxically, many times, this is most deeply experienced when we let go of our worries, (a nice gift to leave at the crib this Christmas.)
True To Our Beliefs
There are other times when we palpably know that God is with us, those moments when we seem to experience God as our other better and nobler self. To name only a few instances, we experience God-With-Us when we actively choose to avoid needless conflicts, when we let go of power struggles knowing that we could have won, and when we keep on loving, with little certainty that we will be loved in return. Emmanuel is also in evidence when we remain true to our beliefs even when doing this is to our disadvantage.
Emmanuel is the name we give to the One who comes. Thomas Merton, in his talks to the novices, often encouraged them to reflect on what their name for God might be. He pointed out that one person’s name for God could well be different from that of the next person. It also seems that God has a name for each one of us. The Book of Revelation (2:17) beautifully describes that new name written on a white pebble. Even though, in some sense, God is nameless, knowing just how to address God is very helpful when one comes to pray. What a wonderful Christmas gift it would be if we were to be given our name for God and God’s name for us. My own feeling is that God wants to do this for us. This new name, then, would describe the unique relationship we have with God as well as the path of our return.
There is another poem by Jessica Powers, entitled “Come Is the Love Song,”2 in which Jessica intimates that “come” is the song of the heart. Furthermore, the word, “come,” is almost God’s amiable undoing, especially when it is connected with the cry of a heart in need. During the pre-Christmas season, with deep feeling, we find ourselves singing “O Come, Emmanuel.” This Emmanuel will come, is coming, and will never stop coming in new ways. It is for us to be attentive to these comings, even in little ways.
Mysteriously, there is still another way for God to be with us, that of going before and of arriving ahead of us. Hence we need not be afraid.
Someone Greater Than Our Hearts
In dark times, this God-With-Us continues to carry us on to fulfillment, much like that familiar poem, “Footprints In the Sand.” In Emmanuel, we experience as a part of ourselves Someone who is greater than our hearts and whose nearness we are not able to describe. God-With-Us has come into everything, even into our souls and into every fiber of our beings and our inner worlds. Emmanuel will never, never disappoint.
1Ed. Regina Siegfried, ASC and Robert Morneau, Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers, (Kansas City, Kansas: Sheed & Ward, 1989), p. 80
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