Chris McDonnell: …‘normality’ still remains a distant vision, memory a wistful dream.
Show yourself to me Lord
Chris McDonnell CT January 08 2021
We have celebrated again the feast of Nativity, the coming of the Lord into the poverty of this world, a child born in a barn in the small Judean town of Bethlehem.
So where are we now, in the hugely uncertain early days of a new year, all this time on from that singular event? Traditionally the twelve days of Christmas end with the Feast of Epiphany, the celebration of men bringing gifts, sometimes called “kings”, at other times, ”wise men or magi”. They were in any case, outsiders, men from the East, rich men we are led to believe, Gentiles, who came to acknowledge the poverty of a Jewish new born baby.
Not only did they explore and find, but in their exploration they found and gave. Later, when Simeon blessed the Child, he said that this boy would be “a light of revelation to the Gentiles”. It was clear from the earliest days that the incarnation was not an event restricted to a select few but had broad and inclusive consequences for the whole of humanity. Others don’t hear a story unless someone has taken the time to tell the detail. That was the first task of the early Church, that in their living of the Gospel they determined not to keep it to themselves but to invite others to hear the good news.
To see someone standing on a street corner bellowing the Christian message to all and sundry is to invite a cynical and somewhat bemused response. Our cultural background is not naturally receptive to such an approach.
What is in tune with the times, is the action of individuals or groups whose life patterns tell of their belief. The image that is reflected in their own lives and the encouragement they give to others is a continual re-enactment of the Magi encounter with the Christ.
It happens within the home, round the family table, it happens in our relationships at school and at work. It is ever-present. In our drive to obtain higher grades in academic work, we too easily forget what should be the principles of a school. Lawrence Downey wrote that ‘a school is known by what it teaches, how it teaches and by what kind of place it is’. To me, that last point underpins all. The kind of place a school is, is determined by the teachers who shape it and sustain its welcoming and expansive culture. We should be grateful for their dedicated service during these difficult weeks and months.
Replace ‘school’ by ‘Church’ and ‘teachers’ by ‘Christians’ and the model still holds. St Benedict spoke of the monastery as a ‘school of charity’. That is why it is so damaging when scandal and misbehaviour taints the Church. It is not the encouraging welcome to others that we might expect. It does however reveal a Church urgently in need of redemption.
On this feast of Epiphany it is worth remembering that they came and found, they found and shared. Let us do likewise. On many occasions, when explaining something to children, whether in the classroom or when talking with my Grandchildren, I have frequently heard the words, “Oh, I see!” After words and careful exposition, after time and patience, and not a little frustration, realisation comes and what was difficult to understand is made clear.
We often use the word Epiphany outside of its religious context, in exactly this way. Our appreciation of a complicated situation comes in a moment and we can move on. The feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th, when the recognition of the Christ-child is related to us with the arrival of the Magi. The prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled and the story of the pilgrim people moving from Old Testament into New Testament days began.
Now, all these years on, who is there to do the showing? How is the Christ-child, whose Nativity we have just welcomed to be shown to people of our time? We are continually being asked questions “Who are you? Who is this Christ whose name you carry? Is his message credible?”
Others look at the witness we bear through the example of our words and our lives, the things we say, our actions day by day. What do they see? What do they hear?
Our hesitant journey does not go unnoticed, our mistakes observed and our successes give pause for thought. The global reaction to the arrival of Francis in Rome was evidence enough that others notice not just enormous events but the small points that indicate attitude and values. From the time he personally settled his room account after the Conclave to his moving out of the Vatican apartments to occupy two rooms in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, from his openness, to his smile, all these occasions made people aware that someone had arrived who shouldn’t be ignored.
So they listened to his words and pondered his teaching. Some, who have been estranged from the Church paused a moment and reconsidered. In recent years Pope Francis’ photo has adorned the covers of Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, TIME magazine and The Advocate. The latter two named the pope their person of the year in 2013. Francis’ personal humility and simplicity, his common-sense rhetoric seasoned with homespun charm have captured the imagination of Catholics, non-Catholics and even non-believers. Acutely aware of the power of simple language and of images, Francis set about shaping a pontificate for the age of Facebook and Twitter. Though he has little computer knowledge himself, Francis “harnessed these tools for a new kind of evangelisation”.
The feast of Epiphany has even greater significance this year, for we live in troubled times. There is disturbance in our lives that we must recognise if we are to continue on our journey. The year just gone, the year of perfect vision, 2020, has shaken belief and challenged practice in so many ways.
Our gathering for the Eucharist each Sunday has been disrupted in ways that we could never have imagined, ‘normality’ still remains a distant vision, memory a wistful dream.
Maybe through this social chaos we are being shown a different path to tread, one where sharing is an alternative to selfishness and cooperation for the greater good is fully recognised.
With the vaccination programme underway, the possibility of recovery is now part of the story. There is hope that those who have been kept apart for so long might soon experience the warmth of touch and the companionship of family without risk across the generations.
The wearing of face masks, the protection of latex gloves, remaining socially distanced, all have been essential for our safety. Restrictive as they have been, they have taught us a valuable lesson regarding our day-to-day relationships. The warmth of a smile or the expression of anxiety is diminished when our face is partially covered. The openness of greeting is not quite the same when we cannot share a hug or grasp an offered hand. Maybe when this is done, we will value the comfort that these simple actions bring, one to another. Show yourself to me Lord that I may, in my own life, show myself to others.