Several years ago I was hearing confessions at another parish’s reconciliation service. Like usual for those services there were more priests than confessionals, so the spot they had for me to hear confessions was in one of the back corners of the church. A man was there with his young son, maybe three or four years old, and he told his son to sit in the pew several feet away while he made his confession. The whole time he was confessing to me, I could see his son in the corner of my eye: swinging his feet, squirming about, sometimes watching his dad and other times looking up at the stations of the cross on the wall. But when I got to the prayer of absolution I extended my hands over his father, who dropped his head and closed his eyes, that little boy noticed that something was happening. He watched for a few seconds, then he walked over next to his dad, dropped his head, and put his hand on his dad’s shoulder. I can’t imagine how real God’s presence must have been for that dad in that moment.
We are flesh and blood. We may know things in our minds but we still need to know them in our senses, to see and hear and feel, for them to be completely real to us. I could have told you theologically that when the priest says the prayer of absolution we are reconciled not just to God but to the Church as a community… but it wasn’t until I saw that small boy with his hand on his dad’s shoulder that I really understood how the whole church is present in that moment. This is why we have the sacraments, so that God could communicate to us through concrete things and in real moments. It’s hard not to know God’s mercy when you physically hear the priest say, “may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins.” It’s hard to not be mindful of the Eucharist as the food that gives us life when it’s in our mouth. It’s hard to think that you face serious illness alone when your hands and forehead are being anointed with oil. It would have been hard for Elizabeth not to feel the joy of the infant leaping inside of her when she heard the greeting of Mary.
God does not intend to be some distant abstraction in our lives. He walked with Adam in the Garden, he spoke to the prophets, he sent us his Son to be one of us and to share in our life. This, for me, is what Advent is ultimately about. The longing for Christ’s presence to become real, the desire to encounter him in the sacraments, in the Word, in you… for us to feel the hand of God upon our shoulders and know his gentleness and mercy in a way that is undeniable and overwhelming.
In a couple of days we will gather here for Christmas there will also be many people with us that we never see. I doubt most of them even realize it but that realness of God in their lives is what they are longing for. He will be here waiting for them in the Word and in the Eucharist, as much as they are able to open their hearts to encounter him present in these things. Will you be waiting for them as well? Will they hear your greeting and have their hearts leap for joy? Will they sense that Christ is in you? Because we are flesh and blood, and by our own presence we will draw others into the presence of God.
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Homilies are meant to be heard, not read… and part of the Eucharistic liturgy, not words that stand alone. Please remember that no homily is written with this blog in mind.