Homily for Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 24, 2017
Tabernacled Among Us
There was once a man who was obstinately against the Christian faith – he just couldn’t understand how God could ever become man. His wife continued to invite him to church every Christmas and Easter, but he refused, figuring he didn’t believe any of this Christianity stuff, so why should he go to church?
It was a dark and snowy Christmas Eve when his wife and kids went to church, leaving this man alone in his house after dark. All of a sudden, he heard several loud thumps on his window. He looked out into the snow, and was surprised to see that a dozen birds had accidentally flown into his window, looking for shelter from the snow. They looked cold, dazed, and injured, so his heart was moved with pity for them and he tried to give them a refuge from the cold night.
He quickly went to his garage and opened the garage door, but the birds refused to come in. He spread straw and sawdust on the floor, but still the birds didn’t come in. Going to his cabinet, he found some birdseed, which he sprinkled on the floor with a trail leading to the birds. But the birds, startled by the man, started to scatter in the snow.
The man came outside, trying to usher the birds into the garage, but they were terrified and ran further away. Frustrated and saddened, he said to himself, “If only I was a bird like them, I could lead them to safety! I wish I could speak their language and tell them not to fear, to tell them that they could get out of this darkness! If only I was one of them!”
All of a sudden, he realized he was describing what God did at Christmas. He fell to his knees in the snow and accepted Christ into his life.
The Incarnation – God taking flesh – is what sets Christianity apart from every other world religion. All other religions are man’s search for God, but Christianity is God’s search for man. He is the one who took the initiative; He is the one who called out to us when we were lost, alone, afraid, dead. He took on flesh to show us what God was like. On our own, we would never have been able to know who God is. Yes, creation gives us a glimpse into His goodness, and we can know a few things about Him. But it’s like the difference between seeing a single painting of Leonardo da Vinci versus actually meeting him. The painting reveals a lot, but it is so much richer to meet the Artist face-to-face.
When Gabriel explains to Mary how this great miracle of the Incarnation will come about, he uses an interesting phrase. He says that the “power of the Most High will overshadow you.” That has so many connections to the Old Testament, particularly to the Ark of the Covenant. While the Israelites were wandering the desert, they had a tent where the Ark of the Covenant was kept – this tent was called the “Meeting Tent” because it was where God met with Moses and spoke with him face-to-face. Whenever God would appear in the Meeting Tent, a cloud of glory (called the Shekinah) would descend upon the tent and overshadow it, so that Moses could converse with God.
Here we see Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant – the sacred covenant that would be sworn upon the Cross – who is overshadowed by the glory of the Lord. Her womb would be the place where God and humanity met once and for all. Now, in Jesus, God and man could no longer be separated, because God became a man. There was no way for God to disown the human race, because He is now one of us!
In John’s Gospel, John says that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But a better translation would be that He “pitched His tent” or “His tabernacle” among us. We do not need to go through Moses to speak to God in His tabernacle, His meeting tent – in Jesus Christ, particularly in His Word and in His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, we are able to meet with Him!
This is why we call Him “Emmanuel” – God with us. How comforting to know that God is with us! He never promised to make our life easy and pleasant – He promised to be with us. How powerful that can be!
One of the most difficult times in my life happened on December 14, 2012. I was assigned in St. Mary’s in Bethel, which is the next-door town to Newtown. On that fateful day when 26 innocent lives were taken in the Sandy Hook shooting, pretty much my entire parish was affected. Almost every parishioner knew someone in Sandy Hook. That whole day, all of the clergy at St. Mary’s were busy comforting our parishioners. We had a powerful prayer vigil attended by several hundred people. We couldn’t take the pain away, but we could show that God was with us in the midst of the tragedy.
That whole day, I had been texting back and forth with Fr. Luke Suarez, a good friend of mine who was the parochial vicar at St. Rose of Lima in Newtown. He had been down at the firehouse in Sandy Hook, meeting with police officers and families of the victims. I let him know that if we could do anything, we were at his service.
About ten o’clock at night, he called me and asked if I would get the other priests and come down to the firehouse in Sandy Hook. We went, unsure of what we would encounter there. I remember being so nervous that I couldn’t stop shaking as we drove the seven miles to the scene of the tragedy. When we got to the firehouse, the police chief split all of the clergy up into teams with social workers and cops so that each team would visit the house of one of the victims to give them the official declaration of death and to comfort the family.
I was chosen to go with a heroic cop and psychologist to the home of Jack Pinto, one of the six-year-olds who was killed in the shooting. I have never experienced anything quite like that grief. We went into the home, hearing only loud cries and lamentations. We sat with the family for an hour – what could we say? What words could bring comfort in a situation like that? It is there, sitting on the Pintos’ floor, that I felt more closely than ever before what it means to say that God is with us. I couldn’t take the pain away. I couldn’t find words to heal a void that still aches to this day. But we could love them. We could sit with them in their sorrow. We could be there so that they weren’t alone.
And so it is with God. We like to think that God’s job is to take away all of our suffering and pain. But He never promised that – rather, He promised that He would enter into our pain with us and be there at every moment. He is Emmanuel – God with us. He has so tightly united Himself to humanity that we can claim Him as one of ours – a union so tight that it will never be broken.
If you’re looking for God, you don’t have to look far. He was in a crib, because He was truly human like us. He was on the Cross, because He wanted to redeem us and set us free from our sins. He remains in His Word to enlighten our minds; He remains in the Eucharist to fill our bodies and souls with grace. He is not far. He is Emmanuel.