Do you see what I see?
“Said the night wind to the little lamb / Do you see what I see?” The 1963 Christmas Song asks its questions from the perspective of the night wind, the little lamb, the shepherd boy, the king. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber reminds us that “Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker wrote ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’ in 1963, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in response to the existential dread they felt because of the Cold War.” That’s enough to change your perspective next time you hear of sing that song!
Every Advent we are reminded of the unsettling nature of the Gospel, even as we are bombarded with the most familiar, sentimental, and often comforting scenes, images, and stories. So the scene presented in “José y Maria” by Everett Patterson (image above) is, if not completely welcome, a needed unsettling. All the familiar references are there not-so-hidden in the art but that shoot growing from the center of the concrete sidewalk reminds us that the promise comes through these two figures and from their story which is both utterly unique and nonidentically repeated through the ages. St Irenaeus talks of recapitulation of all things in Christ who:
in these last days, according to the time appointed by the Father, united to His own workmanship, inasmuch as He became a man liable to suffering … He commenced afresh [summed up in himself] the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam-namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God-that we might recover in Christ Jesus.
Just when we think we have a handle on Jesus, we are reminded that God doesn’t give us handles by which to hold history or control the world. “There is a risk,” writes Rowan Williams, “for any religion that looks to accomplished events as its foundation. The word once unexpectedly spoken becomes ours, is absorbed more and more into our needs and fancies and preferences. Once it was strange, now it is familiar and idolatrous. The Advent tension is a way of learning again that God is God: that between even our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God is a gap which only grace can cross; otherwise we are alone again, incommunicado, our signals and symbols bounced back to us off the glassy walls of the universe.”
We dare not assume that we know everything about what those events two thousand years ago mean for us, just as we dare not assume that we know everything that is happening in the lives of those we see or meet or touch on the streets of our neighborhoods. Given the tumultuous events of recent months and the level of anxiety in the air these days, it may seem a risk to engage at all, to stop for those in our path, to give others the benefit of the doubt, make room in our lives for others, especially for those who at first (or second or third) glance are hard to love. Perhaps at times we are glad that the Mary and Josephs of this world, the refugees, the homeless, those oppressed by their governments, facing questionable circumstances, find shelter…just not here.
Thomas Merton wrote poignantly:
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected by power, because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.
It is Christ that comes uninvited and finds his place with others in the same boat. Listen to the night wind, little animals, laborers, even the powerful rulers: Do you hear what I hear? Do you see what I see? A star? A song? A child? The child? God is God. God will bring us goodness and light. Will we be truly present on the scene? Will we see the gift when it arrives?
“When God saw the world falling to ruin because of fear, he immediately acted to call it back to himself with love. He invited it by his grace, preserved it by his love, and embraced it with compassion.” — Saint Peter Chrysologus
–by Greg Walgenbach, Director of Life, Justice & Peace, Diocese of Orange