Saturday, January 01, 2011

Solemnity of The Blessed Virgin Mary,
the Mother of God
Microexpressions and the Mother of God

Sisters and brothers, have you heard of Dr. Cal Lightman? That’s the name of the main character in the TV series Lie to Me. Dr. Lightman has a very special gift. He’s an expert at reading facial expressions and body language. By paying close attention to someone’s face, he can tell whether or not that person is telling the truth. He is able to do this because he is highly skilled in the art of reading microexpressions.

When we see someone smiling at us, for example, many of us will naturally conclude that that person is expressing happiness or approval or friendship. And yet, we also know from experience that that’s not always the case. People can smile because they are nervous, or because they are making fun of us, or even because they wish to do us harm. Sometimes we ourselves may even fake a smile, so that people don’t know what we are actually thinking. People smile for many different reasons.

And here’s where the ability to read microexpressions comes in handy. It’s not something I myself know how to do. And I don’t really know how far this is true. But, apparently, someone who is really happy smiles not just with the lips, but also with the eyes. When we flash a genuinely happy smile, the muscles around our eyes contract naturally, in a way that cannot be duplicated when we are just faking it. The microexpressions around the eyes are not easy to spot. But a person skilled in reading them is able to tell the difference. Microexpressions can help us to recognize a genuine smile when we see it. 

Something like Dr. Lightman’s skill can also come in very handy for us today, as we celebrate the solemn feast of Mary, the Mother of God. As you will probably have already noticed, today’s feast has a lot to do with names. In the first reading, Moses is taught how to bless the people by invoking God’s name. In the gospel, Mary’s child is given the name Jesus, which means God saves. In the second reading, we’re told that, in Jesus, God sends the Spirit into our hearts, giving us the ability to call God by the intimate name of Abba, Father. And, of course, today’s feast itself recalls the title given by the Council of Ephesus to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the year 431. Mary was given the name theotokos, or God-bearer.

Yes, today’s feast is all about naming. But it’s not just any kind of naming. It’s the kind of naming that is born of recognition. We name Mary the God bearer, because we recognize in her child, not just any ordinary human being, but also the very presence of God. Mary’s child is named Jesus because his parents recognize him as the one through whom God will save God’s people. Naming is born of recognition. And, clearly, something very special is being recognized today. We find a marvelous description of just what this something is in the first reading.

Here, one of the things Moses is taught to say when blessing the people is: The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The same thing can be said in a simpler way. To let one’s face shine on another is simply to flash that person a warm genuine smile. May God smile upon you! That’s the blessing that Moses is being taught to impart to the people. And this beautiful blessing finds its fulfillment in the gospel, in the birth of the child Jesus. Our feast today, then, is all about recognizing and naming God’s smile. But it’s not always easy to recognize the smile of God. For just as people may sometimes use a smile to mask their true feelings, so too does God’s smile often seem to come to us only in disguise.

In his description of the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, for example, Luke paints a very poignant picture of poverty. Mary and Joseph could find no proper place to bear their child. And when they finally managed to bring the little one into the world – laying him down where the animals were feeding – all they had for him to wear were some stray scraps of cloth. A lively little body wrapped tightly in bands of cloth and laid in a manger. Can we imagine this sight today, without also being reminded of that other scene where, years later, a body, bruised, bloodied, and lifeless, would be wrapped in burial cloths and laid in a borrowed tomb?

A moving sight indeed. But if we were among those passing by on that first Christmas night, is it not at least likely that we would simply have walked by without giving it a second thought? Much like I sometimes pass by the many transients sitting on the benches along State Street? And if we were in the shoes of Mary and Joseph, is it not more than likely that we would have been complaining about our troubles, and wishing for better times?

Yet, in the gospel, it is precisely this sad sight, it is just this picture of poverty, that the shepherds recognize and name as the smiling face of God. After casting their eyes on what must have looked just like any other homeless family, we’re told that they returned glorifying and praising God. And what’s perhaps even more marvelous is that, in the midst of their struggles, Mary and Joseph were able to recognize God’s smile. Instead of discarding their child as a burden, they protected and cared for him as a blessing. They named him Jesus, God saves.

What do we find here, sisters and brothers, if not a truly amazing ability to recognize the God who often smiles upon us only in disguise? What do we find in the gospel, if not people who are skilled in the fine art of reading the microexpressions of God? Isn’t this what we find Mary doing, when we are told that she kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart?

Today, in addition to celebrating the Mother of God, we are also ushering in a new civil year. We give thanks for all the blessings that God has showered upon us in 2010, and we pray that God will continue to bless us in 2011. But in order to do all this well, it’s important for us to realize that God’s blessings often come to us in disguise. Which is why it’s good for us to learn from Mary that skill, which is so similar to Dr. Cal Lightman’s: the ability to recognize, in the many different and often challenging situations of our lives, the consoling warmth of God’s smile.

Sisters and brothers, on this last day in the octave of Christmas, as we look forward to a new year, how might we learn to better read the microexpressions on the face of God today?

1 comment:

  1. I like everything in this post: the Lie to Me video, the idea of recognizing microexpressions, the observation that today's feast is all about naming and finally the idea of recognizing God's microexpressions in the midst of trouble or gloom in our lives.

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