Tuesday, December 25, 2018

From Speed to Presence (Rerun)

Nativity of the Lord (Mass During the Day)
Video: Posted on YouTube by julingen

My dear friends, have you ever heard it said that our world is shrinking? You know what it means, right? It’s not that the world is actually getting smaller in size. The way a piece of clothing might shrink after washing. No. When people say the world is shrinking, they’re not talking about size but about speed. What they mean is that we can now travel long distances in a much shorter time than before. This is the gift of technology. You hop onto a plane today, and you can find yourself halfway round the world tomorrow. Or, if you don’t want to travel, you can use Skype or WhatsApp, Facetime or Facebook, to speak with a faraway friend instantaneously. Face-to-face.

Speed. This is how technology enables us to shrink our world. To bridge long distances. By increasing the speed of our movement and our communication. And who can deny that this is a good thing? A great gift? By increasing our speed, technology helps us connect with more people, in a much shorter time.

And yet, we also cannnot deny the adverse side-effects to this increase in speed. Do you know what they are? I can think of two: Stress and shallowness. Whether we care to admit it or not, the constant acceleration puts a strain on us. Physically, emotionally, relationally. For example, don’t many of us continue to feel lonely and disconnected, despite having so many names on our list of contacts? Don’t we sometimes feel as though there’s no one there for us? No one who really understands what we’re going through? And when we do get together with others for a meal, don’t we often spend more time fiddling with our phones than interacting with them at table?

Paradoxically, our constant connection often results in deeper disconnection. We’re in touch with many people, but in ever shallower ways. We have the capacity to find out more about distant cultures, but prefer to keep them distant. We have access to the latest news, but lose our ability to distinguish the truth from the lies. And perhaps even the desire to do so. Driven to remain ever in motion, we no longer know how to linger. To ponder. To connect with our deeper selves. Let alone with others.

But what alternative do we have? How else can we bridge the distances between us? To shrink our world? I’m not sure, my dear friends, but I thought I found the answer when a visiting priest once said to me, Your church is getting smaller. I knew what he meant. He had concelebrated our Christmas Midnight Mass. And, as expected, the church was packed to capacity. So that, to this visitor, whose last visit was a while ago, our church appeared to be shrinking. Not because of any change in its actual size. But because more people seemed to be present in it.

Could this be another way of bridging distances? Of shrinking our world? A way that depends not on speed, but on presence? Actually, isn’t this what Christmas is all about? At Christmas, we celebrate the bridging of the tremendous distance that separates us from God. How does God do this? Not by moving faster. But by drawing nearer. By deepening God’s presence among us and within us. Isn’t this what we find in our readings today?

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one who brings good news… Why is God’s message described as beautiful? Not because of its speed. But because it is full of the consoling presence of God. Your watchmen raise their voices, they shout for joy together, for they see the Lord face to face... God shrinks the distance between us. Not by moving more quickly. But by entering more intimately into our lives. Allowing us, quite incredibly, to even see God face to face.

We find a similar message in the second reading. At various times in the past… God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time… he has spoken to us through his Son. God progresses from communicating through prophets, to speaking through the Son. And we must not mistake this change for a mere substitution of one messenger for another. For the reading makes it clear that the Son is far more than just another messenger. No. He is the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of his nature... The Son is the very presence of God himself. In and through the Son, God bridges the distance between us by deepening God’s presence among us.

The gospel puts it even more poetically. In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God.... The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory,... In and through Jesus, the Word of God comes among us as a living breathing human being. Immersing himself in our pains and struggles. Sharing our hopes and dreams. Forever connected to us in a bond that can never be broken. In and through Christ, God enters the world, and shrinks it. Not by an increase in speed, but by the deepening of Presence.

What does this mean for us, my dear friends? We who often do not know how to connect with others except by moving faster. We who try so desperately to cover more ground in the shortest possible time. But who then discover distances opening up that we seem unable to bridge. Distances reflected as much in the loneliness and disconnection that we experience within ourselves, as the conflicts and divisions that we see around us.

Perhaps what makes Christmas such tremendous good news for us, is that it reveals a gentler and more effective way of shrinking our world. Not through stressful and superficial speed. But by courageous and consoling presence. The presence of a poor defenceless baby, whom we believe to be the Word-of-God-Made-Flesh for us. For you and for me. A Word that’s not content to speak only from afar. But Who mercifully enters the messiness of our lives. To comfort and encourage us with his Presence.

As we gather to adore this baby. As we allow his presence to fill our minds, our hearts, and our lives. Perhaps we can also allow him to teach us, to nudge us, to deepen our own presence as well. Our presence to ourselves, and to our families… Our presence to our Church, and to our world…

I’m reminded of that moving scene from the movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, in which the elf-queen Galadriel asks the wizard Gandalf why he chooses to depend on the little hobbit Bilbo Baggins. This is Gandalf’s answer:

I do not know. Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I’ve found. I’ve found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it’s because I’m afraid. And he gives me courage.

To which the queen responds:

Do not be afraid… You are not alone. Should you ever need my help, I will come.

My dear friends, what will you do to allow the little Babe-in-the-Manger to shrink your world this Christmas?

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