Long before Jesus was condemned by Pontius Pilate and rejected by the authorities, denied by Peter and betrayed by Judas, misunderstood by his followers and chased away by his townspeople, he came onto the scene virtually unnoticed. “There was no room for them in the inn,” Luke reports with understated reserve. Is it not curious that Luke seemingly finds nothing outlandish about the long-awaited messiah’s arrival occasioning practically no response except for one small band of shepherds who were tipped off by a rather singular display of “the glory of the Lord”?
No, Luke is an astute enough chronicler of both the human and the divine to know that God tends to avoid the spotlight and that we are in the habit of alternately overlooking and not looking far enough for God. God, the creator of the universe, became a helpless baby so insignificant and ordinary that not even a single decent room in the inn could be found for him. During the Christmas season, we as a church collectively recall and celebrate that God is often closer and smaller than we think.
God in My Freezer
Recently, my wife was pregnant with our second child and was due at the same time that we planned to move. Our “new” old house required considerable work before it was ready to be moved into with a toddler and a soon-to-be newborn. Working on the house took us to the brink of exhaustion—and all of this in the lead-up to welcoming home a tiny, sleepless bundle of joy. Many friends came to our aid. One friend brought us a dozen or so pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and stashed them in our freezer. Each night, bleary-eyed from long hours of working on the house, my wife and I would gather around ice cream and rehash the day’s progress and size up the next day’s projects.
The cache of ice cream steadily diminished. Yet one evening we opened the freezer and found an as-of-yet undiscovered pint of Ben and Jerry’s. God was in that ice cream. I am certain of it. It was not that the last pint miraculously appeared. Its presence—tucked behind a bag of frozen vegetables—was entirely explicable. Our friend obviously had put it there. But that last pint of ice cream revealed something of the humble means God so characteristically assumes to communicate a bottomless love. Like a secret admirer eager to communicate affection, God employs ingenious creativity in riddling our lives with seemingly unsigned love notes. God seems content to be tucked away in small places not because God does not want to be found but because God is humble enough to wait for us to go looking. My friend with the ice cream showed me what God desperately wanted me to know in those anxious days: My family is loved. If I had been waiting for a thunderbolt from heaven to tell me that, I would have missed the message. God used a far subtler, sweeter means of communication that risked being overlooked altogether as something as ordinary as, well, some extraordinarily delicious ice cream.
St. Ignatius Loyola has a memorable phrase for thinking about God’s presence all around us. Ignatius said, “God labors and works for me in all the creatures on the face of the earth.” His point was that one of the most common ways that God loves us is through other people. We are accustomed to interpreting other people’s words and actions toward us as indicating how they themselves feel about us. Ignatius invites us to see how our daily experiences of receiving love also reveal God’s own deep care for us.
But life is not all about finding hidden pints of ice cream. Another way that God is also “smaller” than we sometimes think is God’s presence in the most marginalized of our brothers and sisters, including those who are hungry, homeless or in prison. In Chapter 25 of the Gospel according to Matthew, we learn that whatever we do—or do not do—to “the least” of those around us, we do—or do not do—to Jesus himself. Matthew suggests that neither those who served others nor those who ignored others realized that it was Jesus they were encountering. Our eyes are not habituated to seeing God in those around us. It takes practice to perceive God in other people, particularly in those the world pushes to the margins. And the conclusion of Matthew 25 points out that it is no small thing to find God in those we might be tempted to look past: our salvation depends on it.
God Outstretched on the Cross
Part of the reason that no room could be found in the inn for Mary, Joseph and Jesus is that God so often slips by unnoticed in the seemingly small and ordinary. But even if the most lavish hospitality had been shown to the infant Jesus and his fatigued parents that night, no accommodations—not even the universe itself—could be roomy enough to enclose the God who had come to earth. God came to dwell among us. We, however, can never domesticate God. We are always right to name an experience as potentially revelatory of God’s presence. And at the same time, God remains beyond our limited human experience and understanding. God was both “in” that surprising last pint of ice cream and is infinitely more than it.
Karl Rahner, a German Jesuit theologian, had a delightful way of talking about this “more-ness” of God. To Father Rahner, God was not an inaccessible, rarified mystery entirely beyond reach. Instead, Father Rahner perceived an unbounded roominess in God such that God is “infinitely knowable.” We can know more and more about God and there is always more and more to know. The multiplicity of Gospel portraits of Jesus and the diversity of images of God throughout Scripture bear witness to this “more-ness” of God. We would do well to frequently revisit lesser-known passages in order to curb the tendency to shrink our image of God to a size and shape that often bears a striking resemblance to our own selves.
We can savor finding God in small moments when we feel surprisingly loved, or in epiphany experiences when we perceive God on the margins where Jesus promised we would find him. Can we also find God in the overwhelming suffering and hardship that exists in our world and in our own lives? God’s “bigness” comes into question when it can seem like he is absent from those places where his presence is most needed.
For more than half a century, Dorothy Day worked, wrote and spoke tirelessly in response to the crushing needs of those living in poverty both near and far. Her own life was frequently marked by feelings of bleakness and depression. Even after becoming a national celebrity and being called upon by Blessed Mother Teresa and Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O., Dorothy Day continued to struggle with feeling unwanted, unloved and unloving. Again and again, she turned to the Eucharist and communal meals to find God’s presence. She famously concludes her autobiography with the lines: “We know Him in the breaking of the bread, and we know each other in the breaking of the bread, and we are not alone anymore.”
Dorothy Day found solace in the Eucharist, which continues to make present the God who, outstretched on the cross, went to the very depths of all that is human out of love for us. The God who was content to arrive almost unnoticed in Bethlehem was lifted up for all to see at Golgotha. She also took comfort in the rhythm of ordinary meals among the poor at the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality because she was familiar with God’s penchant for dealing in the commonplace, the overlooked and the downtrodden. Understandably, we may ask of God, “Where are you when there are so many people suffering?” Might God not also be asking the same question of us? As St. Teresa of Avila says, “Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.”
That ragged assortment of shepherds who “went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger” could well be the patron saints of the Christmas season. They were humble enough to be overcome with awe at the glory of the Lord that shone around them. And with eyes still burning from the sight of it, they could equally make out God’s tiny, bundled figure in the shadows of the manger. Holy shepherds, pray for us this Christmas that we too might fall in worship surrounded by God’s immeasurable heavenly light and run in haste to find God’s tiniest trace here on earth.