At this time of year, we long to welcome the Christ child into our trembling hearts, these empty mangers aching to be filled; for it is in a child that we first see the face of God in humanity, and through His shocking act of humility that we begin to see ourselves in Him.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and so many other saints have written about the need to see the Face of Christ in those we serve, especially those within our own families. But I always felt the saints were gifted with a special kind of sight, to be able to discern the presence of the Divine in something as commonplace as a human face. I didn’t really count the shepherds of the gospels, who rushed to see the newborn King, because they had the advantage of heavenly messengers and celestial choirs proclaiming the Messiah’s hidden presence in the poor babe’s tiny visage.
I longed to see what they saw, since to see and love God in a human person would be to encounter the King of the Universe face-to-face. It would expose my ordinary existence to the overwhelming mystery of humanity’s dual nature; flesh and bone graced with a hidden spiritual tabernacle, a true Holy of Holies, where the Lord Himself abides.
To me, it’s always been a strange thing, trying to love a remote God, one I can’t see or touch. People, I have no trouble loving, but God, well, I could be faithful to Him at least some of the time, I could proclaim my desire to love Him, I could praise Him, and confess my sins to Him through the ministry of the priesthood. But, except in times of great suffering, the closeness I longed for seemed just out of reach—until the day I saw Him in my own child in a new way.
One Sunday at Mass, I realized, all at once, in the ineffably soft and earth-shaking way of epiphanies, something I thought I already understood. In the midst of prayerfully singing a hymn, I felt suddenly and simply that loving God meant loving people, and that the answer to my lifelong frustration would be found by attending to His presence in the human beings around me.
Once the thought hit me, I once again became conscious of singing along with the congregation, and of my preteen daughter’s habitual disinterest in joining in. She loves to sing, but I hadn’t been able to interest her in singing at Mass. I’d become so concerned about her lack of enthusiasm in this regard, that I’d even threatened to take away her voice lessons if she didn’t see fit to offer her voice to God. But brandishing this club only brought grudging, inconsistent compliance.
That day, as I sang in my usual energetic way, I suddenly shifted to singing specifically for my daughter, as if my praises and thanksgiving could reach God more directly via my love for her. “You live in her,” I prayed. “I will sing to Your presence in her and express my love for You, and my love for her, through my singing.” And even though my eyes were still on our shared hymnal, my voice down-shifted and became tender and gentle, every note giving voice to my love for my child, and in her, my God.
Within seconds my daughter’s attitude shifted noticeably. Her voice connected to the words and rose in volume, and she leaned in closer to me. As the moments passed I became convicted that what I was observing was a sign of grace at work in both our souls.
In my excitement, my voice rose up again in volume, and I felt her withdraw, so I refocused my prayers again, and she drew close once more. My daughter responded immediately in a way that seemed miraculous, and for the first time, not only our voices, but our hearts were joined in prayerful song. I have never since had to threaten or cajole. It is as easy as welcoming her into a cuddle.
Now, aside from having solved our little singing problem all those months ago, it taught me a great lesson that continues to find its place in my life. I discovered that in many varied ways I can give my love directly to God by communicating it in a very personal, individual way toward a person in my life.
A wonderful effect of this shift is that I waste very little energy struggling with suspending my ordinary human disbelief. (Is there really a God? Do I love Him? Does He love me?) My affections for God arise more naturally in context of my love for others, my small acts of service, and my prayers.
I’ve had many consolations over the years, times when I felt His closeness, especially during times of suffering, as I mentioned earlier. But in an ordinary, day-to-day way, I longed to love God with more feeling.
I know what some of you are thinking, and you’re right. I shouldn’t worry about feelings. Love is not a mere feeling. It is an attitude and a way of life. It is sacrifice and persevering devotion, faithfulness and forgiveness, especially when things are hardest. It’s trusting God when all seems hopeless, honoring commitments, and putting others before ourselves.
But the idea hadn’t really taken hold of me in the same way it has since that day at Mass. I know now that “seeing” the face of God in others means reaching out to each other with an awareness of His presence, thereby loving God more intimately and personally through the bonds of human affection. It’s not a special sight, or a mystical gift. It’s something we can choose to do in every human interaction.
And as we seek the Christ child this Christmas, we have the chance to fill empty mangers all around us with the warming love of Our Lord, through a simple and tender awareness of the presence of God in the human being right there in front of us.