The Shock of Recognition

He returned the grin. For about half a second. Then his eyes widened as he took me in, his smile slowly collapsed, his lower lip quivered, and wailing commenced.

Where was his mommy?

There was a woman there, and she was acting like his mommy, but her most recognizable feature – her long, dark hair, was gone. Actually, it wasn’t gone – I’d just twisted the damp mass up into a clip on top of my head, but the effect was the same to his five-month old eyes.

He didn’t recognize me.

On the first Sunday of Advent, the Scripture readings call us to watchfulness. Jesus tells us a story of a householder who would have caught a thief if he’d been awake. Paul warns us to be watchful, too, and to not let our lives fall into a sleepy indifference as we wait for the Lord, get tired, and then forget what we’re waiting for.

Or, in our sleepy haze, fail to recognize it when it comes.

The Kingdom of God, someone once said, is “already, but not yet.”

Here, but obviously not in its fullness. Advent evokes that same mystery: Jesus is present among us, but we still wait for his second, final coming in glory. As we pray our way through this season, we’ll hear readings that touch on all aspects of that reality: God restored creation in the Incarnation of His Son at a point in the past. That restoration and reconciliation continues in the present, and will be completed in the future.

As for me, I like to concentrate on the “present” part of the equation. Why? Well, when I read the Gospels, that’s mostly what I see. Sure, Jesus gives plenty of warnings about the future, about judgment, about the nature of the heavenly Kingdom. But most of the time, Jesus spends his time dealing with the now:

He brings hope to the suffering – now. He forgives sins – now. He talks about how to live under God’s reign – now. He enjoys the company of outcasts and sinners – now.

So during Advent, we’re preparing to celebrate this Incarnation of God into flesh, but not just because it was once, and not just because it will be, but because it is – now.

But do we recognize Him?

For you know, it’s not always easy. We may think we’ve got it covered – that we understand the ways of God’s presence in the now. Why? Because we’re blessed, we say, because we’ve got health and family and a pretty good life, all around.

And then, in the flash of a plane plunging into a building, in the uncertainty of one we love sent far from us on an aircraft carrier, in the now-non-existent job, and with it non-existent paycheck and non-existent health insurance, all of those “blessings” disappear, or at least reveal their terribly precarious nature.

Can we still recognize God? Is the Incarnation still in effect? This shift in perception isn’t just tied to times of war or economic downturn. For the Christian, the spiritual journey can sometimes seem like nothing but a lifelong journey of rebuilding, in fact, after expectation after expectation of who God is, is either shattered or just outgrown.

It can be more than a little frightening for us to realize that God exists way beyond the boundaries we seek to put around Him. It’s daunting to realize that our blithe words agreeing that sure, God’s everywhere, might actually be true, and that “Incarnation” means that God’s involved with the people we don’t like as much as He is with the people we love, that God is interested in how we make our living just as much as He’s interested in where we go to church, and that God’s love for the unborn, the about-to-be-euthanized, and the desperately poor, ill and mostly forgotten is as passionate as His love is for us.

In short, the invitation of Advent is this: to watch for God and hold on tight, or else the shock of recognition of God in the most unlikely guise just might send you reeling.

Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributer to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.

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