For many this fateful year, Christmas will be like no other. In previous years many of us would be asked, “Are you going somewhere for Christmas? Will you gather with family?” We often had many and rich answers to those questions. This year many of us will answer, “No, I am not going anywhere and will try to connect “virtually” with family. Some are even warned and scorned by public officials not to yield to the natural instinct to gather with family or go to church.
It is in this climate that we do well to meditate this Christmas on the astonishing gift of God’s presence among us. The Book of Hebrews wondrously describes this gift:
In many and in varied ways God spoke unto our fathers by the prophets. But now, in these last days He has spoken unto us through his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things, and by whom also he made the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2)
And St. John says,
The Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:1,14)
In Jesus, the Lord does not simply speak to us through creation or Scripture or the Prophets. No, he comes to us personally and is present to us. In Christ, God is made visible, tangible, and present. In Jesus we can see the face of God, hear his voice and touch him. He is emphatically, physically present to us. There is nothing “virtual” or online here, nothing televised or remote. He is truly present.
Yes, he who the very heavens cannot contain, now becomes a little infant held in the arms of his Mary. From his hands, now the hands of a little infant, the galaxies and the very universe tumbled forth. From his voice, now like that of an infant, reality was commanded into existence. He who looks down upon all creation, now looks up from a cradle. It is a very great mystery and an astonishing humility that we behold. Our God is made visible and approachable; he is present to us. Some lines from old Christmas Carols come to mind that illustrate the tenderness and joy of God’s presence among us:
Angels and archangels, may have gathered there. Cherubim and Seraphim, thronged the air. But only his mother, in her maiden bliss, Could worship the beloved, with a kiss.
Another sing saysm
Alpha et O (Alpha and Omega)
Matris in gremio (is sitting in mommy’s lap).
So, Christ, the Lord, the Eternal Word and Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became physically present at the Annunciation and visible to us at Christmas. Alpha and Omega is indeed sitting in mommy’s lap! It is an astonishing gift that our minds can barely comprehend.
For human beings this gift is important since we, though having spiritual souls, also have physical bodies. We are used to experiencing things through our five senses. The Lord in his mercy extended this gift of his presence in the Nativity and his public ministry. And even now, though he has ascended, we still encounter Him in the Liturgy and the Sacraments, most especially in Holy Communion where he is present: really, truly and substantially.
In this Christmas like no other, some have said, “It’s OK that we can’t all gather at Church, we can watch the live-stream.” Although for some this may be necessary it is not “OK.” It is very sad and unfortunate. This is because we are not disembodied spirits. We all experience disappointment when someone says, “I can’t join you, but I’ll be with you in spirit.” This is disappointing because we all know that physical presence is important and strongly preferred. Truly being together involves a bodily presence. Further, we can’t receive sacraments virtually or over the internet. All of the Sacraments touch our body in some way: by the pouring of water, anointing with sacred oils, the laying on of hands, and most excellently by the reception of Holy Communion where Christ touches and feeds us with his very self. We can’t do this over the Internet. Praying for an end to this pandemic and the return of all of God’s faithful is critically important. While virtual options are helpful, it is not the same as being at Mass.
It is interesting, the word “virtual” has come to mean something we do on the computer. But “virtual” originally meant, “sort of like, but not really,” as in, “He virtually went crazy.” In other words he isn’t crazy but was “sort of” like that for a time. So virtual has its parameters but it lacks the essential metrics of the real thing.
Perhaps for Protestants, whose services are less sacramental and resemble a bible study, virtual, online or streamed services make sense, but for Catholics whose faith is incarnational and involve Sacraments and realities meant to touch the body and thereby the soul, virtual cannot long remain an option.
At Christmas we celebrate a savior who actually, physically, comes among us and can be touched, even held! The Catholic Church has combined a wonderful intellectual tradition that is carefully blended with an incarnate worship that touches the soul AND the body. There is incense, candles, an audible word proclaimed, priestly actions, and the actual touching of the body through Sacraments, especially Holy Communion.
Allow me to make this personal. I miss many of you! Knowing that you are out there and seeing our televised Masses is a consolation. But it will not equal the joy of being with you here again where I can see you, hug you, and, above all, offer you the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord. Currently only 30% of our congregation has returned to Church. This is the average, nationwide. I cannot decide for you when it is right to return. Some of you have immune systems and other conditions such as age that make returning now inadvisable. But know this, I love you and miss you and look for the day when I can offer you Jesus once again, in the most Holy and Blessed Sacrament. Some of you have permitted me to come to your homes. Others have indicated that no visitors are permitted. I understand. But never forget that Jesus ultimately wants to feed us with his very Body and Blood. Whatever you think is necessary for you to feel safe, I will comply and come to you, when you are ready. This is very important.
At Christmas we celebrate the actual physical presence of Jesus among us. In the sacraments and the sacred Liturgy he left us his real, true and substantial presence. Nothing compares to this presence. Prudence has its place, but never cease longing for this presence of the Lord available only in the Mass and celebrations of other sacraments. If you have not been able to return, pray and long for the day when you can. Remember too that we take many precautions to keep you safe! Going to Church is not just going to a building or a pew, it is to be drawn into the presence of Him who is born this Christmas to be among us, really, truly, physically and tangibly.