16 December 2009

All the Nations Shall Proclaim his happiness! (Ps 72:17)

Tomorrow's Gospel is the Genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew. It is not unusual to have our eyes glaze over as this is read in Church. If we have to read it ourselves, we may scan the passage as we read along to find out just how much longer this goes on, how many more unpronounceable names we have in front of us! If we are particularly creative we may focus on the individual names and see how much OT history we recall. Feminists are apt to focus on the few but significant women's names included here quite against the tradition of such genealogies! Judith, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Mary are all mentioned --- important because they are women of ill-repute, irregularity, or barrenness graced by God in a way which makes them pivotal in both divine and human history. A very few will be excited by this long recital of somewhat familiar but mainly alien names, but generally, the genealogy is a challenge to listeners and preachers. What, after all, did Matthew intend here? Why did he construct this list in such a carefully theological (and historically inaccurate) way? What does he want us to hear?

The thing that strikes me most about this lection is the plan of God it outlines, and especially the patience with which God carries this out. Throughout history men and women have responded in greater and lesser ways and degrees to the Word and will of God. History is the story of the intertwining of divine and human destinies and in the Christ event all this comes to a climax. In Jesus divine and human histories are inextricably wed. God allows us to participate in his very future. He profoundly desires us to be a living part of that future. All throughout history he affirms and reaffirms that he has chosen not to remain alone; that, if we will only not refuse him, he will be our God and we will be his people. This is God's will and destiny. It is also quite literally his delight and joy!

There is a reason I hear this in tomorrow's Gospel. About 25 years ago I was struggling with quiet prayer. There comes a point in contemplative prayer marked by a letting go, and sometimes by a shift in consciousness and awareness --- a kind of altered state of attentiveness. I found, unfortunately, that some parts of this point or process reminded me of the sensations that accompanied the loss of consciousness and/or control preceding or accompanying the beginning of a seizure. Thus, as I approached this moment in prayer I found myself becoming frightened and I refused or at least resisted letting go and giving myself over to the prayer (and so, over to God's activity within and around me). One evening, I was working with my spiritual director and in order to help me through this, she held out her hands and asked me to rest mine on hers. Then she instructed me to just do what I would ordinarily do in approaching contemplative or quiet prayer. I did and immediately went deeper than I had perhaps ever gone before. God was waiting (indeed, he was really leading) and he was completely delighted! He "said" to me (silently but really), "Finally! I have been waiting SUCH a long time for this moment!" There was not a smidgin of recrimination, no blame, no reference to sin or to disappointment or sadness in my regard. God's joy was unalloyed and revealed his very nature in this and his complete patience.

I think we sometimes forget this side of things. Partly it is because we focus on ourselves in prayer, and partly it may be because we were taught some version of God's impassibility. But really, it is rather like something that always strikes me about the Sacrament of penance. We all know that this Sacrament is a gift --- that in it we receive the grace of mercy and forgiveness, love, support and encouragement. How often do we pause to ponder the gift our confession is to the confessor? And yet, that is one thing that is often very clear when we receive the Sacrament today. Similarly then, we rightly emphasize that God gives himself to us, that his love, mercy, and forgiveness are gifts to us, but how often do we regard ourselves as the gifts which God himself has patiently but ardently desired and waited through the aeons to receive? How often do we see God working unceasingly through generation after generation after generation just for the Word only we can speak and become in response, for the gift only we can become and give in gratitude and joy? How often do we consider that God is truly delighted with this gift --- whatever its condition or history? How often do we stop to reflect on the truth that, in fact, he desires nothing so much as this and, in some mysterious way, will be incomplete without it?

Christmas is the season marking the nativity of the One in whom both human and divine history reach their goal and climax. It has been long in coming, engineered and directed with infinite patience and desire despite all of the human resistance and refusal God has also endured. Tomorrow's Gospel marks all of this dramatically, but in a way which challenges us to hear with new ears what is most often a deadly dull wholly uninspired recital. On Christimas, we will celebrate the fact that God entrusts his Son to us --- fragile, weak, powerless and wholly dependent; God looks to us to mark the climax of a long preparatory history and reciprocate with our own lives. My prayer is that each of us can approach Christmas with a sense of just how ardently God desires and delights in the gifts we make of ourselves --- and of course, that, with God's assistance, we can find the courage to let go past our resistances, doubts, insecurities, fears, and guilt, and commit ourselves into the arms of an overjoyed God.