According to the Mayan calendar, this should be my last blog post. Doomsday prep-ers must be satisfied with the ominous weather we’ve had, the howling wind, recent hurricanes. And if anyone were looking for cultural signs of apocalypse, well, the culture has put out.
For my own part, I spent last night in the hospital with complications from flu and asthma– asthma being one of the many maladies I only experience when pregnant. I had an acute asthma attack–found myself for a few very stressful moments simply unable to pass air through my lungs. It’s a feeling one doesn’t soon forget, that weightless constriction that somehow feels like a ton of bricks on your sternum, arms grasping for air as though its something to catch with your hands. There were calming voices, saying, “Nice deep breaths for your baby, come on, you can do it,” while they quickly harnessed an oxygen mask over my face, and then slowly, air. How I love it.
This has been my sickest pregnancy ever–from nausea and depression in the first trimester to a ready stream of bugs through the third, on top of a couple chronic conditions– it gets increasingly more and more difficult to keep face. I could maintain a relatively rosy outlook up until last Friday when I think the entire nation’s supply of hope took a beating, and I shortly after descended into yet another round of sickness. I found myself asking God, why won’t you permit me to hope? Is it just too much to ask?
At times like these, it’s tempting to interpret everything that happens as a sign. We are “the race that seeks the face of God.” But when God is hidden, every bad thing that happens looks like a sign of his wrath, or a warning. If God shows his face in big, obvious signs of pomp and grandeur–our belief will be fortified, and others will have no choice but to believe as well.
But if we spend our lives seeking signs, we are as faithless as the culture we keep expecting God to crush. In the readings from Isaiah yesterday (7:10-14), Ahaz says, “I will not ask (for a sign)! I will not tempt the Lord!” He’s afraid of what the mighty God might send. But God sends a sign anyway, one that is humble and unexpected: “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” This sign is the only sign we need.
Sometimes it seems like sort of a let-down, as in, really? God is going to continue to hide himself in humble places, in the small and needy? And then he’s going to grow up and allow himself to be crucified because he is so overcome with love and mercy for all of Creation?
Can’t he just be Great and powerful for once and show a little wrath and vengeance? Can’t he just punish evildoers and reward the deserving? It seems like hope would be easier to maintain if God’s laws were more like man’s laws.
Instead, we have to battle for a sense of hope in a world where it looks like all goodness is being defeated. We have to battle for our belief in a small, humble, hidden and merciful God. It can feel a little like grasping for air that won’t come. We know it’s there, that it permeates everything around us, but we can’t see it or feel it. And what’s more, if we allow ourselves to be overcome by anxiety and fear, we can completely choke it off.
Just breath, nice, slow, deep breaths for the baby. One breath will follow another. The air we need will be there.
Appearances do not always equal reality. God’s presence in the world is hidden, quiet, but sustaining, carrying us forward and transforming us in concrete but gradual ways that we can’t immediately see.
Our Parish priest was telling us recently how excited he was right after his ordination. For a good six months, he took tremendous comfort from celebrating the Eucharist, thinking to himself “I am a priest of God.” He was overcome with the wonder of it. But in time the wonder faded. He didn’t always have a profound experience at the altar. God began to hide himself from him, even with this miracle taking place at his very hands. “From then on, I had to go on faith and hope that God was working in spite of me, rather than because of me.”
Our priest is now nearly 90 years old. “And when I look back, I can see how I’ve changed,” he said, “Even when I felt like I was stuck in ordinariness.”
God doesn’t usually permit his faithful to be extraordinary. He gives them work to do, a daily vocation, like breathing, to be done without applause, and probably without any notice at all. God doesn’t usually permit his faithful to be sinless either, so they often look like fallen, unremarkable people. This can be a confounding reality for the race that seeks the face of God. Appearances do not always equal reality.
Trumpets don’t typically herald the ongoing renewal of a soul. Most of the good that happens in the world will occur with the stealth and silence with which God became man. And when the end really does come, hopefully after a long life, probably one that sees a fair amount of suffering and sin, we may get to hear the words that Elizabeth spoke to Mary at the visitation: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”