Everyday Emmanuel

| Jonathan Liedl | October 22, 2019 | 0 Comments

iStock/CalderVanGogh

You’re probably familiar with Narnia, C.S. Lewis’ setting for “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” where it’s “always winter, but never Christmas.”

Earlier this fall, my fellow first-year seminarians and I had a weeklong silent retreat in a quaint mountainside village that is something of the opposite of pre-Aslan Narnia. Because in Greccio, it’s never quite winter (at least by Minnesota standards), but it’s like Christmas every day. Not in the crass, consumerist sense that seems to pervade American department stores and television advertisements earlier and earlier each year, but in a simple yet profoundly spiritual way.

Greccio is the place where St. Francis of Assisi established the first Nativity scene in the 1220s. Today, the village is home to the International Museum of Nativity Scenes. Its sister city is Bethlehem. And at the nearby Sanctuary of Greccio, where St. Francis had set up his first Nativity scene, there are 15th-century frescoes and 20th-century sculptures depicting the Nativity of Our Lord.

Maybe it was because I was surrounded by these constant reminders of the Lord’s incarnation, or perhaps it was due to the fact that I was blessed each day with beautiful vistas of mist-covered mountain tops, an image of heaven coming down to earth. Whatever the mediating factors, in the silence and beauty of Greccio I was made deeply aware of the closeness of God.

By his grace, I began to see how constantly God was reaching out to me in love and providential care throughout the day. Through prayer and the sacraments, of course, but even in my silent walks along the mountain trails and the simple meals I would have in the refectory. Every moment was an opportunity to know of his love and to be reminded of his closeness.

The word that began welling up in my heart was Emmanuel, “God with us!” It struck me that, although we use this title most properly in the Advent season, it really is a description of God that is true the whole year round. Jesus is Emmanuel, he is with us and desires to be close to us, not just on Christmas Day, but each and every day.

Of course, the Lord’s incarnation really did take place on that first Christmas in Bethlehem, 2,000 some years ago. In time and space, God drew unimaginably close to mankind by himself becoming man. This is a reality, a historical fact that we can never downplay or take for granted, because our entire faith and salvation depend upon it!

But I wonder if we make our lives as Christians unnecessarily hard when we forget that Jesus’ life was not only an incarnation of God in a particular time and place, but also a revelation of how God is always relating to us. The events reported in the Gospel are not exceptions to God’s nature, they are manifestations of who he really and always is. God loves us now, in this moment, with the same love that compelled him to die upon the cross for us. The Lord is eager for our cooperation in his divine plan today, just as he was eager for Mary’s “fiat” at the Annunciation. And he desires to be close to us right now, as he did when he willed to be born a helpless infant amongst the straw and the livestock.

Jesus was the Emmanuel, a fact we celebrate every Christmas. But he’s also Emmanuel for us today. This is a liberating truth! We are not meant to live the Christian life without him, treating what happened 2000 years ago as an isolated series of events disconnected from our lives today. We are called to be attentive to Christ’s closeness to us now, for he is truly “God with us.”

Liedl is a seminarian in formation for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

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