Bette Midler sings the song “From a Distance”, seeking to make the point that the world and God’s view of it are much larger than our differences, disagreements, and divides “here below” look to us; that we are one with a shared humanity in a world community, and if only we could see ourselves as part of that bigger harmonious reality, as God does, we would stop the hating and the warring.
There’s one problem in the refrain, one which we who have been celebrating the Incarnation and the Manifestations of Jesus can notice right away: God is not distant. God is not distant. God is ineffably “beyond”– so much larger than our hearts and our limited relationships, and far surpassing our capacity to grasp—but God is also ineffably near. The consoling and challenging truth for Christians is the “hereness” of God, a reality that permeates the world and our most intimate selves.
St. Nick and Santa Claus have had their season of seeing our good and bad behavior and judging our worthiness for presents. So we return to ordinary time, when parents and teachers and various moral authorities warn people that God sees and knows all and is tallying our vices and virtues for the day of our final reckoning. This may be momentarily effective in curbing bad behavior, but as we all know, this particular version of God has only limited successes and for the most part, very little to do with the conversion and ownership of our hearts.
We are in the midst the mystery we celebrate at Christmas, the free choice of God to enter the heart of the world and the stuff of humanity, in mercy and love beyond our ken. We are also in the midst of a pervasive darkness that spans homes and schoolyards and city streets and brutal prisons and the rubble remaining where towns once bustled with human activity, their inhabitants now refugees in camps where as the psalmist put it, “My tears are my food day and night.” And that is only human cost, also borne by the rivers and forests and innumerable and precious species threatened and poisoned through human ignorance and greed.
“The Word became flesh and made a home among us.” This is not past tense. The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Present tense. Future tense. These are the lines we are given to speak, the words of witness we not only give voice to, but invite to grow in us, welcome in our own flesh. What good is it, asked Meister Eckhart, for Mary to give birth to Jesus if we do not bring him to birth in our lives?
God is not distant. And God is not just watching. There are times we might prefer a bit of Divine disinterest, when daily we’re bumping into or tripping over Jesus who calls to us in human need, slight as a mere bother, or vast as a starving nation. As the story goes, he began his journey in poverty, bore his own and others’ humanity, lived in trust, responded to the needs of those around him, preached fearlessly, and gave his entire being over for love. That Love carried him and lifted him up, and abounds and multiplies, invades and possesses, impels and energizes us in a thousand ways for the needs of our brothers and sisters. And sometimes we notice, and are amazed, so small and needy and distant we seem to ourselves. But God—distant? No, God—Emmanuel!