About six months ago, I composed the following poem. It’s called Bethel, which means “house of God” in Hebrew. Initially inspired by peaceful summer sunsets and a passage of Genesis (which can be found below), I found myself weaving together strands of wisdom I’ve gathered from diverse religious sources over the years.
The words of this poem are not original. Every line contains a direct reference to a different scripture passage or myth that has informed my own personal sprituality. The sources include the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), Jewish midrash (commentary), the poetry of Hafiz and Rumi, the mystical writings of Julian of Norwich and Gregory of Nyssa, and Buddhist myth.
I’ve linked each line to the source from which it comes, so you can look up the ideas inspired this piece. I hope this poem can be a source for inter religious education, to help acquaint religious and non-religious people alike with the beautiful truths contained in religious stories.
But more importantly, I hope this poem can express a bit of my own varied experience of God. The words of these great religions help me to describe a range of encounters and emotions: first, wonder and awe; then, confusion and mystery; abandonment and anxiety; pain and relief; excitement and giddiness; peace and communion. I’m learning that of these states of being–all of these stages of joy, sorrow, boredom, and everything in between–are locations of encounter with God.
In short, the message of this poem is an elaboration of Jacob’s exclamation in Genesis 28:16: “Truly, the Lord is in this spot, although I did not know it.” Though I don’t often realize it, God is always with me.
Every year during Advent, the four-week season leading up to Christmas, Catholics hear passages from Scripture that remind us to be watchful and ready for the coming of Christ. These passages explain that we are not only awaiting the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but also for his second coming at the end of time.
Gabriel tells Mary about the birth of her son. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. (Luke 1)
John tells his critics that he is not the Messiah. There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me. (John 1)
And Jesus tells his disciples to prepare for his second coming at the end of time. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming. (Mark 13)
To be honest, every year during Advent I feel a bit bashed over the head with these constant reminders about Jesus’ coming. ‘Ok, ok, I get it!’ I think after the third week. The message never seems all that surprising or relevant. We surely never forget to celebrate Jesus’ birth—even amid the red and green Christmas regalia—and the event of the second coming seems far away (and, in my mind, not quite as concrete as the way it’s described in Scripture.)
Thankfully, this year these concerns of mine were addressed by two Georgetown Jesuits, whose homilies on the Advent Scripture passages helped clarify what this season is all about.
These two events we hear about—Jesus’ first coming at Christmas and his second coming at the end of time—are at the ends of a very long timeline of history, a Jesuit said, and we are in the middle, distant from them. What we really should be preparing ourselves for are the third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ that happen in between. The times when Jesus breaks into our lives in ordinary and unexpected ways.
As Christians, we believe in the Incarnation, the act of God taking on human form in the person of Jesus. The Incarnation isn’t a singular event that happened two millennia ago, but rather a fundamental doctrine that tells us in quite simple terms about how we understand God: God wants to be with us, here and now, and reaches out to us through human experience. A belief in Jesus doesn’t ask us to remove ourselves from this world in order to be with God; it says that we can best achieve unity with God by engaging fully with our human reality.
The question is, do we notice Jesus’ third, fourth, fifth, and infinite comings, these expressions of the recurring Incarnation?
Unfortunately, the Jesuit said, we often don’t. We’re too connected to our phones, music, and email. And even when we put the technology away, our minds are running at 100 miles per hour, thinking ahead about the ways in which we can be as efficient as possible. We don’t give ourselves time to reflect back on our days, to find the times in which Jesus has appeared to us. During Advent then, we must be actively attentive to the Incarnation, to God’s countless attempts to push through the clutter of our lives.
Knowing that I’m guilty of this lack of attentiveness as much as the next person, I welcomed this challenge from the Jesuit. It’s a challenge I have already been working on for much of my time at Georgetown: to slow down enough to notice Jesus in my life.
And, thankfully, I have begun to notice.
When a chaplain-in-residence passed me on campus several weeks back, he said, “Hey Jordan!” and gave me a quick fist bump. It was a simple, silly gesture, one that the chaplain probably forgot about two minutes later. But for me, it was a brief, yet powerful example of the way Jesus appears to me everyday. With his short but enthusiastic hello, the chaplain reminded me of the great love God has for me, reflected through ordinary people and ordinary situations.
I recognized the significance of this small act because I wasn’t talking on my cell phone (as I often do when I walk) or mentally preoccupied with my next task. By simply slowing down, I was also able to recognize that the jokes I shared with my friends, the music the choir sang at Mass, and the beautiful sunset that burst into view as I turned a corner in one of the most ugly parts of campus are all little third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ.
Most if not all of the time, “finding Jesus” isn’t about having a mystical experience or undergoing a massive life change. It’s about simply realizing that a hug from a mentor or a laugh with a friend is the mystery of Incarnation at work.
It’s not always easy to realize, in the moment, that many of these everyday experiences are of God and from God. It takes a moment of stepping back and reflecting. In a homily later during Advent, another Georgetown Jesuit encouraged the congregation to reflect back on the ways Jesus has shown himself to us. We closed our eyes.
Jesus “brings good tidings to the poor,” he said, quoting the day’s reading from Isaiah. When you were down or depressed, how did others bring you up? Recognize these moments, he said, and name Jesus as gift.
He continued: Jesus “heals the broken-hearted.” When you were broken-hearted or hurt, who helped you heal? Jesus “proclaims liberty to the captives” and “releases the prisoners.” When you were prisoner to your own habits or feelings of inadequacy, how did others free you from those things? Be thankful for these moments, and name Jesus as gift.
When read in full, the Isaiah passage makes clear that the “good tidings” we hear from Jesus don’t come to us in abstract terms, but through the smiles and fist bumps of those around us. He says, “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me … he has sent me to bring good tidings…” We, humans, are the way in which God reaches out to the world.
This reflective exercise allowed me to think back on the at once simple and profound ways that I experienced love from friends, family, and mentors during past semester. When one part of my life felt empty, they (often times unknowingly) would rush in fill it up that hole to the point of overflowing. Their outpouring of support and love was Jesus—God Incarnate. It was a gift, and I must constantly reflect back in gratefulness in order not to miss it.
As we move into the Christmas season and begin the new year, we need not look for God outside of the normalcy of our everyday lives. Instead we just to be more attentive to what’s already around us. We must remember what we celebrate on Christmas: Emmanuel—“God is with us.”