November 19, 2017

Another Look: Go forth to meet him

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Tomorrow is the beginning of December. We are a few brief weeks away from welcoming the Christ-child at his birth.

As we face this season and event, here are some words from Brother Thomas Merton that make me think. For Christmas will come this year, just as it did long ago in Bethlehem. And, as on that occasion, some will be ready to welcome the infant King, while others will be unprepared.

“What is uncertain is not the ‘coming’ of Christ but our own reception of Him, our own response to Him, our own readiness and capacity to ‘go forth to meet Him.’” (Seasons of Celebration)

I love this quote. This quote terrifies me. I believe these words. I cannot believe these words.

On the one hand, since we know the story so well and have celebrated the Christmas feast so often, it is not hard to feel that one is preparing to “go forth to meet him” by simply participating in the annual preliminaries. We all know such activity gives no guarantee that our hearts will be receptive. That should give us pause.

It is also scary when I remember that few, if any, went forth to meet him at his first coming. Certainly none went of their own initiative. It took a heavenly host of angels to get the drowsy shepherds’ attention. The magi would never have made their journey without a certain astrological alignment. Those who housed visitors in Bethlehem did not make room for him. Even those faithful people who were “ready” — Mary, Joseph, Anna, Simeon, and so on — were surprised when God broke in upon them.

I want to be ready. I long desperately to be ready. With God’s people I fill my heart with divine promises, lift up my prayers, sing carols, light candles, and decorate my home. I prepare a room for the Holy Family. Through confession and absolution I sweep it clean, and by the word of the gospel it is made ready. Within my heart and life I build a cradle in which the infant King can find rest. I watch out my window and prepare to go forth to meet him.

When suddenly — through the back door? — he appears! How did he get in? And how did I miss his arrival? What happened to my carefully prepared words of welcome? I am stunned to silence. Overwhelmed, I fall to my knees. My Savior is here, and I did not know it!

All my carefully devised hospitality plans are moot. There will be no going forth to meet him, for he has met me first. The greeting will not be my “Welcome!” but his “Fear not!” I will not be his host, but his favored guest. I planned a wonderful meal in his honor, but he sits down at the head of the table, breaks bread, blesses it, and gives it to me as though this were his home and he is feeding me.

And so, Brother Thomas, I hear what you are saying. But in the end, my response will always be uncertain, my readiness and capacity to “go forth and meet him” always overwhelmed by his epiphany — sudden, serendipitous, startling. Somehow, I think you know this too.

In this context, I am reminded of another quote:

Then the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger of the covenant, whom you look for so eagerly, is surely coming,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “But who will be able to endure it when he comes? Who will be able to stand and face him when he appears?” (Malachi 3:1-2, NLT)

One might as well go forth to meet the whirlwind.

Or a baby that takes your breath away.

Comments

  1. “I love this quote. This quote terrifies me. I believe these words. I cannot believe these words… We all know such activity gives no guarantee that our hearts will be receptive. That should give us pause.”

    This here? This is why I will always remain a Calvinist at heart. Because if my spiritual fate rests on my readiness and effort, I am lost.

    • And this is why I will remain a Barthian (more or less)…

    • flatrocker says:

      And this is why I pray for a cry of abiding faith that recognizes my smallness and inadequacy but looks to Jesus to supply what is lacking.

      I’ll always remain one crying out “I believe; help my unbelief!”

      (and somewhere I’m reminded of the truly inspired title of Peter Enns book – “The Sin of Certainty”)

      • Yes, this: “I believe; help my unbelief.”

        When I was a college kid, through my reading and studies it became clear to me that the Nativity story was not, could not be, factual, that it was a beautiful collection of meaningful symbols and myths from other cultures. I have “missed it” very much. I wish I could believe it as actual fact: the Star, the angels, the shepherds, the Wise Men, the stable. So very beautiful.

        I have prayed to have my belief and “innocence” restored, and the answer is a definite, quiet No. No, I don’t get to have that back. The gates of Eden are closed forever, or at least in this life.

        I sing in the church choir and head up our “Christkindle” celebration and work at our Christmas Party for needy kids, and I enjoy it all. I don’t feel like a hypocrite. I recognize the beauty and meaning of the season. But of course it will never be what it was when I fully and truly believed.

  2. Actually, CM, it’s not Brother Thomas. When he was ordained to the priesthood he took the name Louis, so he’s Father Louis. That’s what he was called where he lived, in the Abbey of Gethsemane.

  3. William Martin says:

    To tell the truth I am not much for seasons of Christmas and the like. Time tables could be correct but it doesn’t matter to me. I find Christmas for the longest time a hardship with what people expect. Winter is hard enough for me with sometimes no heat to work in as I catch a chill. Sometimes it would take hours to warm up after work. Not to mention snow where I work all day helping all I can. This attitude of the real Christmas is something I need always and barely ever have it as long as I need. I don’t get advent at all. I am actually sorry to say that and pass no judgement upon it. I think I might be doing that kind of thing a lot during my year. Lamenting and asking forgiveness is a daily thing for me always if that is what advent is sort of like. After asking for forgiveness it is always with a please help me through this next day. Oh yeah forgot the thank you Lord for the help this day after asking for forgiveness….I’m done today God Bless

    • “Lamenting and asking forgiveness is a daily thing for me always if that is what advent is sort of like. After asking for forgiveness it is always with a please help me through this next day. Oh yeah forgot the thank you Lord for the help this day after asking for forgiveness.”

      “Forgive us our trespasses…and give us this day our daily bread.” I think you’re praying the way Jesus modeled for us.

  4. Thank you, Mike. I absolutely love this.

  5. “One might as well go forth to meet the whirlwind.

    Or a baby that takes your breath away.”

    —————————

    Two of the finest closing lines I’ve ever read here.

    • Agreed. I’ve read this several times today and always have to blink back a tear and catch my breath while saying a short prayer, hoping, as Mike says above, that my own heart will be receptive to our Lord.

    • Amen.

  6. I think this piece of writing is wonderful, your words are truly inspiring Chap Mike. However, I can’t get my head around having an “advent” season, 2000 years after the actual event. How can I “look forward” to something that has already happened? Jesus is part of my life in the here and now – the return of Him is what I long for – so I can put your wonderful words in that context. It seems to me that “advent” is a contrived event, something to give a “Christian” patina to otherwise pagan events like the mid-winter festival, whereas what we call Easter is at least rooted in Jewish history and should be the absolute focus of the church and Christians..