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.