January 24, 2018

Advent IV: Seeing

Nativity. Giotto

Note from CM: During Advent, I have asked some of our wonderful iMonk writers to share meditations on seasonal themes each week. Today is Christmas Eve, and I’ve invited Damaris Zehner to wrap up our Advent meditations. I am grateful for each of the friends and gifted people who have helped us prepare our lives for celebrating the Incarnation. And now the time has come.

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Seeing
By Damaris Zehner

When I was little, I had a book called Zeee, by Elizabeth Enright. Zeee is a furiously resentful fairy, whose curse is that people can’t see her. She builds beautiful houses that are then mowed over, cleaned up, and snatched away, and although she shrieks into the ears of the obtuse humans who are ruining her life, they can never hear her. (You’ll be happy to know that she finally finds a little girl who can, and all her crustiness dissolves in the warmth of their friendship.)

I liked the story because it was funny and had wonderful pictures, but even as a child I knew instinctively that being seen cemented my sense of being. And like kids everywhere, I acted up when I felt I wasn’t seen.

I read the same story a few years ago, without the happy ending. William Dalrymple recounts it in From the Holy Mountain: an Israeli, enthusiastic for the expansion of his new country, looked over a Palestinian village – peopled by Palestinians – and said, “This is a perfect place to build. There’s nothing here to concern us.” And like Zeee, the Palestinians who overheard that have been buzzing in people’s ears ever since, wanting people to see them.

This cruel blindness continues. This month President Trump greatly reduced two national monuments. Bears Ears National Monument, in Utah, had been created partly to protect priceless Indian cultural sites. Representatives from the Navaho and Ute tribes spoke shortly after the announcement of suing to regain those protections. I heard them interviewed on the radio; I also heard a white resident in the area of Bears Ears, one of only a few thousand. He was excited about the change. “Trump is the only one who really understands what the people here want,” he rejoiced. So the white man felt seen, he felt acknowledged. But he didn’t ask himself which of the “people here” he was talking about. The darker-skinned people there – the invisible ones – wanted something else and were once again overlooked.

We are all blind, even when we try desperately not to be. My mother was at a meeting of Quakers in South Africa in the early seventies, at the height of apartheid. There were five white people and one black person in this integrated group devoted to racial equality. One of the white people looked around, saw five chairs, and said, “Good. There are enough chairs for everyone.” Although she certainly saw the black man, she didn’t see him as a person like herself but more as background, a sideboard or a telephone. In a moment she realized what she had said and was deeply ashamed. I give her credit for her effort to overcome her upbringing, but still, the man she hadn’t seen once more had his sense of existence chipped away.

When we are not seen, in a sense we don’t exist. We are ghosts, wailing around the dark corners of our world, unable to have any impression on the people around us. Refusing to see someone is the cruelest way to depersonalize him, crueler even than hate and persecution. At least when someone is hated and feared, he knows he exists, he has some power and impact on others.

Throughout history, whole groups of people have been unseen – the lowly, the deformed, the outcast. Shepherds, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, beggars, foreigners, short people making a fool of themselves up trees. Who has ever really seen them, looked at them with love, given them shape and value and significance?

You know the answer. The Son of God saw them. He acknowledged the people his disciples were trying to keep out of his way. He looked at them with compassion. His look healed their infirmities of body and spirit.

This is what Christmas means for all the lowly of the earth, invisible, powerless, misunderstood, oppressed, unknown, and unacknowledged: the omnipotent God, Emmanuel, took on our feeble flesh and came to see us.

Comments

  1. Perhaps there is that in everyone of us that feels unseen, invisible, ignored, even by ourselves. When we ignore, turn away from others, maybe we are also ignoring and turning away from our deepest, truest self.

    Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” is a story about a man who turned away from others, when he turned away from himself, his God-given self, to an illusion whose identity was rooted in power and control, and ignoring the needs and existence of others. It is also a story about how this same man is restored to himself by those, living and perhaps dead, who are able, against all odds, to see his original, true self, and who give him the chance to turn back to that self, and the world he gave up when he turned from it so long ago.

    This Christmas season, may we all turn toward, love and accept our true selves, the world of people and things we exist in, and the God who created us all, Jesus Christ, Lord at his birth.

  2. Susan Dumbrell says:

    Robert,
    may I wish you Merry Christmas?
    Susan

  3. Again and again
    he is born into our lives —
    Jesus, Lord at his birth

  4. john barry says:

    God sent his Son to save all who would believe in him, The divide for those saved by the blood of Jesus Christ is not rich or poor, powerful or weak or seen or unseen but between the proud and the repentant. Jesus came to shed his blood to make us sinless as individuals. Jesus did not come to help us get along or to teach us social correct programs to restore social justice or to decide what public land use is to be, he came to give salvation to those who would believe. Jesus had no political stance he came to do what we could not do ourselves. If I agree with President Trump on overturning a Dec 2016 executive action by President Obama am , what does that mean to my faith? Scrooge changed , he was not who he use to be, that is the gift of Christmas. Great series on the Advent and really nice comments at Christmas. Being directed to this site and pondering the points presented here has been a gift. So thanks to Chaplin Mike and all those who make this possible. God Bless and Merry Christmas

    • Ronald Avra says:

      Myself, I have found it necessary to acknowledge that it is difficult from a distance to grasp the nature of disagreements, such as those between the Native Americans and their white neighbors, and the Israeli settlers and the Palestinians. This difficulty persists even if I make what I deem to be a serious effort to inform myself from reliable sources about each perspective in the disagreement. I came to the conclusion that this difficulty of assessing things from a distance obligated me to attempt to become more involved at a local level, but even then clarity and resolution aren’t always readily forthcoming. Understanding and answers may take a lifetime if they come at all. I certainly don’t want to promote indifference, but a person may not be able to have much more than their faith. See Psalm 88. Grace and peace to everyone through Jesus, the revealed Son of God.

      • And yet, there come times when the Church’s proclamation overlaps politics in a way that necessarily make the two indistinguishable. Based on theological matters that could not be separated from theological ones, the Confessing Church during the Nazi regime decided and announced that “All those who knowingly separate themselves from the Confessing Church in Germany separate themselves from salvation.” Sometimes the choice is between crucifying along with the political and religious authorities, or being crucified; this is not a non-political conundrum.

      • john barry,
        I don’t know how one can read the Magnificat, and come to the conclusion that the New Testament or gospel are non-political.

  5. There is a C. J. Cherryh book “Wave Without a Shore” around the idea of the invisibility of those we wish not to see and cultural blindness.

  6. Damaris,
    How beautiful and how true. Just a twist on the theme, He ,”desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” I translate that as, ‘He also wishes to be seen.’ That’s where we get such a longing. It’s God born.

  7. Damaris, I’ve looked forward to reading this. So sorry, I couldn’t get here yesterday. I had a house full of little ones needing to be seen:) Thank you for this beautiful observation. It sparks all kinds of thoughts for me … especially that being seen by God and then seeing him is the beginning of communion that teaches us to see others. Merry Christmas!