The season of Advent is upon us and the hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel has been floating in the back of my mind. I love the melody and the memories it revives.
In the early 1990’s, I learned that in scripture, Israel signified both an individual and the community. Over years as a Catholic Worker, whether serving meals on Skid Row in East LA or running a house of hospitality in Philadelphia, I was among a community of people whose literal experiences of exile, captivity, and poverty was the location from which this hymn was sung.
By the mid-2000’s, those experiences faded away and I interpreted the lyrics as personal and symbolic – exile from my home in God when God feels so far away; captivity by inner and outer voices of “should” and “ought;” and poverty of spirit as sadness, depression and longing.
When I studied and practiced the Christian tradition of contemplation at the Center for Action and Contemplation, God’s immanence was emphasized. “It’s a God-soaked world,” said Richard Rohr. And I believe him. But how can God be both far away and right here, right now at the same time?
Theologian Beatrice Bruteau, who taught at Fordham for a number of years before her death, offers a lovely teaching that has helped me to hold this paradox. She refers to it as the slide-rule concept, which she illustrates by invoking the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, which also apply to us:
"Why do you call me good? No one is good but God."
Here, God is distant and separate.
“I do nothing of myself, but the Father dwelling in me performs his works.”
Here, God works through me, when my willfulness gets out of the way.
“I do as the Father commands me,” or, “I do what I see the Father doing.”
Here, I am in dialog and cooperate with God’s will.
“The Father and I are one; whoever sees me sees the Father.”
Here, God’s love has transformed me, to the point where ‘I’ am a transparent sheathe of God.
Bruteau taught that all of these positions on the slide-rule are true for us simultaneously in every moment. What changes is our perspective. Luckily we are not always in the perspective where God seems so utterly distant. Unfortunately, we usually only glimpse in rare, numinous moments the perspective of ‘God and I are one.’ And there are the times we wrestle with God.
We are in a remarkable moment in history, my friends: we are conscious that we are conscious. As our Advent journey continues, may we honor the coming of the Child, the Wisdom Teacher of Love, who is already within and among us, both now and not yet. And, may we be transformed through our prayer by love to be God’s Providence for the exiled, captive, impoverished, and mourning throughout all Earth.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
Liz Walz, ASP, Executive Director
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