As we light the third candle of our Advent Wreath we should learn how we must rejoice always in the Lord but more especially in these days of Advent as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Our Lord and Saviour into the world. He is very near. May the light of his presence shine ever more brightly in our daily lives.
When I was a child my favourite super-hero was, of course, Superman. I collected all the comics, as did many of my friends, most of them, I’m sorry to say, confiscated by Miss Gagen my first year teacher. One day in school at the end of a religious education lesson a friend said to me out of the blue: “did you know that God is even more powerful than Superman?” At the time I found that hard to believe. Most of us adults would regard this statement as a rather naïve description of God. And yet on the other hand, some people do actually remain at the stage of a child for the rest of their lives, at least in their thinking about God.
But a more important point to realise is that each one of us does have our own ideas about God, whether we are conscious of it, or not. There’s just no way of avoiding it. And our ideas about God begin to form from about the age of four. In our imagination we struggle to picture God and what he must be like.
And this is important. If for example, our picture of God is a very primitive picture of everything we can imagine but stronger like Superman, then God is clearly a very remote figure in our lives. He is something rather than someone. We can carry on our daily living and basically forget about him, which is what most people do today. On the other hand, and as we can see from today’s first reading, the people of the Old Testament had a much more personal picture of God: the kind of image that sometimes we share. Through what they saw and heard, through what they experienced in their lives, they began to form a clearer image of God as someone who was involved with them in their daily lives. But even this image was as crude as the young child’s attempt to draw, say a house: it has four windows, a door and a roof but it doesn’t correspond exactly to the real house. It’s somewhat abstract. It has many of the right features but doesn’t quite match the reality. The Jews’ picture of God undoubtedly brought them much closer to him, but sometimes it was, as the first reading suggests, the image of the ‘victorious warrior’ – someone who would fight their battles for them and keep them safe from their pagan neighbours.
But what is God really like? This is an important question to ask. If we think of God as some form of supreme entity somewhere in the Universe ‘out there’ then he remains remote; and if we think of him, say in terms of a victorious warrior who is always on our side whatever happens, then we can become very self-righteous. We begin to see God as someone we can use.
And so what is God really like? Well, the purpose of Advent is to prepare us for the answer when it comes; for when the answer does come it will be a total revelation. And it will be almost unbelievable.
When God reveals himself to us he comes as a human being. The truth is then, that God is like us; or more accurately, we are like God. The teaching of the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible, that we are created in the likeness and image of God, is true in a way that we could never have dreamt of had we been left to ourselves. God and man are like one another. And not only that: God became a man, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”. And so in the Lord Jesus Christ we have the complete image, the perfect picture of God.
Now this truth is the reason for Saint Paul’s happiness in the second reading; he says: “I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord, for the Lord is very near”. This is the Good News announced by John the Baptist. As Pope John Paul II wrote in one of his first encyclical letters: “The name for that deep amazement at man’s worth and dignity is the Gospel, that is to say, the Good News. (Redemptor Hominis, 10) No longer do we have to puzzle over what God is like. God is with us and he is one of us, in all things but sin.
And yet many of us still have difficulties trying to picture God. And many of us are not happy as we prepare for Christ’s coming. Why should this be so?
Well, I think the answer is that we still persist in looking upwards to the skies in our search for God. We look for him in a different world to the one in which we actually live. And we forget Saint Paul’s counsel that “the Lord is very near”.
This is why our picture of God is important. When we have truly realised that God became a human being in the person of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ then we begin to treat other people in a totally different way. This won’t mean that suffering and tribulation will end. But we will experience, at last, a new and deep and lasting joy. And we will know that God is with us.