What Do You See? An Advent Reflection

December 16, 2019

The Virgin is with child…On the roads they pass by pagan Greeks and Samaritans and fellow Jews, shepherds and slaves and soldiers and traders, and divers others who along their way see naught more than a man and wife from Galilee.

from The Rose: A Meditation

Caesar, whom they called the son of the gods, demanded a census be taken throughout the empire that he thought was his. At the emperor’s bidding a husband and wife journeyed the roads to Bethlehem, the City of David, to be counted among his kin. Their journey was very difficult. The wife was pregnant. The husband knew that the Child growing in her belly was not his, that in her womb the Virgin was carrying the Son of God.

Many men and women passed them by on that road to Bethlehem. Perhaps some who passed them by were called “great” according to the world’s measures, though we couldn’t care less about their fleeting eminence today. And as they passed the Virgin and her husband they saw naught more than a common Jew and his pregnant wife. It didn’t occurred to any of them that the Child in her womb could be their Creator. They were men and women with normal vision, with normal concerns, and so they kept on walking by without giving them a second look.

What would you have seen on that road to Bethlehem?

Seeking the face of God in everything, everyone, all the time, and his hand in every happening; This is what it means to be contemplative in the heart of the world. Seeing and adoring the presence of Jesus, especially in the lowly appearance of bread, and in the distressing disguise of the poor.

St. Teresa of Calcutta

“Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” the Virgin Mary said to the angel during the Annunciation, “be it done to me according to thy word.” She was a young woman of deep humility. Being labeled as a “great” was of no concern to her. Taking pains to fit in with the Roman world around her didn’t concern her either. She had no false ego. The illusions which so many of us wrap around ourselves to form our “identities” didn’t affect her: such lies were nonexistent to her, just as they are nonexistent in reality. She was a pious woman, who knew that she was created in the image of God just as equally (completely, that is) as anyone else, and the world could not tarnish that image in her. She regarded herself, more than anyone, merely as a servant of the Living God who is Everything.

And at long last, after many ages of sin and Man’s vain efforts to earn his own salvation, the world had what was groaned for: the woman who was worthy to be the Ark, the Mother of God who could take upon herself the terrifying responsibility of raising the Son of God. In her disregard for “greatness” according to the world’s measures, and because she could gracefully handle such high office, she became our great Queen of Heaven.

There is beauty in innocence. Just look at any child to confirm this. Our Lady is the most beautiful woman who ever lived. Her innocent and shining eyes were ever vigilant, eager to see God’s work in everyone and everything. She could see the goodness, the beauty, hiding behind the facade of the sinner’s face. Her vision was not clouded. She could even see the angel appearing before her when the message of Our Savior’s birth was delivered unto her. The Gospel of Luke records this. Even St. Joseph, a very holy man, was visited by the angel in a dream, during the vulnerable sleeping state, when he was urged not to put away his wife.

The Virgin Mary is a model for all of us. Yes, we are all sinners, lacking in humility and burdened by our pasts, and so it can be very easy to say “I can never be like her.” But we may also give to God the final say in such matters, and by His Grace innocence lost may yet be recovered. Those who know this are destined to one day see the angels as she did. And knowing just this much, why would anyone want to settle for normal vision?

But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.

Matthew 13:16

“Let go and let God,” the saying goes. It’s very simple, and very sound, advice. But it can be very difficult to follow. How many among us take ourselves, our “identities,” so seriously that the world’s gravity prevents us from flying like the angels?

The Necessity of Humility

It can be rather easy to spot some men or women who lack humility when their circumstances are abnormal enough. Anyone can turn a blessing into a curse, whether it is being more intelligent, deemed more photogenic, more wealthy, more renowned, or more anything else than the average, and a curse which can be exceptionally difficult to surrender to God, when we fool ourselves into believing that any gifts and talents are ours instead of God’s. Pride led to the devil’s fall. To recognize the ugly thoughts which cloud and darken the minds of so many abnormally influential men and women is healthy. But I do also wonder: how often is it our own envy that kindles resentment of such men and women?

Anyone with half a brain likewise understands that a narcissist, in his poor state, lacks humility. I very much sympathize with the person who is aggravated by a narcissist in his or her midst. But is it fair for any of us to judge and despise such a person? Isn’t a diagnosable narcissist only doing what most of us do, with the only difference being in degree?

Plenty of us are possessed by the desire to stand out. Plenty of us are possessed by the desire to fit in, to a world which we’ve throughout our lives been conditioned to perceive. It is very common to wish to stand out in a manner in which we fit in, to have it all! Such desire guides a host of our “preferences” and actions. The desire to fit in can guide our tastes in the music we claim to like or the entertainment which we spend countless hours immersing ourselves with (and those with common sense understand that much of what’s out there is trashy and/or propaganda, and better to be avoided). The desire to stand out and fit in guides much of what we say (which can often be a repeat of something heard on TV), what we claim to stand for or to be offended by (which political correctness and identity politics have turned into pretty much anything: the Simpsons even wrote off Apu!), whom it is that we are physically attracted to (usually influenced by the consensus of our peers), what we do with and to our bodies (the desire to stand out and fit in is why many Millennials have gotten tattoos). So many of us spend hours of the day with our faces buried in our little phones, figuring out which of those fifty selfie pictures is the most worthy for an Instagram post (I do wonder how many would have passed by Mary and Joseph while doing this), so that we miss the million interesting happenings going on all around us, all in our desire to stand out and fit in.

Seek First the Kingdom of God

So many of us participate in gossip, dull conversation which only really reveals the smallness of our own minds, because our peers do so, because we somehow think we are “greater” when the subject of gossip is deemed “lesser.” So many of us get burned out chasing scraps in rat races, while all too often neglecting those who love us, so that we may stand out and fit in. On the darker side, many of us keep ourselves earthbound by recreationally using drugs (including marijuana) to fit in, and we have a hookup culture which has dealt so much confusion and pain to so many people. This list, of normal and seemingly innocuous activities which prevent us from flying, can go on and on.

Context determines content. “Everyone is doing it” becomes our bottomless excuse. “I’m not a criminal locked up in the penitentiary,” or “I’m not a powerful man who tosses people around like toy soldiers,” we can say, in attempt to vindicate our banal shortcomings. We allow the world (the version of it we were conditioned to see, that is) to become our judge, to inform us what is “good” and “bad,” and we ourselves go on to become judges according to the standards of that world. We allow ourselves to become generic, because there is a feeling of security (perhaps an animal instinct) in it. We allow ourselves to become so boring, and the world which we see and those living in it to become so boring in turn. We proceed to blame those around us for our own lack of the peace which God is all too eager to grant us, and to complain. We turn small matters into “big deals.” Some people even turn violent in their blame. Such is a recipe for a lifetime of worry and frustration, bitterness and cynicism. In our common lack of humility, we settle for normal vision, and it’s not all that great.

Yet amidst the noise of the world, the truth still speaks to us in silence. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God,” Our Lord tells us, and “the Kingdom of God is within you.”

God has never made a boring person. We are so often tempted to be like that brilliant kid in high school who acts dumb just to fit in with his or her peers. Though the world would ask for us to be doubles and triples and millionths, we are each uniquely formed in the image of God, and set for His purposes. There really is only one you. There are even other faith traditions with many helpful insights on our having a true self and false selves, although without knowledge of the person Christ, full and proper context shall always be lacking.  

We sinners can do nothing, and yet we can allow everything. Such knowledge is what sets apart the faith I accepted as an adult from the religion I was raised with. To really say “Thy will be done” or perhaps “Jesus, You take control,” to allow the Grace of God to help us find our true selves (even if by slow measures), is a choice we always have, even when it hardly feels like one. The simple urge to read an article (preferably one in the Catholic Gentleman) which might deepen one’s faith, or to attend a church service, is proof enough that the Holy Spirit is at work, quietly calling us toward that end. And with just a little bit of abandonment, the humility to allow the Spirit to guide us always, the humility to acknowledge that we need not be that outward-looking person whom the world tells us to be, the humility to be alright if that means being labeled as “odd” by a few peers, any one of us can become truly interesting, so much so that we would even take interest in others. The lives of the saints is testimony that we are each unique, and that we become truly interesting in proportion to our humility.

Do you think the Virgin Mary walked around telling everyone how worthless she was? No. She knew that God alone is the rightful judge of our value, that I highly doubt she even judged herself. And if God resorted to such a desperate measure as He did on Calvary, for the sake of saving your soul despite yourself, then, logically, you must be pretty valuable. 

Do you think she uttered the words “God make me awesome and give me the things I want” when she prayed alone at night? No. She knew that God understands each person’s true needs, far beyond the common capacity to fool ourselves and attempt to control Him. Nobody could speak the words “Thy will be done” with such sincerity as her. To her there was only God. And in such humility she could even see the angel. 

Your Calling and Mine

Yes, there is only one Mother of God. But every single person is called to be a saint, in the form which God has uniquely created us to express this. Even if we have spent our whole lives settling for normal vision, right now is as a fine time as any to abandon ourselves, to allow God to plant forgiveness and faith in our hearts, to begin seeing past those illusions which cloud our sight. We don’t have to be like the men on the Road to Emmaus who couldn’t even see Our Risen Lord when he was walking right next to them.

I see Jesus in every human being.

St Teresa of Calcutta

What do you see in others? Such a question is a litmus test to gauge the health of our own inner worlds.

Many of us will go out with our families this Christmas season. What would you see in your server? Is he just some person who waits tables, with no destiny aside from that? For all you know, that server might be destined to be the president, a man absorbing lessons and soaking experiences which our whole temporal world shall one day feel the impact of. One would hope that in his current lot, and in humility, he is learning fraternity and genuine service and attentiveness so that in the coming years he will be a decent president. Perhaps this can even be seen if we would just bother to look him in the eyes, to see the intensity of ambition burning inside of him.

“If I have told you earthly things,” says Our Lord, “and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” What about our greater spiritual destinies?

Practically all of us will be stuck waiting in long lines while shopping during this Christmas season. Yes, this would be an opportune occasion to complain to ourselves about the rabid commercialization (which may well be a symptom of collective failure to imagine beyond the material realm) of a sacred holiday. But can we allow God to show us the face of Christ in those others who are waiting in that same pain-in-the-ass line, or in that tired cashier? There is a saint dwelling in each of them. Maybe all that he or she needs for that saint to be unleashed upon our world, to set it ablaze in a manner which a mere president will never have the power to match, is for you to smile at that tired face, and to say, from one child of God to another: “Merry Christmas.”

Yes, Merry Christmas! This is the day in which the Extraordinary so humbled Himself as to join us here in the ordinary world, even when He knew that men with normal vision would kill Him (Veritas odium parit), so that we may always see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Christ became man, that we may ever see His face in all men and women. And we owe our eternal gratitude for the humility of Our Lady, that this remarkable event could happen, that we all may walk this world, sinners that we are, with a hope of redemption.

Bethlehem, and all the world, keeps on sleeping. Only lowly shepherds and wise men know what has happened: the King is born.

from The Rose: A Meditation

The Gospel of Luke records that only a few local shepherds, men blessed with “lowliness” according to the world’s measures, and wise men, guided by true wisdom, were able to discern just what happened on that Christmas day. Would we so humble ourselves? Would we allow ourselves to be so detached from the world’s gravity that we ourselves may fly?

It can be great fun for any of us to say “I would have known” that it was the Sacred Family passing by on the road to Bethlehem. I, for one, doubt that I would have figured it out. I doubt this because I can just as easily pass by a pregnant couple, or anyone for that matter, today, without giving them much thought. I all too often fail to see the face of Christ in others, those pearls hidden in plain sight. I often enough struggle within myself with the lie that such Good News is far too good to be true, and the temptation to give in to this lie has expressed itself in plenty of my own actions. I lack humility, and get in my own way for it just like plenty of others, and the fault is entirely my own.

To “let go and let God” is simple, and sound, advice, but not necessarily easy. I do hope that the recognition of my own shortcomings, shortcomings which a “Zubair Simonson” has no power to overcome, would be the catalyst for my surrender, that I may see the works of God while on this side of life. God, who is Love, will only do so much as I allow, and whatever patience I do have toward this end comes from God alone. But one day, and maybe soon, and by Grace alone, I hope that I could point at that young woman on the road to Bethlehem, that I would fall to my knees as my eyes would well with tears, as I say: “there is the mother of Our God.”

And I do hope that all of us would better be able to see the marvels all around.

May your Advent be a season filled with wonder, and have a very Merry Christmas.

Zubair Simonson, O.F.S., is a convert who currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is a professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order. His written works include The Rose: A Meditation, a narrative guide through the rosary now available on Kindle. The story of his conversion, and admiration for G.K. Chesterton, is included in the book My Name is Lazarus, published by the American Chesterton Society.

Follow Zubair on Twitter: @ZubairSimonson

Zubair Simonson


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