Nearness of God
I recently attended a four-day conference in Tokyo, Japan. No matter how hectic the schedule was, the organizers took us out of the conference hall to have a short Tokyo Experience. Though it was just a half-day cultural visit, the breath-taking experience was enough to last a lifetime. The experience was memorable not so much because of the places we saw but more because of the people who were with us who took time to make us feel at home and share their lives with us.
One of the places we went to was the Imperial Palace, the residence of Japan’s imperial family. Located on the former site of Edo Castle (Tokyo’s old name is Edo) with a large park surrounded by moats and massive stone walls, it used to be inhabited by samurai warriors from the 17th to 19th centuries. Today the Japanese Emperor who inhabits it is a mere figurehead of the country. He no longer wields the absolute power he used to have. Still he is highly popular and commands respect and awe.
In a year, the imperial family makes several public appearances at the inner palace grounds. Our guide claimed she saw the Emperor so close that he waved at her. But that quiet afternoon as we were touring the imperial grounds, there was no sign of his majesty at all. We were only a group of ordinary citizens from different countries doing a routine visit. It would be too much to expect a spectacular welcome for nobodies. It would be a sort of miracle if it would happen at all at that moment. There, I felt the Emperor very close yet so far away.
The gospel of the 2nd Sunday of Advent (Lk 3:1-6) speaks of the coming of God. It begins by giving an overview of the political and religious climate of the time. The big shots are in their places. We have the too-familiar landscape that those who have power and wealth occupy the stage of importance. But the irony is, the coming new king is not among the “traditional” ruling elite. God is a “nobody” among those people in high places. Even his herald is from one who comes from the desert.
John the Baptist enters the scene alone. No attendants, no bodyguards flank him. He is simply armed with a message. “Prepare the way of the Lord!” This message is urgent, insistent and demanding. The message is still fresh and relevant today.
Advent is a reminder of the importance of Jesus in our lives. The Baptist’s voice is loudest in this season. He insists that we become Christ-centered people. I think one reason advent comes every year is because our hearts are not yet completely open to Christ. They are not always welcoming and loving. Hence we need to be reminded often.
This season offers a wonderful demonstration of love. We once again celebrate the birth of Jesus. The story of his birth becomes more relevant if we take it not just as information but a life-changing experience. It becomes meaningful if we get involved. Mary was part of the realization of a magnificent plan that God amazingly designed. She has not stopped praising God for such an incredible inclusion.
The story continues to unfold today. We are still part of the cast. The drama of salvation is happening. And we are sharing this experience with people around us who take time to stop and share with us their struggles and small victories. The more beautiful part of the story is God’s continual effort to be close to us. Christmas tells us that He is the “new-born king.” Yet many times his presence in our lives is mere symbolic. He has really no power and authority to change our lives. We still take control. We are in command.
This advent, the challenge is “to make smooth” the coming of God in our lives. Pope Francis, in declaring 2016 as the Year of Mercy, suggests that we “rediscover the mercy of God” by beginning this year with spiritual conversion. That is how we can “fill every valley and make straight the winding roads” of our hearts. It is our way of getting closer to the God we call “Immanuel.”