Holy presence in hiddenness

The Lord Is My Chef Simbang Gabi Recipe, 19 December 2019

Judges 13:2-7, 24-25 ><)))*> ><)))*> ><)))*> Luke 1:15-25

The Walls of Jerusalem, May 2019. Photo by the author.

From St. Matthew, we now move to the Christmas story by St. Luke that starts in the temple of Jerusalem. And surprisingly, not precisely with Jesus or his parents.

In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah; his wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years. Once when he was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God, according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense. Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside at the hour of the incense offering, the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense.

Luke 1:5-11

We know what happened, of how Zechariah doubted the good news announced to him about the birth of his son John the Baptizer.

Many times in our lives, especially in this age of too much communications in the social media where everything is exposed, we hardly notice the best and nicest things in life happening in silence, mostly in hiddenness.

And the saddest part of this present reality is that it is God whom we miss in this “overexposures” we have in social media because he always comes to us hidden in the most ordinary and simple things in life.

Yesterday St. Joseph taught us the need to value silence and stillness in the Lord as an important lesson in facing life’s many adversarial situations.

Today we hear Zechariah forcibly silenced to experience the Lord’s power and grace, his very presence in fact.

An inside section of the remaining Walls of Jerusalem. Photo by author, May 2019.

God’s presence hidden in our time and space

Advent is the season that reminds us that God comes to us always hidden in our very time and space. Unless we know how to be silent and simple, we shall never experience the Divine presence that has covered the whole world ever since.

Of the four evangelists, St. Luke is the only one who claims to have “investigated everything accurately” about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ (Lk.1:3). That is why he has the most stories and details about Christmas.

For St. Luke, Christmas begins with the coming of St. John the Baptizer, Jesus Christ’s precursor. In a very unique manner, he tells us how God’s presence came through a husband and wife yearning so much to have a child of their own, Zechariah and Elizabeth, both belonging to the upper crust of the Jewish society having descended from the priestly families.

In fact, Zechariah was a priest who was so blessed that Day of Atonement known as the Yom Kippur of the Jews that happens around September 18-24. (That is how we come to celebrate Christmas on December 25: Elizabeth conceived John in September, giving birth to him in June 24; tomorrow, we shall hear in the Annunciation to Mary that Elizabeth was six months pregnant which falls on March 24. Simple math, we arrive at December 25 as Christ’s birthdate.)

Praying at the Wall, May 2019.

During the Yom Kippur, priests drew lots on who would incense the Holy of Holies where the “Ark of the Covenant” was kept containing the stone tablets of God’s commandments given to Moses. It was the closest thing they have as signs of God’s presence among them. Hence, until now they venerate and pray at the “wailing Wall” of Jerusalem because that is supposed to be the only remaining structure of their temple destroyed in 70 AD closest to that part of the Holy of Holies.

It was so rare at that time to be assigned to incense the Holy of Holies because there were so many priests drawing lots and only one would be chosen for the rite that happens about twice daily for the whole week. It was a tremendous blessing indeed to be chosen to incense the Holy of Holies.

Here we find St. Luke setting the stage of his Christmas story to remind us all that God comes right into our time and space, in our history, in our here and now.

See his descriptions:

  1. It happened in a specific time during during “the days of Herod, King of Judea”, when Zechariah was “chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense” while people were outside praying and waiting.
  2. It happened in a specific place, the temple of Jerusalem.
  3. Most of all, it happened to real people, “Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was from the daughters of Aaron.”
A view from the Walls of Jerusalem of the Jewish section; dome is the Moslem section, Mount of Olives at the background. Photo by author, May 2017.

The Presence of God, the Absence of Man

When we are deeply hurt and disappointed, we are usually less rational. Worst, although we try to keep our faith alive, that is also when we doubt God, refusing to recognize his presence among us, and even right in us.

In this story of the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptizer, we find God giving Zechariah the tremendous grace to approach his Divine presence by having the rare opportunity to incense the Holy of Holies.

Most of all, at their most important feast when priests gather in the temple to pray for the people and for their personal intentions, God sent Zechariah the angel Gabriel to personally tell him his and Elizabeth’s prayers have been heard and granted!

But what happened? Zechariah doubted, even questioned God!

“How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

Luke 1:18

That’s the problem with us: God is always present but we are always absent that we never meet him. And every time he comes to visit us, we are so busy with so many other things.

If we cannot see and experience God in the most ordinary things and events in our lives, nothing would be enough to convince us of his love and mercy, of his presence and power.

That is why Zechariah was silenced by the angel, who, by the way, is already the presence of God yet Zechariah doubted.

This remaining week before Christmas, let us try to have some silence, or better, let us create a space for silence and solitude to experience God’s loving presence among us, in us.

It is only in silence where we can truly learn how to trust and be intimate with God and with our loved ones because it is only in silence where we can dare to open our selves to God and to others.

Let “the spirit of the Lord stir” you like Samson in the first reading (Jgs.13:25) this Christmas by creating silent moments with Jesus. Amen.

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