We are used to the imagery of God communicating by God’s word, and so think of our responses to God as aural: listening, and obedience (from ob-audiens – intense hearing). Yet how much of the religion of Ancient Israel was a priestly religion of Presence! We forget that one of the central images of God’s communication in the Scriptures is that of the Shining face. From the Priestly Blessing of Numbers 6 to the continuous references in the Psalms, it is expected that worshippers will see the radiance of God’s face, and in its light, they too will shine.
Who appears in our midst during midnight mass? I suppose most of us, nudged along by the ceremony of the placing of the babe in the manger, assume that it is the infant Christ. But the one who is present in our midst at midnight mass, as at every eucharist, is the crucified and risen Lord. We are, in fact, as at every holy communion, celebrating Easter.
All of the Spirit’s labor–the pruning of our imagination, the background work on our expectations–comes to fruition on Christmas Day, when we are brought into the Presence. The virgin who for nine months has been weaving the veil of the temple out of the material of her own body sits in stupefied and exhausted silence. Following the line of her gaze toward the manger, we too “veiled in flesh, the Godhead see.” The angels sing the first Gloria, for where there is Presence, there too is praise: the two are inseparable. We too allow our ears, our voices and then our hearts to proclaim the Creator’s new mode of Presence among us. We are going to be inducted into lifelong praise.
We are on the very brink of the nativity. Our sense of the power of the One coming in has been stretched, challenged and recast over the past three weeks. Now the reality of that power begins to dawn more clearly, and what is astonishing about it is that, unlike any power we know, this power is confident enough to be vulnerable. And that means confident enough in us to be vulnerable to us.