Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Special Houseguest

Last week, I had the honor of being a guest in someone’s home for dinner. It was a big gathering, and I had offered to help out with the preparations, so I showed up an hour early. That’s a joke, really—to show up an hour before dinner and offer to help. Clearly, this family had been working to get ready for the party for hours—maybe even days. At one point, right before the first (other) guests arrived, I asked one of the two young daughters of the hosts, “Do you enjoy being at home when your family is getting ready for a party?” Although she eventually shook her head in the negative, I knew from the look in her eyes what the answer was even before she moved a muscle.

How do you get ready for a party? How do you get ready to entertain a guest? Well, it depends on who is coming over. If it’s your boss, there is a different level of frenzy than if your parents are to be your guests. If it’s a large party of people whom you (subconsciously) want to impress, the importance of every detail is magnified. But, if you’ve only invited one or two close friends, perhaps dusting the blinds can wait for another time. What happens, then, if God himself is coming to be your guest? How would you prepare for that?

In today’s reading from the Old Testament (Exodus 19:1-16), God tells Moses that he is coming down for a visit: “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.” I remember as a child being ordered around by my mother as the family prepared for the arrival of an out-of-town guest. I can only imagine the intensity with which Moses ordered the Israelites to get ready: “Tidy up! Wash your clothes! Refrain from impurity! Stay vigilant in prayer!” Even though the preparations for an important guest can be chaotic and frenetic, there is an attractive energy to getting ready. There must have been a buzz that reverberated through the crowd when they heard who was coming to visit.

Sometimes I think we have gotten so comfortable with God that we forget who he really is. That is the issue of immanence and transcendence. Is God readily accessible to us? Is he approachable? Can we relate to him? That’s immanence—God manifesting himself in the world we live in. Or is God completely other? Is he unknowable and unapproachable? As one Eucharistic prayer puts it, is he “dwelling in light inaccessible from before time and forever?” That’s transcendence—God remaining apart from the world he created.

Our God is both. He is the “dense cloud” who comes to Mount Sinai and who commands that any person or animal who touches the mountain while he is there shall be stoned or shot with arrows. And he is the good shepherd who calls each of his flock by name and holds them in his bosom. One isn’t supposed to make sense of that paradox—just accept it and be amazed.

As Christians, we believe that God the incomprehensible came down to dwell among us in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation, the truly transcendent became purely immanent. That made it possible for each of us to invite God into our hearts in a way that would not have seemed possible before the life, death, and resurrection of God’s son. Because God has made himself accessible, we have the opportunity to invite God into our lives in a real way, but that doesn’t mean we should take his visit for granted.

God comes to dwell in our hearts through the gift of his Spirit, and that Spirit calls us to a life of discipline. Just as Moses commanded the Israelites to purify themselves in order that they might receive God’s presence rightly, God’s Spirit leads us to a life of daily preparation so that we might receive God’s indwelling fully. In our case, that has less to do with washing our clothes and tidying up our appearance than with cleansing our hearts and purifying our consciences. That God is willing to come and stay with us is something to celebrate and not take for granted. How might you get ready each day for his visit?

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