Now his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people… (Luke 1:67-68)
Each June 24 we in the Orthodox Church celebrate the Nativity of John the Forerunner, the last of the Old Testament prophets.
There are a few passages in the Scriptures which suggest that an event of such magnitude has happened as to change the created world. Yet, if one looks at that passage and what happened, one would be hard pressed to point out any visible or obvious changes in the world. The above passage from Luke’s Gospel is one such moment. At the birth of John the Forerunner, his father, Zacharias proclaims that God has visited and redeemed His people as if a world-shattering event had occurred which would be obvious to everyone. Yet, all that had happened was a baby was born in an obscure part of backwoods Israel. The Roman Empire continued to oppress the Jews. Hellenistic paganism remained a threat to Judaism. Only a couple dozen of people even knew the birth took place. If God had visited His people and redeemed them, their enemies and oppressors were completely unaware of that change, as was most of Israel. A Jewish baby was born and for all intents and purposes everything else stayed exactly as it was – the desert remained a wilderness, Israel was still occupied by Rome, people were still often faithless and paganism continued unabated.
Another such event is the Virgin Mary getting pregnant and singing the Magnificat in which she proclaims that God “has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away” (Luke 1:51-53). Her lyrics make it sound as if everyone in the world just experienced a cosmic tsunami shifting every worldly paradigm. The only thing that had happened at that point is that Mary found herself pregnant –everything else in the world remained exactly as it was. The poor were still poor and oppressed, Herod and Ceasar still held the reigns of power, the rich were continuing to get richer, the those of low degree continued to sink beneath the oppressive weight of the rich. And Mary had to worry what her righteous husband would say about her being pregnant with a baby that was not his.
Both Zacharias and Mary sing wonderful hymns which would take on more meaning some thirty years after they sang their tunes. Their significance would become more recognized a hundred years after they happened as the importance of the Gospel became understood. But at the moment they sang their hymns, they had little to show for their claims. They faithfully understood God was at work in their lives, in Israel and in the world, yet nothing around them changed except 2 more little mouths to feed had come into the world. And both of those babies would grow up to be executed as young men at the hands of the existing powers that be.
All of this is part of the mystery of God who is both immanent and transcendent. God touches moments in history, enters into the lives of individuals, and yet a huge part of what God is doing remains outside of our experience and beyond what we can know. God acts in His own way and time bringing about salvation, the restoration of the entire cosmos, yet doing it within the created order’s limits posed by time and space.
Zacharias is aware that God is doing something incredibly important in the world, yet it is happening in and through another tiny human baby and thus affecting only an incredibly minute portion of the world. Mary is holding and hugging God! And yet she is still poor, threatened and in need of protection and help. The world had changed forever, yet only a few people were even aware of the birth of this child, let alone that God had entered into creation.
St Paul still writes:
And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. (Romans 13:11-13)
For St Paul redemption has not yet fully occurred but is coming nearer. The incarnation of God in Christ, Jesus’ death and resurrection changed everything, and yet most of this change was yet to come and in this world still remains beyond the experience of even believers.
Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves therein. (Psalm 69:34)
The Nativity of John the Forerunner brings the mystery of God’s immanence and transcendence into focus. We do experience God in our lives, in our hearts, in the sacraments, in love and mercy we give to others or which others give to us. Yet, many things in the world go on as before seemingly untouched by God’s presence in the world. St Peter reminds us of this mystery when he writes: “First of all you must understand this, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own passions and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3: 3-4). Even if we are believers and not scoffers, we still may have wondered where are these changes that come at the hand of God? Or maybe we really are awed like Jacob who when he awoke from his phantom-like dream looked at the same old world around him and exclaimed in fear: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:17) Jacob acknowledges: “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). The Almighty God is present in the place where Jacob is and yet he wasn’t even aware of His presence. How often we have the same experience-not knowing God is present-yet without also experiencing Jacob’s amazement and fear!
It does seem as if nothing changes, or maybe that nothing changes for the better. And yet, God continues to act in the world, touching people’s lives, working to reunite all created things to the Creator’s self. God works in history, which means we can only experience God in the present, in the small things of our lives, in a moment of time, or in the life of a baby. God is found in the details of history, yet we think of God in cosmic and eternal terms so sometimes miss the things God is doing to touch and change our lives. God is forever working to help us experience the spiritual, the divine, heaven, eternity in our daily lives, even in the mundane. The world in fact is not hopelessly and permanently cut off from God; it is not devoid of grace, it is not totally depraved as some believe.
We might think of Christ’s disciples watching Him ascend to heaven and the angels saying to them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). They were standing in awe watching a divine event, but the message from heaven tells them to pay attention to earth rather than to spend time gazing into heaven.
As Elijah discovered, God is not always found in massive events of great power which transform history.
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13)