It’s Advent – the churchy name for the Christmas season – the time we anticipate and celebrate the arrival of Christ, God incarnate. How many times over the years have you heard this Old Testament verse read during the Christmas season:
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.
Isaiah prophesies the the coming of Jesus and says He will be “God with Us.” That’s what “Immanuel” means. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas – God coming to be with us. And when He came, He said He would never leave:
…and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
And yet, in these modern times and in these busy Christmas seasons does it not seem hard to know that He is with us? That whole “with you always” thing seems pretty hard to swallow sometimes. I could write a long litany of things around us where God just seems absent, but it would just be depressing. God promised He was with us always, and given that His promises are utterly reliable, I have to think the problem is not that He is absent, but that I am blinded in some fashion – It’s not that He is not there, it’s that I am not seeing Him. So how do I learn to see Him?
I was really struggling with that question, “How do I learn to see Him?” this past week. It was an awful week. Forget the details and just take my word for it. I was contemplating that question as I ran into Salvation Army bell ringer after bell ringer during the week. (shameless plug – go to Hugh’s Red Kettle.) It put me in mind of this speech by Jesus:
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
Does that not imply that we encounter God, somehow, when we encounter “the least of them?” And that made my mind turn, as it does so often these days, to those elderly people suffering from the many and various forms of dementia. I just learned recently that “dementia” is not a diagnosis, it’s more like a terminological bucket into which we dump any number of neurological issues suffered by the aged for which there is no serious treatment and certainly no cure. That makes enormous amounts of sense if you have spent any time in the “assisted living” facilities where such people are looked after. You see so many different presentations. When we think of those suffering we tend to think of those that are hard to manage, angry at their circumstances and without the facilities to restrain their anger. But if you spend time there you see so much more.
I think particularly of people I know in such a facility that may not know who they are, or where they are, and certainly not what day it is, but who are gracious almost beyond comprehension. I’ve seen people who are so impaired themselves they are being fed and yet when they see someone across the table struggling to feed themselves try to reach out to help. I’ve seen people who lack the ability to walk try to get up and help the people serving them dinner. There are people in these places that do not know who they are, let alone who I am, yet when they see me try to steal away for a moment just to shed a tear on behalf of someone struggling come sit next to me and put a hand on my knee. Grace, it seems, survives the ravages of such decline. Can that be ought but God’s grace making itself evident even in the least?
And honestly, can you think of any single group that our culture treats more as “the least” than such people? We have advocacy groups and government programs for almost everything in this country, but not this. Oh sure, we do throw some money at research, both government grants and privately raised, but we make sure such people are kept quietly out of sight where they do not disturb our daily existence. We pay people, people that may not qualify as “the least” but certainly qualify as “the lesser,” to care for them rather than give them our own love fully and completely. Some people in obvious need, panhandlers and the homeless, those we tolerate on our streets and in our face. The poor and suffering of far away lands fill our television screens with pleas for donations; these we can look at. But the aged and infirmed, these we keep neatly tucked away. Does that not, almost by definition, make them “the least?”
And yet, I go into these places and God’s grace abounds. The lesser care for and love the least who struggle with their inability to serve in return. God is so evident in such places, but we work so hard not to look.
We all know the Christmas story. God comes to be with us in the most humble of circumstance. Maybe that is where we can learn to see that He is still with us.