Today, the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, we read from the final scenes in the Gospel of Luke before the story of Christ’s birth, the Visitation. This is a story that invites us to reflect on the grace of “presence” in our life.
The book “Presence” (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski and Flowers) describes presence “as deep listening, of being open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of making sense…letting go of old identities and the need to control and… making choices to serve the evolution of life.”
Let us see this in the ordinary moments of our life using the four points from “Presence”: listening, going beyond, letting go and making choices.
In the story of the Visitation, we see how Elizabeth and John the Baptist in his mother’s womb listened to Christ’s presence when they heard Mary’s greeting. The story tells us that it was John who first listened to and heard the presence of Christ the Savior in Mary’s womb. Elizabeth in turn listened to John and thus recognizes the presence in her midst.
I would think listening is the key to recognizing presence, but genuine listening requires a going beyond and a letting go, to get into a deeper listening.
Think of a young child. The contractor who finished our Formation Center in Santa Rosa, Laguna, has a grandson who recently turned one. They told me how the little boy is very attached to his lolo (grandfather) and very sensitive to his lolo’s presence.
Even while playing, when he hears the footsteps of his lolo, the boy would stop, listen more intently and then react with excitement upon recognizing his lolo’s presence.
This simple moment makes us realize that it is an inherent gift to recognize the presence of something or someone outside of ourselves. Often also we discover we have a relationship with one whose presence we recognize.
Think of the moments in your life when you felt closest to and connected to an important person in your life, and to God.
Over three decades ago, one of my colleagues in the teaching profession had this moment of presence in his life. It happened during a moment he least expected to “speak to him.”
In the high school where we both taught, there was a major newspaper drive, the “Dyaryo Drive,” that helped fund the expenses of the Ateneo Catechetical Instruction League or ACIL. Since it was the first school-wide drive for each school year, winning was prestigious and was hotly contested.
That school year my colleague’s class did not expect to win and was never considered a contender, but it worked hard for weeks. In the homestretch they felt so inspired that they went for the win.
In the final weeks, they divided themselves into teams and “scavenged” neighborhoods and offices for old newspapers. Then they deposited these in a house across the campus.
On the final day, they transported tons of newspapers. The rule then was that the newspapers had to be in their classroom for these to be counted. So without my colleague instructing his students, they formed a line or a human chain from the driveway to the classroom, around 30 of them, while the rest of the class handled the transporting of the newspaper with the drivers.
As the tons of newspapers, all bundled and tied up, were unloaded on the driveway of the school, the class just passed on the bundles down the line and into the classroom. The classroom was filled with newspapers and the corridor outside had to be used to pile bundles of the newspapers.
The rest of the school watched all this in awe, as the class that was least likely to win—no, to come close to winning—set not just a new record, but a new standard for working and winning.
My colleague shared later on how he himself was contemplating this phenomenon as he became one of the links in the human chain of his class. He said that at that moment he felt “the finger of God is here.”
In realizing this presence, he said it forever defined his teaching. He made a choice that what teaching was all about was to empower the students, making them become the best they can be.
We often see this in many situations where people come together to help others. We often call these people volunteers. We saw them during “Ondoy,” “Sendong,” the habagat and now “Pablo.” Decades ago, we saw them in the 1986 snap elections that led to the first-ever People Power in the world.
The choice made at the end of the process is a choice not for oneself, but a choice for others and for community.
The Visitation, this is the prototype experience of presence. As Elizabeth listens—or as John listens—they recognize the presence of the Savior, perhaps the first two persons, aside from Our Blessed Mother and presumably St. Joseph, who recognize this presence.
As they listen, they continue to go beyond themselves and let go. And, as Fr. Thomas Green, S.J., used to say often years ago in his talks and in his book with a similar title, to “Let Go and let God.”
John listened, recognized, let go and “leaped for joy.” Elizabeth listened, recognized, let go and “filled with the Holy Spirit cried out in a loud voice” and praised Mary and announced the presence of the Savior.
This is one of the graces of Christmas. It is a season of special grace to help us renew our sense of presence, the presence of the Savior in our midst, in our life and work, in our families and communities. He is truly God with us.
We pray in these final days of preparation for the great feast of Christmas that we may be blessed with the grace of presence—to listen, to go beyond and to let go and to allow the child in the manger, God-with-us to lead us to make choices for “the evolution of life,” making our world better, building more caring and loving communities; lead us to the choice to live a life of grace, love and service in the coming year and always; bring his presence into the lives of others.