As my dad drew near to the end of his life, I remember him saying to me on one occasion when I was home visiting him “it’s good to know there is someone with me.” It was uncharacteristic of him to express such things and, even on that occasion, he said it half under his breath as he was going out of the living room. My mother had died some years before him and all the family lived far from him. At the time, I was abroad and could only see him rarely. I was deeply moved that evening by his remark. With it, he expressed something so basic to human life. We are not meant to be alone. We are meant to know there is someone with us.
That is why it is so powerful and so beautiful to know that the name God chose to give himself when he came among us was Emmanuel: God with us. And, indeed, He is most certainly with us, with each of us. Loneliness is, for the believer, an illusion. It’s even an illusion for the non-believer since disbelief does not chase God out. In the old catechism, we used to answer the question, “where is God?” with “God is everywhere.” Well, of course He’s everywhere! Nothing that exists can exist without Him! Yet His presence with us and to us is on a spectrum. There are different intensities and forms of His presence, though they all come back to the same thing: Emmanuel.
The day you and I were baptised, the Lord took up residence within us. With every sacrament we receive, that presence becomes more powerful, more colourful, fuller, deeper and truer. There is a line of Jesus in St. John’s Gospel which is very significant. He says that, “As I draw life from the living Father, so he who eats me draws life from me.” We know that a baby in the womb draws life from its mother. In the case of the Eucharist, it is the reverse. We draw life from the Christ within us, from the Emmanuel, God with us.
His presence is not therefore the presence of an inanimate object in a room. His being with us is rather a being for us. He seeks to influence us, engage with us, relate to us. When the Lord told Moses his name was, “I Am Who Am”, he was telling him, “I Am the One Who is Always There for you, with you.” His is the presence of a Lover, a Servant, a Friend, a Saviour.
He therefore seeks a reaction from us. Naturally, that reaction can only be in kind: it has to be a presence to Him, with Him, for Him. Life for life. Person for person. This is the reaction we see in Joseph in today’s Gospel. Joseph the just man could not marry an adulteress, as he saw Mary to be, so he divorces her. But he is also a compassionate man: he divorces her informally to spare her being stoned to death if her supposed sin became public. In other words, Joseph already had in him a disposition to do as God asked him through the law, and to show something of God’s own mercifulness in his attitude towards Mary.
But then, in what must have been a troubled and anguished night of sweat and turmoil, Joseph received his own “annunciation”, as had Mary some days or weeks before. And his response to the Lord was total and immediate. His obedience and Mary’s obedience responded to the Son’s obedience to the Father. It was like a great symphony of obedience, not so much an unfinished as an unending, eternal symphony. They honoured the will of God and the result was the presence of God in the flesh. Their obedience allowed Emmanuel.
Christian obedience has nothing to do with servile conformity. It has everything to do with a deep and willing listening to Emmanuel. It is the final movement in the symphony, a choral yes to God. To obey is first to sit at the feet of the Lord and drink in the grace of his truth. It is to open the heart wider and wider to let the King of Glory enter. It is to be fuelled with the fire of the Spirit and to become one will with God because already one heart with him and one mind with him. This kind of union with God means that I cannot not do what he asks. It means that, with my every breath, I simply know that I mustdo his will as if it were my reason for living, as if it were my food, my breath, my very life. In this living covenant with the Lord, my own will assumes the proportions of the divine will. In other words, I am fulfilled. Emmanuel blossoms within me.
There are two enemies of Christian obedience that I want to mention. The first is self-will. Self-will has nothing to do with the legitimate exercise of my human freedom, given to me by God as part of my human dignity. Self-will is rather the expression of the self-centred, the one who turns his back on anyone or anything else that might wish to direct or inform that will. Self-will is inversion into self; closure in upon self. To that self, self-will seems wonderful, vast and spacious. But, in fact, it is pitifully puny. In comparison with the ocean of the divine will, self-will is like a little puddle in the back yard, a dirty little puddle, too. Self-will will not listen, will not engage, rejects the Emmanuel. It is tragic and hellish. It destroys my freedom.
The second enemy is what I would call sentimentology, or the dictatorship of feelings. Now, feelings are important. They are rich and complex, deep and powerful. They are given for our protection and bring spice and variety to our humanity. But they are not always reliable as a basis for taking decisions. If we live solely by our feelings, our life will likely be chaotic. Feelings when unruly will resist obedience. They have a tendency to pull us inward. They need controlled by reason, not to suppress them but to ensure that they perform in a way that is creative and life-giving. When our feelings are captured for obedience, they inject obedience with energy and colour. Obedience leads them to the fulfilment of their fullest potential. Like a great Magnet, the Lord draws not only our will and reason to himself, but also our feelings and our very flesh. At times, the demands of obedience will go contrary to our feelings. We must not let our feelings dictate what we will do. The pain and difficulty of reining in our feelings to serve and enrich our obedience will give way to peace and inner strength.
When we live with our eye on the Lord’s will for us, He becomes more present and active within us and we become more like Him. Let me say this especially to our young people: don’t be hoodwinked by those who sell you self-will as if it were the mark of the free man or woman, as if it were the supreme good in your life. Don’t begin with the question, “What do I want to do with my life?” but with “What does the Lord want me to do with my life?” Half the time none of us really knows what we want. Our wills are fickle. We can only see our lives from within our own limited perceptions. It is the Lord who sees our full potential and who wants to lead us to achieving it. Listen to Him and you are listening to your truest self. Seek out His will and direction for your life, and you will not just have dreams like Joseph but realise beyond your wildest dreams the dream the Lord has for you. God’s will is that you flourish in your freedom as in your love, in your understanding as in your knowledge, in your humanity as in your Christianity. Both Mary and Joseph had picked good plans for their future, but they were nothing in comparison with the Lord’s plans for them. The same is true for each one of us.
Why not give or recommit your obedience to the Lord this Christmas as your gift of thanksgiving to Him for being Emmanuel? Obedience to His truth will make you free with a freedom that has eternity as its horizon. Don’t settle for anything less! Don’t sell your freedom to illusions and fantasies, but choose obedience to Emmanuel and discover what true freedom really means.