The Subtle Presence of God

First Sunday after Christmas

Luke 2: 41-52

The Rev’d Jen Bourque

YouTube recording of the servicesermon


Several years ago, before I became a parent, a friend, a Roman Catholic priest, told me he was preaching on the seven sorrows of Mary and particularly this story, of Jesus being lost in the temple.  At the time, I commented rather flippantly, that losing Jesus in the temple—and finding him safe in his Father’s house—seemed rather less tragic than the other 6 sorrows—the flight into Egypt, the crucifixion of her son.  I now personally know the fear of losing track of a child (is always, at least so far, briefly!) and, like my rather wiser friend, understand the visceral horror in misplacing one’s child.

There is something so profoundly ordinary about this scene, the one of only a handful we have from Jesus’ childhood.  Family road trip.  Part of the sort of village that parents need to raise their children, with aunties and uncles and friends who could be counted on, with gangs of kids who could roam together testing out their autonomy and bouncing between families.  And yet, at the same time, it points to the extraordinary character of Jesus: turned toward Jerusalem and the temple even as a child, faithful to the traditions before he is grown, at one with God in a way never seen before or since.

The holy family lives in that balance between the completely ordinary, with its heights of joy, depths of anxiety and everydayness, and flashes of God’s presence.  Exactly like our own lives—the everydayness of whatever our lives bring—the day in, day out ordinariness.  The heights of our own joys, whatever they are, and the depths of our particular griefs and anxieties.  Paying attention to this, we see God at work—present, absent, near, far.  Marc Dumas [1] calls this ‘tracking the theological,’ listening ‘to the subtle presence of God at the heart of the world, a presence-absence that is impossible to define or categorize. The theological is elusive, but can nonetheless be found in the nooks and crannies of everyday life.’  Bruno Bélanger, a spiritual care researcher in Quebec, argues that listening for these theological realities ‘in the nooks and crannies of everyday life’ is at the heart of the work of chaplaincy, and I’m convinced he is right.  I’m convinced that any spiritual life is lived ‘in the nooks and crannies of everyday life’—I just get the privilege to hear about lots of different ones.

This “presence-absence” of Jesus is quite literal in the Gospel.  Jesus is there, with his family, in the temple.  Then, they go home, and he is no longer there.  Mary and Joseph spend 3 days asking friends, retracing their steps, searching for their son.  Jesus, Jesus, where are you?  Where could you be?  Why have you left us?  When will we ever find you?  Their words foreshadow those he speaks from the cross—Eloi, eloi, lemma sabacthani, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Maybe you have felt like this, wondering where on earth God could be, or feeling that sense of separation, isolation, anxiety, hopelessness.  The Ignatian tradition calls this, appropriately, “desolation.”  Now, desolation isn’t always caused by an external crisis, though it might be.  Certainly, for many of us here and around the world, the last two years have brought grief, or isolation, or discouragement.  At times, perhaps, it has seemed a desolation.  Sometimes, too, desolation arises from within us, as our feelings and actions turn us away from God, from community, from our true selves.  It can lead to restlessness, frustration, striving after those things that seem to satisfy our cravings, but ultimately leave us empty.

My favourite verse in this passage is “His mother treasured all these things in her heart.”  It’s the second time that St. Luke tells us that Mary treasured or pondered these things in her heart; the first in when the shepherds come to the manger, telling her of the angels’ message.  Mary is, I think, stocking up these stories, treasuring the testimony of those who know that God has come to earth in her son.

Mary, at this point, has agreed to the angel’s impossible plan and conceived a baby, fled to the hills to find refuge with her cousin, travelled cross-country at the whim of an empire with no concern for her and those like her, delivered her child in a stable, welcomed a host of strange visitors, heard Simeon’ prophecy, was refugeed from her homeland and lost her child and found him again.  Mary also has wrapped him up in snug swaddling bands, helped him learn to count fingers and toes, held a tiny hand for first unsteady steps, listened as babbling became words became question became conversation, embaced her child grown to nearly a man, perhaps towering over her.  All of these things—and more—become the treasures of her heart, the knowledge of Emmanuel, God-with-us, in her home.

These are Mary’s stories of life with God.  I love this idea of storing these all safely in a treasure box in her heart, turning them over and over to ponder them, coming back to them again and again.  These memories are accessible when she needs them to call upon her love for her son, and her sense that in him, God is truly with her, with us.

When I hear stories that speak to God’s presence, or tell of wonder or love, of joy or peace, from those I meet as chaplain or pastor, I sometimes suggest this image—storing these stories in your heart’s treasure box, pulling them out again when you need them.  It’s one I’ve used for myself for a long time, reminding myself to file away moments of wonder and closeness to God, to come back to them when I feel less certain, further away.  They are the things that remind me why I am a priest, why I am a Christian when all of that seems more challenging.

These experiences of being close to God, of feeling God’s presence, of know that what we are doing is congruent with our deepest calling, of sensing that we are being bound ever more closely with God and with each other are, in Ignatius’ though, moments or feelings of consolation.  Like for Mary, they may be a deep, quiet joy that comes though, even when things are tough.

I hope you have a treasure chest of your own experiences of consolation, that you can look back, whether a long way off or even now and call to mind moments of deep wonder, of genuine love, of faithfulness to your deepest callings.  I hope that, from time to time, you can see flashes of God’s presence breaking into the daily round of your life, whether you call that wonder, love, peace, hope or something else entirely.

Part of the reason to pay attention to these times of consolation and desolation is that they give us some touch points in our spiritual life.  With practice, we grow in our ability to tell the difference between challenge and desolation, between the cheap comforts that distract us, and the true joy and peace that tune our hearts to God.  Returning to experiences of consolation—treasuring them in our hearts, turning them over again for the new meaning they might contain—can offer promise and hope that consolation will return, even when we feel parched in the desert of desolation.

The Good News of the Christian story—the Good news of Christmas—is that God has already chosen to draw near to us in Christ, to share the whole scope of human life.  May the promise of Christmas draw you near to God, and call you to treasure the signs of God’s life with you, in times of desolation and challenge, and in times of consolation and joy.

[1] Dumas, Marc. 2010. “La spiritualité aujourd’hui : entre un intensif de l’humain et un intensif de la foi.” Théologiques, 18(2), 199–211 and Bélanger, Bruno, Line Beauregard, Mario Bélanger and Chantal Bergeron.  “The Quebec Model of Recording Spiritual Care: Concepts and Guidelines.”  In Charting Spiritual Care: The Emergening Role of Chaplaincy Records in Global Healthcare.  Edited by Simon Peng-Keller and David Neuhold, Cham: Springer, 2020. (eBook)


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