Long ago, several centuries before the “Gloria” of the angels pierced the Bethlehem sky, 72 scholars were asked to translate the books that would later be known as the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. After years of scrupulous independent translation, the scholars gathered to share the fruit of their labors. It was here, according to legend, that a linguistic miracle was witnessed: All 72 scholars had translated the books of the Old Testament identically, something which is a near impossibility. But the Holy Spirit had moved in such a way that the words of Scripture were translated identically, word-for-word. That is, except for one.
In the book of Isaiah, there was a line which spoke of the birth of a child, which would be a sign granted by God to an unfaithful people and a doubtful king. All of the translators wrote, “The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” But there was one scholar who did not write, “Virgin,” choosing instead the phrase, “Young woman.” It is impossible and illogical that a virgin give birth, and God does not speak of impossible and illogical things. Despite the disagreement and opposition from all of the other scholars, this man held firm to his conviction until an angel of the Lord appeared to him. “You shall not die,” the angel declared, “until your very eyes see God’s word fulfilled. For nothing shall be impossible for God.”
Centuries passed. Nations crumbled. The iron rod of Rome only grew stronger. This man watched his world pass away, witnessed the death of his wife, his siblings, his children, and even his grandchildren as he was left waiting and hungering for the fulfillment of a prophecy he did not understand. As Israel was desecrated and spat upon, he pressed into the Lord, placing his trust in the words that his own fingers had written into Greek, the words, “No longer shall you be called ‘Forsaken’, nor your land called ‘Desolate’.” Children starved, men grew sick, women were assaulted, and this man waited for those words of comfort to be actualized.
I wonder if his heart grew bitter in the waiting, seeking to become impenetrable to the cold by closing the shutters of his soul. I’m sure there were seasons over that long life when the Lord had to pry open those windows, when the man could no longer hear God’s soft knocking in the wind, so a bludgeon became God’s only option. I don’t know the details of this man’s interior life. But I know that God won. Because one day, this righteous and devout man overshadowed by the Holy Spirit entered the temple in Jerusalem. As he was in prayer he heard the cry of a newborn infant and his eyes opened to a young woman walking in. “Not a young woman,” he corrected himself, “a virgin.”
We all know the consolation of holding a baby or of looking into the eyes of a mother. But it is hard to fathom the consolation that Simeon encountered as he took the child Jesus into his arms and blessed God, the faithful Father who remembers His promise to us even when we forget or doubt His power. The only greater joy Simeon knew came that night as his ancient soul departed this earth in peace. 33 years later he would gaze into the eyes of Jesus once again, no longer the eyes of an infant, but the eyes of a conqueror and Savior come to walk him from the netherworld to the gates of paradise.
As we enter Advent 2020, I invite you to join me in asking the Lord if you know what it is to long for the coming of the Christ child as Simeon knows what it is to long for Him. This year, I think you do. Although it was not centuries of strife, you know what it is to be cut off from family and friends, to witness intense societal and governmental turmoil. You know what it is to stand outside your church, sitting in your car for hours as you gaze upon the tabernacle and wait for the fulfillment of God’s word that He makes all things new and that you are called to His supper.
You know what it is to finally enter the temple and to take God into your arms once more. You know what it is to hear the “Alleluia” ring from your tongue alongside your Catholic brothers and sisters. Perhaps you know the tears of joy or the gift of laughter that the Lord sometimes gives as you received the Eucharist after months of exile and yearning.
And perhaps you, like me, know what it is to have forgotten already. You have joined the centuries of God’s people who are rescued from Egypt only to create idols and grow bitter against the Lord. Maybe you’ve been able to go to Mass every Sunday since your church reopened in June, but your heart is still in Holy Saturday, shuttered away from the light, distant from God.
This Advent, He is calling you back. He is calling you to hunger for His heart and to remember the love you once had, a love that has perhaps grown cold in the iciness of this past year. But the Lord knows that this year has made you tired and weary and that His call might seem paralyzing. So He’s not asking you to move anywhere. He’s coming to you. He’s coming escorted by the whisper of a girl’s “Fiat” that still resonates on the waves of the air today. He’s coming in poverty, embracing a manger so that he can be one with you in your physical struggle from this economically trying year. He’s coming rejected, born alone so that you are not alone in this upcoming Christmas that will be marked by isolation for many. He’s coming surrounded by animals and dung so that he can embrace you even in your sin and brokenness that has become so manifest this year. He’s coming to die for you because regardless of your struggles in 2020, your life is of infinite value to His infant eyes.
This is Advent: Sitting in deep pain and darkness and rather than reaching or running, allowing Him to turn on the light. It is waiting in the temple or in parking lot Adoration with tears streaming down your face as you say over and over, “I don’t understand you, but I trust you.” It is waiting for the consolation of Israel or the coming of the Kingdom even as buildings burn and children die.
For our entire lifetimes, we have sung, “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel,” fully taking for granted that in less than an hour, He will come and we will receive Him. After this year, we know that we can never take His presence for granted again. Let us enter this new liturgical year thirstier than ever before for the dew that rains down the just one. Let us be unafraid of our poverty in 2020, trusting rather, in our Bridegroom who comes down to be poor with us. Then our empty hands will be ready to hold him and our parched tongue prepared to sing,
Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.